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The Conservative dominated Senate — led by the unapologetic Red Tory Hugh Segal — has, in effect, turned back an odious private member’s bill, C-377, the so-called “union disclosure Bill,” which was heartily supported by the Harper Government.

The CRTC has bowed to corporate interests, and allowed one company — Bell — to gain control of 36 per cent of Canada’s media output, by acquiring Astral Media.

Prime Minister’s Office staffers were caught in the act of impersonating demonstrators.

Elements of the Canadian Jewish community, led by former United Nations Ambassador Stephen Lewis, are rising up more forcefully than ever in opposition to the Harper Government’s manifestly unfair and unjust refugee policies, especially as regards Roma refugees from Central Europe.

U.S. President Obama has telegraphed that if he is to approve the Keystone XL pipeline he will need a much stronger signal on its plans to combat climate change than he has received so far from the Harper Government.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney publicly criticized the way the re-named Canadian Museum of History is going about its business. He does not like the way the Museum divested itself of a fishing boat named the Nishga Girl. The NDP Opposition had raised this many weeks ago, describing the move as an insult to both the Japanese and First Nations’ communities.

Artistry and creativity in the cultural marketplace

Any or all of the above could provide more than ample political grist for this space’s word-mill.

However, for what will be the last intervention from here for a number of weeks, we’re going to walk away from the politics of politics toward the politics of art.

More precisely, we’ll pick up on our musings of June 12th on the art form called “jazz.”

The Ottawa Jazz Festival is well underway and Montreal’s far bigger event just started.

This past week, my wife and I took in six of the Ottawa Jazz Fest concerts.

Collectively, they tell a revealing story about the fate of a kind of music that was once the world’s most popular. More important, they tell a story about the state of artistry, creativity — and joy and a lust for life — in today’s corporate-dominated globalized economy.

First we saw and heard one-time child prodigy, Montreal’s Nikki Yanofsky. As a youngster Yanofsky somehow discovered such legendary vocal artists as Ella Fitzgerald, and not yet in her teens recorded and performed uncannily perfect reproductions of some of that music.

She would do entire Ella Fitzgerald scat solos — note, timing and pitch perfect.

She also sang the slightly cheesy, just a bit over-the-top — and grammatically incorrect — theme song for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Today, not quite out of her teens and already something of a veteran performer, Yanofsky says she is on a mission: to introduce her generation to jazz.

To do that, in her own performances and recordings, she tries to bridge the worlds of classic jazz and contemporary pop music.

In Ottawa, she did some original songs that she says she writes quite deliberately in an “old fashioned” style. They sound like they could come out of the Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern or Rogers and Hart songbook.

She also did a medley of current pop tunes in jazz-rock fusion style, and re-interpreted some classic standards in a contemporary style very influenced by pop.

Her band’s instrumentation had both rock and jazz elements. There was the big acoustic grand piano associated with jazz, played by a young man with excellent chops.

But there were also an electric organ, electric and bass guitars — and, of course, drums.

It was a pleasing performance — even highly danceable — though it may have caused some of the hard core jazz fans in the audience to scratch their heads.

Jazz with outreach to pop fans — what gets lost in the process?

Yanofsky is now being mentored by the legendary Quincy Jones, who started his career as a jazz trumpeter and arranger (with Count Basie, among others) and has done his fair share of pop music along the way.

His influence shows.

The young singer does music that is very much rooted in jazz, but that reaches out to audiences who have barely heard of Miles Davis, let alone jazz immortals of lesser notoriety such as Benny Golson, Marylou Williams, Lester Young, Charles Mingus or Bill Evans.

If you’re the sort of person who seeks out the so-called ‘blues’ and pop acts at jazz festivals, Yanofsky’s performance was great for you. It never made you feel: “what’s going on here? — what are they doing? — I don’t get this…”

There were no extended solos in Yanofsky’s Ottawa show.

I kept hoping they would let the obviously gifted pianist off his leash and allow him to play more than eight or sixteen bar instrumental “breaks.” It very rarely happened.

But the music showed enough of its jazz side to at least keep that (much less commercially important) segment of the audience interested.

That’s what happens when your goal is to create a tight, highly arranged sound — which is what pop music almost always does. You inevitably lose a good piece of that magical marriage of spontaneity and structure that is so particular to jazz.

From the world of jazz-rock fusion to the classic Brubeck quartet

After the Yanofsky set, two genuine legends of the music we sometimes call crossover or jazz-rock fusion, Dave Sanborn on alto sax and Bob James on piano, took the stage.

The veteran musicians recorded together years ago, but only recently reunited.

Their concert was near perfect, both for hard core jazz fans and for the larger group who have a more remote and casual interest.

Sanborn and James have decided to pare down their sound, reproducing the instrumentation of the late Dave Brubeck’s Quartet: acoustic piano, alto sax, bass and drums.

They even did their own homage to Brubeck’s homage to the famed last movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Major, the so-called “Turkish Rondo.” Brubeck called his version “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” The Sanborn / James take was driving, rhythmic, intense, and, all the while, respectful of its origins.

This was music that did not pander and was uncompromising — and yet was not scary or off-putting to the non-initiated.

It was swinging, driving, funky, wildly creative and imaginative, and always engaging and entertaining. It was an extroverted performance — very much aided by drum legend Steve Gadd — but highly intelligent at the same time.

Is there too little of this sort of jazz around these days — jazz that retains broad appeal while not sacrificing creativity and spontaneity?

Sanborn and James achieved that alchemic mini-miracle.

Coming from a different space, the bastions of standards and jazz classics rather than funk and fusion, the Marsalis gang — Wynton, Brandford, Ellis, et. al. — regularly accomplish much the same thing.

After Sanborn and James’ bravura demonstration, on a smaller stage nearby, Israeli guitarist, Gilad Hekselman, gave an intense, introverted performance of his own original compositions featuring numerous references to Israeli folk material. Sadly the show was marred by noisy and rude folks at the bar the organizers had foolishly located under the same tent as the stage.

Jazz veteran feeling the need to thank the audience

On another evening we took in an intimate concert of the Steve Kuhn trio, which includes septuagenarian but still brilliant bassist Steve Swallow. Swallow started his career in the 1960s affiliated with the avant-garde of the time, playing with pianist George Russell, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and especially saxophonist and composer Carla Bley.

The hugely influential pianist Bill Evans recorded some of Swallow’s compositions and Evans’ sprit seemed to infuse the trio’s playing in Ottawa.

It was perfectly executed chamber jazz, full of complex harmonic exploration, but, in the spirit of Evans (who died too young in 1980), it never left the audience behind.

A number of folks in attendance who said they had never heard of Kuhn and company, and only turned up because he was a well-advertised part of the Festival, reported that they were completely seduced by the experience of Kuhn’s complex and finely-wrought music.

Kuhn thanked the audience more than once for supporting “this music to which we have dedicated our entire lives”.

Despite his relative eminence and many years of successful playing, this jazz musician is still grateful to have an attentive and enthusiastic audience. In an age when jazz is considered — in the words of one television producer — “commercial poison,” neither the players nor the diehard fans can take that audience for granted.

Africa meets J.S. Bach, and an overly self-conscious deconstruction of Fats Waller

Later in the Ottawa Festival there were two other shows featuring pianists at Ottawa’s large Romanesque/Byzantine Dominion Chalmers Church.

The Cuban Chucho Valdes played in his usual extravagant, flamboyant way — throwing in all kinds of elements, from J.S. Bach to West African-inspired Santeria chanting and drumming.

The revered Cuban artist was accompanied by three percussionists as well as bass. Some found Valdes’ wildly eclectic approach a bit bewildering — “it was different,” in the words of one person.

For most, the romantic musicality and nearly intoxicating rhythmic aspect of the performance seemed to mitigate the strangeness factor.

This was complex music, yes, but not self-conscious and overly deliberate. It retained a large primal and spontaneous element, which kept the audience engaged.

The same was not entirely true of the next show at the same church, which billed itself as a Fats Waller Dance Party.

Led by highly respected young New York pianist Jason Moran, this event was more of an overly self-conscious exercise in de-construction than the advertised celebratory dance party.

The audience was treated to famed Fats Waller songs, such as Honeysuckle Rose and Ain’t Misbehavin’, de-natured and transformed into almost alienating drone-like exercises, played over a well-executed but headache-inducing hip-hop drumbeat.

Band members invited us to dance, and some of us did, but if felt not quite natural.

This is one concert that a number of audience members deserted early on. The weirdness factor was just too much for them.

They missed some very good stuff — especially when Moran played solo piano on Waller’s Handful of Keys and a standard very much associated with Waller (and, later, Thelonious Monk), Lulu’s Back in Town.

However, overall, this concert seemed to be a case — to this writer at any rate — of trying too hard to be “original” and “innovative.”

It illustrates the current conundrum for this music we call jazz.

As the money-bags gatekeepers of popular culture increasingly eschew jazz for being too difficult and esoteric, should the music retreat into itself and become, more than ever, an in-group, tiny minority phenomenon?

Or should jazz musicians keep working to reach out to a broader public, and fight — against the power of the corporate-dominated culture industry — to keep the creative, spontaneous sprit of improvisation alive in the global marketplace?

You won’t get an answer here.


Hope you all had a happy Canada Day yesterday — see you all anon … 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...