On the final afternoon of the second Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival in Niagara-On-The Lake, Ontario, Feb. 15-17, a quintet led by pianist Kenny Barron launched into a magnetic, hard-swinging rendition of “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” the opener for a nearly two-hour set. The ensemble—which also included saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, guitarist Reg Schwager, bassist Neil Swainson, and drummer Lewis Nash—had played together as a group for the first time at sound check earlier that day.
The stage where they were to play sat at one end of a large wine cellar at Stratus Vineyards, an environmentally sustainable winery on the northeastern tip of the Niagara peninsula. By evening, the barrel-lined room had been transformed into a chic, candle-lit performance space with seating for just over 200 guests—an ideal setting for the pure, high-quality modern jazz that’s on offer at OPIJF.
During Barron’s set, “Music with No Borders,” the quintet played only a handful of tunes, each one a showcase for the instrumentalists’ expansive, impeccable improvisations. A sax-laden downtempo on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” A rhythmically intricate piano-guitar duet on “In Walked Bud.” A relaxed, loping “Canadian Sunset.” And four Barron originals, among them the harmonically colorful “Song for Abdullah.” From all perspectives, it’s hard to imagine any possible improvement to the easy mastery evident in these first-time performances. “Just goes to show you that if you share a common language you can make beautiful music together,” remarked Barron from the stage.
Besides its winter timeframe, a focus on once-in-a-lifetime collaborations sets the OPIJF apart from other festivals. “We’re putting together groups that are unique, that you don’t get to hear play together anywhere else,” explained Artistic Producer Kelly Peterson, Oscar Peterson’s widow and one of the trustees of his estate.
Artistic Director Renee Rosnes, who co-founded the festival with Peterson last year, provides the curatorial expertise that makes these collaborations work as seamlessly as they do, Peterson said. A five-time Juno-winning pianist/composer, Rosnes also performed in “Singin’ and Swingin’: A Jazz Summit,” the Saturday evening program at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Center in the nearby city of St. Catherine’s. For this set Rosnes selected a series of combos featuring any or all of seven jazz masters, with, for example, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Peter Washington, and Nash in a convention-flouting, heavy-swing take on “Love For Sale”; saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt in mesmerizing exchanges on Lovano’s bop original, “Bird’s Eye View”; and the full instrumental sextet framing protean vocalist Niki Harris on the tender Shirley Horn signature song, “Here’s To Life.”
Beyond such skilled musical direction, Peterson also credits Rosnes with first suggesting four years ago that Canada needed a jazz festival to honor Oscar Peterson (1925-2007). The honor befits his legacy: Born in Quebec, the piano virtuoso lived his entire life in Canada, despite ongoing industry pressure to move to a jazz hub like New York or Los Angeles.
As the idea for an Oscar Peterson jazz fest took hold—and partners like executive producer Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts came on board—Peterson and Rosnes looked to underscore its Canadian identity. First, a Canadian artist would either headline or coordinate each performance on the program. Then, to celebrate Canadian contribution to the world of jazz, the festival would culminate with the presentation of the newly minted Canadian Jazz Master Award, comparable in prestige to the NEA Jazz Master Award in the U.S. “Our vision is to present great Canadian jazz musicians alongside international artists. There are tremendous musicians here,” said Peterson.
The Jensen sisters, saxophonist Christine and trumpeter Ingrid, rank among them. The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra, a 17-person group, with Ingrid Jensen as the primary soloist, opened the festival on Friday evening in a historic 18th-century Anglican church in Niagara-On-The-Lake. There, Christine, a forceful conductor and dynamic composer, led her big band through a high-energy program that included the world premiere of the OPIJF commission, “Something in His Smile,” a joyously melodic composition inspired by an Oscar Peterson album cover. She also conducted two selections from clarinetist/composer Phil Nimmons’ Canadiana Suite—Nimmons, 95, would go on to receive this year’s CJMA at the Sunday evening gala. (Late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, this year’s second recipient, was awarded the CJMA posthumously.)
Not all events centered on Canadian jazz musicians, however. On Saturday afternoon American pianist Bill Charlap presented “George Gershwin, The Blues and the American Soul,” an adroit break-down of the symbiotic relationship between Gershwin’s jazz and the modern classical music of composers like Richard Wagner, Anton Webern, and Igor Stravinsky. An informed and entertaining jazz scholar, Charlap concluded his lecture with selections from the Gershwin masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. “It’s joy, jubilation, and suffering all at the same time,” he pointed out.
On the final day of the 2019 festival, Peterson began to talk about preparations for next year’s program, already underway. The musical centerpiece, she said, will be the world premiere of “Africa,” a never-before-heard suite that Oscar Peterson composed in the 1980s, slated for the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall in Toronto. The event will be an order of magnitude bigger than what OPIJF has as yet presented. But “Oscar trusted me with his legacy,” she said. “What I want to do is honor it by sharing more of his music.”
(Reprinted from Downbeat Online, 26 February 2019)