Jazz Travels with Bill Hoffman
I have fewer opportunities to hear live jazz when I’m at my summer place in Potsdam, New York, a trade I’m willing to make to escape Lancaster’s heat and humidity. I’m not too far, though, from Ottawa, Montreal, and Burlington, Vermont, all of which have jazz festivals from early June going through about the first week in July. To be sure, the bulk of these festivals’ offerings are of a more modern genre than I like or that would be appropriate for this paper, but I nonetheless scan each event’s website for performers I would make a trip to see. Ottawa is 80 miles away, Montreal is a little over 100, and Burlington is 120 if using a Lake Champlain ferry, otherwise 140.
I arrived in Potsdam too late for Burlington, but Ottawa and Montreal offered two artists who caught my attention. One was my old friend Bria Skonberg, who appeared with a quartet on June 21, the first day of Ottawa’s run. This time all her sidemen were new to me. Chris Pattishall was on piano; I had heard of him but never seen him. On bass was Devin Starks and a last-minute sub on drums was Greg Ritchie, who was local and also appearing with another band. They only met him two hours before the set. Bria’s regular drummer, Darrian Douglas, was stuck in New Orleans when his flight “experienced difficulties.”
Bria herself was a bit under the weather, as I only learned when I spoke with her after the set. However, I didn’t notice any effect on her performance, but she said she chose vocals that favored the lower register. Each number they played allowed extended solos by everyone, with the set list drawn from Bria’s most recent albums. There were also tunes by Canadians Joni Mitchell and the recently deceased Leonard Cohen. (Bria often mentions at her shows a requirement for 12 percent Canadian content. I don’t know exactly how that works, but this performance was clearly in compliance.) Overall, she was really happy with how everyone played and saw it as an opportunity to create something new together. And it’s worth mentioning that her two newest CDs were each nominated for a Juno, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. One won and one lost, but to no less a performer than Diana Krall.
The Ottawa festival venue is a relatively confined space in and immediately around Confederation Park, a few blocks from the Parliament building and the downtown business district. There are a couple large tents in addition to the National Arts Centre, a beautiful indoor theater. The tents are far enough apart that the sound from one does not intrude into another. In addition to Bria, whom I also saw there in 2015, I’ve seen Cecile McLorin Salvant and Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band, Braincloud.
Related: Bria Skonberg: A New Force in Jazz(2018), Bria Skonberg: Three Albums Compared(2018), The 51st Eight: A Northern Light- The Education of Bria Skonberg (2008), A glimpse at history!(2007), Bria Skonberg –Captured in the lenses of Lynn Redmile(2012)
-Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses-
On July 3 I took in Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses’ first two sets at Montreal (they also played two sets the following day). While I believe I had seen her once before (“but who knows where or when”), the band was new to me. These sets, separated by an hour, were at the Heineken tent. Like Ottawa’s, much of Montreal’s festival is en plein air (outdoors), and those performances are free (but unfortunately, the Heinekens aren’t). Paid tickets are required for the indoor venues. Montreal’s event, being in a much larger city than Ottawa, occupies a larger footprint, and several streets are closed to make it easier and safer to walk between venues.
As the first set opened, Aurora thanked the festival’s organizers not only for bringing her band from New Orleans for the first time, but NOLA’s weather, too. It was a hot and humid day in an unusually severe heat wave that gripped the Northeastern US and Canada for over a week.
The Roses have recorded using more musicians than appeared here. Aurora was on clarinet and soprano sax, Jon Ramm on trombone, Nathan Lambertson on bass, Matt Bell on guitar, and Paul Thibodeaux on drums. Jon and Matt, in addition to Aurora, contributed vocals. There was another altoist/clarinetist whose name I did not catch.
The first number, “Shake It and Break It,” left no doubt that this is a true traditional New Orleans band. It was followed by Aurora’s vocal on “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” sung as Bessie Smith might have. Six more numbers made up the set, among them “Squeeze Me,” “(Joshua Fit the Battle of) Jericho,” “Moanin’ Low” with Aurora’s vocal more reminiscent of Victoria Spivey than of Libby Holman, and “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” featuring Jon Ramm’s trombone and vocal.
Most of the second set’s tunes were new to me: “Big Chief Battle Axe,” “The Devil’s Gonna Getcha,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and “I’m Walking This Town.” The first one featured an extended guitar solo and two clarinets. The others each had vocals, by Aurora or Matt. One tune I did know—“Over in the Glory Land,”—was done in a different style than I’ve seen Baby Soda do it, by Jon with all the members chiming in on the chorus. The final number of the set, running about eight minutes, started off sounding like the band tuning up with everyone in a different key, but then got down to business with “The Forward Stomp” leading into Bechet’s “Petite Fleur,” and ending with “Darkness on the Delta” featuring Aurora’s vocal.
Now after having seen the Royal Roses live, I’ll be looking for more opportunities to hear them. If I don’t get a chance to do that closer to home, they’ll be on my must-see list the next time I go to New Orleans.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. Every month he shares his experiences at concerts and festivals in his Jazz Travels column.
Or get the Print Edition with Online Access. To get the print edition of The Syncopated Times use this Paypal link. After you pay you will be issued a coupon for free online access.