OTTAWA — The TD Ottawa Jazz Festival has a different, more intimate flavour of jam session this year.
For at least the last two decades, the event staged late-night jams in one of the hotels where visiting musicians stayed, and spirited impromptu playing ensued. But this year, the festival declined to find the money needed to stage the sessions in its artistic budget that regularly approached $1 million. It sought sponsors, but none of the hotels accommodating the out-of-town musicians wanted to pay the jam-session bill.
However, in mid-May, Rachel Russo of the Hintonburg cafe AlphaSoul agreed to sponsor the jam sessions. She paid the needed $12,000 to pay and lodge house-band musicians and rent a piano and sound equipment.
“It was expensive,” said Russo, a jazz fan who attends Ottawa shows and who stages modest live jazz shows at her cafe, which opened in April 2011. “But it’s making Ottawa a more exciting city. We need that. Everybody’s go to contribute to that.”
For its part, the festival in a last-minute rush pulled together house-band musicians for AlphaSoul. The festival has also committed to shuttling visiting musicians from their downtown hotels or from Brookstreet hotel in Kanata to AlphaSoul on Wellington Street West.
For regular patrons of past jazz festival jams, AlphaSoul’s will immediately appear smaller and more casual. The rented piano is an upright. AlphaSoul holds less than 60 people and because it is long and narrow, only about half of them can have a prime view of the musicians who play in a corner by the front entrance.
But during a visit Thursday night, the sound was excellent from the front to the back of the cafe, as was the music by Montreal’s Joshua Rager Trio.
Rager, who grew up in Orléans, plays for the next four nights. A band that includes Ottawa guitarist Roddy Ellias, bassist John Geggie (the leader for many years of the festival’s jam-session house band), and Toronto-based, Ottawa-raised drummer Nick Fraser then takes over.
Thursday’s jammers included New York saxophonist Wayne Escoffery from the band of trumpeter Tom Harrell, Calgary bassist Kodi Hutchinson who had played hours earlier in Confederation Park and Ottawans Ted Zarras on drums and the young pianist Deniz Lim-Sersan.
Russo said she was amazed by Escoffery’s playing in particular, and that the bond between the musicians and the attentive listeners was “magical” and “warm.”
“The heart was there,” she said. “It was real, instead of corporate.”
Russo, who lives a block from the cafe, said she will be at the jam session every night till closing. She said Friday morning that she was glad to see the musicians continuing to hang out and chat after the music stopped around 2 p.m.
“They all kind of warmed up to each other and to the place. … It was really beautiful.”
Russo has had a poster made for the AlphaSoul jam and is having musicians who take part sign one of them. “I’m hoping to get (Wynton) Marsalis on my poster,” she said.
Jazz festival pass holders are admitted for free. For others, a cover charge on a “sliding scale of $5 to $20” will apply, Russo said.
“We want to open music to everyone,” Russo said, who added that she didn’t balk when some music students who came to Thursday’s jam asked if they could just have water while they checked out the music.
“The whole point … is anybody can come in and listen,” Russo said.
The Ottawa Jazz Festival/AlphaSoul jam session takes place nightly until June 30, starting at 10:30 p.m.