Femi Kuti, Nile Rodgers, Puss N Boots, Mavis Staples headline 2020 Ottawa Jazz Festival

Puss N Boots is Catherine Popper, Sasha Dobson and Norah Jones.

Planning a festival lineup is always a tricky thing. It depends on who is touring, who you can afford and when the acts are available. Toss in a global pandemic and it’s a bit of a crap shoot.

But because festivals need to start preparing for an event weeks and weeks ahead, they release line-ups and then hope.

Afrobeat star Femi Kuti.

That’s the case for the Ottawa Jazz Festival which announced a lineup of acts that has five spots to fill on the main stage which will celebrate 40 years back in the friendly confines of Confederation Park starting June 19 and running to July 1. Confirmed performers are:

Puss N Boots a trio made up of Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper which will be well suited to Confederation Park’s beautiful location (June 21);
• Gospel legend Mavis Staples (June 23);
• Nigerian afrobeat star Femi Kuti and The Positive Force (June 24);
• Grammy-winning composer of La Freak, producer, arranger and guitarist Nile Rodgers and Chic (June 25);
• Toronto jazzmen BadBadNotGood (June 30)

Many of the smaller stages are filled and a lot of the jazz lineup is in place says program director of the festival Petr Cancura. Without doubt this has been an extra busy time for the festival.

There was a problem booking acts already, he said. And he said, with the spread of COVID-19, it’s harder to confirm headliners.

Mavis Staples.

“Having said that, our jazz lineup and everything else is pretty much in place.” He believes this core programming is “stronger than ever. It’s the headliners that are being very difficult to confirm.”

This is a broad-based problem, he said. There are several unconfirmed commitments that he said he expect will sing on in coming days, giving Jazzfest more chances to promote the event.

“At this point we felt we just needed to announce and get on with what we have and have an opportunity to build excitement.”

This announcement is somewhat earlier, as was the case with RBC Ottawa Bluesfest. Jazzfest used to unveil its lineup in April.

Nile Rodgers

Speaking of the jazz lineup:

The festival is holding residencies again this year. One is with guitarist Bill Frisell who’ll be doing two shows, which is what defines a residency at Jazzfest, Cancura said.

Frisell is definitely a friend of the fest and has been a regular in recent years.

This summer he’ll open the event with a late night concert featuring his trio and filmmaker Bill Morrison in a program called the Mesmerists. The band will play to a silent film that Morrison has assembled. The second show he is playing in the NAC Studio and featuring his latest album Harmony with singer Petra Haden, Hank Roberts and Luke Bergman. His trio mates, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wolleson will perform with Cancura and Rob Jost in the NAC’s Fourth Stage.

“(Frisell) is one of the legends. He’s also getting up there but he’s such a road hog.”

The other residency is with the avant-garde sax player Tim Berne, who also runs Screwgun Records. He’s performing music from his second record Snakeoil in the Fourth Stage (June 28) and a second concert in the same space with his new band which includes the multi-talented New Orleans resident Aurora Nealand (June 30). Berne will also be doing a workshop during his three day stay.

Bill Frisell

Cancura says the concerts booked into the NAC Studio is one of the strongest years the festival has had with Frisell, Grammy nominated singer/composer Theo Bleckmann, pianist/composer Kris Davis with his new record Diatom Ribbons, Japanese female piano star Hiromi, Rachael (Price from Lake Street Dive) & Vilray offering more traditional jazz, Fado singer Ana Moura and drummer Allison Miller with her latest Boom Tic Boom. Miller is someone the festival has been trying to book for years, cancura said.

Cancura also singled out two shows featuring young female players who are just “going for it.” The shows are by Angel Bat Dawid and The Brothahood and trumpeter Jaimie Branch.

Then there is Veronica Swift who sings with the Lincoln Centre jazz orchestra. She’s performing with Emmett Cohen Trio.

These bookings reinforce the festival’s commitment to female performers, he said, something that was a major focus of last year’s event.

Cancura says fans should consider late night concerts with Les Filles de Illighadad, a band of women from the African nation of Niger who play a modern version of Tuareg guitar mixed with traditional rural folk music. “They are hard core going for it,” Cancura said. He also noted a concert by the godfather of gypsy jazz Tchavolo Schmitt. Add in Ghost-Note, which has connections to Snarky Puppy, Prince’s band and many other ensembles and finally Shabaka and the Ancestors.

Allison Miller

The 40th anniversary is kind of an awkward marker — not quite 50 and far from 25.

Cancura says that when organizers discussed the idea of this event they decided to focus on the jazz programming.

“We have invested more than ever in a high-end jazz as a statement of principle for the festival.”

He said there will be a special emphasis on local content in the festival but more will roll out later to join bluesman JW Jones playing with a big band on June 21 and Peter Hum‘s Ordinary Heroes on June 23.

He is really looking forward, after a few years of displacement, to having the festival reinstalled in the NAC and in Confederation Park. Marion Dewar Plaza will return to being the venue for late night events and the noon-hour shows. As for coronavirus, the festival is taking a wait and see stance and following the advice of Ottawa Public Health.

For ticket information and the lineup so far please see ottawajazzfestival.com.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.