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Ottawa Jazz Fest embraces eclecticism with 2017 lineup

Organizers tout the jazz bona fides of headliners Feist and Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers performs in Nashville, Tenn., on February 8, 2017.

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Kenny Rogers performs in Nashville, Tenn., on February 8, 2017.

The Ottawa Jazz Festival seems to have rediscovered its “character.”

And despite facing several challenges —  a floundering Canadian dollar, the pervasive emergence of today's playlist culture, critics who scowl at a mainstream pop artist helming a jazz festival — organizers have still managed to concoct a delectable bowl of sonic stew. And they're stirring the pot with the likes of Feist, Charles Bradley, Maceo Parker, Serena Ryder and one final taste of country music star Kenny Rogers.

“I feel like we have gone back to a strong character,” said Jazz Fest programming director Petr Cancura. “I feel like, amongst not just us, but all festivals in the last 10 years have had to really find new ways, as subsidies have changed, or as different revenues streams have changed.

“Everybody is sort of trying out different things. I feel like we have a loyal audience, and that audience really appreciates just quality good music. That's what our characters is and that's what we are about.”

Cancura said it used to bother him when festival naysayers and critics would argue whether a headliner was worthy of a certain slot based on their so-called genre, but now he sees how obvious the connection is between an artist like St. Paul and the Broken Bones and, say, John Scofield. While he agrees that Kenny Rogers may not be considered a jazz artist, he says anyone arguing that his music has no foundational jazz roots hasn't heard much of his work.

“I've been asked before, 'Why is Kenny Rogers at a jazz festival?' But I honestly don't think it's a far stretch.

“Someone like Feist — she's a fantastic songwriter, and her roots are actually rootsy. She's not far off from somebody like Norah Jones, who is as jazz vocal as it gets.”

But the fest has an incredibly deep jazz roster, which you'll quickly see once you look under the hood: John Scofield, John Medeski, Minnesota trio The Bad plus, and London's volcanic trio Phronesis, just to name a few.

The fest is quite soulful, too, with greats like Maceo Parker, who will bring everything he has learned blowing the sax for the late James Brown and Prince; Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaries, who some say can bring a man to tears with just a few notes; and electro afrobeat whiz kid Pierre Kwenders. See these shows, and you'll understand the connection they all have to jazz.

“All of those bands, especially the soul and R&B bands, they are packed with jazzers,” Cancura said. “All of those guys on stage are jazz-trained musicians.”

Jazz Fest runs June 22 through July 2 at Confederation Park and other venues across the city. 

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