by John Kelman (original text is at the All About Jazz website.)
The sign of a great festival is its ability to not only deliver on expectation, but to provide some serious surprises along the way. Every year the Ottawa International Jazz Festival manages to bring in relatively unknown acts - or, at least, unknown to the vast majority of festival goers - that ultimately become the talk of the event. Last year, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's show at the Library and Archives Canada Connoisseur series was on everyone's lip - those who didn't attend, just as much as those who did. This year the performance of the Moutin Reunion Quartet will no doubt go down as one of those shows: a clear highlight of a festival that hasn't even reached its halfway point yet.
Amongst the many local acts given exposure during the festival, the Tom McMahon Trio, which played an hour-long set at the Rideau Centre in the early afternoon, has its own distinction. McMahon plays an instrument called a balise - an eleven-stringed cousin to the Chapman Stick. The baliset is a tapped instrument that literally looks like a large neck with strings, covering the range from bass to guitar and allowing the player, like a piano, to be completely self-accompanying. The instrument can be fed through all manner of signal-processing devices to further broaden its reach, but if that's not enough, McMahon has a synthesizer pickup installed over the top six strings of the instrument, allowing for even greater sonic possibilities.
McMahon and his trio, featuring violinist Sol Gunner and drummer Mark Rehder, performed a set of McMahon originals, most from his recently released debut disc Small Talk. As McMahon himself indicated at one point, there are some people who, based on the materia - at times as much rooted in folk and even country as it is jazz - may balk at its lack of purity. But jazz has always been a melting pot of diverse influences, and so if Bill Frisell's Nashville can win Downbeat's jazz album of the year when it was released, then surely McMahon's compositions, which are almost all characterized by detailed and sometimes complex chord changes, can be equally considered within a broader jazz purview.
Some songs are closer to a reductionist definition than others. "Far Away Friend", one of two duets between McMahon and Rehder, could easily have fit on a '70s-era ECM recording; "Balanceo" found the trio in Gypsy swing mode, with Gunner delivering some suitably Grappelli-esque playing; and "Texada" ambled along with a relaxed bossa groove. Still, the gospel inflections of "Cox Creek" and the waltz of "April 25, 2003", with its distinct country vibe are a little harder to pigeonhole.
Throughout the set both McMahon and Gunner demonstrated an impressive ability to navigate McMahon's difficult charts, which manage to sound easy, but are considerably less so when you take a moment to really listen. Rehder has always been the perfect accompanist, with specific attention to drum sound and the kind of ears that allow him to respond at a moment's notice.