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Photo from Kamasi Washington's Facebook page.

Top 10 Jazz Fest picks (including 2 free shows!)

By Leah Geller on June 17, 2016

There’s so much I love about Jazz Fest. The venues – Confederation Park, City Hall and the NAC – are at the heart of the city, yet surrounded by nature. The crowds are manageable and you have a really good chance of getting up close to your favourite musician if you want.

Above all, there’s a really civilized vibe. Yes, there’s beer on tap and everyone wants to have a good time. But there’s deep respect for the artists and you get a sense that people are really, truly there for the music.

The music. It can be overwhelming. Twelve days and more than 100 shows. How do you choose? Below I’ve highlighted 10 of this year’s acts to help you out. Of course, there’s so much more, and I encourage you to go try something new. Explore and see what happens. Improvise. After all, that’s what jazz is all about.

Kamasi Washington

There’s huge buzz around this young jazz saxophonist, with many saying his will be the show to see for 2016. Washington has toured with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Raphael Saadiq, but it was his own 2015 album The Epic that led to a major breakout for him. The Atlantic listed one of its tracks on their favorite songs of 2015, saying, “[Washington] delivers with funky, hip-hop inflected, thickly layered sounds. If you like to groove, this is one for you. Wednesday June 22 @ 7pm, NAC Theatre – $50


I’m just so curious about this DJ from France who’s been riding high on the glitch-hop charts. I’d never heard of her before – Chloé Herry is her given name – and never heard of glitch-hop for that matter, but the tracks I’ve listened to are just mesmerizing. Her music makes you want to move, and at the same time dreamy and ethereal. A masterful producer, she combines funky grooves with exotic instrumentation and intriguing sound samples. See her now before she gets really big.  Monday June 27 @ 10:30pm, Laurier Stage – $20

The Hot Sardines

Considered the front-runners of the New York vintage-jazz trend, The Hot Sardines don’t just perform, they party. Wear your fedora, sneak in a hip flask of booze (just kidding!) and get ready to swing. Led by Paris-raised chanteuse Miz Elizabeth, who can seriously sing even with tongue firmly in cheek, the Hot Sardines will remind you just how naughty and fun old jazz can be. Sunday July 3 @ 10:30pm, Laurier Stage – $20

Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis has already performed in Ottawa many times. But like a favourite little black dress, there’s something so elegant and refined about him, he just never gets stale. Enjoy a glass of wine, sit back and let the Marsalis spell wash over you. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a starry, balmy summer night to go with. Wednesday June 29 @ 8:30pm, Main Stage – $50

Colin Stetson Presents: Sorrow – A Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony

You may know saxophonist Colin Stetson for his work with indy icons Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. In this performance, he’s joining forces with his mezzo-soprano sister Megan to interpret the classical phenomenon Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a dirge of loss informed by words found scrawled on a Gestapo prison cell wall. Like the original, Stetson’s version will be big, emotional and sweeping. You will be moved. You will also be surprised. Monday June 27 @ 9:00pm, NAC Studio – $40


American Vogue and NPR have already raved about this electronic duo. So has the UK’s The Guardian, which said in their New Band of the Week review, “[Tennyson] can turn anything – even the beep of a car seatbelt alarm – into an electronic reverie. Not bad for two teens from Edmonton. Performing publicly before they were 10 and cutting their first album at 11 and 13, siblings Luke and Tess Pretty have the sophistication to move synth music into a more jazz-infused and complex world. I’m pretty sure all the cool kids will be out for this concert. So will ISunday, June 26 @ 10:30pm, Laurier Stage – $20

Miguel de Armas Quartet

We are so lucky to have Miguel de Armas in Ottawa. Growing up in Havana, he was surrounded by the best of the best musicians, so he’s not only technically superb, but also understands the nuance and sleight of hand that makes Cuban music so delicious. At the same time, he hasn’t shied away from integrating American jazz and other musical influences into his songs. While de Armas plays regular gigs around town, it will be nice to see him on the big outdoor Confederation Park stage. Plus, he’s followed by the great not-to-be-missed SF Jazz Collective, included in your ticket.  Friday June 24 @ 6:30pm, Main Stage – $45

Harea Band

Harea’s free concert at the Rideau Centre will help you forget about sinkholes, traffic jams and all the other construction woes our city is facing right now. The five-piece band weaves disco, funk and soul into a tightly knit whole. Lyrics are uplifting and fun, and the melodies infectious. Beware ear worms aheadSunday June 26 @ 12pm, Rideau Centre – FREE

Michael Franti and Spearhead

Michael Franti was made for the outdoor summer festival. His music is a sunny combination of reggae, funk, hip-hop and pop, and his lyrics speak of love, social justice and acceptance. Most of the time he performs in bare feet and he often mixes right in with the crowd. Franti puts on an energetic and heartfelt show, and knows how to really connect with his audience. Even Ottawa folks end up dancing, smiling and waving their hands. I’ve seen Michael Franti twice before and, yes, I would love to see him again. It’s not just a concert, it’s an experience. Saturday July 2 @ 8:30pm, Main Stage – $50

Regram from @michaelfranti – Backstage @llivekelly with #SOULROCKER number 1!!! @markruffalo #itsgoodtobealivetoday

A photo posted by TD Ottawa Jazz Festival (@ottawajazz) on

Les Poules à Colin

While the big crowds migrate to Parliament Hill for Canada Day, I like to take in the free concerts put on by the Jazz Fest each year. For 2016, the line-up includes the lovely Les Poules à Colin, a young Quebec folk/jazz band that combines adaptations of traditional folk songs with original English and French compositions. Sultry, bright vocals by Béatrix Methé and Sarah Marchand are backed up by a vast landscape of instrumentation, including banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar and electric piano. Bonne fête du Canada! Friday July 1 @ 6pm, Laurier Stage – FREE

For more on the Ottawa Jazz Festival, visit their website, or find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.