Thursday, September 5, 2019

Ortwein Jazztet and guests: Father-son, New Orleans-Indianapolis blend at the Jazz Kitchen

Mark Ortwein with his regular axe.
A defining duo from Maid of Orleans stepped in to fill out the bandstand for a gig hosted by Mark Ortwein and representatives of his Jazztet, drawing an enthusastic midweek crowd to the Jazz Kitchen.

The saxophonist-bassoonist was joined by his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra colleague Craig Hetrick on drums and guitarist John Fell — both Jazztet regulars. The guests were his son, electric bassist Olas Ortwein and his duo partner, hornist-vocalist Amber Renee Mouton, Maid of Orleans bandmates up from the Crescent City. They had played a duo gig in Cincinnati on Tuesday, preceding the father-son musical reunion at Indianapolis' storied northside club, enjoying continued success in its silver-anniversary year.

The blend was predictably compatible, even though the musical range encompassed genres not usually heard in the same set: retro-inspired originals with forward-thinking aspects as well as jazz and popular standards. The French horn in small groups is also unusual, and characteristics of the orchestral instrument were sometimes brought to the fore to complement the vocals.

There was the soaring lyricism of the horn in "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." In the ensemble, it took a while for the front line to match harmony and melody well. But, in addition to her horn solo, Mouton made up for it with a vocal that, thankfully, stayed close to the original tune. The other standard from that era, "On the Sunny Side of Street," found her more in the mold of Betty Carter, the extreme example of jazz vocalists who seem bored with the melody and impose idiosyncratic interpretations from the first phrase on.

The bandleader displayed his composing sideline with a couple of passionate originals — one of them a tribute to his wife, Carrie; the other, called "No More Butterflies," a somber ballad that led off with a father-son duet. The composer introduced the piece by noting he composed it after a visit to Auschwitz. That affecting performance preceded a prematurely scheduled break required by a problem with Fell's guitar that forced a change of instruments.

The music resumed with a heavy, slow-grinding version of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild," which featured some sly interplay between Fell's guitar and Mouton's singing. The guitarist's solo marked a ripping return to full capacity and energy. A fierce Mouton original, "I Am a Woman," gave Ortwein the opportunity to turn to one of his deep-voiced instruments, the baritone sax; alto, tenor, and soprano came into play elsewhere. In the center of a grove of reed instruments, the set-up brought to mind the legendary Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Ortwein plays them one at a time, though. His bread-and-butter instrument, the bassoon, when modified electronically, brings extra power and timbral complexity to the jazz-rock fusion side of his artistry. That was heard just once, in a stormy Mouton piece titled "Take," "a troubled-youth song" in which she told me she had aimed for a '60s surf-rock sound.

I got to the Jazz Kitchen late, having missed the set's first quarter-hour. After my mixed feelings during "On the  Sunny Side of the Street," I was thrilled to hear a splendid version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." The two-beat emphasis imparted to the performance by Hetrick's drumming, its spirit taken up by his colleagues, gave the piece a genuine N'awlins flavor.

Fell's guitar solo featured fleet, glowing octaves, with some exotic turns of phrase perhaps intended to evoke the gumbo variety of the city where Olas lives and where his father went to school. Olas' solo was a showcase of his rhythmic acumen. And the bassist's catchy original "The World Keeps Turnin'" brought to mind an updated New Orleans tradition that must have influenced him: the brass-band, funk-infused sound of the likes of Dirty Dozen or Rebirth. Some of those Mardi Gras beads one saw around a few necks at Monday's Labor Day Street Fair would have looked right at home Wednesday night.

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