Begonia Provided a Gateway at Ottawa Jazz Fest

OLG Stage, June 21

Photo: Kamara Morozuk

BY Luke PearsonPublished Jun 24, 2024

The jazz gods intervened on the first night of 2024's Ottawa Jazz Festival. After three days of sweltering temperatures there were sweaters, there were pants, and cool breezes found their way into the OLG tent at Marion Dewar Plaza. Home once again to the festival's After Dark stage, it's where younger generations are wooed into a life of jazz via crossover artists like tonight's Begonia (otherwise known as Alexa Dirks), who hails from the unlikely jazz nexus of Winnipeg. Indeed, whether or not she's jazz enough to perform at the festival did form the content of a brief meta-commentary at one point, highlighting a programming tension that the generally blues-free Bluesfest has certainly given up wrestling with long ago.

While the Jazz Festival honours its namesake more than either of the other two explicitly genre-specific annual events in Ottawa, Dirks is exactly the kind of artist this festival should be courting: young, talented, progressively aligned, hilarious, and, even though you're more likely to encounter her on a tastefully curated hip-pop playlist, still jazzy eh eff in an Adele and Amy Winehouse kind of way. That is, voice and personality forward, solos and improv very much not — as though there were any shortage of solos at Jazz Fest.

It was also very drag, very hosting at the club (Ottawa delays its parade until August to avoid competing with Toronto for tourist dollars, but the Pride vibe was very much in effect here, with a notable dash of Taylor-core sequins in the mix), very playful and irreverent with its gender politics (an amusingly ironic riff on men's rights eventually led into an introduction of her all male band—"good men, men we can respect"), but also very real and cathartic at times. A clearly emotional rendition of "Butterfly" was especially powerful after a monologue recounting her escape from "Coldplay-style Christianity" out west for instance, and there were a lot of cheers throughout for lines that resonated. There was a real voting bloc in the tent, and it felt good to vibe with your tribe if you were part of it.

Musically, it was definitely the singles that got the biggest applause (no shade), but a lot of straight up album-track grooving got big responses as well, especially when Dirks hit those sustained, resonating notes — she has a big voice that rightly dominated the mix, filling the tent with brassy goodness over and over. More than a few glazed eyes zoned out to the hypnotic movement of her tambourine as well, which shimmered throughout the night and anchored many of the mid-tempo tracks. A triumph for Dirks, and a night of shrewdly-programmed gateway jazz for the festival.

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