Montreal Jazz Fest
It's been a week of severe undercaffeination.
The one thing I'm most looking forward to upon returning to the States is going to breakfast where the coffee keeps flowing. For whatever reason, the Quebecois waiters haven't exactly been quick with the refills, and it's been a week of severe undercaffeination.
My final day in Montreal (though not the Fest's, which runs through next weekend) starts out with the second of Joshua Redman's Invitation series concerts. As opposed to last night's modernistic set with Aaron Parks and co., tonight's show is a bop-leaning tenor duel with Joe Lovano, with Redman's frequent collaborators Sam Yahel (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass), and Gregory Hutchinson (drums) providing support. The set opens with Booker Little and proceeds through Lennie Tristano and the Sonny Stitt/Gene Ammons showcase 'Blues Up and Down' with a little Shorter and Ornette thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the show is a barnburner, with Redman and Lovano crossing swords and one-upping one another. The odd man out here was Yahel, who insisted on playing in a sparse, fragmentary fashion wholly inappropriate in this context. While comping he seemed to disappear, when soloing he killed momentum, almost tripping up Rogers and Hutchinson who had to slam on the brakes to accompany him.
This was followed by Kenny Werner's Quintet, featuring his latest solo-mates, Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez, along with saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Werner has a knack for assembling trios, and when the rhythm section played unaccompanied, I almost wished that the horn players had stayed home ' until Sanchez stepped up and delivered solo after solo of depth and fire. Brecker was Brecker for the most part, and I would have much preferred to see what a player like, say, Dave Douglas ' who guested on Werner's last CD ' would have done. But Brecker did match well with the closing number, a surprising take on John Williams' 'Hedwig's Theme' from the Harry Potter soundtracks. Brecker seemed to mesh with Williams' narrative sense, which is something that must have appealed to Werner as well. The set, culled mainly from Werner's 2007 CD Lawn Chair Society, which the pianist continually shrugged off as 'dated social commentary', was full of the whimsy and humor that marks much of his work. But it also featured a tearjerking take on 'Uncovered Heart,' a tribute to his daughter, and a gorgeous solo fantasia on the folk song 'Barbara Allen.'
The final show was an appearance by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, featuring their latest addition, Philly's own 18-year-old drum wunderkind Justin Faulkner. Coming off so many shows that were both superb musically and unique in their make-ups, this came off as something of a disappointing close, though it was a perfectly solid evening for the group. Faulkner's place in the band makes sense, as he is very much a powerhouse in the Jeff 'Tain' Watts mold, but his and the quartet's unrelenting approach came off as too busy and more than a little tiring after so much music.
All in all, though, a fantastic festival, and one which I would have gladly stuck around for another week to complete. Maybe next year.
|Photo borrowed from seeing_leaves on Twitter. Click on the pic to read her Montreal tweets.
Juxtapositions of gut and head, lyrical beauty and boisterous vitality.
It's a refreshingly subdued experience to be out of the country ' and especially out of Philly ' on July 4. The only acknowledgment that it was Independence Day came from a top hat-clad, acoustic guitar-strumming busker in the most touristy stretch of Old Montreal, who wished American visitors (who probably outnumbered Canadian natives in the outdoor cafes along this cobblestoned stretch) a happy Fourth after finishing a rendition of 'Dream On.'
Not exactly a musical highlight of the week, though my first show of the evening was ' the first installment of Joshua Redman's 'Invitation' series, for which he was accompanied by Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland.
This was, essentially, Redman enlisting the group that recorded Parks' Invisible Cinema CD, with the saxophonist subbing himself for guitarist Mike Moreno, performing much of the same material. The contrast was intriguing ' Parks' tunes and playing are marked by cool, moody shades, cerebral introspection, where Redman is more attuned to groove and exuberant expression. It's a simplistic reduction of the two, but points to how the performance transformed the music.
Invisible Cinema is, in a sense, a jazz take on an indie rock album, full of controlled intensity. Throughout the evening, Redman tuned in to that intensity but responded on a more gut level ' it was surprising to see Redman cueing Parks to vamp on 'Peaceful Warrior', inspired to wail on its Radiohead-meets-Metheny theme. The show was rife with juxtapositions of gut and head, lyrical beauty and boisterous vitality.
On the same stage a few hours later, Brian Blade led his Fellowship band through their typically moving set of spiritually-oriented material. Blade is a master at growing momentum over the course of a tune, and each piece seemed to build from a hushed meditativeness to explosive outbursts and settle back down again. The set encored with a brief tribute to Quebec's own Daniel Lanois.
In between sets featuring Eric Harland and Brian Blade, two examples of trailblazing rhythmic invention, came a set grounded in the most fundamental of throwback swing. I caught Dave Brubeck's set, which I would say was exactly what it was expected to be, which musically it was ' but technically, it was advertised as a 50th-anniversary tribute to Brubeck's seminal Time Out album, in which he would perform the record in its entirety. Someone apparently forgot to mention this to Brubeck, as he proceeded to play a typical set, acknowledging the album but only picking two tunes from it ' one of which was, of course, the closing 'Take 5.'
As I sat there, I was forced to think about the reasoning behind selecting this performance. I've never been a particular fan of Brubeck, but something about the fact that he was performing that album, and the fact that it fit my schedule, prompted me to nab a ticket. It's been a few years since I've seen Brubeck, and there aren't likely many years left in which to see him again. There's something morbid in that fact, and it was poignant to see the pianist taking such obvious joy in his sidemen's playing, while having to be aided in walking on and off stage. The usual, silver-haired quartet was augmented by Brubeck's cellist son Matthew, who seemed to be there to take the weight off of his father, solo-wise: Brubeck played a few passages on his own ' including a lovely, sentimental 'Over the Rainbow' with longtime altoist Bobby Militello on flute ' but for the most part he refrained from soloing much.
At the end of the evening, Brubeck was led back out by two of the festival officials and presented with a painting of Louis Armstrong by Tony Bennett, acknowledging the gift and his friendship with both in a halting, gravelly voice. He walked off to an uproarious ovation, and it was clear the evening was over. The crowd continued to cheer, he was led back on to wave one last time, but there was to be no more music. But this show, at least, wasn't about the music ' it was about seeing a legendary name in the flesh, one last time.
A wandering what is a very wanderable city.
A combination of deadlines that I hadn't managed to meet before skipping town the other day and the intermittent downpours that finally paid off the threatening storm clouds that have been throwing their muscle around for the past few days kept me close to or in the hotel on Friday. But much of my non-festival time here has simply been spent wandering what is a very wanderable city.
It's a somewhat oddly integrated city ' high-end shopping shares the same block with nude dancers, quaint creperies sit comfortably side by side with signs sporting cartoon condoms. Without even leaving the festival grounds you can step into a mall food court opening into the underground city or stroll into a dive-y pizza joint. It's as if Broad, Chestnut and South Streets suddenly had to decide how to coexist on the same block.
Not that one really even has to leave the festival grounds. There's always something on at least one or two of the multiple stages (I swear I'm still going to stumble across another one hidden away in a corner I've failed to chance upon, or disguised by the construction that's developing the site into an even more expansive event center), and in between there are stilt walkers, hula hoopers, card tricksters, and fire jugglers aplenty to distract the easily amused.
For those who appreciate more difficult entertainment, there was Wayne Shorter's majestic quartet. An injury kept regular pianist Danilo Perez at home, which was cause for alarm; this is one of the most highly attuned units in jazz, who over the past several years have become something nearly inexplicable in their abilities to create something that organically transcends the notes on the page.
With Geoffrey Keezer occupying the bench, they weren't quite that tonight. The substitution exposed the framework a bit, revealing the transitions between tunes (there's never a break in the music) where normally the whole thing becomes an amorphous organism from which melodies and synchronicities appear like changes in expression. But Keezer brought a sharper, more forceful attack, which egged drummer Brian Blade into leaping off of his stool on several occasions ' more than once, he had to regather the kit that he'd pushed away from himself.
Shorter spent a good bit of the performance engaging directly with Keezer, encouraging and coaxing, sparring with him when something the pianist did piqued his imagination. He stuck with the tenor for most of the evening, as opposed to his most recent, haunting Kimmel Center appearance, where he was just as interested in whistling into the mic. It was a wholly different show than it would have been had Perez been able, but still an amazing experience.
|photo by Shaun Brady
I wondered where he was smuggling the third hand from.
One thing I'll say for Montreal audiences, they're definitely enthusiastic. I haven't seen this many standing ovations since I lived in Seattle, where listeners routinely gave standing Os to whatever artist was on stage, the coat check girl that handed them their furs, and the cab driver that got them home.
Back then, it got aggravating, but here there's something endearing about it ' these are in large part people who've planned their vacations around music, so for the next week, anyway, they get a pass, whether the shows deserve it or not.
Not that anything has been undeserving. Took in two ticketed indoor performances last night ' the headliner of the evening being Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, whose performance is something of a Montreal must-see given the fact that his country of origin prevents him from showing up Stateside too often. And the crowd was so appreciative that they not only stood repeatedly but dragged his quartet ' quintet with the brief edition of Chucho's vocalist sister Mayra Caridad Valdes ' back for four encores.
Valdes gave the type of performance that inspires such a vigorous reaction, full of keyboard pyrotechnics and impossibly agile runs. Unlike many a crowd-pleasing musical gymnast, however, Valdes comes from the Tatum/Peterson school of remaining musical no matter how high the accelerator climbs. The independence of Valdes' left and right hands was a marvel to see ' at times I wondered where he was smuggling the third hand from.
The set kicked off with a muscular version of 'Satin Doll' that eventually morphed into 'Caravan', a clave on steroids, a tribute to Joe Zawinul, a rendition of 'Besame Mucho' with his sister's intense vocals, and an encore performance of 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' that framed an acrobatic percussion duet.
Earlier in the evening, a very different performance met with a similarly enthusiastic audience, as Angele Bubeau led her string ensemble La Pieta through the Philip Glass repertoire from their recent CD Portrait. I've always found Glass' music to benefit from the live setting; releasing his repetitive figures into the atmosphere seems to allow them to breathe in a way that recordings seem to suffocate. And Dubeau, who has worked with Glass since the '90s, did these selections the same service.
The group played with, as oxymoronic as this may sound, a lush rigor throughout. Even a lengthy suite from the soundtrack to The Hours, which I've never much cared for on CD, was rendered with a porcelain beauty, particularly in the hands of pianist Marie-Eve Scarfone. The set also featured one Arvo Part composition, 'Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten' which in La Pieta's rendering became a drifting, soft-hued watercolor, utterly entrancing.
Dubeau met the enthusiastic ovation by slipping into platform flip-flops (the ensemble was otherwise decked out in the usual black, each trimmed or accessorized in bright reds) and picking up her electric violin for a crowd-pleasing Abba medly, complete with shreddy distorted solo.
Of course, none of it was anywhere in the neighborhood of jazz, which is a habit picked up by nearly every festival bearing that name ' virtually anything can be folded in as long as there is a core of actual jazz performers (and sometimes not even that), which always begs the question of why anyone still bothers to include the name at all. Given the enthusiasm for the actual jazz I've seen thus far, the tactic comes off as condescending and not quite necessary ' granted, no one on Blue Note then or now is going to attract the kind of crowd that Stevie Wonder did on Thursday, but who says every festival needs 'em?
Getting my bearings in a labyrinth most challenging.
Dark clouds loomed over the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal last night, but for the most part, except for a bit of spitting around 8:30 p.m., the rain held off.
I arrived this afternoon, day two of the festival, 24 hours too late to catch Stevie Wonder's three-hour performance kicking off the 30th-anniversary festival, which will continue through July 12. A couple hundred thousand had crowded the Place des Arts to see Stevie run through his hits, reportedly a few too many newer tunes, and the now-requisite tribute to Michael Jackson. (When I got back to the room last night, a local news station ran a piece on the fest featuring Jamie Cullum's show, in which he performed 'Thriller' from crib notes. Look, man, I know you're the 'shockingly hip' nouveau-jazz crooner and all, but if you weren't a big enough fan to have learned the words by now, skip the friggin' homage.)
This being my first fest (and first visit to Montreal), yesterday was mostly an exploration day, wandering the festival grounds, figuring out which stage is which, ruing being an ugly American with a barely-there knowledge of Francais ' in general, getting my bearings.
Not much to speak of on the outdoor stages throughout the evening, but my first ticketed event was a killer ' the Monterey Quartet, a super-quartet formed for the jazz festival most likely to be mispronounced as the one I'm presently attending. (Afterwards, I had intended to catch French pianist Baptiste Trotignon's quintet with Mark Turner, Jeremy Pelt and Matt Penman, but the fact that it was more than half over by the time that Monterey wrapped up and a sudden onset of travel exhaustion led me back to my room instead.)
Led by bassist Dave Holland, the group consists of saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Eric Harland. Their 90-minute set was made up of compositions by all four, the highlight probably being Potter's 'Minotaur.' The tune opened with a rumbling drum solo that echoed the ominous clouds outside, picked up by all four in a brief improvised section which dissolved into breathiness before launching into the melody. The rest of the tune is largely a showcase for Potter's limitless invention, but I was most struck by how Holland and Rubalcaba worked underneath him, seeming to find secret doors in the piece that led into unexplored passageways. Once or twice you could actually see Potter having to rethink his direction, an appreciative grin playing across his eyes. A labyrinth most challenging.
The opening number, Harland's 'Treachery', showcased the difference between Rubalcaba's and Potter's approaches. Throughout the night, the pianist would play with each tune's melody like a cat with a mouse, toying with it, batting it around, letting it slip away before slamming it back into captivity; Potter, on the other hand, leaps away from the tune, dragging it behind him like a small dog on a leash strapped to the bumper of a pick-up truck. One of the most consistently stunning instrumentalists on the planet today, he is adept at reinventing with each solo. And listening to Harland keep time is like watching a one-man volleyball game, as he heaves it into the air, where it hangs suspended before he dashes under it and knocks it around again.
Holland, the evening's genial host, was his usual mesmerizing self. His lengthy solo outing at the front of Harland's 'Maiden' held the packed room rapt ' until the end, when the woman behind me insisted on blurting out, sotto voce, 'He's a really good bass player.' Indeed.
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