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It would be perfectly understandable for the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal to "take a year off" in 2008. Next year will be the festival's 30th anniversary and this year presents logistical challenges with the loss of a few staple venues and construction on-site. But the festival team has lost none of its momentum, presenting a full program of events to cater to all stripes of jazz (and non-) listeners. Schedule highlights of the first week, at least on paper, include the Hank Jones Invitation Series, the forever return of Return to Forever, Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band and the always engaging "Jazz Dans La Nuit" series.
The opening evening overlaps with a day of travel for many but even at the onset, the festival presented two projects that are candidates for the highlight reel: Michel Portal/Jacky Terrasson Duo at Theatre Jean-Duceppe and David Murray's Black Saint Quartet at Gesu.
Jean-Duceppe is one of the more intriguing venues at the festival. Larger than Gesu or the to-be-lamented Musee D'Art Contemporain (one of the locations missing from the schedule), it usually hosts acts whose experimental nature would not be out of place at either of those locales. Given the relatively small turnout for the Michel Portal/Jacky Terrasson Duo, it may have been wiser to have relocated the performance. But the crowd that did attend this opening salvo was treated to one of the most memorable performances in recent festival history.
At first it seemed an odd pairing; Portal the avant-garde elder statesman of French jazz and Terrasson more of a not-so-young lion. But that overlooks a certain shared romantic virtuosity. As if to establish his credentials, Terrasson began the evening solo, for a lengthy percussive deconstruction of "Caravan," fully exploiting the tune's inherent moodiness. When Portal joined, initially on bass clarinet, Terrasson had grounded himself in a rhythmic role, often playing the role of the drummer to Portal's flights.
Portal is an overlooked giant on this side of the Atlantic. Few reedplayersclarinets and saxophoneshave as much expressive capability and facility on their instruments. On bass clarinet in particular, Portal displays an extremely appealing post-Dolphy Gallicism. Terrasson's dry sparse style was a perfect complement, eschewing florid accompaniment for cinematic comping. In the early going, the pair played short vignettes, Portal switching between instruments. But the bulk of the set was given over to a sweeping medley that culminated in a rousing version of Chick Corea's "Spain" that was also ironic given the bass clarinet's maudlin tone. If the beginning of the set was intensely serious, the end was far more playful, with a solo ballad for Terrasson and then a subversive chanson as a bandoneon feature for Portal. The smallish crowd was enthusiastic enough to garner two encores: a tongue-in-cheek blues that found Portal muttering into his mouthpiece-less bass clarinet and a charming piano-bandoneon duet to close this magical set.
The second performance attended by this correspondent on the opening evening featured another underappreciated horn player: David Murray. But unlike the marvelous cooperative nature of the Portal/Terrasson show, Murray's set, with his Black Saint Quartet, was more akin to a tornado touching down in a sleepy town, wreaking delicious havoc.
Murray, like Portal, is immediately recognizable, with a tone on tenor that liberally mixes Albert Ayler and Joe Henderson and a remarkable emotiveness on bass clarinet (kudos to the festival organizers for featuring two of the instrument's greatest proponents on the same night). But Murray can easily leave his sidemen behind as was the case at his Gesu performance. Though billed as his Black Saint Quartet, it was actually Murray with his longstanding pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, bassist Jaribu Shahid and a young tyke on drums, Malik Washington.
The set was mostly Murray originals, pieces which usually start off beautiful or funky or spiritual but then become launching pads for the Murray squall. And if few can match it, even fewer can follow it. During the lengthy pieces - all over 10 minutes and one even approaching 30!Murray was a force of nature whose ability to circular breath made his playing almost overwhelming. That then created an unfortunate contrast during the long periods when Murray would give the stage over to his rhythm section. Their solos were too long and lacking in Murray's intensity. And though Washington was technically remarkable, his youthful exuberance manifested itself in playing that was far too busy. But one doesn't see Murray for his bands. When he is at his most exultantstrafing on tenor or during an absolutely staggering solo bass clarinet featuresidemen are an afterthought. If he were less self-effacing, occasional claims to the mantle of Coltrane would be completely deserved.