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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 1-3

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In its almost 30-year history, almost every major jazz musician has passed through the program of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. Yet even with all the significant performances, few shows have ever had as much "spectacle" about them as Return to Forever at the massive Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. There was not the common festival introduction; only Miles' "In a Silent Way" wafted through the hall. Then the four members of the seminal fusion group walked on stage to the first of many standing ovations. This may have been a jazz festival but it felt more like a rock concert that would not have been out of place at Olympic Stadium.



Group reunions have been in vogue in recent years; the trend seems to be moving into the jazz realm. But given the music's nature, there are not very many groups that can reform with the impact of Cream or The Police. RTF is one the few and the only one from the fusion circuit—death, acrimony and/or reduced ability make Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra tours an impossibility. But Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White are all still regularly performing at an extremely high level. But could they recreate the heady '70s some 25 years after their last performance?

The answer seems unequivocally yes. The music—taken from the group's several mid-to-late '70s albums—sounds dated at times but not overwhelmingly so. Jazz has progressed past fusion's excesses but not everyone thinks this is a good thing, given the absolutely crammed audience. And there is something to the argument. With all the technicians playing jazz these days at hyperspeed, why not electrify it arena-style once more? And with four virtuosos playing together, any seeming indulgence gets cancelled out.

It is certainly nice to hear these tunes played live and stretched out, Al DiMeola wailing away on no less than five guitars and Lenny White—more often heard behind a small jazz kit—pounding on an array of floor toms. But what lent the performance a certain flair was the demonstrable fun the quartet were having—with the music, with each other, with the audience. Each member spoke at length to the crowd about how pleased they were to be back together, White quipped that "in an era of boy bands, this is a man's band" and Corea got into an exchange with a vocal member of the audience about fusion's absence in the Ken Burns' Jazz documentary.

Jazz is often brilliant or well-played or wonderfully conceived. Its reduced visibility is because it is rarely fun and engaging. RTF's members, all having moved in more traditional directions since the group's demise, seem to understand that there is an entire generation that misses jazz on a grand scale.

After an exhilarating first set and part of a second—where RTF went acoustic with lowered volume but no less intensity—it was time for, to quote John Cleese, something completely different. From the packed house of Pelletier, it was a brief foray to the basement of the Monument National for the Dutch duo of violist Ig Henneman and reedist Ab Baars. A smaller version of the stately upstairs theater, the Studio Hydro-Quebec seems to have replaced the Musee d'Art Contemporain as the spot for the festival's most avant-garde acts. The disparity between RTF's set and the quirky Dutch minimalism of the duo was really almost too extreme, and this from a correspondent who likes quirky Dutch minimalism and has enjoyed both performers separately at earlier festivals. But that actually speaks well of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, where no sub-genre is excluded. Perhaps if time allowed for more than 20 minutes—Hank Jones and Joe Lovano's set started 30 minutes later—the contrast would have settled; certainly the pair's liberal mix of improvisation and cerebral composition ladled out in small servings was appealing. But moving from a fusion blowout to this and then on to a classic exploration of jazz and Great American Songbook standards was a little like a subcompact car being crushed in between two semis.

The Hank Jones/Joe Lovano evening was the second in the Invitation series. The first was the venerable Jones in duo with another Jones, famed Canadian pianist Oliver, in a tribute to the late Oscar Peterson (a late replacement for what was initially to be Jones with guitarist Jim Hall). The second evening was a more established pairing, taking place at Jean-Duceppe, with a far larger crowd than the Portal/Terrasson duo of the previous day. Jones and Lovano, though separated by decades, are well-matched, both with classic sensibilities and smoky tones on their respective instruments. Lovano stayed solely on tenor for the 75-minute set, an exploration of music from the recent Kids album, music from the quartet with George Mraz and Paul Motian, standards like "Ornithology" and "The Very Thought of You" and music written by Hank's brother Thad.

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