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

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A recent conversation at the festival made a case for Hank Jones as the oldest active jazz musician; certainly he is the oldest participant in the Invitation Series, one the festival's finest innovations. But his inclusion was hardly a gesture or mere acknowledgement of lifetime achievement. Jones is still in complete control of the instrument, approaching it with assured elegance and a playfulness that belies his years. When the duo played in New York—where the Kids album was recorded—the dynamic was a little stiff, almost as if Lovano was being deferential to his elder. Now the feeling was the appetizing contradiction of tighter yet looser. Lovano might be less fiery in this context than, say, in the Saxophone Summit group that played a few hours earlier but he is no less focused. And during a pair of solo piano pieces, Jones proves that age is just a number, adding modernist touches to classic repertoire and taking immense pleasure in still making new discoveries in music he knows better than anyone.

June 28th

Before delivering the report from Day 3 of Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008, special mention should be made of the peripheral attractions which enrich the experience. Besides the ticketed concerts at various venues, the festival organizers take full advantage of the multi-level Place des Arts site to present a number of free concerts that, while only marginally related to jazz, at least get people appreciating live music. At any point there are several shows going on within a minute's walk, all with enthusiastic crowds. Let's hope these can be a gateway to more interest in the ticketed concerts and jazz in general.

Three other nice features of the festival are the kids section, SIMM and MGS. For families in attendance, a special area is given over to an interactive playground where children can play instruments and run on a giant keyboard; this correspondent has records that sound similar. SIMM (Montreal Music Instrument Show) is essentially the same thing as the kids' section except for adults. And MSG (Montreal Guitar Show), a collection of high-end luthiers, workshops and concerts is the same thing as SIMM except for grown-up kids. Who knows if a future performer at the festival will emanate from one of these events.

Day 3 gave this correspondent a chance to attend the 6 pm slot at Gesu, a series dubbed "Jazz D'Ici"—roughly translated at Jazz of Here—where local musicians are given the opportunity to play in front of hometown supporters. Much of the roster is drawn from the laudable local labels Justin Time and Effendi, with such artists Remi Bolduc and the Jensen sisters. Drummer Guy Nadon is a Quebecois legend and presented an ambitious project on Day 3: a tribute to nine different saxophonists. Appropriate to the pre-dinner scheduling, Nadon's set was fairly traditional, with some of the most popular tunes by such saxists as Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker. What did distinguish it was an expectedly rhythm-heavy set of arrangements—particularly surprising on "Footprints"—and the fact that group saxophonist Yvan Belleau had to emulate such disparate players as Shorter, Parker, Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Rollins solely on soprano sax. With such a range of source material, the feeling was akin to a jazz appreciation society concert or perhaps a jazz sampler but Nadon's crusty charm made it all work.

Later in the evening was the continuation of the Invitation Series, this time honoree Hank Jones paired with modern piano darling Brad Mehldau, who had also played the festival with his trio and solo. This was a first meeting and frankly was underwhelming. Despite a nice story from Mehldau about seeing Jones play when still in high school, the interaction between the pair was generally tentative, a far cry from Jones with Joe Lovano the previous evening. Like with Lovano, the evening was given over to a program of standards like "Our Love is Here to Stay," "There is No Greater Love" and "Lullaby of Birdland." But unlike the preceding concert, Mehldau didn't seem particularly comfortable with the repertoire, especially when contrasted with Jones' easy-going virtuosity. Mehldau isn't known as a Great American Songbook pianist and thus was not playing to his cerebral strengths. Jones, always deferential, did his best to maintain swing but things never gelled, except for a fairly raucous—for a piano duo that is—of "Anthropology" and some nice traded fours. More entertaining was Jones' quirky humor, a facet of his personality given great exposure during this series.

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