I arrived in Montréal mid-week, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal already in high gear. Closing off six square blocks of downtown Montréal, an area commanding six major outdoor stages and several indoor theaters and concert halls, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal presents dozens of free and ticketed performances each day over just under two weeks. Performances begin at noon and continue well past 2am, varying from intimate solo performances to the street- shaking, outdoor mega-concerts for which the festival has become so known. The accessibility of the festival allows downtown shoppers, tourists, and curious locals to stroll in and out of festival events at their leisure, maintaining a high level of energy and foot traffic throughout the more modest afternoons. Arriving on July 2, I had already missed Sonny Rollins
's Masada, to name only a few but it would not be FIJM if there were not more music than you could possibly choose from, and there was still half a festival remaining.
As I walked the festival streets, the music seemed to pop spontaneously into existence around me. Jugglers, dancers, and other street performers punctuated the corners, while any mix of local and visiting ensembles entertained enormous crowds at the free outdoor stagesseveral performances seeming to begin just as another concluded. The effect was an ongoing party atmosphere that never did seem to end. La Parade du Festival, what I later learned to be a daily event, was one particularly memorable surprise. The Swing Tonic Jazz Band led the romping traditional New Orleans-style parade across rue Saint-Catherine, accompanied by giant paper mâché alligators, oversize instrument floats, swing dancers, dancers on stilts, and women in confusingly provocative giant lobster costumes, also on stilts.
No small amount of capitol is invested to create this enveloping atmosphere of jazz celebrationwhat the festival refers to as "Planet Jazz." Here is a festival that appears entirely bound to the business, government, and people of its city. The Place des Festivals and the $18M (CAD) Maison du Festival, unveiled at last year's 30th anniversary celebration, are now landmarks of downtown Montréal. With a budget surpassing $30M, the 2009 festival boasted some two million participants that contributed over $100M to the local economy. FIJM has long established itself as a model of large-scale economic and artistic success in jazz presentation, and it seems to solidify its hold on the imaginations and hearts of the Canadian and the international jazz communities with each passing year. All, it may be worth adding, while being carbon neutral since 2008.
, introduced Surman to a larger audience outside of Britain, and he soon earned a reputation as one of the most remarkable instrumentalists in Western Europe. Surman brought something of the power and intensity of John Coltrane
's improvisations to the unwieldy baritone saxophone (a young Surman selected it at a pawn shop over a similarly-priced alto because he wanted the most for his money), which he appeared to master in short time. His work on John McLaughlin
's debut, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969) is exemplary of the period, and remains a cause for celebration some 40 years later. Having largely left the free playing of his youth for more atmospheric, pastoral experiments on Manfred Eicher's ECM, Surman owns an impressively diverse body of work, and his sustained value to contemporary jazz is beyond question.
Surman began playing with Howard Moody, an organ scholar at King's College at Oxford, in the mid-1990s. Commissioned by the Salisbury Cathedral to develop a duo featuring a full church organ, the pair released their debut album Proverbs and Songs in 1996 on ECM. As should be expected, the beautiful St. John's United Church, located not two blocks from the Maison du Festival, was immaculately attuned to the acoustic demands of the organ, and the duo appeared by turns relaxed and eager explore the room together.
Inside the main sanctuary, subtle lighting shot up the massive church organ, emphasizing the brass of the pipes and the glossy finish of the supporting wood frame. A single fluorescent track underneath the bottom keyboard silhouetted Moody, whose back was facing towards the audience. At only 8pm in mid-summer, enough sunlight passed through the stained glass windows to add depth and color to the darkened sanctuary. Surman, just to the left of Moody, was visible through a soft spotlight and stood erect as if facing a congregation. Hard to pass up the Jack DeJohnette Group with Rudresh Mahanthappa, but this had the makings of a true event (in fact, not pairing DeJohnette and Surman at some later point, the pair having a longstanding musical relationship, may have been a rare missed opportunity by FIJM).
Moody introduced his instrument with a variety of high pitched, distant sounding figures that explored the dynamic and tonal range of the organ. Surman's more familiar sounding soprano made a spirited entrance as the duo navigated a winding and adventurous composition in which brief windows of improvisation opened and closed at unpredictable intervals. The duo danced around each other in virtuosic rings, showcasing their gifts as improviser and accompanist, as well as the unique timbral balance of the duo. Surman and Moody so clearly enjoyed playing with each other, exchanging broad smiles at the piece's conclusion.
The following "Stone Ground," a selection from the duo's 2008 release Rain on the Window (ECM), took advantage of organ pipes that had not been heard from in some ten years. Moody and an organ technician serviced the instrument that morning and uncovered a large plastic refuse that was clogging much of the organ's lowest octaves. Having removed the debris, Moody thundered through these registers, the organ's bass traveling from deep within the walls of the church. Paired with Surman's baritone, the two painted in swatches of darkness, creating textures so dense that only the faintest hints of light seemed to escape. Surman shaped his improvisation with surgical precision, while seeming to obtain the highest level of creative freedom. The piece's enormous climaxthere may be few sounds more thrilling than Surman's arrival at the extreme highest register of his baritonewas supported by Moody's booming, un-analyzable chords, before the duo relented with a somber resolution.
Briefly, the duo shifted to Amsterdam in a musical tribute to the Netherlands' unexpected World Cup victory over Brazil, recreating how the street organs in the old city may have sounded. Surman then took a moment to explain that the next piece might best be understood as a musical game represented by Tom and Jerry. Surman improvised skittish lines on a wood flute while Moody played predator with deep, ominous steps on organthink if Messiaen were commissioned to score Jaws. Huge in sound with great strength and speed, Moody's cat was saber-toothed. According to Surman's celebratory flute closing, however, the mouse managed to survive. It may all sound a little too cute, but performed with such focus and strength of communication, it dismissed any criticism.
The duo abandoned the game as Surman switched to soprano for a profoundly affecting unaccompanied solo. Moody cued the entrance to the next composition with a repeating figure that propelled Surman's most intense soprano solo of the evening. Racing through octaves, Surman poured out thrilling melodic lines faster than the brain could process it. The audience responded with a huge ovation, clearly pleased by the mix of humor, adventure, and virtuosity.
Shifting tones again, the duo presented the spiritual "I'm Troubled in Mind," which Surman rather unlikely discovered in an attic in Norway. The mournful theme was transportingpainful to experience but beautiful in its pureness of expression. Here the duo departed from their recording, creating a major feature for Surman where the album simply states the melody and exits. Surman delivered a tour de force, a chill-inducing improvisation that was at once bleak and full of redemption.
Perhaps Surman's desire to match the organ in power lent the performance some of its great urgency. Comically feigning exhaustion towards the end of the evening, Surman noted that while Moody possesses some 4000 pipes and two bellows at his disposal, he had but one. This arrangement seemed to bring the absolute best out of Surman, however, creating a sublime performance that was like few items in music. The crowd recognized as much, pouring out ovations of "Mercí!" "Fabulous!" "Bravo!," and perhaps from the more American of the audience, "Well, all right!"