Our Man in Montreal: The 23rd Montreal International Jazz Festival (Part 1-2)
His guitarist, Elvind Aarset, also performed the following day with his own group, the aptly named "Electronique Noire" (if anything, his own stuff is a bit darker than Molvaer's), as well as the day after that, with a third unit called "Grace". The performance by Aarset's trio even made Festival senior-president, co-founder and artistic director André Ménard's very short list of his fave performers of the fortnight. As it turns out, another Bostonian luckily turned in a fine report on this particular underlying current of the festival here .
So, back to my festival, and Avishai Cohen's amazingly tight International Vamp Band (the IVB) at the festival's best venue, the incredible Salles de Gesu , a 400 seat capacity room in a converted church with perfect acoustics and sightlines. Avishai's played just about every major jazz festival in the world, and he thinks Montreal is the best. Soon, you can read our short post-gig interview (on the interviews page) to find out why. You probably all know this by now, but I'll restate it here for the record. Avishai plays piano, rather than bass, when leading his IVP, which sports a three man horn section consisting of trumpeter Diego Urcola of Argentina, trombonist/flutist Avi Lebovich of Israel, and saxophonist Yosvany Terry from Cuba. The music sounds as if Cohen (also from Israel) writes his Middle Eastern and Latin tinged portraits, emphasizing all the colors of his small group, with the frontline specifically in mind. All the tunes indeed feature vamps, either as underlying chord progressions or as cyclical elements woven into the underlying progression. All the while the horn charts by Lebovich and Urcola float incredibly tightly, yet velvety/buttery over the top, inducing and enhancing the mood of the pieces. Drummer Eric McPherson, from New York, has his hands full with all the rhythmic possibilities, but is helped considerably by Terry, who is simply one of the best chekere players I've ever seen, and who functions as the band's de facto percussionist.
All three horn men are able soloists, as is Cohen (on three instruments) and the band's other Israeli bassist Yagil Baras. You'll notice I said three instruments for Avishai, who will often get up and strap on his vintage Fender electric, sporting the black rectangular fret markers, to solo in the upper registers in front of the band. He also upped the excitement level when he used the Fender to set up a counter funk groove to Baras on a tune, but it's when he grabs the acoustic bass that the fireworks, from a chops perspective, start to explode. I mean, Mr. Cohen asserts himself over the physical difficulties and intricacies of the instrument like few who have come before him. Mystically enough, one of those few happened to poetically leave us all in his sleep earlier on that day. And so it was that I came to be present when Avishai dedicated his solo version of "Bass Suite #1" to the inimitable Mr. Ray Brown on Montreal on July 3, 2002, the day, it could be argued, in terms of acoustic bass, that the music died. Cohen dropped a spot nothing short of transcendent - bowing, plucking, funking, bopping, and elasticizing the bass, and the audience along with him, into a state of musical bliss. Cohen appeared as though he could shatter the instrument on a whim, but preferred to render it to his will, which included transitioning out of the piece by playing the doghouse's exterior, and then engaging in a series of handoffs to Baras, who admirably emphasized the signature elements of his own proficient style. As they continued to pass it back and forth, all those previous statements that I've read by guitarists and bassists that point out that tone is in the hands, not the instrument (or the gear), were at once proven. Indeed, the tone variants suggested Avishai and Yagil were playing two different axes instead of sharing one. While artistically pleasing on one level, the exchange hit deep, reminding us all of jazz' credo, that there is always a place for the individual in the music and the individual, or the signature sound, in jazz. The fact that Cohen is such an amazing upright player, yet elects not to play it, for the most part, with his own band, should indicate the leader's incredible commitment to his vision for the music and his ensemble, as well as his wise prioritization of musical aesthetic over chops. Another show highlight was the tune "Float", which Avishai dedicated, simply, "to all the ladies in the house". What a truly sensuous, feminine, seductive tune! Jazz men take note- if you know any curious potential female fans, I strongly suggest playing them a song like this as enticement.
Watch for Avishai, who spoke at some length between tunes, with an extremely nice audience rapport, to remain a favorite of "Festival Fans" and requested at Montreal for years to come. This was confirmed by the attendance of their reigning president, known by his pseudonym "Alto" ( www.festivalfans.com ), who sat next to me for the show. Other "semi-celebrity" sightings? Montreal's incredible electric bassman, Alain Caron , who, among other things, informed me that Montreal fixture "L'Air du Temps", my favorite jazz hang in North America, where I had first seen Alain perform in the eighties, had closed its doors. I also spotted the beautiful Rosario Dawson (before Avishai told us what her name was), of Men in Black II and Josie and the Pussycats, who, evidently, has extremely good taste in music.
Next up on my hit list came DePhazz, at the electronic series, or "Les Nuits" at Club Soda. DePhazz's international hit, "Death by Chocolate" established them as laid back purveyors of lounge electronica, or martini music for the international drum'n'bass crowd, and in fact is a great little piece of pop culture in this style. Unfortunately, their live act was pretty tough to swallow, especially rhythmically, where subtle electronic elements were lost in a wash of the same-sounding huge backbeat. It didn't help that they overloaded the cheese factor with an onstage dancer reminiscent of SNLer Chris Kattan's "Antonio Banderas, How do you say... Show" ( snltranscripts.jt.org ). How do you say, "C'mon guys...you can do better than that." Let's just say their live show wasn't going to make staying past the Metro's closing time of 1 am justifiable.