Our Man in Montreal: The 23rd Montreal International Jazz Festival (Part 1-2)
Like Kawasaki the previous afternoon, Peppino performed on the aptly named "Contact" stage, which is indeed the most intimate of the festival's free stages, giving the audience full opportunity to closely observe the intense concentration and subtlety of the coordination of the (sweaty) right and left hand techniques needed to pull off his percussive brand of guitaristic wizardry. As Peppino pandered to what turned out to be a partisan crowd ( Montreal is heavily populated with Italians, and has one of North America's busiest and most genuine Little Italies), by playing his version of "O Solo Mio", a pleasant melancholia ensued on my part. I found my thoughts drifting to the early departure of a Peppino's former contemporary, Michael Hedges, whose spirit is carried on between the hearts, hands, wood and steel of standard-bearers like D'Agostino. While he remains somewhat underrecognized, Peppino is easily that good.
After Peppino, the Lousiana stage, fittingly enough, hosted "Los Hombres Calientes" from New Orleans, featuring percussionist Bill Summers, formerly of the Headhunters, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and drummer Jason Marsalis of the flying Marsalises. Irvin and Jason are just over the US drinking age, yet front a sophisticated African, Latin funk band featuring an acknowledged African, Latin funk master (Summers). I can't say it better than our own review of the record, which says, "Los Hombres Calientes mixes cha chas, congas, sambas, African call and response, Cuban vocal chants, bop, and Latin percussion in a savory multicultural stew." In addition, they are one of indie jazz's greatest success stories, breaking the Billboard charts without benefit of major label clout. Mayfield and saxophonist Victor Atkins, the featured soloists over this bountiful, fragrant stew, were very impressive and succeeded in being "Caliente", although the audience was already "tres tres chaud". Their non-cover version of "Chameleon", sacrilegiously overplayed by less able units, was not only crowd pleasing, but tremendously, overpoweringly, afforded maximum groove power in the able hands of one of its original performers, Bill Summers, whose presence throughout was regally funky.
Here's the spot for me to underscore a major point. This story just relates what I did while I was there. The official website of the Festival has a handy feature called "My Festival" which allows you to prioritize events according to your particular time constraints and print out an itinerary without benefit of a Palm Pilot. Entire sub-aesthetics, or mini genre-specific festivals, are available within bigger festival, to the savvy festival-goer. According to the festival publicists, Equipe-Spectra, over 400 journalists attended the event and are anticipated to eventually weigh in on different stuff.
For instance, given different circumstances, I would have preferred to attend the previous week, when the festival hosted some very high profile Norwegians near and dear to these ears, including the scintillating Nils Petter Molvaer, who for some unknown reason didn't combine his trip to North America with any US dates. Molvaer couples jazz with his own brand of electronica, which at times is somewhat dark. In my opinion his latest disc, this year's NP3, issued on Emarcy/Universal is not only his best, but more importantly his most groundbreaking. It currently has no US distribution, but is available in Montreal stores for less than it will ever cost stateside!
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.