Day 10 - Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, July 7, 2006
This band has made significant leaps beyond its fine debut, Evolution (Blue Note, 2004). King Crimson co-founder Robert Fripp always described his group's studio albums as love letters, its performances hot dates. The same could be said about Blackout. But what is most striking about comparing the two shows is just how different they were. There was no setlist, even though the Ottawa and Montreal performances shared some common tunes. Instead it was totally unscripted, and the group's totally open approach to the material made it a highlight of both festivals. Blackout might have repeated a tune, but each interpretation was completely different.
The group opened with a lengthy medley of two pieces: Harris's title track from Evolution and Cary's "Gentle Wind." What has become increasingly clear is how Harrisaside from his clear virtuositycan integrate vibes and marimba into almost a single instrument. Placing them perpendicular to each other, Harris is able to move effortlessly between the two. But even more significantly, he can play on both at the same time, his right hand mallets on the vibes, his left on the marimba. In doing so he created a denser texture that combined the vibraphone's more bell-like tone with the marimba's deeper tone, creating a new sound that's greater than the sum of its parts. Watching Harris' head move rapidly back and forth between the vibes and marimba highlighted just how difficult this integration can be, and while it was clear that he was working hard, the music never felt that way.
In many ways a bandleader in name only, Harris never placed technique ahead of the music. He understood the importance of spacewhich was especially effective on his solo intro to Sting's "Until," also from Evolution. Although he contributes the majority of the writing, it's clear that Blackout is a real collective where everyone's on equal footing and anyone can be the motivating force behind the shape the music takes. His introduction of his bandmatesCary, bassist Derrick Hodge, altoist/keyboardist Casey Benjamin and Terreon Gullydemonstrated the kind of trust and mutual respect that explain why Blackout is evolving into one of the finest working units on the scene today. It's capable of a near-perfect combination of spontaneity, complex composition, visceral energy and sheer soulfullness that few other bands can acheive in a similar space.
Harrisas comfortable communicating with the audience as he was in Ottawaexplained that there was no setlist, and so every night is just a matter of waiting to see what happens. Of course, the individual players created signposts by introducing each new song with an opening solo. Derrick Hodge's bass solo led to a medley that began with a Blackout piece but ended up as a kind of free-for-all medley of Monk tunes. The excitement of never knowing exactly where any given tune would end up infected both the group and the audience.
Individually and collectively, these players deserveand, for the most part, are receivinggreater recognition. Gully is a force of nature, powerful when required, but also capable of greater delicacy. But he's always listening to what's going on around him, and sometimes he almost seems to respond to an idea before another player is even finished getting it out. Hodge can be a solid anchor, but he's an equally responsive player; he and Gully make an expansive and capable rhythm section well beyond the norm.
Cary's piano work is filled with the harmonic language of the tradition, but he's equally capable of creating synthesizer tones that are more textural in nature, and it's about time that people began to explore his own not insignficant discography. Benjamin may be the least well-known of the quintet, but that's not likely to last. A fine alto player who combines a pure tone with occasional electronic processing, he's clearly in tune with the greater jazz vernacular, just like Cary. But he's also hip to contemporary ideas, and his solos demonstrated a vivid blend of old-school bop and new-school soul.
When the group performed a tune that found Benjamin bringing out his vocoder, as he did in Ottawa, it provided evidence of just how differently Blackout can treat even the material they perform night after night. In Ottawa, Benjamin's vocals were backed by a sensual funk groove; in Montreal, it was a more rubato treatment. Gully played more texture and less backbeat.