Montreal Jazz Festival Day 5, Part Two: July 2, 2007
Arriving in Montreal for the second week of the 2007 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, it took only a few minutes to be swept back up into the vibe that makes this North America's best jazz festival and one of the top music spectacles around the globe. With six square blocks in the downtown core closed off, more than fifteen ticketed shows and countless free shows beginning at noon each day and running through to the early hours of the morning, the only frustration is that it's not possible to catch everything.
Still, Day Five provided an opportunity to attend two performancesone, a welcome return after far too many years; the other, a collaboration by a group of artists brought together by one record label and, while artists in their own rights, delivering a stylistically diverse and musically challenging show that provided the Montreal audience a taste of the kind of stylistic cross-pollination that's de rigueur at Norway's annual Punkt Festival.
He may be a guitar legend, but in recent years Allan Holdsworth has nearly disappeared off the map despite being one of the most distinctive players and composers of the past four decadesan artist who is often emulated but never copied. If one way to judge artists' worth is by how quickly recognizable they are by sound alone, Holdsworth ranks at the very top. From the first notes of his 10:00 PM performance at Spectrum de Montrealan institution that, tragically, is being torn down after the conclusion of the 2007 festivalnot only did Holdsworth make his unique presence known, but he made it clear that he's back with a vengeance. There are those who, in recent years, have criticized Holdsworth's evolved legato approach as losing its edge, but during his two 45-minute sets with longtime collaborators Jimmy Johnson on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums, he delivered solo after solo of endless invention and, at times, unbridled power on complex material of such stunning harmonic depth that, while the reception was tremendous, during the quiet portions of the set you could, indeed, hear a pin drop.
l:r: Allan Holdsworth, Chad Wackerman, Jimmy Johnson
The audience was captivated by the group's performance of material that spans Holdsworth's career from his short time in the mid-1970s with the New Tony Williams Lifetime to his own The Sixteen Men of Tain (Gnarly Geezer, 2000). Opening with a relaxed Chad Wackerman tune from the drummer's Forty Reasons (CMP, 1991), Johnson took the first solo of the night, demonstrating the kind of imagination and focus that explains why he's such a busy player with, Holdsworth aside, artists ranging from singer/songwriter James Taylor to trumpeter Chris Botti and recently departed icon, pianist/vocalist Ray Charles. The perfect melodic foil for Holdsworth, he's also a rock solid anchor, capable of keeping things completely in-the-pocket with Wackerman while, at the same time, responding with unfailing élan to Holdsworth's challenging constructs.
Wackerman, an equally virtuosic and responsive drummer who has worked with everyone from guitarist Frank Zappa to trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and singer Barbra Streisand, was uncanny in his ability to work adroitly around his exceptionally well-tuned kit. Powering the groove behind Holdsworth's enduring "Fred" and "Devil Take the Hindmost," he delivered solos that, while brimming with ideas, remained focused and surprisingly melodic for a drummer working in the fusion sphere, his duo with Holdsworth in the middle of the latter song being one highlight of a show filled with memorable moments.
While Holdsworth has participated in a collaborative group with Wackerman, keyboardist Alan Pasqua and bassist Jimmy Haslip, releasing the superb DVD Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip (Altitude Digital, 2007), it's with this longstanding trio that the guitarist has the greatest opportunity to explore and expand his inimitable compositions. Wackerman and Johnson are locked in with Holdsworth at the deepest of levels, creating a group sound that, while capable of extreme energy, is equally disposed to subtleties and nuance rare in a fusion context.
Holdsworth, whose fluid legato runs have influenced more than one generation of guitarists, has acquired a greater edge recently. While the warmth and vocal-like delivery were still in place, so too was a return to a more incisive and aggressive, even visceral, attack. He executed lines of such staggering dexterity and intervallic breadth that, even to someone familiar with his work, it was often difficult to believe one's own eyes and ears. Lightning fast lines that ascended with a purpose and cascaded in gravity-defying streams, he also proved himself a textural player. "Madame Vintage," first heard on the Soft Machine offshoot Soft Works' Abracadabra (Tone Center, 2003) as a relatively short duet between Holdsworth and drummer John Marshall, became an extended group tour de force closer to the first set, which went from abstraction to groove, from the ethereal to the deeply grounded. Throughout, Holdsworth shifted his tone from almost cello-like to thick swells and rich chordal passages, filling the hall, the sounds swirling around and seemingly coming from everywhere.
Throughout the performance Holdsworth seemed genuinely taken aback by the emphatic reception. When one fan yelled out "Thank you for coming!" he responded, "Thank you for having us." Later, when another audience member shouted "Thanks Allan!" the guitaristwho has always been his own worst criticreplied, "Let's see if I can screw this one up as well." While it's impossible to know how he felt about last night's performance, based on the audience's complete attention and unrestrained enthusiasm, Holdsworth's return to greater visibility, in no small part due to the efforts of MoonJune Records owner Leonardo Pavkovic, is not only welcome, it's essential. It's time that Holdsworth, now in his early sixties, regain the wider acclaim he enjoyed earlier in his career. With the empathic and collaborative Johnson and WackermanHoldsworth's group of choice for many yearsa rigorous touring schedule, and the reissue of a number of long out-of- print releases, the next couple of years should prove very interesting to watch.