Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 6-8
Intrepid trumpeter Steven Bernstein, whose Diaspora series on Tzadik has been a wellspring of reinvention, most recently on Diaspora Suite (2008), has been leading The Millennial Territory Orchestra for nearly a decade, but this unorthodox collection of musicians has only release one recording, MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside, 2006). A curious modernistic aesthetic that, with its sometimes skewed, sometimes straight-to-the-point references to music nearly a century old, Bernstein's MTO lives in its own netherworld as an encyclopedic reverer that manages to bring an undeniable irreverence to the mix as well. Timeless yet, at times, of a time, it's the perfect band to throw at music for silent films.
Contemporary groups creating scores to silent films isn't new, nor is the idea of blending detailed scores with a looser improvisational freedom. Bill Frisell did it with a spare trio for Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: Go West (Nonesuch, 1995) and Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: High Sign/One Week (Nonesuch, 1995), while Dave Douglas' Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005) used a more electric approach, complete with turntablist and Fender Rhodes for his music for the silent films of Fatty Arbuckle.
Bernstein has chosen to score the films of slapstick legends Laurel & Hardy and, with MTO, brings a somewhat more authentic feel to the music, with the kind of instrumentation that was being used in territory groups of the day, including violin, trombone and reeds. For his evening show at Place des Arts' Thé âtre Jean-Duceppe, Bernstein chose three Laurel & Hardy films that covered the comedy team's career in silent film from its early days with Sugar Daddies (1927) to its classic Double Whoopee (1929), with the soon-to-be-legendary Jean Harlow, and one of its last silent films, Wrong Again (1929). An entertaining stage performer, Bernstein explained that the writing process for the three films went from being very detailed and specific to increasingly more open-ended, taking his audience on a trip that charted the emergence of the public persona of Laurel & Hardy and, at the same time, a musical journey from form to freedom.
Too busy conducting his octet, Bernstein only played during a brief prologue and a lengthy encore, where he went backstage and pulled out his slide trumpet. Both songs provided solo opportunities for the group, most notably violinist Charlie Burnham, whose playing rose above the rest throughout the performance, all the more remarkable since he was surrounded by fine musicians, including drummer Kenny Wollesen, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, trombonist Clark Gayton and guitarist Matthew Munisteri, back from his performance with vocalist Catherine Russell and her opening set for Steely Dan.
Steven Bernstein's Millenial Territory Orchestra Meets Laurel & Hardy
Bernstein's scores met all the challenges of writing for film and then some. Specific themes were built for characters or situations; cues to onscreen actions were played synchronously; and the group was used to create everything from hard-swinging music to sonic cacophony that reflected the chaos sometimes going on during the films. Solo opportunities were often brief and directed but, as the set progressed, often became longer. Delineated soloing was juxtaposed with collective improvisation, all under Bernstein's watchful eye, ensuring that scored film cues would act as rallying points.
It was a performance that was, at times, a challenge to absorb. The films were hilarious, and the temptation was to focus on them and simply consider the music as a component that worked hand-in-glove with the visuals to create an integrated experience, but the playing was so good that it was hard not to focus more specifically on the music itself. Still, the best film scores mesh seamlessly with the story onscreen while also standing alone on their own merits. With that definition, Steven Bernstein's Millenial Territory Orchestra Meets Laurel & Hardy was an unqualified success.
As mentorship opportunities dry up in the jazz world, the importance of educational institutions offering jazz programs has become increasingly important. Still, an unfortunate by-product of that paradigm shift is a proliferation of technically skilled musicians emerging from these programs, but with little individual to say. For the third and final evening of his By Invitation series, piano legend McCoy Tyner collaborated with young musicians at two different levelsthe Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra, featuring some of Berklee College of Music's finest students, and trumpeter Christian Scott, a rising star with two albums to his name, including the promising debut Rewind That (Concord, 2006). Scott has his own performance coming up at the late night Jazz Dans Las Nuit series in the sonically beautiful Gesú Centre de Créativité on July 4, but here his guest appearance on two tunes was definitely a case of the student and the master.
The BCJO opened up with two tunes before Tyner took to the stage, including an old Mike Gibbs piece and a recent composition by one of the big band's alumni. With Tyner onstage, it might be assumed that he'd have been the 19-piece band. While not all the players demonstrated significant promise, there were a few who may well be heard from again in future, once they graduate. Amongst the highlights was saxophonist Melissa Aldana's solo during the up-tempo "No Frills," and beautifully spare solo from the BCJO's pianist on the original "7/5," who left the chair when Tyner entered for a spirited take of his own "Blues on the Corner," from The Real McCoy (Blue Note, 1967).
McCoy Tyner (far left) with Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra
Tyner, freed from the greater responsibility of the trio/quartet formats of his show two days prior, played with even greater energy and, surprisingly, took a longer solo on "Blues" than on any from his earlier performance. But it was another track from The Real McCoy, the modal burner "Passion Dance," that was an early highlight of the show, with Scott onstage for one of two solos that justified his position as rising star, and confirmed to the student orchestra around him that there definitely can be a future for those who find their voice. Confidently creating long, economical lines but equally capable of expanding on those lines with more active and interactive fervency, Scott set the tone for what will hopefully be another highlight when he plays at Gesú.
The BCJO is an impressive college band, with a number of players with world class potentiala potential no doubt encouraged and nurtured by the experience of playing with Tyner. For Tyner, devoting one of his three By Invitation evenings to a performance all about mentorship and passing along the jazz tradition to a younger group of players was a characteristically selfless gestureone that's all too rare these days, and a model that the next two established artists might do well to follow.
Coming up on days 9-11 of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal: Cassandra Wilson, Christian Scott Sextet, James Carter Quintet, Jean Vanasse/Miroslav Vitous and a closing Grand Évenément with Mory Kanté.