Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 9-11
Since being "discovered" by Wynton Marsalis at the age of seventeen, woodwind multi-instrumentalist James Carter has, in some ways, surpassed the trumpeter, at least when it comes to creating a discography of remarkable consistency. Not yet forty, the man with the big sound has made few, if any, missteps in a career that's been defined by stretching the boundaries of hard-hitting mainstream, occasionally venturing outside that purview into electric funk on Layin' The Cut (Atlantic, 2000) and largely gentler territory on The Real Quiet Storm (Atlantic, 1994).
l:r: James Carter, Curtis Taylor
But it's Carter's reputation as a fiery, take-no-prisoners player that draws in most of his fans. His latest record, Present Tense (Emarcy, 2008) and sold out performance at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe made it clear that, despite two fine homage albums early in the decadeChasin' the Gypsy (Atlantic, 2000), for Django Reinhardt, and Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia, 2003), for Billie Holidaywith Present Tense he's back to a mixing up a high energy mainstream setting with muscular solos that skirt the edges of free jazz and even farther left-of-center leanings.
Live, Present Tense's all-star line-up was replaced by Carter's working bandpianist Gerard Gibbs, bassist Ralph Armstrong, drummer Leonard King and relative newcomer, trumpeter Curtis Taylor but there were no compromises. If anything, this working group has evolved its own chemistry, turning the energetic opener to both Present Tense and the showy "Rapid Shave" into a real barnstormer. Carter wasn't the only player with muscular chops, but while the up-tempo tune featured no shortage of high velocity playing, it still grooved hard, with Armstrong an unmovable anchor who always provided a firm pulse around which his band mates could be more flexible. King, too, was a strong timekeeper but, with a huge grin that never left his face for the entire ninety-minute set, was an empathic drummer who managed to lock into the soloists' rhythmic inventions without sounding obvious.
The entire quintet was all about encouraging each other, with hoots, hollers and laughter a constant, especially during a particularly compelling solo by Gibbs on a funky version of the Clifford Brown-associated "Song of Delilah" that mixed use of simple motifs as evolutionary conceits with a playful, puckish approach. Opening in open-ended free jazz territory before shifting to the visceral groove, it was also a strong solo vehicle for Taylor, a newcomer from whom more will, no doubt, be heard from in the future.
l:r: Gerard Gibbs, James Carter, Curtis Taylor, Ralph Armstrong, Leonard King
Despite the strength of Carter's quintet, it's the leader who grabbed the most attention. Carter's effortless mastery of a multitude of extended techniques so that they become an integrated part of his sound, rather than a "look at me, I'm circular breathing," was refreshing, as was his ability to go from lyrical elegance to gut-wrenching howls, screams and growls at the drop of a hat. He also knew how to work the audience, with solos that built to fever pitch, drawing the audience in, only to resolve suddenly to create a palpable sense of relief. His bass clarinet playing on the somewhat episodic "Bro. Dolphy" was particularly memorable, working the entire range of the instrument and adding a few ideas to the mix that Dolphy never did.
None of this would have worked, of course, without the ever-reliable and equally driving support of Gibbs, Armstrong and King. Present Tense is a fine album with some wonderful contributions by James Genus, Victor Lewis and D.D. Jackson, but in performance with his working group, Carter was able to turn up the heat for a show that had his audience literally screaming for more.
It's been over twenty years since Montreal vibraphonist Jean Vanasse released Nouvelle Cuisine (Justin Time, 1986) with Weather Report founding member, bassist Miroslav Vitous, but nearly twenty years later on a cross-Canada summer festival tour that's the first time they've toured together since 1989, it sounds as if no time has passed. Well, almost.
Since that time, Vitous has achieved success away from playing as the developer of what has become the de facto standard in orchestral sample libraries. And while these samples can be heard as early as Atmos (ECM, 1992), his fine duet disc with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, it's only more recently, on albums like the outstanding Universal Syncopations II (ECM, 2007), that the classically informed improvising bassist has begun to truly and seamlessly integrate his use of orchestral sounds and harmonic movements into his music. When Vitous and Vanasse first toured, Vitous had not yet begun to integrate technology; for the duo's late night performance at Gesú, while the intimacy of the format allowed Vanasse and Vitous to take music from both composers to unexpected places, Vitous' use of samples was also an integral part of their 75-minute set.
l:r: Jean Vanasse, Miroslav Vitous
Vanasse is a hidden Canadian treasure who has, since his early collaboration with Vitous, gone on to release two larger ensemble albums on the Montreal-based Effendi label, most recently Amérikois (2004). And while his penchant for melodic writing that's redolent of mid-'70s ECM is as definitive on his albums as it was in performance, the greater flexibility afforded by this smaller setting gave both the vibraphonist and Vitous more opportunities to explore.
Seated with a keyboard and computer in front of him, Vitous transformed one of his earliest compositions, "Morning Lake"first heard on Weather Report (Columbia, 1971) and later revisited on the second of his collaborations with drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist Terje Rypdal, To Be Continued (ECM, 1981)into an expansive orchestral tour de force, Vanasse only entering mid- point. Untarnished by use of a smaller travel bass, Vitous' distinctive singing arco was a signature throughout the concert, though his lithe pizzicato was no less recognizable. Tone, phrasing and issues of sheer physicalitythe density of the fingers, the pressure applieddefine an artist's voice, and when that voice has emerged, as it did with Vitous four decades ago on early albums like Chick Corea's classic Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968) and Wayne Shorter's Super Nova (Blue Note, 1969), it remains independent of the instrument.
Masterful whether using two or four mallets, Vanasse may not have the international cachet of Vitous, but it was clear that many in the audience remember his 1986 and 1989 festival appearances with the bassist. His solo combined the instrument's inherent resonance with more staccato lines achieved by pressing one mallet on the vibraphone's metal bars to prevent them from sustaining. His ability to navigate changes, effortlessly shift from ethereal four-note chords to two-mallet linear phrases suggests a talent waiting to be heard by a larger audience.
Both players combined a clear comfort with the jazz language and an appreciation of more impressionistic classicism. Between Vitous' virtuosic ability to blend deft phrases with his vast array of programmed samples and Vanasse's light touch and ever-so-slightly skewed compositional approach, it was a fine way to end the festival's Jazz Dans La Nuit series and, with only a couple of exceptions, indoor ticketed programming for the 29th edition of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.