Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 4-6, July 4-6, 2009
Pianist Kenny Werner's return to Montreal, with a crack line-up featuring saxophonist David Sanchez, trumpeter Randy Brecker, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez, was another performance that, while focusing heavily on the leader's unfettered improvisational skills, was also notable for another powerhouse drummer who lit a fire under his band mates while, at the same time, delivering the kind of subtlety some of the musiclargely culled from Werner's eclectic Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note, 2007)demanded. Antonio Sanchez has been on tour recently with Gary Burton, delivering another commanding performance recently at the 2009 Ottawa Jazz Festival, but with Werner the context is freer, less stringent, and he not only provided flexible and telepathic support in concert with Colley, but one of the festival's most perfectly constructed drum solos yet, on the closing "Hedwig's Theme," from the Harry Potter movies series.
Lawn Chair Society found Werner augmenting his piano with keyboards and computer, but his Montreal performance was entirely acoustic and demonstrated that the best material is grist for interpretation, regardless of the context. Opening with the funky "Lawn Chairs (And Other Foreign Policy)," the approach was looser, more open-ended than that on the album, if for no other reason that it was used as a jumping board for solos, with its funky theme acting as a rallying motif to signal that it was time to switch soloists who traveled considerable distance from its core form. David Sanchez, staying exclusively with tenor saxophone, delivered solos that were not surprising for any who'd seen him in Ottawa in 2005 and saw his capacity for transcending his Latin roots into more modernistic territory. Here, his solo features were long-form excursions into areas of free expression that still retained a defined focus and near-compositional concern.
Brecker possesses one of the most distinctive trumpet voices in contemporary jazz, whether he's exploring the music and musicians of Brazil on Randy in Brasil (MAMA, 2008) or delving into big band-driven, uptown funk territory with his brother, the late saxophonist Michael Brecker, on Some Skunk Funk (Telarc, 2006). Here, his appealing tone and prodigious technique made for some of the set's most flat-out exciting solos, traversing the range of his instrument without ever sounding anything less than completely relevant on both "Hedwig's Theme" and "Lawn Chairs."
With Brecker and David Sanchez spending considerable time offstage, it was a pleasure to see Colley featured so heavily, the bassist delivering an elastic yet lyrical solo on Werner's poignant ballad, "Uncovered Heart," written for the birth of his daughter. Colley has long been a ubiquitous player known for being a creative but unshakable anchor, but it's rare that he receives this much solo space; he was, in fact, the most featured voice, next to Werner's.
Werner was, as ever, relaxed and clearly enjoying himself as he created unaccompanied solos of Jarrett-like invention. Werner's Effortless Mastery (Jamey Aebersold, 1996) is the bible for learning how to improvise in ways that eschew falling back on preconceived patterns, and it's clear that while he's a highly regarded teacher on that subject, he's managed to avoid the old adage "those that can't do, teach." Clearly he can do, his opening to "Uncovered Heart" combining a spare left hand motif with rare gentility of the right to create something not unlike the music of ambient forefather Harold Budd's overt classicism, but with greater flexibility and more sophisticated language. When the group came in for the song's optimistic theme, it was almost anti-climactic, so hauntingly beautiful and tranquil was Werner's extended and unaccompanied introduction.
l:r: Kenny Werner, David Sanchez, Scott Colley, Randy Brecker, Antonio Sanchez
Werner has been far too under-recorded in recent yearsat least in North America, with albums coming out regularly elsewhere. The fact that he's relying on material from an album that's over two years old, (as outstanding as that album is, and as significant as this all-acoustic performance of often plugged-in music was), only highlights the fact that he should be getting attention from labels like Blue Note to record on a more frequent basis. In the meantime, this performance will rank as one of FIJM 2009's sleeper hitsunder-attended with a roughly two-thirds full house at Place des Arts' Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, but for those who were there, a truly memorable performance of compelling material, strong musicianship and the kind of unfettered interpretation that turned relatively short tunes into lengthy excursions that always retained their relevance.
At an afternoon press conference to receive the first annual Montreal Guitar Show Tribute Award, the affable but characteristically enigmatic Jeff Beck spoke about future plans and the roots of his own brand of fusion. Some artists, like the late Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin, came to jazz-rock fusion from the jazz side of the equation, but Beckwhose career has experienced another tremendous lift on the strength of his CD/DVD versions of Performing This Week ... Live at Ronnie Scott's (Eagle, 2008)clearly comes to it from the rock side, after a series of groundbreaking albums including Truth (Epic, 1968) and Beck-Ola (Epic, 1969) led to his fusion breakthrough, Blow By Blow (Epic, 1975) and a year-long tour with ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer.
Wanting to make fusion music that was more accessible than Mahavishnu Orchestra, largely, as the self-effacing guitar icon said, because he couldn't play as well as his heroes like McLaughlin, Beck spoke about Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar being a seminal influence, and listening to his playingthe bends and phrasingit's easy to hear the connection. But Beck has also been influenced by disparate styles such as rockabilly, and it's the guitarist's rock-allegiance that results in his avoiding extended blowing, instead aiming for short but incredibly meaningful solos.
The capacity audience of media people at the press announcement also found out that there's a new album in the worksthough Beck wouldn't give out much: it won't feature his knockout touring band, though he hopes to continue working with them well into the future; it will be produced by another legend, Trevor Horn; it will be an eclectic mix of styles and sounds; and David Torn will not be involved, in spite of the rumor mill.
Beck also talked about his other passion, restoring vintage automobiles, and how he's learned to minimize some of the inherent risks after incidences including one where a car began to lower and almostbut, thankfully, not quitecame down on his head.
A slide show prepared by the festival, showing an image of Beck with a constant flow of two-word descriptions solicited from fans that ranged from "Guitar God" to the more clearly descriptive "F@%cking Amazing," lightened the mood even further, though Beck later said he was wondering who they were talking about when he saw all the quotes. Most telling is when he addressed the subject of taking risks in performance: "It's a form of musical Tourrette's, really...I try not to be boring, that's all it is really; I make terrible mistakes. But when there's a result there's a result and if it's a great mistake I put it in there [points to head] and then expand it."
Self-effacing he may be, but confidence has never been a problem with Beck, and his first of two sold-out performances at the 3,000+ seat Salle Wilfred Pelletier in Montreal's Place des Arts, not only made that clear, it proved the value of working with the same group for an extended period of time. Beck has been playing with young Australian bass phenom Tal Wilkenfeld, keyboardist Jason Rebello and powerhouse drummer Vinnie Colaiuta for over 18 months now, and as good as Performing This Week is, it's no preparation for the sheer energy of Beck on a large stage with rock lighting and attitude.
Culling material largely from Performing This Week but with enough changes to some of the arrangements and the inclusion of other material to keep even those familiar with the release on their toes, Beck arrived onstage in all-white, with a spotlight keeping him in focus throughout the 100-minute set. His musicians remained largely in the background, and Beck took the lion's share of the solos, but the strength of his group couldn't be ignored. Rebello, who has played in the jazz world with other British artists including Courtney Pine, Tim Garland and, in the pop world, mega-star Sting, may be the least known of the group but he provided not just the right accompaniment, but emulated some of Jan Hammer's well-known synth tones when necessary for tracks including the weighty "Led Boots," and high velocity "Space Boogie."
l:r: Vinnie Colaiuta, Tal Wilkenfeld, Jeff Beck Jason Rebello
Colaiuta is a force of nature and has been for years, but in Beck's group he's found the perfect balance between his larger-than-life arena-style playing, the kind of visceral grooves Beck demands, and some outstanding solos, especially on Billy Cobham's "Stratus," where he channeled the Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer's virtuosity through his own inimitable style.
But, as was the case on Performing This Week, it was Wilkenfeldwho, still in her early 20s, is a clear bass legend in the making, both for her work with Beck and her own debut album, Tranformation (Self Produced, 2007)whose star burned nearly as brightly as Beck's during the show. As expected, she delivered the goods on Beck's classic version of Stevie Wonder's "'Cause We've Ended as Lovers," but throughout the set she was the perfect combination of unshakable anchor and foil for Beck as she provided brief but perfect responses to Beck's equally flawless playing.
Beck's performance was a veritable guitar lesson on how to achieve remarkable breadth without the use of an array of effect pedals. He did have four amplifiers onstagetwo Marshall stacks and two amps that looked to be Fenders; the perfect combination for his trademark Stratocaster. Beck switched between amps for tone throughout, but the real magic was in his hands and nowhere else. With no shortage of left hand virtuosity, it was his right hand that provided the real difference, whether it was the remarkably vocal use of his whammy bar, tapping (the jury is still out as to whether he was the first to use two-handed tapping, but he was certainly an early innovator) and other indescribably outrageous techniques that have made his sound so immediately recognizable that one note is more than enough. And yet, at the end of the day Beck may have given an exhilarating, rock-edged performance that left the crowd breathless at times, but he also proved a deeply lyrical player on tunes like The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" and "Where Were You"an impressive duet with Rebello where Beck's affinity for the music of Ravi Shankar couldn't have been clearerthe latter the first half of a two-song encore that also included a raucous, crowd-pleasing "Peter Gunn."
Beck was having a terrific time, as was the audiencegiving Beck and the group no less than six standing ovations throughout the set, one in particular during a spot where Wilkenfeld joined Beck front and center and the two played a duet together on her bassBeck standing behind her and playing a groove on the two bottom strings while Wilkenfeld soloed on the top two. Beck's admiration for this young Australian bassist with a bright future was clear during the entire show, and she was as equally engaged with Beck, but also with her other bandmates, with plenty of smiles and laughter going on around the stage to make it an even more enjoyable experience for the audience.
Experience is the best word to describe a Jeff Beck show. It's sometimes difficult to determine whether a show is that good or whether it's the buzz of being there, watching the dynamic performance of a well-planned set that, with no introductions and only brief breaks between some of the tunes, ran almost continuously for 90 minutes before the audience demanded an encore. But in the case of Beck, it was a show that far surpassed all expectations, as high as they were based on Performing This Week. If the group was this hot for the 6:00 PM show, it can only be imagined how hot the second show, later that evening, would be.