Festival International de Jazz de Montreal: July 2-5, 2010
A virtuoso slide guitarist, impassioned showman, and tireless student of ethnomusicology, Bob Brozman presented his world of music and witticism to a lively house at Cinquième Salle.
Though always rooted in the American blues, Brozman's slide guitars resonate with the rhythmic foundations and aesthetic qualities of jazz, Hawaiian slack key, calypso, R&B, and raga, to only scratch the surface. Brozman has spent his life traveling the world, submerging himself in foreign language and culture, searching for the shared principles at the core of human art.
Picking up one of the seven custom made guitars standing on stage, Brozman introduced himself, speaking primarily in French, and launched into it. In just moments Brozman had summoned dozens of timbral effects from his steel guitarhitting it with rings, scraping his finger picks across its body, slapping his palms, all in the miniature spaces his virtuosic strumming and double and triple picked passages allowed. With seemingly boundless energy, Brozman scatted, spun his guitar, growled, sang, and offered his own percussive accompaniment to his quirky, blues-drenched compositions.
Brozman's humorous and largely improvised interludes jumped in meter and geography, and often lasted only a passing moment before disappearing back under the more conventional song structure that supported each stunning performance. How can so much music come from one man?
Brozman escorted the crowd through a wild slide improvisation ("I'll begin with the first note I learned, G. After that: I don't know what I'm doing!"), a Hawaiian guitar feature, and an audience participation piece ("I don't believe in concerts. I believe in evenings of life together as human beings.") that had the audience rolling and struggling for breath as Brozman subdivided the count to twelve. All of which was characteristically quirky and absolutely unclassifiable.
Brozman cued the next segment of the performance, explaining that he would move to his own brand of musical anthropology, demonstrating why people "need translators for language, but not for music." Brozman does not presume to play the music of the world, he later explained, but he offers instead his understanding of the lessons he has learned from it. The following "Death Comes Creepin'" was a major highlight of the performance, the raised emotional intensity proving how affecting a performer Brozman can be when he so desires. While he remained idiosyncratic as ever, Brozman did appear to shake off some of the silliness, singing soberly of poverty in America and his own fear of death.
Brozman's musical rebukes of United States political culture were effective enough, though his stage banter, and there was a lot of it, often lacked the same thoughtfulness. There appeared some pandering to his Montréal audience, noting their First World superiority and indulging in tired U.S. stereotypes whenever possible. His was not a self-deprecating humorBrozman (who lives in Northern California) so clearly believed he was the exception from those he mocked. For example: he is dangerous in the U.S. because he dares to read books in cafés that are not the bible, he told us on separate occasions. The effect was slightly condescending, and Brozman simply wasn't very creative here (don't forget to play the ignoramus with a southern accent!). His acerbic comments were not criminal in themselves, and certainly the bulk were in jest, they just too often lacked a redeeming wit.
More enjoyable was the compassionate Brozman, as in the closing "Look at New Orleans," a selection from his Post Industrial Blues (2007). When he howled, "If you want to know just what sorrow means, take a look at what happened to the people down in New Orleans," you could not doubt his empathy or the rawness of his emotion. A grim closing to a diverse evening that surely convinced National Guitars devotees and newcomers alike.
July 4: Steve Kuhn, Joey Baron, David Finck
Steve Kuhn studied with Margaret Chaloff (Serge's mother) before moving to New York and seizing an opportunity with Kenny Dorham's group. A brief stint with the Coltrane quartet led to a period in Stan Getz's band, all before Kuhn moved to Stockholm for the duration of the 1960s. An understated and under-appreciated player, Kuhn has long eschewed flashy pianism in favor of more nuanced expressions of his genius.
Kuhn's longstanding relationship with bassist David Finck has been a joy to follow. The pair's special sympathy has been at the heart of Kuhn's Countdown, The Best Things, Promises Kept, and Remembering Tomorrow and Mostly Coltrane, which also featured Joey Baron. Mostly Coltrane was released in 2009 on ECM and this suggested the possibility of a concert of Coltrane compositions at GESÙ. How the trio might respond to the loss of Joe Lovano, who is giant on the record, would surely then be a focus.
Instead, Kuhn signaled the opening "If I Were a Bell" with the chiming introduction commonly associated with Miles' bands. As Baron and Finck entered with a gentle, up-tempo two-feel, it was apparent that the band would not spend the evening weighted down by the emotion of the Coltrane Quartet. Baron and Finck patiently pushed the time forward, Baron dropping some well placed bombs when Kuhn's deceptively complex double-handed runs called for them. Superficially straight- forward, Kuhn's performance nevertheless featured countless subtle harmonic inflections and brief time changes. The trio's rollicking buoyancy welcomed the audience in to the performance and helped turn the old standard into something quite magical.
Kuhn has long been interested in standards, and as a result his more individual voice as a composer has at times been lost. What a pleasure, then, to hear several of Kuhn's great works mixed into the performance, including his outstanding and impressionistic "Oceans in the Sky," the sure high of the night. Finck began, his arco bass replicating seagulls and other water birds in incredible ways. Slowly the bassist incorporated more lyrical phrases while continuing to interject delicate noises from the sea. Baron and Kuhn entered with some gentle atmospherics before launching into the majestic, sparkling melody. Rhythmically, the band surged beyond the meter, at once daring and rock-solid, clearly more comfortable challenging the audience in the context of Kuhn's own writing. Baron provided the greatest punch in Kuhn's impassioned and rich improvisation before dissolving his own solo into silence. From there Baron painted in disjointed, abstract imagesalways true to the spirit of the piece. Baron played the drum heads with his hands, bending the pitches with a wet thumb like light refracting through the water's surface. He scraped his brushes across his floor tom, recreating the waves on a beach. A study in percussion imagery, Baron exhibited a rare and impenetrable focus. A pity "Oceans" ever had to end.
The performance did not stun with virtuosity, but it had what you cannot buy: a group whose affinity for one another enabled them to transcend the established language of the piano trio to create musical magic. A wonderfully balanced and consistently inventive set. Hope they keep at it.