Festival International de Jazz de Montreal: July 2-5, 2010
Each day from noon to midnight the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal offers a relentless series of free, open-air performances within the festival borders. The largest of which, Scène TD at the Place des Festivals, holds the most massive events, including the opening evening's Brian Setzer extravaganza. Scène CBC/ Radio-Canada is a much more modest space, located in a large courtyard that also held La Galerie du Festival, a mobile tent that exhibits festival-inspired artwork of years past, and a bistro that allows patrons to overlook the stage while dining. Here the Terry Clarke Trio with Don Thompson and Phil Dwyer performed in the early evening of an impressive Montréal heat wave.
Clarke's debut album as a leader, It's About Time, won the Juno award for Traditional Jazz Album of the Year. This is a scaled down version of that band, losing some of its star power in the absence of Greg Osby, Jim Hall, and Joe Lovano. Stripped down to its essential parts, however, the Clarke Trio is a lean, merciless vehicle for Clarke's brand of contemporary jazz.
Opening with an furiously dark mallet solo, Clarke wasted no time with pleasantries. The setting immediately rose to the forefront, as much of the sensitivity of touch was lost in Clarke's playing. But what the stage's massive speaker system sacrificed in clarity it gained in power Clarke's cross-sticked polyrhythms acting as a force of nature. Clarke's solo segued into the brisk "Village Green" by William Green, a major feature for tenor saxophonist Phil Dwyer, whose muscular and musicianly solo dominated the proceedings.
The performance was technically amazing, to be sure, but perhaps uncomfortable with the heavily amplified settingor perhaps distracted by the smells of the nearby friterie wafting through the crowd, a confusing, though not entirely unpleasant effectthe band appeared to charge its way through, at times forcing the issue of power, as if afraid to let the music speak for itself.
The trio ran through several originals, including Don Thompson's effusive "Days Gone By," which the bassist ably switched to piano for, and Dwyer's "Flanders Road," in which the saxophonist wasted no breath in his maximalist statement. Mid-way through the set Clarke took the microphone to introduce the next phase, a work he believed had never been performed on stage since it was written in 1958. Not quite accurate (David S. Ware has recorded and performed it live), but Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite proved to be right in the trio's wheelhouse.
Interestingly, the band felt at once more comfortable and less derivative playing Rollins' signature material. The suite gave the band a clear focus that they clearly thrived on. And while all the same qualities were presentClarke's fire and brimstone single strokes, Dwyer's Olympian improvisations, Thompson's huge presencethe results were suddenly much more gripping. Dwyer, in particular, played with new sincerity, his ear for hidden harmony in the suite and his funky phrasing allowing the music to breathe so much easier.
The performance climaxed in the suite's third movement with some vicious trading between Dwyer and the ever-energetic Clarke. And despite the fireworks, the band swung harder too, finally appearing comfortable with itself. The three men succeeded wildly in capturing the spirit of the music while still infusing it with the distinctive qualities of the Terry Clarke Trio. In this regard, perhaps, it was closer to Ware's reading than you might expect.
July 5: Allen Toussaint's Bright Mississippi
Wearing an envy-inducing plum suit, Allen Toussaint introduced his Bright Mississippi band at the Théâtre Maissonneuve stage to an appreciative and knowledgeable audience. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton, reedman Don Byron, guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Herman Le Beaux rounded out the generous ensemble, and on the penultimate night of the festival, the performance had all the bittersweetness of a heartfelt good-bye.
A legendary composer and producer of R&B, soul, and jazz, Toussaint has renewed audience interest in his work as a performer with two major Nonesuch releases. Toussaint's contributions to the 2005 compilation Our New Orleans marked a rare occasion of Toussaint approaching his own rich songbook. "I hadn't tackled them on my own," Toussaint explained at the time of its release, "'Tackle' is a bad wordI hadn't caressed them on my own, except to listen from time to time in passing. I knew they existed, of course, but, no, I hadn't played them before. Even the gigs that I've done during my gigging days, I was playing whatever was on the radio at the time, boogie-ing and woogie-ing and the like. I hadn't been through this standard bag. I always loved those songs, but I had never been in a setting where that is what I would do for a while. Until now."
The Bright Mississippi (2009), meanwhile, sees Toussaint and his all-star band (selected by producer Joe Henry) taking on the jazz and popular music of Toussaint's youth. Toussaint approaches Joseph "King" Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, and Leonard Feather with absolute conviction, not merely infusing the music with traditional New Orleans soul and rhythm, but telling the very story of American music as he has known it.
Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi" opened the performance, Toussaint joyfully dancing around the jaunty, heavily syncopated theme. It was Toussaint who immediately jumped out as the most adventurous of the ensemble, fluidly moving in and out of second line, ragtime, and stride piano, taking great detours through decades of jazz history on a romantic whim.
Piltch and Le Beaux played mostly supporting roles next to the four giants. Byron and Payton, meanwhile, were ideal foilsByron more immediately daring and vulnerable, Payton a rock and direct link to New Orleans. Payton commanded his instrument and the audience with equal skillable to send the crowd to uproar with one sustained, ballooning crescendo. Ribot was largely an underused weapon, given all he brought to the opportunities afforded to him.
Much of the evening belonged to Byron, to put it simply. He is just too good in contexts like this, and somehow only seemed to improve as the night wore on. "This man is full of marvelous color," Toussaint observed of Byron as he called him to the stage for a second piano duet. Toussaint's tenderness towards the younger reedman was moving, and Byron responded, supremely coloring Toussaint's music with harmonic adventures that left the rest of the sextet grinning with delight. After exchanging rounds of solos, neither man wanting the conversation to end, Byron surpassed himself with a long unaccompanied coda. A heavy pause proceeded his conclusion, the room savoring the moment in time.
The sextet closed with "Southern Nights," only the second vocal performance of the evening, and still a joy to hear after all this time. Toussaint took an extended interlude in the middle, telling the story of the song's originshis childhood trips to the country outside of New Orleans to visit his extended family. Told atop an effortless vamp, the story, which was beyond long, at some indefinable point moved from endless to enchanting. Toussaint shared charming memories of that blackened, breezy porch ("All the wisdom and love in the world was out on that porch.") and of his family. Judging by the grave expressions of his supporting band, certain jokes and phrases were part of a structure that has been repeated who knows how many times. By contrast, though, their great surprise and delight in other moments of Toussaint's monologue suggested the man was simply telling a story with whatever memories happened to rise to the top at any given moment. The effect was a nuanced, warm, heartfelt picture that lent increased weight to the final chorus.
Earlier in the performance Toussaint sweetly noted: "The night is gonna fly by and I want you to know that I don't take this for granted. Thank you for being here with us." Two generous hours of music later, the time did seem to disappear. An unforgettable, soul-satisfying evening of music.
Place des Festivals, Tomasz Stańko Quintet, Terry Clarke Trio: Jean-F Leblanc
Adam Rudolph and Allen Toussaint's Bright Mississippi: Dave Kaufman
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette: Denis Alex
Bob Brozman: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin
Steve Kuhn Trio: Victor Diaz Lamich