Montreal Jazz Festival, Days 4-6, July 2-4, 2011
In the Country also suffered from being scheduled as part of a double billthough more so, perhaps, than Aarset. With the set change between the two groups taking longer than the scheduled 15 minutes, and extending well past 1:00AM, the performance was marred by a number of people leaving throughout the setno doubt for the simple reason that public transportation was ending before In the Country's set did. This was a trio whose 2005 debut, the beautifully (and aptly) titled This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat, was described by the label as its first "jazz record," but it was clear from the first moments of its set that this was not your typical piano trio. Even comparisons to groups like The Bad Plus are both inept and inapt; other than its configuration, there's very little to connect pianist Morten Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pål Hauskenfriends who met in university and, while involved in other projects, always come back to In the Country as a prioritywith the quirkier, high volume and high octane American trio.
From left: Morten Qvenild, Roger Anrtzen, Pål Hausken
Not that In the Country didn't get loudthere were moments in the hour-long set where the collective volume took a leap as they trio headed for freer territorybut those moments felt all the more loud for the near-silence that was an equal part of the group's sound. With a new CD/DVD package just outSounds and Sights (Rune Grammofon, 2011)the group continued its strange love affair with song, even as it twisted the form and introduced strangely skewed ideas and textures, equal parts Qvenild's electronic manipulations, Arntzen's effected double-bass and Hausken's fluid use of mallets on his kit rather than conventional sticks. The set culled material from its three previous records, including a song introduced as the title track to Whiteout (Rune Grammofon, 2009) but actually the countrified "Doves Dance," from the same album, though the tumultuous middle section certainly felt more like a whiteout than birds in flight.
A feeling that confirmed In the Country's cinematic approach to music, though the group is equally disposed to greater intimacyin particular on the vocal tunes, where Qvenild's almost whispered melodies combined with Arntzen's and Hausken's equally soft delivery to create harmonies of fragile vulnerability.
Sights and Sounds, in addition to being the trio's first live recording, also represents the first time, In the Country has interpreted music from other sources. A closing version of guitar hero Mark Knopfler's title track to Dire Straits' massive hit record, Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros., 1985) was curiously idiosyncratic, yet retained the melancholy power of the original, as Qvenild combined light touch and a temporal elasticity that created a near-swirl of sound. Arntzen played with Charlie Haden-like simplicity, while Hausken kept his touch so light during the verses that, much like fellow Nordic drummer Jarle Vespestad, he seemed almost to be breathing on the skins rather than hitting them. Dynamics were so impeccably controlled that when the trio began to ratchet up the volume, mid-song, the result was even more dramatic, highlighted even more when the trio brought the song back down to near-silence.
The last date on a North American tour that saw the trio in Rochester, Washington (DC), Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and New York before making its way to FIJM for the first time, this isn't the first time In the Country has played in North America, but it's the longest tour to date, and if CD sales are any reflection, the fact that the group had sold out all its copies of Sounds and Sights before arriving in Montréal means that it's gradually building an audience, on this side of the Atlantic, to mirror its growing reputation beyond Norway and into the rest of Europe. The audience had diminished by the end of its set, but those who toughed it out into the wee hours of the morning were rewarded with a performance of gentle honesty and conviction that was a perfect ending to yet another great day at Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
It's been a couple years since Christian McBride released Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue, 2009) with his new Inside Straight quintet, but the in-demand bassist ((Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Terri Lyne Carrington has been getting a lot of mileage out of it ever since. And why wouldn't he? Paying homage to the great 1960s era of Blue Note, with a lineup that's especially reminiscent of collaborations by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and saxophonist Harold Land, Inside Straight is, well, straight-down-the-middle mainstream jazz; but, played with a vigor and relaxed camaraderie, it's perfect jazz festival fare.
With a slightly altered lineuplongtime musical partner, pianist Peter Martin replacing Eric Reed, and firebrand young drummer Ulysses Owens replacing Carl AllenMcBride's quintet still retained two of its biggest strengths: saxophonist Steve Wilson and up-and-coming vibraphonist Warren Wolf, Jr. If Kind of Brown smokes, then McBride's 6PM performance at Gésu positively caught fire from the get-go, with a more in-your-face version of "Brother Mister," a blues that was one of a half dozen songs culled from the album but which, blowing session that it was, McBride liberally stretched, giving everyone in the band a chance to warm up and flex their individual and collective muscles.
Wilson, who's appeared on hundreds of recordings by artists like Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Dianne Reeves, not to mention a small but strong discography as a leader for Criss Cross, Stretch and MAXJAZZ, brought his own combination of head and heart on alto and soprano, co-leading the frontline with Wolf, who first emerged with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt in 2005 on Identity (MAXJAZZ), and appears poised for greater things. McBride cited The Huffington Post when introducing the vibraphonist, who called him "the Mike Tyson of the vibraphone," and with a two-mallet approach that, at times, seemed more like a blur than two arms hovering over the keys, they were absolutely right.
Owens is another relative youngster, with only a couple of recordings under his beltmost notably singer Kurt Elling's tribute to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Dedicated To You (Concord, 2009). He's also a member of Elling's current touring band, but has had to sub out on the singer's recent dates, in order to play with Inside Straight; a tough choice, but for a drummer who clearly wants to let loose and blow, an easy one to understand. And while some of McBride's tunes have their share of challengein particular the encore, "Stick and Move," with its series of stops and starts, and ultimately a solo vehicle for Owens, who drew huge rounds of applause from the packed housethey were ultimately little more than appealing context-setters for the group to get loose and kick it.
McBride was, as ever, a powerhouse with a huge sound and the kind of frightening dexterity that's made him such a double threat on electric bass as well, but here it was acoustic all the waymostly pizzicato but, on the set's sole ballad, proving equally capable with a bow. As ever, an affable spokesperson who doesn't read from a script, McBride made constant reference to the late Montréal Expos baseball team"Do y'all miss The Expos," he asked at one point, garnering hoots and applause from the audience, but losing them later when, as he was introducing the band, he revealed, "I'm from Philadelphiathat's why I miss The Expos," which got him his only "boos" of the evening, but all in good spirit, of course.
Walter Wolfe, Jr.
Closing the set with a far more energetically soulful version of Used 'Ta Could" than on Kind of Brown, McBride proved that it's possible to look back at the jazz tradition without shtickremain absolutely reverential and respectful without losing modernity. Martin's solos were largely centrist, but the occasional skewed harmony gave them tremendous lift, as McBride picked up on them to provide additional push on the low end. With the musicians amiably wandering the stage when they weren't playing, it was almost like being in a living room with a bunch of friends just having a good time running down some tunesbut at the highest level possible.
Nearing the three-year mark, McBride's inside Straight may be nearing the end of its shelf lifeunless McBride decides to release another recording with the group, and if he does, he'd be best off to use this current incarnationbut it's not showing any signs of fading away. If anything, the band has, with touring over the past couple years, honed itself to a lean, mean mainstream machine, and if straight-ahead jazz has a future, it's with groups like Inside Straight, retaining all the reasons that made this music great in the first place. Swinging like a mofo, it was an exciting set that McBride's FIJM audience won't soon forget.