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Live Reviews

Montreal Jazz Festival: Montreal, Canada, June 28-July 7, 2012

By Published: August 21, 2012
AAJ: And when we talk about the blues, there's an obvious strong connection with the Afro-American church tradition. But since the blues is fundamentally a folk music, there's something that links it with folk musics around the world.

TG: Exactly. There is. And you can really hear it when you listen to music from Mali and other West African countries; it's really there.



AAJ: And when you look at the virtuosic tradition in jazz piano, there's often a connection to the European classical tradition, from Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
, Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
1912 - 1986
piano
, Earl Hines
Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
piano
up through Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
—the icon here. They studied European classical also. So that's another link to your approach.

TG: Very true.

AAJ: How would you describe your artistic or aesthetic objective?

TG: The answer has to be two-fold. In one perspective, I'm striving [to be] above the separation between emotional intensity and elegance. To have the elegant control of a well-shaped form and arc, and melodies that are clearly accentuated and formulated and phrases that are "Aaah," just where you need them to be. But at the same time doing that with a "Wow," [as in] a therapeutic free jazz session. You know? So when we rise above that separation, and make that happen, when I feel just as intense as I feel in control, that's the space I like to be in.

Having said that, when I get feedback from people, quite simply stating that something I've done on record or in concert has touched their lives, basically speaking, then we move outside of the cool jazz language, where music has the power to heal and to put you in an encounter with the divine, or the sacred, or your inner self, whatever you want to call it.

I know the few records that I've lived with over the years that really did that to me. I know the music that was able to reach me after tragic loss or tragic love. If something we do can have that kind of impact in two people's lives in the world, then it's all worth it 'cause I know the power of that.

To receive that kind of feedback is really striking, especially [to] the album made in the aftermath of my own family's severe tragedy [The Ground (ECM, 2005)]. So many responses of people: "My husband died two months ago. I've been listening to this album ever since and it makes the days more bearable." That's what it's really about, if music can have that kind of impact.

Final Impressions

The range of musical offerings at the Montréal Jazz Festival is so huge that you simply must live with the fact that you can only see a small portion. My primary focus was on groups or artists I had either never seen before or very little.

In solo performance, Tord Gustavsen was meditative and quietly intense, building from smaller units into organic wholes. I felt privy to very private moments of shared bliss and discovery. He was totally immersed in the moment, sometimes rising up from the piano chair, unable to contain the energy seated. Other times he leaned forward for dynamic emphasis.

I heard shards of children's melodies, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
-like Latin-esque sounds, classical stylings both current and from centuries past, and echoes of church music. Since the Gesù—Centre de Créativité is a converted church (seating 427), the mood was right on point. If his goal was to transcend dualities by embracing them, he succeeded. If one let it, this music could indeed heal.

Jef Neve

I saw yet another acclaimed European pianist, Jef Neve
Jef Neve
Jef Neve
b.1977
piano
, fronting a trio in L'Astral, located on the first floor of the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan. Admittedly, I haven't spent a lot of time heretofore familiarizing myself with the European jazz scene heavily, especially now, with a jazz column at the New York Daily News to manage.

Yet in a global world, it's my responsibility to gain a holistic appreciation and understanding of the jazz scene globally, whether jazz is at the center or even the periphery of musical and cultural development. So having the chance to hear Neve and Gustavsen live and direct, and meet cool guys like "Spicy" is yet another reason I appreciated the entire Montréal Jazz Festival experience.

Bassist Ruben Samana and drummer Teun Verbruggen joined the Belgian Neve, who began the night indeterminately, with no intro or greeting to the audience. The time signature was neither 2/4, 3/4 nor 4/4.

The piece rose and fell like a suite, and when the mood was on an upswing, just how much the band was totally into it came into clear focus. Other songs were soft and pretty, with a special interactivity between the pianist and bassist.

Between the second and third songs, Neve began speaking to the audience. "Great," I thought. Then: "Uh oh. He's speaking in French . . . only French." Damn, maybe I should've taken French instead of Spanish in high school. (Or perhaps Neve should've been more attentive to the fact that at a festival such as this, some English speakers may not, in fact, speak French.)

"Saying Goodbye On a Small Old Ugly White Piano," from Neve's 2010 Imaginary Roads (Verve) recording, is a beautiful ballad with a melody begging for a lyric. The drummer's brush work was superlative, the bass solo heartfelt. I was struck by the colors and shades the trio achieved through repetition and contrasting rhythmic grooves. They clearly enjoyed playing together, and seemed to share inside jokes. The trio even played an up-tempo 4/4 number with swing elements refracted through their own prism. The overall experience was like mysteries to be solved or knots being untied. I'm not sure why, but that's what I wrote down in my notes as I listened.

Ambrose Akinmusire

This young man's music is a curiosity to me. I feel that Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
b.1982
trumpet
has a concept, and an aesthetic that he's striving for. His leaps in trumpet register, his unorthodox phrases, his feeling of a center of strength upon which his daring instrumental forays are based, intrigue me. But this set, of his quartet—Sam Harris
Sam Harris
Sam Harris
b.1986
piano
, piano; Walter Smith III
Walter Smith III
Walter Smith III
b.1980
sax, tenor
, saxophones; Justin Brown, drums—in the same hall in which I saw Tord Gustavsen, did not move me. Regretfully, I found myself bored.

Much of it sounded, to me, like mood music. I kept asking myself: where's the groove? Turns out he was unveiling new compositions, so perhaps their forms and arrangements were still being finalized. Shades of Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
, Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
b.1960
saxophone
and Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
b.1962
trumpet
wafted into the ethers. The arrangements were thoughtful, and certainly didn't fall into the head-solo-head pattern, which could be a good thing. Yet and still: what about 4/4 time? What about a standard or two, for something recognizable?

His last composition was an introduction to a string quartet, written for Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
. The song began and ended mellow, and the audience rose in applause. Perhaps they heard something I didn't. Maybe I'm biased as a fellow black American expecting more from a young brother who has achieved such early acclaim. Perhaps my East Coast edge doesn't quite yet connect with Bay Area cool. Or maybe I just can't yet hear a sound and approach that will turn out to incline toward a future direction of the music. I guess we'll see. Whichever way it goes, Ambrose Akinmusire is an artist still in development, so there's no need for a final judgment based on one Blue Note record or one performance. I look forward to seeing and hearing where his vision and talent will take him, his groups and fans, as well as those critics for whom he's a darling.

Sophie Milman

Russian-born Sophie Milman
Sophie Milman
Sophie Milman

vocalist
grew up in Israel and now lives in Canada. She's a regular of the festival, and apparently has performed in Club Soda numerous times. I found her a pleasant singer, yet one who played it safe, little or no risks, at least that I could hear. On "Take Love Easy," for instance, I thought she could use more of her diaphragm, and vocalize from her gut.



On "Do It Again" she sounded anodyne next to her band, which, by the way, seemed to relish in the chance to swing. They played for Milman, but with each other. For me, there was little or no sense of surprise from one song to the next, as the tempos and her sprightly manner changed little.

To become great, a singer (or an actor, for that matter) must go deep within to portray depth of feeling and range of emotion in their story-telling. With Milman, I felt that all is okay in the world. Problem is, it ain't. The issue may be with what she, from stage, called the "artistic temperament." She told a story, before singing "So Sorry," about releasing her Russian-Israeli anger and fire in an airport and at home with her husband. Maybe that's why she's "so sorry" but I wished she would have put more of those very emotions into her renditions.

Then she sang "Till There Was You," a song featured on her most recent recording, In The Moonlight (eOne, 2011). She used to perform this tune for her dad—it was one of his favorites—during road trips. It was the first English language song she ever learned. The back story gave her interpretation poignancy, and for this song she let her Israeli accent come forth, which made it even more earnest. Finally, I thought: we're getting somewhere.

Then she sang a song in French, and though I didn't understand the denotative meanings, she seemed to portray more nuance in French than in English.

"Day In, Day Out" was a good up-tempo change of pace. She closed with "No More Blues."

Musically speaking, some more blues was just what was needed.

Oliver Jones / Peter Appleyard

The late, great pianist Oscar Peterson is Canada's most iconic jazz musician of the 20th century. Peterson played with the powerhouses of swing and bebop in Jazz at the Philharmonic, helmed several of the greatest jazz trios in history, and had a prodigious technical facility that transferred the styling of Art Tatum and Nat "King" Cole
Nat
Nat "King" Cole
1919 - 1965
piano
to the rigors and pleasures of bebop.



Each year since 1989, the Montréal Jazz Festival has given the Oscar Peterson Award to a musician for their musicianship and contribution to Canadian jazz. Peterson himself was the first recipient; Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones
b.1934
piano
, a pianist much-beloved in Canada, was the second. That Peterson and Jones were tight is evident by the text accompanying a blown-up image of the two men hugging, shown at the free museum, the Bell Exhibition of the Legends of the Festival on the second floor of the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan.

Before doing his own set in the second half of the performance on July 5th at the Théâtre Maisonneuve, Jones came onstage clad in a tuxedo to introduce the 2012 recipient of the Oscar Peterson Award, Peter Appleyard
Peter Appleyard
Peter Appleyard
1928 - 2013
vibraphone
, a British-born vibraphonist who's been a steady presence on the jazz scene in Canada since the 1950s. Jones himself was introduced by Festival Vice-President of Programming and Production Laurent Saulnier.

After accepting the award, and recounting a touching tale of Peterson playing a benefit gratis for the hospital that helped care for Peterson after a stroke, Appleyard was joined by a local pianist, Neil Swainson
Neil Swainson
Neil Swainson
b.1955
on bass, a guitarist who formerly played With George Shearing
George Shearing
George Shearing
1919 - 2011
piano
, and drummer Terry Clarke
Terry Clarke
Terry Clarke
b.1944
. The sound of the ensemble was glorious, and the lighting superb. The light design was like another instrumentalist, changing color, light direction and intensity according to not only the mood of a song, but in accord with the arc of the solos!

We were showered in sophistication of taste and ecstasy of swing on songs such as "Tangerine," "Nuages," "Cool Walk," "Midnight Sun," "Django," "Sweet Georgia Brown," and "Love for Sale." The latter was a drum feature not only for Clarke; Appleyard, who started as a drummer in the 1940s, also took over the kit for a few choruses. He also sat at the piano and picked out soulful choruses full of fun. I especially liked it when Appleyard, 83, would slide from one end of the vibes to the other, continuing to ring fleet passages using two or four mallets.

Accompanied by a bassist and drummer from Montréal, {Jim Doxas}, Oliver Jones performed a set of mostly originals. Many were mid-tempo, as in the pretty tune "Yvonne." "Most composers write about people we know, places we've been or dreams we've had," Jones told us. "Little Burgundy" was written in honor of a part of Quebec in which he grew up. Another song recalled a street he lived on by combining gospel, boogie woogie and swing elements.

Fifteen years previous, Jones said, when he performed in Calgary, Canada's own Diana Krall
Diana Krall
Diana Krall
b.1964
piano
opened for him. "Now, rightfully so, I've opened for her!" In honor of Krall, Jones penned "Dance Again Diana."

Jones is a power player, with comparable strength in both hands. He's comfortable with the down home, as demonstrated not only by the songs of home mentioned above, but also on "Something for Chuck," a dirty, nasty blues, with tremolos used liberally for emphasis. He performed a song he wrote for Oscar Peterson's brother, a dear friend. In tribute to Peterson, Jones played "We Remember O.P." with flair and flourish.

Jones veered from his set of originals to play a Gershwin medley, which emphasized virtuosity and sensitivity: "Rhapsody In Blue," a number from "Porgy and Bess," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Embraceable You," and a scorching rendition of "I Got Rhythm."

Jones closed with a stirring interpretation of Peterson's most famous composition, "Hymn to Freedom."

Cedar Walton

The final show on my itinerary before heading back to the States was the Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
Trio, featuring Walton on piano, his long-time bassist David Williams, and Willie Jones III
Willie Jones III
Willie Jones III
b.1968
drums
, who gives a good approximation of the aura laid down by Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
drums
before his untimely death in 2001.

The Gésu Theatre was a perfectly sized venue for the trio, which performed a new blues number, a Latin-esque tune, the ballad "My One and Only Love" with rhapsodic swing, and "Young and Foolish," raising the heroism quotient of the swing through the jazz device of breaks.

"Clockwise," in waltz time, was a nice pace changer. The group followed with a Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
medley, demonstrating their ability to traverse varying grooves with aplomb. Ellington's pop number "Satin Doll" led into Walton's "Firm Roots," a favorite of jazz players who love swinging, and one of the songs that have firmly placed Cedar Walton in the roots of the post-bop jazz canon.

Outchorus

They say you always remember your first. I've been to relatively few jazz festivals, and, then, always as a fan and patron rather than in my capacity as a journalist. But this is the most in-depth festival experience I've ever had. All subsequent festivals will be compared, inevitably, to my very first Montréal Jazz Festival. God willing, this for sure won't be my last.

Photo Credits

Page 1, Chromeo: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 1, Patricia Barner/Kenny Werner: Denis Alix

Page 1, Michael Bourne: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 1, SMV: Denis Alix

Page 1, Life and Blues of Bessie Smith: Victor Diaz Lamich

Page 1, James Carter: Denis Alix

Page 2, Tord Gustavsen: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 3, Ambrose Akinmusire: Jean-François Leblanc

Page 3, Sophie Milman: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 3, Oliver Jones: Jean-François Leblanc


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