Festival international de Jazz de Montreal 2013
July 4-6, 2013
With something like 500 concerts on offer over eleven evenings, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) provides a different experience for every person who attends, whether they come for the ticketed indoor show or just to wander the festival site and sample the free concerts on the outdoor stages. No one can sample every item on the buffet of music the festival lays out, and any review is necessarily a limited take on the festival as a whole.
The festival has evolved enormously since the first edition in 1980, becoming every larger and better organized in terms of traffic flow and amenities on the festival site centered around Place des Arts in the heart of the downtown area. The Quartier des Spectacles, a decade-long $130 million project, is virtually complete. Gone are the ripped-up streets and exposed underground infrastructure of the past few years, and gone too are the insanely crowded conditions of the more distant past, making the FIJM a less stressful experience for everyone, but especially for those with children or mobility issues.
Over its history the FIJM has been criticized, quite justly, for not emphasizing local and more adventurous forms of contemporary jazz. However, this year's program offered enough of those two things to keep a jazz fan occupied for much of each evening.
With that in mind, my working part of the festival began with a performance on Thursday, July 4 by Montreal pianist/composer Marianne Trudel and her trio, Trifolia, presenting work from their recording Le Refuge (Self Produced, 2013) at L'Astral, the unfortunate venue located in the Balmoral Building, the festival's HQ. Trudel, with bassist Etienne Lafrance and drummer Patrick Graham sharing the composition work with the pianist, were able to overcome the cold, indifferent atmosphere of the room with music that was lyrical, detailed, and nuanced, music that was swinging at its core without being overt about that fact, and which balanced the compositional and improvisational elements beautifully, with humor and a distinct lack of pretension.
A little over an hour later, Enrico Pieranunzi gave the audience at the Cinquieme Salle of Place des Arts a stunning solo piano performance. Deeply influenced by Bach, the Roman veteran of the sound stages of Italian cinema took an excursion through the music of Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Domenico Scarlatti. A master storyteller on the piano, Pieranunzi's playing is characterized by strong countermelodies with both hands and subtle shifts in dynamics. He spoke between songs of the experience of working with "Maestro Morricone," thoroughly charming the audience with both his playing and his gentle humorintimate, and yes, romantic.
Humor continued as the theme of the evening at the 10:30 pm performance by drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist Charlie Hunter, playing a set featuring new, unrecorded (or at least unreleased) compositions. The playing was spare but swinging, with a sense of openness in the music, and the pair obviously enjoyed the interplayas did the audience at the intimate Salle de Gésuas they worked through the compositions.
Each year, the FIJM has an invitation series in which one artist plays several evenings with invitees of his choice. This year's series were hosted by Charles Lloyd (the first three nights of the festival) and pianist Vijay Iyer. Tickets for Iyer's performance with Stephan Crump and Justin Brown were impossible to procure, but I was able to catch the other two nights of this 6 pm series: Friday. with Craig Taborn; and an Iyer solo set on Saturday, both at Gésu.
The Iyer/Taborn duo put into practice questions of presentation and style. Iyer, clad in jacket, dress pants, and tie, sat down at the grand facing left across the stage, while Taborn, sporting jeans and sneakers, took his seat at the matched grand facing Iyer. Indeed, Iyer was the more lyrical player, employing musical space and quiet nuance, with repeated melodic phrases at the high end of the keyboard and deep bass chords in the left hand, while Taborn poked and jabbed at the middle space, pushing Iyer to break up his melodies. The sparring was generous and well-balanced, a musical game, a joint exploration of the limits and possibilities of two contrasting styles, with a great deal of tension.
Iyer's solo concert on Saturday evening saw him playing his own compositions and those written by others, including a version of Thelonious Monk's "Work," touching on many of the 20th century jazz approaches to piano stylefrom stride and gospel to avant-classicalin a manner both populist and intellectually challenging.
Alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne's usual dry, sarcastic wit was intact at his performance with his Snakeoil quartet, as were his song and band intros; his between-song riffs on social media had an edge to them, a challenge to the audience. But the weaving of Berne and Oscar Noriega's clarinets, the incisive drumming and percussion work of Ches Smith, and pianist Matt Mitchell's contributions, as successful as they were in melding intricate composition with opportunities for improvisation, displayed an odd joylessness, as if the Berne and company felt alienated from the specific performance situationthe room, the audience, the festival itself.
Drummer Antonio Sanchez's Quartet with alto saxophonist David Binney, bassist Matt Brewer, and British pianist John Escreet engaged much more decisively with the audience and one another in a memorable performance at Gésu on Saturday at 10:30. This was a group that played with forward drive at all times, Sanchez pushing proceedings funkily with power and grace. Binney was a fluidly expressive player with a sweet, singing tone, and Escreet was highly inventive in the way he darted in an around the compositional structures and the lines of his fellow musicians. Communication among improvisers is paramount to the success of a given performance, and on this night, Sanchez and his mates were having a stimulating musical conversation.
And that's all one can reasonably ask for from musicians. A big part of the experience of the Montreal festival is to engage in conversations with old friends about and between musical performances, be they jazz, reggae, blues, ska, Romanian gypsy, or West African trance music (to name but a few styles on the menu)and to listen to musicians doing the same. What else could one want?