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2013 Montreal Jazz Festival: June 28-July 2, 2013

John Kelman By

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In performance, Moran and Lloyd—sticking, for this evening, to just tenor saxophone and flute, and leaving his taragato in its case—delivered a forty-minute set that ran the gamut, as they did on Hagar's Song, from bold impressionism to near-stride traditionalism, all with the interpretive telepathy that only comes from considerable time spent in the studio and, in particular, on the road. Lloyd was particularly impressive on flute this evening, as Moran matched his partner's flurry-filled phrases with trilling lines of his own. And when Lloyd turned more contemplative, Moran was right there with the sparest of accompaniment—and when playing a cappella, proving that it really is time for a follow-up to his fine 2002 solo outing, Modernistic (Blue Note). The real surprise of the evening was when guitarist Bill Frisell entered the stage, Lloyd advising the audience, "This is a first meeting; please be kind." Not that he needed to ask; Frisell has always been an incredibly malleable player, capable of fitting into any context. When the three began to play, it turned out that this was not to be simply the duos advertized in the program, but more often than not a trio, with Moran only leaving the stage a couple times, including when Lloyd introduced "Voice in the Night"—a tune he first performed in quartet with Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo on Of Course, Of Course (Columbia, 1965), also featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams (telling the audience "they're here in spirit"). In the context of that duet, Frisell was his usual self: a sensitive and astute accompanist and lyrical yet distinctive soloist who delivered chordal passages that moved from simple triads to unexpectedly skewed dissonances.

Frisell's own work is sometimes criticized for moving too far away from the jazz tradition and being too much aligned with the Americana that's actually been a fundamental since the very beginning, but when the context is right—whether it's here with Lloyd, or in the nearly three-decade trio with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian—Frisell not only demonstrates his jazz chops are as strong as ever, but that they're always a part of the picture, in some way, shape or form. In an2011 All About Jazz interview, he expressed some frustration at the pigeonholing of his career into various artificial "periods"—ECM, Downtown, Americana—and here, with Lloyd, he demonstrated why. At this point in his career, Frisell's voice is instantly recognizable, regardless of the context, and it's because he's managed to build one predicated on a wide variety of musical interests—not unlike Lloyd who, while considered more closely tied to the jazz tradition, has performed with everyone from the Beach Boys to Canned Heat. For musicians like Lloyd, Moran and Frisell, it's all music, and if there's any artifice to be found in the musical spaces they inhabit, it's certainly not self-generated.

An underlying premise proven in Lloyd's two-part encore, when he first performed an absolutely beautiful version of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," with both Moran and Frisell. Lloyd introduced the tune by explaining how Levon Helm had just passed when he went into the studio to record Hagar's Song, his voice actually beginning to break with emotion when he referred to the founding member of The Band as "a dear friend." It was a tremendously touching moment; later, after the show, he said "I shouldn't really talk like that to the audience; I'm not that capable." To the contrary; feeling and sharing what was clearly a deep sense of loss only made the performance of "I Shall Be Released" and the evening closer, Brian Wilson and Tony Asher's "God Only Knows," all the more compelling, as Lloyd, Frisell and Moran played both songs straight from the heart.

Of course, straight from the heart is the only way Lloyd really knows how to play; he's based his entire career on it and, for three nights in Montréal in three utterly different contexts, he demonstrated why he's built such a strong reputation. Every note, every phrase, every song Lloyd played was imbued with spirituality and emotional resonance, and these three shows also highlighted his thoroughly astute instincts in choosing his musical partners, whether it was Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland in his quartet, Zakir Hussain and Harland in Sangam, or Moran and Frisell in the final evening of duo and trio performances. It was a particularly exceptional By Invitation series, and one that will surely go down in the festival's history as one of its best.

July 1: Christine Jensen / Phronesis

For Canada Day, the venue of choice was L'Astral, the club built by L'Equip Spectra, the umbrella organization that runs the Montréal Jazz Festival, in its Maison du Festival. The idea of a jazz club in Montréal that runs year round when, just 200 kilometers to the west, Ottawa has been unable to sustain its own Café Paradiso (which closed last summer) only serves to demonstrate the difference between these two cities. Sure, Montréal is a bigger city, that a national capital with a greater metropolitan area sizing up at about a million people cannot sustain even one regular jazz club is both a mystery...and a disappointment.



Meanwhile, at L'Astral, saxophonist Christine Jensen put together a group of, as she put it, "some of my favorite people"—sister Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), pianist Gary Versace, bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jon Wikan—for an 18:00 show that demonstrated the strength of the Canadian scene and that Christine is not just one of its finest players, but one of its most thought-provoking and evocative composers. Versace is, of course, American, and Ingrid lives in New York with husband Wikan, but with the exception of Versace it was still a Canadian-born band, even if not entirely Canadian-based. Christine and Hollins, however, remain steadfast Canadians and, even more to the point, Montréalers, and are easy proof of the country's world-class contributions to the music. Christine's last recording, Treelines (Justin Time, 2010), was a big band affair and, as she introduced the band before kicking the 75-minute set off with two of her own originals—"Blue Yonder" and "Margaretta," linked together by Versace's delicate a cappella segue—she said that if she were to choose all of her favorite musicians it would have to turn into a big band.

Jensen's next record, she revealed in discussion after the show, will, in fact, be another big band recording—"ten times better than the last one," she said, which makes it something to really look forward to, since Treelines was certainly exceptional enough, representing her ongoing growth as a composer/bandleader. Always a compelling writer, capable of strong lyricism combined with harmonic invention and plenty of narrative twists and turns, Jensen's music not only impresses on a first encounter, but reveals more with each and every listen.

Ingrid is four years older than sister Christine ("I was born in 1966; there, I said it," said Ingrid as she introduced the following two tunes, her own compositions), but what's palpable every time they play together is that, despite both living in a tough world, rather than demonstrating sibling rivalry they are the epitome of sibling simpatico. Musicians that play together for years (or decades) often develop a personal language (saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Richie Beirach being one good example), but the Jensens share something that goes even deeper—an empathic ability to anticipate each other's every move while simultaneously capable of surprising each other. When the audience gave the group a standing ovation at the end of the set and refused to leave without an encore—despite, with another group coming up in less than two hours and the stage needing to be reset—the two sisters came onstage alone, performing a brief encore that demonstrated just how deep their shared understanding goes as they moved around the melody, at times in unison, other times diverging into lovely harmonies.

The sisters also clearly shared a deep respect for each other and their band mates. And the fun they were clearly having together onstage was infectious. Both possess a bone-dry wit; when Ingrid introduced the two tunes following Christine's opening compositions—one, "Dots and Braids" named after an aunt and another fine Canadian musician/composer, pianist David Braid—she assured the audience that, at some point in the past, when Dave Brubeck heard her playing the other tune over the telephone (her arrangement of the late, great pianist's "40 Days"), his manager informing Jensen that it had brought him to tears, it was "out of joy," she said, "not because I'd ruined the tune."



Catching up with Versace after nearly a decade—bringing the requisite soul to John Scofield's Ray Charles tribute at a performance across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec in the fall of 2005, just seven months after he'd shown a completely different side with Indo-Pakistani guitar explorer Rez Abbasi at the somewhat grotty but still kind of funky The Bayou—it's clear that the keyboardist has come a long way in the ensuing years. Performing with everyone from John Hollenbeck—on the drummer/composer's superb "covers" album, Songs I Like a Lot (Sunnyside, 2013)—to being fundamental to the success of guitarist/composer Joel Harrison's equally fine Search (Sunnyside, 2012), Versace (also a member of Maria Schneider's orchestra, where he more than likely met Ingrid) is no longer a second-string player hired when others aren't available; instead, he's now being enlisted by artists ranging from Matt Wilson and Claudia Quintet to Cloning America as a first-call player, and with good reason. At Jensen's show, playing acoustic piano and a little bit of Fender Rhodes, Versace demonstrated both his intrinsic virtuosity and deep sensitivity to both the needs of the music and the action going on around him, whether soloing or as an accompanist.

Hollins and Wikan have certainly honed their own language over the years, and the only real problem is that they're not better known beyond their own circles. Hollins, as a soloist, demonstrated the same kind of allegiance to the material as Versace, often building solos very directly from a composition's primary theme; as an anchor, his robust tone and perfect choices gave everyone else the freedom to explore, with complete trust that, no matter how great the risks they took, he'd always be there as a focal point—even giving Wikan the freedom to play with time and groove, turning Christine's "Margaretta" from its initially ambling waltz-time swing to a more backbeat-driven bit of near-funk.

Ingrid has long been known, beyond a clear mastery of her instrument, for her tasteful use of effects; at her Montréal performance she used her effects sparingly but with great results, occasionally adding a touch of wah or a hint of looping. Christine, switching between alto and soprano saxophone, has been gradually emerging as not just a composer of note, but a performer as well, her solos at L'Astral possessed of a wonderfully warm but dry tone and deep compositional focus that went deep into the material for new avenues of expression.
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