2016 Montreal Jazz Festival: June 29 - July 1, 2016

Mark Sullivan By

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The Invitation series usually involves a series of collaborative concerts, with the invitee being joined by different guests each night—sometimes reunions with former playing partners, sometimes brand new combinations. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah took the opportunity to play with guitarist Charlie Hunter (a player he has long admired) for the first time. An intriguing combination, but the approach turned out to simply have Hunter sit in with Scott's regular Stretch Music band.

In fact the show started out exactly as it had the night before, and after calling Hunter onstage for the second tune it continued that way, right through the performance of Coltrane's "Equinox." By all appearances Hunter was following Scott's music by ear—I didn't see any charts—and his main challenge was finding space within existing arrangements in a six-piece band. He did that brilliantly, sometimes using his hybrid bass/guitar to double bass lines, play accompaniment, or solo (which he did using only the guitar end of his guitar, since he was playing with a bassist). He was an exciting additional soloist, but I only saw him move the band into a new place once, during a section when only the rhythm section was playing. This delighted Scott and the rest of the band, so it's a shame there wasn't more space for it.

"Equinox" started out as a feature for pianist Samora Pinderhughes, but again had plenty of space for the rest of the band, including a hot Hunter solo that reminded me of guitarist John Scofield. Hunter left the stage when "Diaspora" was called, featuring flutist Elena Pinderhughes. At this point I had to run to another show, so it is possible that Scott and Hunter did something unique to the occasion later in the set.

The ever-ebullient pianist/composer Chick Corea began his trio show by taking pictures of the audience with his phone, which was facilitated by the house lights in the spacious Maison symphonique de Montréal (the home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra). He then proceeded to "tune the audience" by prompting the crowd to sing a series of phrases he played on the piano, call and response style. Apparently satisfied with the tuning, the group launched into Corea's famous "500 Miles High." The introductory chords of the standard "Someday My Prince Will Come" are so familiar they got applause before Corea even started to play the theme. He dedicated the performance to Miles Davis, the jazz musician most strongly associated with the tune.

Corea called on bassist Christian McBride to play the introduction to Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." The introduction could have easily stood alone, as McBride wove the theme into his improvisation. When the rest of the group joined in they continued the three-way conversation that characterized the entire performance. This was conversational improvisation of the highest order, all three players constantly listening to the others and reacting: there was never any predictable, stock playing in either the solos or accompaniment. Drummer Brian Blade was just as active. Prone to dramatic interjections while accompanying, he also provided truly musical drum solos, usually on the form of the tune, accompanied by the other instruments just like any other soloist. The final tune before intermission was the great bebop pianist Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit." Corea told the story of how he first heard the tune on a 78 rpm record as a child, when it was far too fast for him to play, and praised Powell's underrated abilities as a composer. Corea began the tune playing inside the piano before going into full bebop mode.

The second set began with a Jimmy Van Heusen standard (I'm pretty sure it was "It Could Happen To You") which Corea learned from a Miles Davis record. He introduced "The Enchantment" as "a tune by my favorite composer: me." Next up was a medley of two Thelonious Monk tunes: "Blue Monk" and "Work." The set ended with Joe Henderson's latin tune "Recorda-Me." I was anticipating Corea's "Spain" so much that I was sure this was going to serve as an introduction, but that was reserved for the encore. The band began with an abstract free improvisation, reminiscent of Corea's early avant-garde group Circle (more inside the piano playing here), then moved into a version of the famous theme from Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez (familiar to jazz fans from the Miles Davis recording on Sketches of Spain). All a sly buildup to the immediately recognizable "Spain" theme. Certainly the expected concert closer, but no less exciting for that. Bringing the night full circle, Corea engaged the audience in another sing-along, this time with progressively more complex piano licks.

The concert finally ended after nearly two and a half hours. It was an astonishing demonstration of creativity, improvisational skill, and instrumental prowess. And hugely entertaining to boot. On top of that, it was part of Chick Corea's 75th birthday celebration. He displayed stamina that would be the envy of many performers half his age.

The Charlie Hunter Trio performance gave me the opportunity to see Hunter weave his magic with his own group, with drummer Bobby Previte and trombonist Alan Ferber. Hunter doesn't need a bassist, as he covers bass and guitar parts simultaneously on his 7-string instrument that combines bass and guitar. It really takes chord-melody playing to another level, and is even more impressive to see live than it is on record. Hunter played a lot of funk-influenced music earlier in his career, but the dominant flavor now is the blues. He told the story of a musician he knew who finally got a gig with the great bluesman Otis Rush. After telling Rush how excited he was to be playing with him, Rush replied with a phrase Hunter used for a song title: "(Wish I Was) Already Paid And On My Way Home." Great playing from the whole band, but Previte was especially impressive. Every solo was different: one was played entirely on two cymbals, and his final one used everything he could hit with sticks, including drum rims and the floor. Hunter even sang the blues on one tune. Despite the lateness of the hour, the group played an encore, Hunter announcing "this song is for the ladies." Which was probably a joke, but it did include that crazy Previte drum solo.

Photo Credit: Dave Kaufman


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