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Perhaps one of the most intriguing things about Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is the opportunity to hear the unexpected. Sure, there are plenty of big names to attract audiences from around the world, but it's the surprise of discovery that makes it worth returning to, year after year. For the second half of this year's festival, a series called Suono Italia brings attention to many of the artists on the Italian EGEA label which, along with Cam Jazz, is ensuring the vibrant Italian scene is well-documented.
But the difference between EGEA and Cam Jazz is that, while Cam's focus is primarily on Italian artists, the label is becoming increasingly international in its roster. EGEA, on the other hand, remains largely focused on the wealth of Italian artists, with international artists including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist John Taylor and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless only appearing on the label in the context of those Italian artists. The label also has a very defined aesthetic, which involves a distinctive Mediterranean feeling. The music is rarely jagged or edgy, almost always accessible and easy on the ears. But accessibility needn't imply lack of substance, as two shows at the Cabaret Music Hall demonstrated at the series' opening last night.
Clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi has been a fixture on the Italian scene for many years, and is beginning to gain recognition outside his own country, although he's sadly underexposed and undervalued in North America. Brazilian guitarist/composer Guinga is equally deserving of broader recognition, and the duet record they released a couple of years back, Graffiando Vento was a remarkable confluence of Guinga's compositions, his masterful nylon-string guitar work and Mirabassi's passionate clarinet playing. But as compelling as the record was, in performance the experience becomes even more profound.
Like fellow Brazilian Egberto Gismonti, Ginga writes tunes that mix a clear knowledge of jazz and classical traditions with the multitude of folk forms found in his home country. But unlike Gismonti, whose oblique compositions reflect a certain rawness, Ginga's writing is polished and deeply lyrical. A perfect match for Mirabassi who, while possessing undeniable improvisational prowess, always serves the song and, even in his most extreme flights of fancy, respects the melodies that are the core of Guinga's compositions.
Guinga is the consummate accompanist, but never takes a backseat to Mirabassi. At times sounding like twoeven threeguitarists, he manages to provide moving bass lines, chordal support and melodies that are either doubled or harmonized by Mirabassi. When the compositions are fully through-composed, as many of them are, Guinga has the ability to suggest larger orchestrations by shifting his support, leaving the completion of ideas to be made in the minds of the listeners.
Mirabassi's passion for Guinga's music was made clear early on in the performance, when he explained to the capacity audience that they don't play together often, but when they do it's the most emotional experience he's ever had. It was also clear in his body language when he playedrarely able to sit still, Mirabassi would often move from a sitting position to standing, swaying in ways that almost suggest his body movements help to articulate his ideas more fully. Despite, at times, being challenged by Guinga's serpentine melodies that required full concentration on the charts before him, he was also clearly completely engrossed in the performance, and that total immersion was clearly felt by his listeners.
Guinga's approach is so listenablemuch like the bulk of EGEA's releasesthat one might think of the music as lightweight, but closer inspection reveals a command of voicings and complex but uncommonly lyrical melodies that are anything but insubstantive. And while the music was strong on formno free playing to be found hereboth Guinga and Mirabassi had opportunities to expound on compositions that ranged from spry and joyful to more gently beautiful and, at times, almost painfully melancholic. One of the highlights of the show was when Mirabassi left the stage to give Guinga the chance to sing a song dedicated to one of his daughters. Although now fully-grown, when he wrote the song some two decades ago it was to her as an infant, and while his speaking voice was rough his singing voice was full and clear.
The connection between these two artists was palpable, with an intuitive ability to flexible time that often required no eye contact at all between them. Their mutual appreciation was also clear throughout the performancesometimes through the smallest gestures, at other times through their faces reflecting the enjoyment both were clearly having on this rare occasion of re-acquaintance. A sentiment shared by the audience who, despite another performance to come, would not let them go without an encore. Mirabassi asked if the audience wanted a fast or slow tune, and by choosing a soft ballad that ended in beautifully unresolved ambiguity, the audience were left satisfied, but also wanting more. Hopefully there will be a follow-up to Graffiando Vento to fill that desire.
In contrast to Mirabassi and Guinga's 7 pm performance, the 9:30 pm show was considerably larger in scale. But before a trio co-led by saxophonist Stefano Cantini and pianist Rita Marcotulli took the stage, augmented with a string quartet of Montreal musicians conducted by Mauro Grossi to perform music from L'Amico del Vento (EGEA, 2005), accordionist Renzo Ruggieri performed a single extended solo piece. Much like French accordionist Pascal Contet's show on the closing day of the 2005 International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Ruggieri demonstrated just how creative the instrument can be. But unlike Contet, who utilized a variety of effects to broaden the textural possibilities of his accordion, Ruggieri relied strictly on its acoustic nature, performing a piece that mixed form and freedom, melody and texture, and to great effect.
The piece fit comfortably into EGEA's aesthetic of accessible music that, on deeper examination, goes much deeper. It's a shame that there are those who feel that the artistic value of a performance and/or artist is defined by how inaccessible the music is. Music needn't be abstruse, idiosyncratic or overly complex to bear weight, and Ruggieri's performance proved it.
As did that of the Stefano Cantini & Rita Marcotulli group. Richly orchestrated, the set looked forand foundthe nexus of European classicism, jazz tradition and improvisational acumen, though where the lines were drawn were sometimes vague, one of the many factors that made the set so enjoyable.
Cantini is a fluid player on both tenor and soprano, and while there was a scored foundation throughout the set, there was also plenty of interplay between him, Marcotulli and double-bassist Raffaello Paretiwhose deep-in-the-gut tone and ability to build focused and narrative solos made him an especially pleasant surprise. While Cantini stayed close to the center for most of his soloing during the set, spare use of multiphonics and a dextrous ability to range from lyrical simplicity to more powerful bursts of energy implied that he's capable of much more.
While Cantini seemed to be the main focus throughout the first part of the setif for no other reason than Marcotulli being turned mostly away from audience while Cantini was front and centershe proved to be an accompanist who, when combined with the string quartet's more defined role, allowed for greater spontaneity. And while her often contrapuntal interplay with Cantini and Pareti proved her a terrific team player, it was in the latter half of the set, where she was afforded more solo space, that her ability to apply an impressionistic classical approach to an improvisational and jazz-centric setting demonstrated why this group is a co-led affair. While this was not music to which the term reckless abandon can be easily applied, there was no dearth of ideas, and she demonstrated a certain looseness of approach that ensured that this performance would be different from any otherwhat one would hope for and expect from any group placing itself in the jazz continuum.
Grossi's conducting of the string quartet was an essential part of the performance, as there were times where it had to be integrated with the somewhat more open-ended interaction going on between Canto, Marcotulli and Pareti. The arrangements were both lovely and evocative, with the quartet, at times, asked to tap on their instruments to create a polyrhythmic foundation that made up for the fact that there was no percussionist to be found, ALIGN=CENTER>
What was, perhaps, most revealing about the performance was the choice of encore. Dipping into the standards repertoire, Cantini, Marcotulli and Pareti played considerably freer, demonstrating the kind of musical breadth that makes any individual project a matter of choice. The bulk of the group's performance may have been about elegance and lyrical beauty, but it was clear that their interests are more diverse. Marcotulli, in particular, played a fine piano solo that was a the perfect combination of spontaneously created form and more overt improvisational abandon.
After the performance, a quick look at the trio leading the festival's nightly jam session at the Hyatt Regency Montreal Centre-Ville found pianist John Roney, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Jim Doxas in fine form. While it would have been interesting to see who would show up to join them (at midnight it was still relatively early), they were so strong that, were nobody to come up on stage it would still have been worthwhile staying until closing.
Roney released his first record as a leader, Rate of Change (Effendi, 2005), with the same trio and while the ECM-centric aesthetic of the disc is on considerably different stylistic turf than the standards-based repertoire at the jam session, there was the same sense of invention and chemistry. There are those who remain literal to the songs they play, and those who can be completely liberal without losing a song's essence. Roney, Lauber and Doxas clearly fit in the second category. Here are three players with the confidence to let the music go where it will, but able to magically find their way back when necessary, truly speaking with a single voice. While jammers are encouraged, anyone going to the late night session will be just as satisfied if nobody shows up to join this excellent trio of musicians who have a strong reputation in Montreal, but deserve to be heard much farther abroad.
A fine ending to a day filled with beautiful writing and no shortage of improvisational creativity.
Tomorrow: Ensemble Misto continues the Suono Italia series in style with their intriguing combination of saxophone, violin, harp, accordion and double-bass, and guitar icon Pat Martino makes a welcome appearance at the late show at the 1,000-seat Spectrum club.
Visit Stefano Cantini and Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on the web.
Note: Day 7 of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is a day of transition, with a host of free shows. It's also the day where AAJ transitions coverage, with AAJ-NY Editorial Director/Production Designer Andrey Henkin returning home and Senior Editor John Kelman picking up on day eight, July 5.