Day 9 - Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, July 6, 2006

John Kelman By

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The biggest problem with Montreal's jazz festival is that there are simply too many choices available, and day nine was no less challenging than the rest. The Suono Italia series continued with two shows; the ticketed shows included (among others) bassist and Effendi Records founder Frederic Alarie, bassist Joelle Leandre's trio, the German group Quadro Nuevo and guitar legend Pat Martino's Quartet. Then there were the free shows, including drummer Stephane Huchard and the team of Peppino D'Agostino and Stef Burns—whose Bayshore Road (Favored Nations, 2005) was a charming blend of acoustic and electric guitars. What to do, what to do?

Ensemble Misto's 7 pm performance as part of the Suono Italia series continued to highlight the vibrant Italian music scene, performing original music by Enrico Blatti from I Colori del Mare (EGEA, 2005). The quintet was an unusual blend of instruments—saxophone (Pietro Tonolo), violin (Alberto Martinelli), harp (Elena Trovato), accordion (Stefano Pietrodarchi) and bass (Raffaello Pareti).

Pareti, who was part of the Stefano Cantini & Rita Marcotulli group the previous evening, may not be a particularly attention-drawing player, but his understated approach always kept the music on track—which was no small achievement, considering the complexity of Blatti's writing. As is the case with so many releases by the Italian EGEA label, whose artists are being featured throughout the Suono Italia series, Blatti's music can be deceptive. While it's extremely accessible, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot going on under the hood. Many of the compositions featurie shifting bar lines, complex harmonic changes and arrangements that demand that everyone in the group be prepared to shift roles on a moment's notice. There are traces of Nina Rota and even a more pared-down Ennio Morricone here. If there was one word to describe Ensemble Misto's performance, it's "cinematic."

Throughout the performance, the members of the quintet were afforded solos within the context of Blatti's detailed scores—in particular Tonolo, Pietrodarchi and Martinelli, who performed during the first half of the group's short hour-long set. When EGEA's Enzo Vizzone spoke after the show, he explained that the label is placing increasing emphasis on highlighting the composer as much as the performer. And if last night's performance was any indication, it's a smart one. EGEA attracts consistently excellent players—especially soloists who can integrate their cultural background with the improvisational nature of jazz. But by placing them in context of highly listenable but often deeply profound music, the label has found a way to create music of depth that has broad appeal.

Given the variety of textures and outstanding playing across the board, special note needs to be made of Tonolo, whose command of tenor and soprano saxophones, like Stefano Cantini's the night before, revealed a broader reach than even Blatti's music suggested. Likewise, Pietrodarchi was outstanding, both as the primary rhythm section partner for Pareti and on the rare occasions where he was afforded solo space. He was a visibly animated player, often seen with a beaming grin on his face as he counted his way through Blatti's bouyant but challenging charts. Like the French Pascal Contet, Pietrodarchi uses a button accordion, and the close voicings he often played with his right hand almost looked like the work of a contortionist. ALIGN=CENTER>

Halfway through the set Martinelli left the stage, to be replaced by an unannounced guest, clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi. The swap of violin for clarinet changed the complexion of the ensemble; Mirabassi's instrument worked with Tonolo's soprano to create a beautiful and organically integrated texture. Mirabassi's approach to the clarinet the previous night during his duets with Brazilian guitarist/composer Guinga was intensely passionate—and he seems to approach every musical opportunity that way, even with Blatti's more structured writing. As on the previous night, he couldn't remain seated, rising up out of his chair, bobbing and weaving, and clearly deep inside the music.

As strong as the rest of Ensemble Misto is, Mirabassi's playing elevated the music to a higher level, not only through his own work, but by pushing the rest of the ensemble to "go for it in an even more committed fashion than they had earlier. Everyone on the stage—including Trovato, whose harp work featured evocative textural swirls and thematic doubling with others in the ensemble—was in top form, but Mirabassi's sheer virtuosity, energy and passion are quite unique. He may be a less edgy player than clarinetists like Don Byron and Louis Sclavis, but his musical choice to be a more consistently lyrical player is just that—a choice, and he deserves to be considered on the world stage in the same class as these other innovative players.

Given the set was so short and the performance so powerful, it's no surprise that the audience simply would not allow Ensemble Misto to leave without an encore. But given they only had one book for the performance, they had to repeat one of the pieces from late in the set. Tonolo and Mirabassi wound their way from form to freedom, however, showing that however detailed Blatti's music may be in its compositional approach, it also demands interpretation. Ensemble Misto's performance was as good a tribute to the composer's vision as one could hope for.

For a different kind of musical passion—one more closely aligned with the American jazz tradition—guitarist Pat Martino's 10 pm show at the thousand-seater Spectrum transported its audience in a strange place of awe, transcendence and sheer excitement. The show revolved around his latest release, Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery. Martino and his quartet—pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gregory Ryan and drummer Scott Allan Robinson—delivered a blistering performance that was so unrelenting that the break between the two 45-minute sets was almost a necessity to give the members of the capacity crowd a few moments to catch their breath.

Martino has always had an uncanny ability to build tension through repetition, whether it's a single note or a simple phrase. This use of repetition changed his playing from linear to rhythmic, giving the rest of the quartet something to grab onto and push—until the tension was so intense that when it finally released, the audience's enthusiastic response was equal parts incredulity and relief. That stylistic trick may be one of Martino's signatures, but no matter how many times you hear it, it's always exciting.

Germanson built solos that seemed to heighten every time around, until the audience was placed in the same position as with Martino. Ryan and Robinson made the perfect rhythm section—adapting to whatever Martino and Germanson threw at them, but participating equally in driving the show. One of my very clear impressions of the performance was just how much Martino has influenced another guitar icon, Pat Metheny, in particular with respect to he raises the energy level to a high point and then resolves it in a way that makes the experience incredibly physical for his audience. But regardless of the project, Metheny is front and center, and his fine supporting players—even though they are afforded solo space—are somehow subordinate. On the other hand, Martino is a more democratic leader. He may have been front and center visually, but when it came to running down the set list, Germanson, Ryan and Robinson were absolutely equal participants.

These players swing hard, and hearing them approach the Montgomery material highlighted the unfortunate deficiency in the mix on Martino's otherwise excellent tribute record. And in performance, the group—a touring unit, rather than the mostly all-star collective on the disc—dug into the material with even deeper interaction than on record.

Martino's sound was as dark and bottom-ended as usual, but it managed to cut its way through the group anyway. He favors rapid-fire phrases, but he avoids the trappings of excess by relying on his remarkable ability to navigate the sometimes equally rapid-fire changes of the material. He did this on his own tribute to Jack McDuff, "Mac Tough, a tune that he has now interpreted in a fusion setting, an organ trio, and this more conventional mainstream lineup. It's proof that a good tune is a good tune, and that while context may change its complexion, the song remains at the end of it all. ALIGN=CENTER>

Martino only paused once to speak to the audience at length. He recounted the story of how, back in the 1960s, he encouraged guitarist Les Paul to accompany him to a club to see Wes Montgomery. When they arrived, Paul was touched to find that Montgomery was a huge fan. While Martino had to get back to his gig with Willis Jackson, Paul stayed to hang with Montgomery. By the end of the evening, however, a number of guitarists had converged—Martino, Paul, Montgomery, Grant Green and George Benson—"guitar heaven, as Martino put it.

But anyone who has followed his comments on the Martino thread at the AAJ Bulletin Board knows he's a gracious and humble man. The clear respect he conveyed in recounting the story, as well as the way he treated his group and his audience at The Spectrum last night, was perfectly in keeping with an artist who doesn't rest on his laurels, no matter how significant he may be in the history of jazz guitar. His approach may be mainstream, but like the more compositionally-focused performances in the Suono Italia series, he's nothing if not committed and completely passionate.

Tomorrow: pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, saxophonist Pietro Tonolo's Italian Songs project featuring accordionist Gil Goldstein, and vibraphonist Stefon Harris & Blackout, playing material from Evolution and more.

Visit Pat Martino and the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on the web.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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