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In 1989, Charlie Haden inaugurated the Montreal Jazz Festival Invitation Series. Those were monumental concerts with performers like Paul Bley, Joe Henderson, Don Cherry and others. Several of the performances have even been released over the years as the Montreal Tapes. Since then, Haden has been a mainstay at the festival. Before his set at the Theatre Maisonneuve, he listed the songs he would play in order and then send "Then we'll do an encore . After the laughter this statement provoked, he replied with "You fans in Montreal have become the most predictable in the world. Haden thanking the audience sincerely for being so great to him over the years followed this playful jibe.
The music played by Haden this evening was from his new album Land of the Sun. That record featured an all-star cast whereas this performance featured a working group of "young New Yorkers, all of Latino descent. The only holdovers from the album were pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, altoist Miguel Zenon and Haden himself. Added to the mix (and changing the instrumental composition from the group found on the record) were fellows like trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, tenor man Tony Malaby and drummer Antonio Sanchez. What didn't change was Haden's total commitment to creating a suite-like work of subtle and reserved beauty.
Most musicians will tell you that the hardest thing to do is play slowly and quietly. Sanchez used brushes throughout, except for a brief solo with mallets. At no point did his playing rise above a light whisper. Rodriquez' trumpet was clear and lilting, straight out of a classical symphony. Rubalcaba at times barely seemed to press on the keys. Haden of course was unmistakable. There is no other bassist who does so much with such a paucity of notes. Of particular interest was how Malaby, now more known for his fiery avant-garde work, would fare in this subdued environment. But he is the consummate musician and fared well, though he was the one player on the stage that seemed to be chomping at the bit to raise the energy level a little.
As difficult as this music is to play, it is also complex to listen to. There are no barnstorming solos like with Dave Holland's big band in the same space a few days prior. The music was atmospheric and ethereal with loveliness as the main reward. Rubalcaba's arrangements seem to favor his and Haden's interactions rather than the flute-trumpet- alto-tenor front line but Haden is intrigued by quiet now after so many years. Only in Montreal though could you have a totally silent crowd to appreciate this kind of music.
Your correspondent has nothing but good things to say about the Zakir Hussain Invitation Series. Day 4 was the last of these concerts and continued the ascending level of the experience. The three days prior had just been a preparation for this evening of Indian meets Western improvisation. Hussain and McLaughlin are kindred spirits, communicating on such a plane that a listener cannot believe this music is spontaneous. For fusion fans, a bold statement can be made that Hussain and McLaughlin's empathy exceeds that of the guitarist and old drummer Billy Cobham during the halcyon days of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. Certainly seeing the two playing together, laughing, clapping, full of joy, is a remarkable sight.
Perhaps McLaughlin put it best during an interview the morning after the show:
We've known each other since 1969...and here we are 34 years later and it's just as exciting for me to sit down and play with Zakir now as it was then, all those years ago. And I don't know what it is. I cannot put my finger on it. The whole world knows Zakir, he is the sublime artist on tabla, it's true. But something happens when we play together, I don't know what it is. Some kind of chemical reaction that for some reason I am able to provoke him in ways that no one else does. He certainly puts my mind in a place that no other drummer is capable of doing. He's just beyond, he's on his own level of drumming, in terms of musicianship and rhythmic things, I've learned a tremendous amount just working with Zakir. He himself is convinced that in another incarnation, we were in the same family, we were brothers...but I cannot put my finger on what it is, it's just that he starts playing and something magical happens and something magical happens between us.
The music began quietly with McLaughlin slowly easing into "Anna from the Shakti songbook. It quickly took off though; McLaughlin and Hussain are equally fast on their respective instruments so the music can be played at any pace and stop and start on a dime. McLaughlin then took a rare solo turn on a lovely and original interpretation of Stella by Starlight much to the surprise of the audience. So far, the crowd was enthusiastic but still a little hesitant. The next piece changed all that. When McLaughlin broke into the chord progression of the Mahavishnu classic "You Know You Know and Hussain kicked in on tabla AND snare drums, the Monument Nationale erupted. This version exceeded the one played as an encore by Remember Shakti at the Montreal fest a few years back. The two were locked in, McLaughlin adding blistering Indian scales to the song and Hussain having fun with his rock drumming. This tune, though a relatively brief 12 minutes, may have been the highlight of the entire festival.
After this triumph, Hussain invited Shakti co-percussionist Selvaganesh (who played khanjira, or Indian tambourine, on Day 2) and Sultan Khan on sarangi to join him and McLaughlin for a first-time-ever collaboration. The quartet improvised over a North Indian raga that featured lovely exchanges between Khan and McLaughlin and Hussain and Selvaganesh. Khan was somewhat filling the role that L. Shankar had in the original Shakti group but played with a melancholic, almost forlorn air. What made this show a particular standout is how McLaughlin, a Brit jazz musician who played with Miles Davis, insinuated himself into the native music of his three bandmates. Indian music is challenging and complex, full of spirituality and fire'" perfect for McLaughlin. But throughout, despite the whooping crowd, the performance's air was relaxed and loose, like a jam session among friends with us, the audience, peeking in. And since each musician is a technical master, even at top speed every note is important, every phrase interconnected. At this tempo, things can, and often do, become academic posturing. Here, with these four musicians, it was nothing short of exultant.
The final tune of the set was a trio with Hussain, McLaughlin and Selvaganesh, notable for the trading (both on percussion and vocally) between the two Indians, all masterfully supported by McLaughlin's sharp comping. After a wild ovation, the quartet returned for another Shakti tune as an encore, adding Bhavani Shankar on the pakhawaj (he also played on Day 2). The triple rhythmic attack, particularly during a segment with decreasing bar lengths (á la One Word from Birds of Fire
), was stunning, McLaughlin and Khan letting the percussionists do most of the talking.
Your correspondent has been coming to the Montreal Jazz Festival since 2000. During that time, many great concerts have happened and many legends have had their own Invitation Series. But never has a crowd at any venue for any show given a five-minute screaming, standing ovation, begging for the musicians to return to the stage. They did, full of happiness and humility and joy at an evening of wonderful, life-changing music.
Thanks to André Menard, Zakir Hussain, all his invitees and the Montreal Jazz Festival for concerts that will no doubt move into the history of jazz, the history of music.
Continue: Day 5