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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.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.