Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2005, Day 7, July 6, 2005

John Kelman By

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For a festival the size of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, a lot of underappreciated things go on. From the visible but always amicable security staff who keep the vibe of the festival light, friendly, and safe, to the folks who clean up the six square blocks that are closed down for a number of outdoor stages right in the heart of downtown Montreal, it's one of the most (if not the most) approachable festivals in the world, despite its large attendance.

Equally important are the people in the press room, who make it possible for the large media contingent, attending the festival from places near and abroad, to concentrate on the shows and their work, rather than logistical details.

And perhaps the most hidden stars of the festival—who rarely get the acknowledgement they deserve—are those responsible for the spare yet effective set design of the stages; the lighting; and the outstanding sound in all of the indoor ticketed venues—which range from the intimacy of the small and friendly Gesu to the larger Theatre Maissoneuve in the city's Place des Arts. All these people help create a uniquely artistic festival ambience that truly stands out with few peers.

The gentle ambience in the Theatre Maissoneuve for Belgian harmonica legend Toots Thielemans and pianist Kenny Werner's duet performance was immediate from the moment they took the stage. While they don't play together as often as he'd like, according to Thielemans, when they do, it's pure magic. Thielemans, now in his eighties, was like a kindly and supportive grandfather, with a twinkle in his eye and more than a few tricks up his sleeve. His connection with Werner was evident from the first notes of a show that consisted for the most part of standards culled from both the Great American Songbook and a broad Latin repertoire. The overriding feeling was that, despite the theatre's size, you were privy to a private conversation between friends, joyful and filled with positive energy.

With a mainstream set list and a relatively strong adherence to form, the performance was remarkable for just how relaxed and playful it was. Both Thielemans and Werner had opportunities to solo at length, but they also shared a give-and-take sense of spontaneity and interaction, where Thielemans would give subtle (or sometimes not- so-subtle) nods to Werner to respond to one of his own lyrical phrases.

Werner—playing both piano and a synthesizer to create lush string pads—has an almost unrivaled ability to reimagine any tune in fluid and inventive ways, retaining its sense of familiarity while at the same time giving it a harmonic facelift. Some players fall into predictable patterns and others reveal creativity transcending constraint, and Werner is a pianist who seems to have something new to say every time he plays. How to keep the music fresh is an area of particular expertise for Werner who, when teaching at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, has taught advanced theory and composition with the philosophy that there are no rules. His performance last night demonstrated that it is indeed possible to approach a standards repertoire with an open-ended aesthetic.

Thielemans took his own kind of risk throughout the ninety-minute performance, but he always remained deeply melodic and respectful of the songs. With the exception of relative newcomer Gregoire Maret, there really isn't another artist playing the harmonica with Thielemans' deep command of the jazz tradition. His navigation and sheer inventiveness gave the gentle feel of the show its own subtle charge.

With guitarist Pat Metheny seemingly everywhere at the festival this year, it's no surprise that he would end up as a guest at Thielemans' show—Thielemans played on Metheny's early '90s recording Secret Story, and the bond that began thirteen years ago remained strong when he sat in for two songs. Given Metheny's usual high tech setup, it was refreshing to hear him in such a stripped-down context—nothing more than his hollowbody guitar and an amp. And while Metheny's evolved into an athletic player capable of complex ideas and textural thoughts, he's still equally capable of pure, unadorned simplicity. For those fortunate enough to see all the shows that Metheny has been involved with at this year's festival, it's a truly unique opportunity to experience, up close, Metheny's incredibly diverse musical interests.

When Metheny left the stage, Werner and Thielemans became a duo once again, delivering one of the highlights of the show, a look at Charlie Chaplin's classic "Smile." This tune can easily veer to saccharine sentimentality, but it was instead a thing of delicate beauty in the hands of Thielemans and Werner. Werner's gentle stride gave the song just the right amount of stylistic nostalgia without losing sight of its more timeless nature.

Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu then joined them onstage for three tunes, including a refined version of "All the Things You Are" and Thielemans' own classic "Bluesette." While there's no denying the Miles Davis influence on Fresu, he has his own take that is at once subtly restrained yet slightly flamboyant, driving Werner and Thielemans to swing more vividly than anywhere else in the show.

Ending the set on a tender note, with a melancholy yet somehow hopeful reading of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quittez Pas," Thielemans and Werner didn't even get the opportunity to leave the stage before the boisterous standing ovation encouraged them to come back for one more tune. Thielemans recounted how the first jazz record he ever heard was by Louis Armstrong, and the duo launched into an almost definitive version of "What a Wonderful World." An elegant way to end a show that may have been defined by its light and graceful approach, but will equally be remembered for its intimacy and overriding joyous interplay.

While the level of anticipation for all of Metheny's By Invitation performances has been high, with virtually all the concerts selling out in record time, his performance billed as "Pat Metheny and Friends: Special Encounter" last night was perhaps the one with the most buzz. Teaming with artists that he's either only played with rarely or has simply admired from afar, Metheny hit the stage at Le Spectrum just before 10 pm and told the audience that he hoped they were ready because he had a lot of music for the evening. And while there are varying degrees of risk at all of Metheny's By Invitation performances, this concert operated without a safety net. While a fair amount of rehearsal took place for this show over the past couple of days, there was still the sense that almost anything could happen.

First up was a quartet that featured drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Scott Colley from the previous night's trio performance, fleshing things out with saxophonist David Sanchez. Staying for the most part with his warm hollowbody guitar sound, Metheny joined the group to deliver an 85-minute performance that opened up with his own "H&H" from Question and Answer, then moved onto his samba-style take on John Coltrane's perennially challenging "Giant Steps." It was a testament to both Metheny and David Sanchez's improvisational acumen that they were able to find melodic ideas that connected through the composition's complex set of changes.

The sense that Metheny was making yet another stylistic leap, so dominant in his trio show the previous day, was equally evident in the quartet performance. Again his incredible ability to self-accompany throughout his solos with an almost unparalleled sense of invention was a constant highlight. Sanchez, whose own group was a high point of the recently-ended Ottawa International Jazz Festival, demonstrated that, while Latin music is in his blood, he has a clear sense of the American tradition as well.

Colley was, if possible, even more powerful than the previous night, his connection with Antonio Sanchez even more vivid and empathic—the benefit of playing more than one night together. And Antonio Sanchez, whose drumming has pushed Metheny to greater heights, demonstrated power and nuance, locking in with Colley and creating all kinds of tension and release behind whoever was soloing. Never about simple support, Colley and Antonio Sanchez—and David Sanchez and Metheny, too, for that matter—consistently focused on complete engagement, pure immersion, and keeping their minds open to any and all possibilities.

Following two Ornette Coleman compositions, originally recorded during Metheny's Song X sessions but never before released, and now pending issue on a remastered version of that disc later this summer, the quartet played "Every Day (I Thank You)," from Metheny's 80/81. The song took on special significance as Metheny dedicated it to saxophonist Michael Brecker, who was on the album and has recently been diagnosed with a serious and potentially life-threatening blood disorder.

Ending the first set of the evening with "When We Were Free" from his Pat Metheny Group record, Quartet, Metheny turned things up a notch with his trumpet-like guitar synthesizer for a relentlessly powerful version that brought the audience to its feet.

Next up was a series of intimate duets with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. Rava, who as an ECM labelmate during most of the years when Metheny was recording for the label, had only played with Metheny a couple of times before, and yet their 25-minute performance felt as though they'd been doing it for years.

Rava's tone is instantly recognizable—full and rich, even when he heads into the upper register; and his sense of construction turns every solo into its own voyage. Metheny played baritone guitar on "My Funny Valentine" and "More," switching to classical for the Jobim classic "How Insensitive," a tune that was part of the Pat Metheny Group repertoire until recently. The challenge of being both accompanist and soloist was one of the best demonstrations of just how advanced Metheny's technique is; and yet, with the inherently thematic foundation of the three standards, Metheny remained true to each song's essence throughout.

Colley, Antonio, and David Sanchez returned to the stage to join Metheny and Rava on a version of "Solar" that, as with Thielemans and Werner earlier in the evening, demonstrated just how open-ended and filled with possibility the best-known of standards can be. Finishing the brief twenty-minute quintet set with an unnamed Rava tune receiving yet another standing ovation, Metheny told the audience there would be a brief intermission and then he'd be joining bassist MeShell NdegeOcello's group for the next set.

On most nights during the festival, Le Spectrum holds late night performances by electronica, ambient, nujazz, and hip hop artists. While most Metheny fans were taken off guard by his collaboration with NdegeOcello, it turns out that their nearly ninety-minute set, finishing just before 2 am—four hours after the show began—fit perfectly within the purview of the late night series.

Most unusual was that, for the late night set with NdegeOcello's band—which included keyboardist Michael Cain, drummer Christopher Dave, and saxophonist Ron Blake—Metheny essentially relinquished himself to the role of sideman. Aside from the opener, a groove-laden look at Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio," and one tune from Blake, all the material was NdegeOcello's. Metheny was often off to the side of the stage, while Nedegeocello—a diminutive woman whose bass seemed almost as big as she was—literally commanded the stage. Totally immersed in the music, and with no overt demonstrations of pandering showmanship, NdegeOcello's natural charisma was impossible to ignore.

Metheny almost exclusively played guitar synthesizer and delivered a surprisingly wide variety of sounds, even including a wah wah at one point. And while at first he seemed a little tentative, he quickly began looking for ways to integrate with the group's thick grooves and an approach that combined some elements of a hip-hop mentality with a freer sense of improvisation and interplay. At times he seemed content to do nothing more than add textures—scratching and rubbing his strings, creating back-in-the mix flurries that, rather than standing out, were more integral to the overall aural landscape. Still, he managed to deliver a number of powerful solos, at one point even recalling some of the edgy aggression of his own Zero Tolerance for Silence.

Playing material largely culled from NdegeOcello's recently released The Spirit of Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, the group was as comfortable with creating a soothing ambience as it was kicking things up a notch or ten, with Dave's inventive drumming filled with surprise throughout. While NdegeOcello only plays bass on half of her album's eight tracks, she made it clear in live performance that it was more a consequence of wanting to bring certain specific intentions to highlight her writing, rather than her playing. But her performance with Metheny proved—not that she needed to—that she's a powerful and distinct player, with some precedence in the playing of Michael Henderson, Miles Davis' bassist from '71 through his first retirement in '75. Building hypnotically elliptical lines that evolved so gradually as to be almost invisibly so as they shifted from one place to the next, and embellishing with a constant eye to the music's inherent and unassailable groove, NdegeOcello, despite any references to inspirations, is a strikingly original player with her own sense of invention.

While Metheny's respect for NdegeOcello's musical vision—resulting in his playing a more secondary role in a musical context that he's never been heard in before—likely surprised his hardcore fans, it was just another example of Metheny's voracious musical appetite, which has proven to have no limits as the years go by. While he's as predisposed to certain styles as any artist, he also has a courageous ability to place himself in new situations that—like the NdegeOcello performance—take him well outside his comfort zone. That's just one reason why people who claim not to like Metheny probably just haven't checked him out enough. One's tastes may result in liking certain musical contexts more than others; but with Metheny's increasingly diversified body of work, it seems impossible to imagine that there isn't at least one musical situation with appeal.

And for a well-established leader in jazz in its broadest definitions, Metheny's untarnished enthusiasm that finds him, even as he enters his fourth decade as an artist, putting on the kind of marathon performances like last night's nearly four-hour show, providing constant inspiration that jazz isn't anywhere near dead-ended. Just when one thinks that there are fewer new areas towards which jazz can evolve, shows like this assure that it really has infinite potential.

Continue: Day 8

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