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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 festivalwho rarely get the acknowledgement they deserveare those responsible for the spare yet effective set design of the stages; the lighting; and the outstanding sound in all of the indoor ticketed venueswhich 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.
Wernerplaying both piano and a synthesizer to create lush string padshas 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.