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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2005, Day 8, July 7, 2005

John Kelman By

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In addition to being one of the largest jazz festivals in the world, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is one of the safest and most friendly. There can be tens of thousands of people on the street for the many free shows each evening, and yet the vibe is festive, and there are rarely (if ever) any signs of the kinds of trouble that often happen when that many people collect in a concentrated space.

And the audiences are amongst the most appreciative as well. That's one of the reasons why so many artists return to the festival year after year; and this time, with the long overdue return of guitarist Pat Metheny, the crowds are even more enthusiastic than usual. At his 6 pm Theatre Maissoneuve show, a duet concert where bassist Charlie Haden and Metheny recreated the gentle ambience of their '96 release Beyond the Missouri Sky, Haden—following a thunderous and relentless standing ovation that convinced them to return for one final tune after their relatively short eighty-minute set—told the audience "I love you, Pat loves you, we love you—this is the best jazz festival in the world."
The set began with Metheny performing a solo version of "Last Train Home" on baritone acoustic guitar. Just as he reworked this vintage Pat Metheny Group song on his '03 Grammy Award-winning solo album One Quiet Night, here he reinvented it as to be nearly unrecognizable until close to its conclusion.

Haden then came onstage and the duo performed a number of pieces from Beyond the Missouri Sky, with highlights being the tender "Message to a Friend" and "First Song," and the Midwestern folk vibe of "The Precious Jewel." In contrast to Metheny's more muscular playing at the first two of his By Invitation Series shows the past two evenings, here he was more sparingly lyrical. Still, like his playing earlier this week, it evidenced some kind of leap forward; in addition to rich self-accompaniment, he's evolving an even more advanced way of constantly and subtly shifting the rhythmic emphasis to widen his material's scope.

But the standout song of the set was "Farmer's Trust," arguably the most beautiful and memorable ballad Metheny has written in his thirty-year career. Characteristic of much of Metheny's writing, the tune's apparent simplicity belies a more complex set of changes that only really works if melodies can be built to pass through them seamlessly. Despite the fact that it has been recorded and performed often, Metheny effortlessly shifted between chordal passages and graceful linear phrases, managing to find new things to say with a song that never becomes stale.

Haden provided a simple but effective foundation, more about sparse melodies than superfluous displays. He's never been the kind of virtuosic soloist that, for example, Dave Holland often can be, aiming instead for the right note at the right moment with the right articulation. But in this setting he was even more stripped down than usual. Listeners hearing Haden here for the first time might wonder what all the excitement is about, but in the broader context of both his career and his folk and country upbringing, his playing makes perfect sense.

Metheny and Haden clearly share a bond that extends beyond the music, clearly enjoying themselves throughout the set. Having both grown up in Missouri, there's a cultural and experiential tie that links them in a very special way. And while the set was short, in the context of Metheny's residence at the festival this year, it offered a window on yet another aspect of his multifaceted talent: one that, in its innocent elegance, has drawn a lot of fans to other sides of his broad musical concerns.

One of the things apparent throughout his residence is that Metheny truly loves what he's doing, so much so that he keeps up a pace that would shatter a lot of other players. Shortly after his show with Haden, Metheny went on to participate in an interview and open question and answer session with the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's weekly Jazz Beat show, Katie Malloch. Part of the festival's new Montreal Musician and Musical Instrument Show (MMMIS), the session took place in Place des Art's 400-seat Cinquieme Salle, where tickets were free but required. It provided a chance to see up close how Metheny may be natural and unassuming, but is also an artist with strong beliefs about the state of jazz today and the role of a leader in a group.

Calling his Pat Metheny Group a "benevolent dictatorship," Metheny made it clear that leadership is necessary and that, in his experience, cooperatives simply don't work—a lesson learned early in his career when he was a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton's band. Still, despite the fact that he has strong views about what he wants his music to be, he also talked about wanting to encourage band members to do what they do best. However, he admits that sometimes their idea and his idea of what they do best can be very different things.
Metheny also spent some time talking about his feeling that a solo has to tell a story and have a narrative construction—something well beyond simply the scope of music. He believes that it's a universal concept that applies to everything, whatever a human being is capable of offering with their chosen skills.

He also talked briefly about a number of artists he's had the pleasure to work with, including those who have been particularly significant for him: the late drummer Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, and bassist Steve Swallow—whom he's particularly excited about working with in tomorrow's reunion show with Gary Burton and drummer Antonio Sanchez.

Speaking about the writing process, Metheny discussed how his working relationship with Pat Metheny Group pianist Lyle Mays has evolved to its most deeply collaborative in recent years. While in the early days of the group Metheny would often come in with ideas and Mays would help him complete them, since â'Ëœ94's We Live Here, the two have started with a blank page more often, working together to build the material from scratch. The process of writing the group's most recent album, the 68-minute long piece that is The Way Up, was literally about the Mays and Metheny spending seven weeks locked in a room to develop what is certainly their most ambitious project to date.

With regards to the state of jazz today, Metheny spoke about how, paradoxically, there are more people playing jazz well today than at any other time in history, even as the culture at large is less and less interested. He believes jazz is no longer a part of the greater cultural consciousness. Forty years ago, even those who didn't listen to jazz knew, for example, who Miles Davis was. He also made it clear that, while playing standards in a more traditional mandate is all well and good, for the music to survive it needs to remain contemporary, to live and breathe.

Metheny concluded by talking a bit about how excited he was when, at the age of 18, he was asked to join Gary Burton's band. For him it was like being asked to join the Beatles; and he's thrilled about tomorrow's show with Burton, Swallow, and Sanchez.

The small Gesu theatre, which seats approximately 400 people, is the most intimate venue at the festival. Every seat is a good seat and the sound is so natural that it's possible to perform there with very little support from a PA system—just enough to balance out the instruments and give them spread in the room.

Tin Pan Aliens—a collaborative trio featuring Danish saxophonist Hans Ulrik and drummer Jonas Johansen, along with Steve Swallow—put on a performance at Gesu's late-night Jazz Dans La Nuit series that laid waste to Metheny's earlier claim that cooperatives don't work. All three contributed compositions to a ninety-minute show that drew from their '03 debut, Trio, and their latest release, Tin Pan Aliens; and a certain dry, tongue-in-cheek humour pervaded the entire set.

Ulrik, who emerged on the Danish scene in the mid-â'Ëœ90s and has released eight albums on the Danish Stunt label since '00, is a close-to-the-centre player with a solid combination of traditions from both sides of the Atlantic. Capable of a number of extended techniques—including multiphonics and an unusual approach of blowing raspy air through the horn while layering high harmonics at the same time—Ulrik is an economical player, like the entire trio. With most tunes in the five to six-minute range, and an attention to form that kept things focused throughout, Ulrik was a capable soloist, although it wasn't until the bluesy encore, "Father," that he appeared to really get to the heart of things.

Like Ulrik, Johansen clearly appreciates jazz's broader continuum. With a confident swing and the kind of elastic time sense that seems to be de rigueur for Scandinavian drummers in particular, Johansen was able to navigate even the more rigorous meters of some of Swallow's compositions, which ranged from more vertical harmonic structures to the contrapuntal explorations that Swallow concerned himself with on his own '03 release, Damaged in Transit.

Swallow, a dominant force in any project, was particularly vivid. With his five-string hollowbody electric at times bridging the gap between bass and guitar, he evidenced his distinctive approach to not only walking swing, but also laying down chordal foundations that gave the trio a more defined harmonic centre, as opposed to most sax-bass-drums trios where harmonies are more implicit. And though guitarist Mick Goodrick was a significant early influence on Pat Metheny, listening to Swallow's unique melodic sensibility—which included broad intervallic jumps and a certain specificity of rhythm—it's clear, especially when listening to some of Metheny's earliest recordings including Bright Size Life, just how influential he has also been on the guitarist.

Tin Pan Aliens may not shake any musical foundations, but the trio's performance was engaging enough, and inventive in a context where risk was clearly limited.

Continue: Day 9

Visit Pat Metheny, Hans Ulrik, Jonas Johasen, and the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on the web.

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