Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2005, Day 9, July 8, 2005

John Kelman By

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With guitarist Pat Metheny's By Invitation Series this year, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal has, in many ways, redefined the possibilities of scope and dimension. In his shows up to this point Metheny has played with old friends and new friends, revisited old and familiar compositions in new ways and taken a crack at new material and new contexts—as was the case with his show with bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello's band on July 6—that don't even relate to his own extensive back catalogue.

While every show has been eagerly anticipated, perhaps the one most on the lips of festival goers was his performance last night at Place des Arts' Theatre Maissoneuve, reuniting vibraphone legend Gary Burton and bassist Steve Swallow—surely a musical partnership that, lasting over 20 years until the mid-'80s, defined its own specific space in modern jazz—along with Metheny's clear drummer of choice these days, Antonio Sanchez. Looking at the crowd, it was obvious that some were around in the mid-'70s, when Metheny played with Burton and Swallow for three years before leaving to begin his own sojourn into what would become Pat Metheny Group; it was also equally clear that there was a large number of attendees who were either too young—or not even born yet—when this group was in existence. So the show was a unique opportunity to hear a group responsible for defining one of the more influential musical aesthetics in jazz—before, during and after Metheny—take a look back at some of the material that defined them, 30 years on.

All kinds of platitudes exist that apply. "If I knew then what I know now," comes immediately to mind, since Metheny was only starting out during his initial tenure with Burton, and has evolved almost exponentially since that time. Still, hearing Metheny tackle material including his own darkly-hued "B&G," Chick Corea's medium-tempo "Sea Journey" and Carla Bley's rapid-fire "Ictus," one couldn't help but hear him somehow shift gears back into the kind of approach he took 30 years ago, only this time more fluid, more inventive, more harmonically advanced. Swallow—a player whose own approach has significantly impacted Metheny's own—has not only grown as a musician, but technology has caught up with his own view of the role of the electric bass, with a fuller sound and a greater range.

They also say, "You can't go home again." That may be true. Certainly last night's performance—which specifically covered material by composers who were major contributors to the Burton songbook of the time including Metheny, Corea, Bley, Keith Jarrett, and of course, both Burton and Swallow—was no mere exercise in nostalgia; the playing was too vital, too committed, too engaged—but it did somehow manage to recreate the vibe of that time for those who remembered it while, at the same time, feeling both completely contemporary and wholly relevant today.

Burton remains one of those improvisers whose every note, every phrase, just seems to be perfect. When Metheny spoke, a couple of nights back at the MMMIS Question and Answer session, about solos demanding a narrative construction, he clearly received a lot of onstage exposure to that philosophy during his early days with Burton. In fact, everyone on stage last night soloed with the kind of spontaneous sense of form and arc that explains why they have all become so influential. The inherent sense of logic that didn't preclude a certain degree of abandon, made every solo meaningful.


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