Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 1-3

Andrey Henkin By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-5 | Days 6-8 | Days 9-11

June 26th
It would be perfectly understandable for the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal to "take a year off" in 2008. Next year will be the festival's 30th anniversary and this year presents logistical challenges with the loss of a few staple venues and construction on-site. But the festival team has lost none of its momentum, presenting a full program of events to cater to all stripes of jazz (and non-) listeners. Schedule highlights of the first week, at least on paper, include the Hank Jones Invitation Series, the forever return of Return to Forever, Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band and the always engaging "Jazz Dans La Nuit" series.

The opening evening overlaps with a day of travel for many but even at the onset, the festival presented two projects that are candidates for the highlight reel: Michel Portal/Jacky Terrasson Duo at Theatre Jean-Duceppe and David Murray's Black Saint Quartet at Gesu.

Jean-Duceppe is one of the more intriguing venues at the festival. Larger than Gesu or the to-be-lamented Musee D'Art Contemporain (one of the locations missing from the schedule), it usually hosts acts whose experimental nature would not be out of place at either of those locales. Given the relatively small turnout for the Michel Portal/Jacky Terrasson Duo, it may have been wiser to have relocated the performance. But the crowd that did attend this opening salvo was treated to one of the most memorable performances in recent festival history.

At first it seemed an odd pairing; Portal the avant-garde elder statesman of French jazz and Terrasson more of a not-so-young lion. But that overlooks a certain shared romantic virtuosity. As if to establish his credentials, Terrasson began the evening solo, for a lengthy percussive deconstruction of "Caravan," fully exploiting the tune's inherent moodiness. When Portal joined, initially on bass clarinet, Terrasson had grounded himself in a rhythmic role, often playing the role of the drummer to Portal's flights.

Portal is an overlooked giant on this side of the Atlantic. Few reedplayers—clarinets and saxophones—have as much expressive capability and facility on their instruments. On bass clarinet in particular, Portal displays an extremely appealing post-Dolphy Gallicism. Terrasson's dry sparse style was a perfect complement, eschewing florid accompaniment for cinematic comping. In the early going, the pair played short vignettes, Portal switching between instruments. But the bulk of the set was given over to a sweeping medley that culminated in a rousing version of Chick Corea's "Spain" that was also ironic given the bass clarinet's maudlin tone. If the beginning of the set was intensely serious, the end was far more playful, with a solo ballad for Terrasson and then a subversive chanson as a bandoneon feature for Portal. The smallish crowd was enthusiastic enough to garner two encores: a tongue-in-cheek blues that found Portal muttering into his mouthpiece-less bass clarinet and a charming piano-bandoneon duet to close this magical set.

The second performance attended by this correspondent on the opening evening featured another underappreciated horn player: David Murray. But unlike the marvelous cooperative nature of the Portal/Terrasson show, Murray's set, with his Black Saint Quartet, was more akin to a tornado touching down in a sleepy town, wreaking delicious havoc.

Murray, like Portal, is immediately recognizable, with a tone on tenor that liberally mixes Albert Ayler and Joe Henderson and a remarkable emotiveness on bass clarinet (kudos to the festival organizers for featuring two of the instrument's greatest proponents on the same night). But Murray can easily leave his sidemen behind as was the case at his Gesu performance. Though billed as his Black Saint Quartet, it was actually Murray with his longstanding pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, bassist Jaribu Shahid and a young tyke on drums, Malik Washington.

The set was mostly Murray originals, pieces which usually start off beautiful or funky or spiritual but then become launching pads for the Murray squall. And if few can match it, even fewer can follow it. During the lengthy pieces - all over 10 minutes and one even approaching 30!—Murray was a force of nature whose ability to circular breath made his playing almost overwhelming. That then created an unfortunate contrast during the long periods when Murray would give the stage over to his rhythm section. Their solos were too long and lacking in Murray's intensity. And though Washington was technically remarkable, his youthful exuberance manifested itself in playing that was far too busy. But one doesn't see Murray for his bands. When he is at his most exultant—strafing on tenor or during an absolutely staggering solo bass clarinet feature—sidemen are an afterthought. If he were less self-effacing, occasional claims to the mantle of Coltrane would be completely deserved.

June 27th

In its almost 30-year history, almost every major jazz musician has passed through the program of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. Yet even with all the significant performances, few shows have ever had as much "spectacle" about them as Return to Forever at the massive Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. There was not the common festival introduction; only Miles' "In a Silent Way" wafted through the hall. Then the four members of the seminal fusion group walked on stage to the first of many standing ovations. This may have been a jazz festival but it felt more like a rock concert that would not have been out of place at Olympic Stadium.

Group reunions have been in vogue in recent years; the trend seems to be moving into the jazz realm. But given the music's nature, there are not very many groups that can reform with the impact of Cream or The Police. RTF is one the few and the only one from the fusion circuit—death, acrimony and/or reduced ability make Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra tours an impossibility. But Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White are all still regularly performing at an extremely high level. But could they recreate the heady '70s some 25 years after their last performance?

The answer seems unequivocally yes. The music—taken from the group's several mid-to-late '70s albums—sounds dated at times but not overwhelmingly so. Jazz has progressed past fusion's excesses but not everyone thinks this is a good thing, given the absolutely crammed audience. And there is something to the argument. With all the technicians playing jazz these days at hyperspeed, why not electrify it arena-style once more? And with four virtuosos playing together, any seeming indulgence gets cancelled out.

It is certainly nice to hear these tunes played live and stretched out, Al DiMeola wailing away on no less than five guitars and Lenny White—more often heard behind a small jazz kit—pounding on an array of floor toms. But what lent the performance a certain flair was the demonstrable fun the quartet were having—with the music, with each other, with the audience. Each member spoke at length to the crowd about how pleased they were to be back together, White quipped that "in an era of boy bands, this is a man's band" and Corea got into an exchange with a vocal member of the audience about fusion's absence in the Ken Burns' Jazz documentary.

Jazz is often brilliant or well-played or wonderfully conceived. Its reduced visibility is because it is rarely fun and engaging. RTF's members, all having moved in more traditional directions since the group's demise, seem to understand that there is an entire generation that misses jazz on a grand scale.

After an exhilarating first set and part of a second—where RTF went acoustic with lowered volume but no less intensity—it was time for, to quote John Cleese, something completely different. From the packed house of Pelletier, it was a brief foray to the basement of the Monument National for the Dutch duo of violist Ig Henneman and reedist Ab Baars. A smaller version of the stately upstairs theater, the Studio Hydro-Quebec seems to have replaced the Musee d'Art Contemporain as the spot for the festival's most avant-garde acts. The disparity between RTF's set and the quirky Dutch minimalism of the duo was really almost too extreme, and this from a correspondent who likes quirky Dutch minimalism and has enjoyed both performers separately at earlier festivals. But that actually speaks well of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, where no sub-genre is excluded. Perhaps if time allowed for more than 20 minutes—Hank Jones and Joe Lovano's set started 30 minutes later—the contrast would have settled; certainly the pair's liberal mix of improvisation and cerebral composition ladled out in small servings was appealing. But moving from a fusion blowout to this and then on to a classic exploration of jazz and Great American Songbook standards was a little like a subcompact car being crushed in between two semis.

The Hank Jones/Joe Lovano evening was the second in the Invitation series. The first was the venerable Jones in duo with another Jones, famed Canadian pianist Oliver, in a tribute to the late Oscar Peterson (a late replacement for what was initially to be Jones with guitarist Jim Hall). The second evening was a more established pairing, taking place at Jean-Duceppe, with a far larger crowd than the Portal/Terrasson duo of the previous day. Jones and Lovano, though separated by decades, are well-matched, both with classic sensibilities and smoky tones on their respective instruments. Lovano stayed solely on tenor for the 75-minute set, an exploration of music from the recent Kids album, music from the quartet with George Mraz and Paul Motian, standards like "Ornithology" and "The Very Thought of You" and music written by Hank's brother Thad.

A recent conversation at the festival made a case for Hank Jones as the oldest active jazz musician; certainly he is the oldest participant in the Invitation Series, one the festival's finest innovations. But his inclusion was hardly a gesture or mere acknowledgement of lifetime achievement. Jones is still in complete control of the instrument, approaching it with assured elegance and a playfulness that belies his years. When the duo played in New York—where the Kids album was recorded—the dynamic was a little stiff, almost as if Lovano was being deferential to his elder. Now the feeling was the appetizing contradiction of tighter yet looser. Lovano might be less fiery in this context than, say, in the Saxophone Summit group that played a few hours earlier but he is no less focused. And during a pair of solo piano pieces, Jones proves that age is just a number, adding modernist touches to classic repertoire and taking immense pleasure in still making new discoveries in music he knows better than anyone.

June 28th

Before delivering the report from Day 3 of Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008, special mention should be made of the peripheral attractions which enrich the experience. Besides the ticketed concerts at various venues, the festival organizers take full advantage of the multi-level Place des Arts site to present a number of free concerts that, while only marginally related to jazz, at least get people appreciating live music. At any point there are several shows going on within a minute's walk, all with enthusiastic crowds. Let's hope these can be a gateway to more interest in the ticketed concerts and jazz in general.

Three other nice features of the festival are the kids section, SIMM and MGS. For families in attendance, a special area is given over to an interactive playground where children can play instruments and run on a giant keyboard; this correspondent has records that sound similar. SIMM (Montreal Music Instrument Show) is essentially the same thing as the kids' section except for adults. And MSG (Montreal Guitar Show), a collection of high-end luthiers, workshops and concerts is the same thing as SIMM except for grown-up kids. Who knows if a future performer at the festival will emanate from one of these events.

Day 3 gave this correspondent a chance to attend the 6 pm slot at Gesu, a series dubbed "Jazz D'Ici"—roughly translated at Jazz of Here—where local musicians are given the opportunity to play in front of hometown supporters. Much of the roster is drawn from the laudable local labels Justin Time and Effendi, with such artists Remi Bolduc and the Jensen sisters. Drummer Guy Nadon is a Quebecois legend and presented an ambitious project on Day 3: a tribute to nine different saxophonists. Appropriate to the pre-dinner scheduling, Nadon's set was fairly traditional, with some of the most popular tunes by such saxists as Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker. What did distinguish it was an expectedly rhythm-heavy set of arrangements—particularly surprising on "Footprints"—and the fact that group saxophonist Yvan Belleau had to emulate such disparate players as Shorter, Parker, Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Rollins solely on soprano sax. With such a range of source material, the feeling was akin to a jazz appreciation society concert or perhaps a jazz sampler but Nadon's crusty charm made it all work.

Later in the evening was the continuation of the Invitation Series, this time honoree Hank Jones paired with modern piano darling Brad Mehldau, who had also played the festival with his trio and solo. This was a first meeting and frankly was underwhelming. Despite a nice story from Mehldau about seeing Jones play when still in high school, the interaction between the pair was generally tentative, a far cry from Jones with Joe Lovano the previous evening. Like with Lovano, the evening was given over to a program of standards like "Our Love is Here to Stay," "There is No Greater Love" and "Lullaby of Birdland." But unlike the preceding concert, Mehldau didn't seem particularly comfortable with the repertoire, especially when contrasted with Jones' easy-going virtuosity. Mehldau isn't known as a Great American Songbook pianist and thus was not playing to his cerebral strengths. Jones, always deferential, did his best to maintain swing but things never gelled, except for a fairly raucous—for a piano duo that is—of "Anthropology" and some nice traded fours. More entertaining was Jones' quirky humor, a facet of his personality given great exposure during this series.

The final concert of the evening for this correspondent brought him back to Gesu for another entry into the Jazz Dans La Nuit series. Pianist Yaron Herman is one of the many talented players with Israeli backgrounds propelling modern jazz. He has a wonderful new album of compelling originals and subversive takes on material outside the jazz canon like The Police and Britney Spears. This correspondent saw him in New York earlier this year but with a different bassist than the album, resulting in a very different approach. Matt Brewer was again unavailable for the Gesu show so the album's feel was not recreated and the initial aesthetic focused more on Herman's classical background and seemed almost polite, as if he was spec'ing out the festival crowd. This gave listeners an opportunity to appreciate drummer Gerald Cleaver's remarkable range, particularly for those who know him more for his avant-garde appearances. But by the end of the hour-long set, Herman and company settled into some rather progressive playing, highlighting Herman's unique conception of space and creative use of the inside of the piano. The set ended with his cover of Spears' "Toxic," showing that material is less important than whose hands it is in.

Photo Credit

Hank Jones by Jean Francois Leblanc

RTF by Denis Alix

Days 1-3 | Days 4-5 | Days 6-8 | Days 9-11

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