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June 29th Day 4 of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal was notable for one of its most high-profile appearances, perhaps even exceeding Return to Forever on Day 2. Montreal has had many legendary jazz musicians at the festival but none with more widespread fame than Woody Allen; so much so that he was given two evenings at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, the festival's largest venue (an honor also given to Steely Dan during the second week). The filmmaker was here with his New Orleans Jazz Band, a group with which he plays semi-regularly in his hometown of New York. Allen, according to reports, has been an aspiring clarinetist since his teens and has been an object of desire for the festival for years. With finally no scheduling conflicts, Allen was free to appear in front of a capacity audience.
Allen is not a renaissance man. Where he excels in writing and movie-making, he falls flat in jazz. At best he is an accomplished amateur, if only for knowing so many songs without the benefit of a music stand. His tone his is thin and warbly, with heroically misplaced attempts at vibrato. His low range is rather harsh and he has trouble working his solos far away from basic melodies. No one can doubt his enthusiasm and sincerity but those dissipate across a venue as large as Wilfrid-Pelletier. Anyone wondering whether this was a joke was quickly disabused of that notion. This is not a novelty project and none of Allen's self-effacing humor is present.
The material was a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces from primordial jazz historyspirituals, brothel songs, and blues from early New Orleans. Allen's band, led by musical director Eddy Davis, is thorough, highlighted by the bass of Greg Cohen, the only musician who plays with both John Zorn and Phil Woods. The aesthetic was very traditional, with lots of group improvisation and individual solos kept to only a chorus or two. Music like this is to be found at the festival at a couple of the early afternoon free stages. In this grandiose context, it seemed a little odd and that was reflected in the audience reaction. They could not in good conscience enthusiastically applaud Allen's rudimentary solos but whooped and hollered when the group was at its most raucous. Certainly one of the stranger concerts in festival history.
From there we go back to Studio Hydro-Quebec at Monument National for the wonderful duo of pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Interestingly, this was the second couple to play as part of the Jazz Contemporain series (after Henneman-Baars reported about on Day 2). During some adorable stage banter from Fujii, she explained that though she and Tamura were celebrating their 21st anniversary and have been playing together for even longer, this was really the first time she had composed music specifically for them. Given its quality, one wonders why she waited. In this intimatereally intimatesetting, Fujii the composer could exist equally with Fujii the recitalist, her pieces functioning in a realm closer to contemporary classical than jazz. They had the idiosyncratic melodrama one expects from her and all those unexpected conclusions to melodic lines. The one image that often came to mind, with Fujii's gauziness and Tamura's rasp, was of a lullaby played to a screaming baby. The music was less revolutionary than evolutionary and was some of Fujii's best in a career already full of highlights.