Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 9-11

John Kelman By

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

Cassandra Wilson/Christian Scott Sextet
James Carter Quintet/Jean Vanasse and Miroslav Vitous
Mory Kanté
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Quebec, Canada
July 4-6, 2008

With the demise of one of Montreal's most famous clubs, Le Spectrum, the 29th edition of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal utilized the nearby Place des Arts more considerably. Specfically, the 765 capacity Théâtre Jean-Duceppe was used more extensively to house shows that used to play in the 900-seat, club-style Le Spectrum. A fine room with beautiful acoustics—as is the case with all the venues at Place des Arts— Jean-Duceppe was a reasonable alternative, though the informality of Le Spectrum is something that can't be reproduced in the more formal setting of a concert hall. Still, in some cases, like Steve Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra show on July 2, which combined music with three films by Laurel & Hardy, moving to a theater environment was actually an advantage.

Still, of all the venues used by the festival, the most intimate and hands- down favorite for both artists and fans is the Gesú Centre de Créativité. With a relatively small capacity of under 500 and located underneath a church, it has great sight lines, warm sound and allows for a closer connection between artist and fan. Two very different performances taking place at Gesú as the festival entered the home stretch— trumpeter Christian Scott's energetic sextet and a duo featuring vibraphonist Jean Vanasse and bassist Miroslav Vitous—demonstrated the breadth of music that the venue can host, while retaining all the signatures that have made it such a popular one.

Chapter Index
  1. July 4: Cassandra Wilson
  2. July 4: Christian Scott Sextet
  3. July 5: James Carter Quintet
  4. July 5: Jean Vanasse/Miroslav Vitous
  5. July 6: Mory Kanté
  6. Festival Wrap-Up

July 4: Cassandra Wilson

It's often said that the real test of an artist's mettle is the ability to recognize him/her from but a single note. In a career now in its third decade, vocalist Cassandra Wilson has become one of the most (if not the most) important singers of her generation, one of the few who will, in all likelihood, be remembered alongside artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Interpreting well- heeled material with a fresh voice, while also writing some fine original material, Wilson has the ability to deconstruct, reconstruct and reimagine popular songs that include the usual suspects from the standards of the "Great American Songbook," but just as likely tunes from such unlikely sources as The Monkees, Van Morrison and Hank Williams, not to mention singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, who have recently become grist for reevaluation.

Wilson's 6:00PM performance at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve was a return to the festival after a number of years, and while she was everything Wilson fans would expect and more, the show was somewhat marred by a less-than-stellar group. Still, Wilson could, as they say, sing the phone book and make it a moving experience, and her instantaneous command of the stage, taken after a brief instrumental introduction from her five-piece band, minimized the shortcomings of those around her.

Guitarist Marvin Sewell has been Wilson's mainstay since Travelling Miles (Blue Note, 1999), and while he's not a bad player, he's far better in a supporting role, and the amount of solo space given to him in Wilson's 75- minute set did nothing but highlight his inadequacies. With a number of acoustic and electric guitars, skill at finger and flat-picking, slide guitar and more, had he been joined by a more seasoned pianist who might have better shouldered the load (her most recent disc, Loverly (Blue Note, 2008), features Jason Moran). Sewell's solos, often resorting to tired, clichéd phrases, might have been briefer and, as a result, more compelling. With 22 year-old Jonathan Baptiste in the piano chair, however—a fine enough player, but a long way from finding his voice—the only foil for Swell was Wilson herself, and she afforded him far too much time in the spotlight.

Bassist Reginald Veal and the always impressive drummer E.J. Strickland were a finely attuned rhythm section, capable of playing it loose and abstract or gritty and funky. But percussionist Lekan Babalola barely did more than add nothing to the group's sound: he was actually either a distraction or made choices so obvious as to be deterrents. On the closer, the Lennon/McCartney classic "'Til There was You," every time Wilson sang the line, "There were bells on the hill," Babalola would ring....a bell. Once was cute; after that it was became annoying. Elsewhere, when Veal and Strickland were grooving hard, Babalola was so busy with his array of hand percussion, that he weakened the strength of an undeniably strong rhythm section that kept things on track, even when Sewell and Baptiste were overstaying their welcome.

Still, when Wilson took the stage with a dark and ethereal "Caravan" that surpassed her version on Loverly, all was forgiven. Wilson's greatest strength is her unfailing instinct—much like Miles Davis—at choosing to work the nooks and crannies of a single note when others would go for many. While she can and did scat, it was rare rather than definitive, and remained far more restrained. With Wilson, every note counts and her ability to approach her material—from a funky "St. James Infirmary Blues" to one of the show's highlights, a poignant version of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" by way of Joni Mitchell—with innovation and perfect intuition elevated the relatively brief performance, transcending any weaknesses in her group. Wilson manages to use effortless control and care in ways that never soften the emotional resonance of her delivery.

Shortcomings of the group aside, with the exception of Babalola's persistent non sequiturs, Sewell, Baptiste, Veal and Strickland made for a wonderful support group. Harmonically, Sewell uses some intriguing voicings and cannot be faulted for a spare approach that eschewed unnecessary pyrotechnical displays, while Baptiste's less-is-more accompaniment was a fine dovetail for Wilson's captivating and similarly economical delivery. But as satisfying as Wilson's own performance was, and as well- received as it was by the capacity audience, it's hard not to wonder just how much better the show would have been, had she either restricted Sewell and Baptiste's solo space or, better yet, recruited better choices as band mates for Veal and Strickland.

July 4: Christian Scott Sextet

Christian Scott has accomplished much in a relatively short time. Only 25, the New Orleans born and raised trumpeter who received his first instrument at the age of twelve spent less time than usual in the service of others, including Donald Harrison and Nnenna Freelon, before releasing his first album as a leader, and on a major jazz label to boot. The impressive Rewind That (Concord, 2006) was nominated for a Grammy and, while it didn't win, was an impressive notch for someone who'd paid—at least based on his recorded output up to that time—very little in the way of dues.

Anthem (Concord, 2007) built on the successes of its predecessor—a hard-hitting approach that managed to approach a number of contemporary markers including a hint of alt-rock attitude, pop song sensibility and a surprisingly hard-hitting and turbulent group aesthetic to collectively expanding some very impressive writing. Live, Scott's sextet, which included guitarist/musical director Matt Stevens (who's appeared on both of Scott's releases), saxophonist Louis Fouché, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders and powerhouse drummer Jamire Williams, delivered a late night performance at Gesú that was one of the most flat-out exciting shows of the festival.

With material culled largely from Rewind That and Anthem, Scott began the set without Fouché, (other than two new tunes and a radical reworking of McCoy Tyner's "Contemplation," from his 1967 Blue Note classic, The Real McCoy) delivering a one-two punch of "Litany Against Fear" and "Dying in Love," two songs with a story but, even without it, which hit the audience hard, making it clear that, as powerful as the group is on disc, live it's another beast entirely. While there are some heavy hitters on Scott's discs—drummer Marcus Gilmore, rising star bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Aaron Parks, whose upcoming Blue Note debut is destined to rattle plenty of cages—in many ways his touring group was better. The chemistry was stronger, the energy level higher, and there was the kind of collaborative commitment that took the pop-like "Katrina's Eyes" to another level.

The entire group was impressive. Scott's ability to make his one horn sound, at times, like a flugelhorn with a warmer, more rounded tone and, at other times, brasher and more sharply trumpet-like through embouchure alone was impressive, but only a means to a very musical end. All too-often young players are over-excited (and, based on Scott's introduction of the band, he was clearly pumped from the audience's enthusiastic reception), but Scott demonstrated remarkable restraint. He was easily capable of stratospheric reaches and lithe, rapid-fire lines, but rather than relying on those devices, he remained true to the melodic core of his repertoire, bringing out the big guns when appropriate and, again, as nothing more than a means to an end that involved creating solos with focus and construction.

Fouché and Clayton—who has his own debut coming out on ArtistShare this fall—were equally strong soloists, with Clayton also a fine supporting player, more like a conversational equal than accompanist, as he pushed and pulled, making Scott's music even more malleable. Stevens, the only constant here with Scott's two discs, is another young player with plenty of potential. His growth since Anthem is unmistakable—the Scofield/Frisell/McLaughlin influences remain, but have become more fully subsumed into a personal voice that begs for a solo release of his own.

Highlights of a group filled with high water marks were Sanders and Williams, who managed to keep a simmering turbulence beneath the entire set that occasionally erupted into controlled chaos. Form was never far away, but Williams in particular stretched the pulse in so many ways that when he finally returned to a more definitive pulse, the sense of relief was palpable. He incorporated acoustic emulations of dubbing in his playing and, with a kit sound defined by a sharp snare; his solos were powerful without ever approaching excess.

The audience' standing ovation was no surprise—this is, after all, Montreal and its audiences are renowned as some of the most enthusiastic in the world—but it appeared that even Scott, whose between song patter was both informative (the genesis of "Litany Against Fear" and "Dying in Love" both tragic and moving) and energizing. A good thing, because when Scott stopped talking and began to play there was relentlessness to the music that transcended mere excitement. The Christian Scott Sextet may play with the bold enthusiasm of youth, but it also plays with a maturity sometimes hard to find in artists twice its age. Everyone in the group has the potential to become more visible names and, based on the group's Montreal performance, and its selling out of every CD brought to the venue, clearly its audience think so too.

July 5: James Carter Quintet

Since being "discovered" by Wynton Marsalis at the age of seventeen, woodwind multi-instrumentalist James Carter has, in some ways, surpassed the trumpeter, at least when it comes to creating a discography of remarkable consistency. Not yet forty, the man with the big sound has made few, if any, missteps in a career that's been defined by stretching the boundaries of hard-hitting mainstream, occasionally venturing outside that purview into electric funk on Layin' The Cut (Atlantic, 2000) and largely gentler territory on The Real Quiet Storm (Atlantic, 1994).

But it's Carter's reputation as a fiery, take-no-prisoners player that draws in most of his fans. His latest record, Present Tense (Emarcy, 2008) and sold out performance at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe made it clear that, despite two fine homage albums early in the decade— Chasin' the Gypsy (Atlantic, 2000), for Django Reinhardt, and Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia, 2003), for Billie Holiday—with Present Tense he's back to a mixing up a high energy mainstream setting with muscular solos that skirt the edges of free jazz and even farther left-of-center leanings.

Live, Present Tense's all-star line-up was replaced by Carter's working band—pianist Gerard Gibbs, bassist Ralph Armstrong, drummer Leonard King and relative newcomer, trumpeter Curtis Taylor—but there were no compromises. If anything, this working group has evolved its own chemistry, turning the energetic opener to both Present Tense and the showy "Rapid Shave" into a real barnstormer. Carter wasn't the only player with muscular chops, but while the up-tempo tune featured no shortage of high velocity playing, it still grooved hard, with Armstrong an unmovable anchor who always provided a firm pulse around which his band mates could be more flexible. King, too, was a strong timekeeper but, with a huge grin that never left his face for the entire ninety-minute set, was an empathic drummer who managed to lock into the soloists' rhythmic inventions without sounding obvious.

The entire quintet was all about encouraging each other, with hoots, hollers and laughter a constant, especially during a particularly compelling solo by Gibbs on a funky version of the Clifford Brown-associated "Song of Delilah" that mixed use of simple motifs as evolutionary conceits with a playful, puckish approach. Opening in open-ended free jazz territory before shifting to the visceral groove, it was also a strong solo vehicle for Taylor, a newcomer from whom more will, no doubt, be heard from in the future.

Despite the strength of Carter's quintet, it's the leader who grabbed the most attention. Carter's effortless mastery of a multitude of extended techniques so that they become an integrated part of his sound, rather than a "look at me, I'm circular breathing," was refreshing, as was his ability to go from lyrical elegance to gut- wrenching howls, screams and growls at the drop of a hat. He also knew how to work the audience, with solos that built to fever pitch, drawing the audience in, only to resolve suddenly to create a palpable sense of relief. His bass clarinet playing on the somewhat episodic "Bro. Dolphy" was particularly memorable, working the entire range of the instrument and adding a few ideas to the mix that Dolphy never did.

None of this would have worked, of course, without the ever-reliable and equally driving support of Gibbs, Armstrong and King. Present Tense is a fine album with some wonderful contributions by James Genus, Victor Lewis and D.D. Jackson, but in performance with his working group, Carter was able to turn up the heat for a show that had his audience literally screaming for more.

July 5: Jean Vanasse/Miroslav Vitous

It's been over twenty years since Montreal vibraphonist Jean Vanasse released Nouvelle Cuisine (Justin Time, 1986) with Weather Report founding member, bassist Miroslav Vitous, but nearly twenty years later on a cross- Canada summer festival tour that's the first time they've toured together since 1989, it sounds as if no time has passed. Well, almost.

Since that time, Vitous has achieved success away from playing as the developer of what has become the de facto standard in orchestral sample libraries. And while these samples can be heard as early as Atmos (ECM, 1992), his fine duet disc with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, it's only more recently, on albums like the outstanding Universal Syncopations II (ECM, 2007), that the classically informed improvising bassist has begun to truly and seamlessly integrate his use of orchestral sounds and harmonic movements into his music. When Vitous and Vanasse first toured, Vitous had not yet begun to integrate technology; for the duo's late night performance at Gesú, while the intimacy of the format allowed Vanasse and Vitous to take music from both composers to unexpected places, Vitous' use of samples was also an integral part of their 75-minute set.

Vanasse is a hidden Canadian treasure who has, since his early collaboration with Vitous, gone on to release two larger ensemble albums on the Montreal-based Effendi label, most recently Amérikois (2004). And while his penchant for melodic writing that's redolent of mid-'70s ECM is as definitive on his albums as it was in performance, the greater flexibility afforded by this smaller setting gave both the vibraphonist and Vitous more opportunities to explore.

Seated with a keyboard and computer in front of him, Vitous transformed one of his earliest compositions, "Morning Lake"—first heard on Weather Report (Columbia, 1971) and later revisited on the second of his collaborations with drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist Terje Rypdal, To Be Continued (ECM, 1981)—into an expansive orchestral tour de force, Vanasse only entering mid- point. Untarnished by use of a smaller travel bass, Vitous' distinctive singing arco was a signature throughout the concert, though his lithe pizzicato was no less recognizable. Tone, phrasing and issues of sheer physicality—the density of the fingers, the pressure applied—define an artist's voice, and when that voice has emerged, as it did with Vitous four decades ago on early albums like Chick Corea's classic Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968) and Wayne Shorter's Super Nova (Blue Note, 1969), it remains independent of the instrument.

Masterful whether using two or four mallets, Vanasse may not have the international cachet of Vitous, but it was clear that many in the audience remember his 1986 and 1989 festival appearances with the bassist. His solo combined the instrument's inherent resonance with more staccato lines achieved by pressing one mallet on the vibraphone's metal bars to prevent them from sustaining. His ability to navigate changes, effortlessly shift from ethereal four-note chords to two-mallet linear phrases suggests a talent waiting to be heard by a larger audience.

Both players combined a clear comfort with the jazz language and an appreciation of more impressionistic classicism. Between Vitous' virtuosic ability to blend deft phrases with his vast array of programmed samples and Vanasse's light touch and ever-so-slightly skewed compositional approach, it was a fine way to end the festival's Jazz Dans La Nuit series and, with only a couple of exceptions, indoor ticketed programming for the 29th edition of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.

July 6: Mory Kanté

While the numbers aren't yet in, looking out at the crowd gathered for the 29th edition of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal's closing party featuring Guinean griot and kora master Mory Kanté, there may well have been more people in attendance than at the July 1 outdoor show by Bran Van 3000. That means in excess of 100,000 people, who began gathering in the afternoon and, by the time opening act The Lost Fingers hit the stage at 9:00PM, were just as pumped and ready to party.

That the festival regularly draws these kinds of numbers to its opening, middle and closing Grand Évenéments without any kind of visible trouble is a testament to its remarkable security and crowd control...and, of course, the crowd itself. Beer flows freely at these events, and yet it's extremely rare to find anyone misbehaving, or acting inebriated, period. Festival security has, over the past two decades, learned a secret to transparent crowd control that should be a model for other festivals with smaller attendance but greater challenges. But it's all part of the special vibe of Montreal, where there's a pervasive positive feeling that seems to put everyone in a good mood.

Quebec City's The Lost Fingers delivered a brief opening set of jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz, but with a difference. While the two acoustic guitar/double- bass line-up of Byron "Maiden" Mikaloff, Alex Morissette and Christian Roberge—singers all—felt like a descendent of the music of Django Reinhardt, the material the group chose was as far removed from classic jazz of Le Quintet Du Hot Club de France as one could get. Hard though it is to imagine, the trio delivered swinging acoustic versions of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and an even more unexpected choice of D.O.N.S.' "Pump Up the Jam," complete with rap.

The crowd seemed to enjoy the trio's 25-minute set, but with music veering well into the realm of shtick, any more than a small dose would likely have lost its entertainment value and become tedious. The members of the group are fine enough players and perhaps even better singers, but there's little doubt that its concept is one with a limited shelf life. On the other hand, its debut, Lost in the 80's (TAND, 2008), peaked at #6 on Billboard's Top Canadian Albums chart, so perhaps there's room, albeit most likely briefly, for the trio's contrivance.

When Kanté and his twelve-piece group hit the stage after a very short break, however, there was no doubt that this was the real deal. Other than a little weight, Kanté, approaching sixty, looked twenty years younger as he delivered nearly two hours of danceable African grooves that had the audience involved from the first note. Few others, with the possible exception of Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, are as masterful on the large, 21-string harp with a large resonating body made from a gourd cut in half and wrapped in cow skin. And while Kanté's most recent release, Sabou (Riverboat, 2004) was a return to more acoustic traditional roots; his Montreal performance was electric and electrifying. The only reason the crowd didn't jump to its feet when the set began was because it was already on them. Even a young child, no older than three, could be seen dancing through almost the entire set, remarkable given the show began at a little after 9:30PM—well past any three year-old's bedtime.

While Kanté's kora gave his group a unique complexion, he played it for less than half the set, opting for the most part to sing and work the stage, in addition to playing acoustic guitar on one tune early on. Instead, it was the marimba-like but independently evolved African balafon that helped define and distinguish Kanté's ensemble sound, which also featured a three-piece horn section, three female vocalists, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Kanté's voice bears some comparison to Malian singer Salif Keita, but only in the most superficial way, possessing a deeper tone and a penchant for creating well-articulated percussive sounds that, at more than one point in the show, he used as a trade-off against his percussionist's djembe to great effect.

Engaging the audience in call-and-response, screaming and sing-along segments early in the set, Kanté's ability to keep the audience participation going throughout the performance was a remarkable feat. Most groups are happy to get the audience involved once or twice, but with Kanté it was a fundamental part of the entire show. As was his continued interaction with the members of his group, most notably the djembe player. And while the relatively few changes in Kanté's writing could have caused the set to drag at times, his showmanship—which included calling upon his backing singers to show some dance steps as well as bringing two male dancers onstage towards the end of the show for some remarkable gymnastics—and the unshakable groove of his group made it a fine way to end the festival.

Festival Wrap-Up

Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects to the logistical control of the festival is how clean its staff keeps the site. Even more incredible is that by the morning after the show's closing party, the large main stage was already well on its way to being torn down. With the organization that runs the festival—L'Équip Spectra—getting little in the way of a break before its next festival, Les Francofolies de Montréal running from July 24 through August 3, there's little time to waste in winding down Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.

As always, the festival managed to deliver more than enough jazz content for those looking for it, while also providing plenty of other acts in other spheres (some intersecting, others not) to ensure that the festival continues to draw in audiences with broader tastes. As ever, it's a challenge to pick highlights of a festival that's filled with so many high water marks, but for the 2008 festival, some of the best performances were a hotter than anticipated Steely Dan, the sublime intimacy of Jean Vanasse/Miroslav Vitous and the humor and stylistic dexterity of Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra.

Every festival faces the inevitable task of making each year better than the one that preceded it. With its 30th anniversary coming up in 2009, Montréal is faced with an even greater challenge. But with a remarkable programming staff that always finds creative ways to push the envelope year-after-year, there's little doubt that Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2009 is going to be an exceptional one.

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

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