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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.

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