Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2014

John Kelman BY

Sign in to view read count
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Ambrose Akinmusire By Invitation
Tigran By Invitation
Tord Gustavsen Quartet / Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana, Mehliana
June 26-July 6, 2014

There simply isn't a festival in the world like the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Where else in the world can you find a city where, with a population of well over 1.5 million people, six square blocks are closed down for the entire duration of the festival—in this year's case 11 full days running from June 26 to July 6, 2014? Where can you find a festival that, with six outdoor stages putting on free performances from mid-afternoon until early morning, you can catch some truly world class acts like Partisans or Rob Mosher without paying a penny? Or have the pick of thirteen different ticketed indoor venues where an even broader cross-section of some of the best jazz, blues and world music can be found?

For its 35th edition, FIJM had one of its best overall rosters in recent years. With three By Invitation series guests including Harry Manx, Ambrose Akinmusire and Tigran Hamasyan, there was the chance to see these largely up-and-comers in some remarkable contexts, like Akinmusire in duet with guitarist Bill Frisell (taking a day off from his own tour of Guitar in the Space Age, seen just a few evenings prior at the 2014 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival); Tigran in duet with pianist Brad Mehldau; and Manx playing with everyone from eight-string wizard Charlie Hunter to Kevin Breit and David Lindley.

Large scale shows featured a terrific mix of performers this year as well. Singers including Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves and Stacey Kent shared the Place des Arts Théâtre Maissonneuve with Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion, festival stalwart Marcus Miller, Terence Blanchard and Oliver Jones, amongst others; while at PDA's recently opened Maison Symphonique de Montréal it was possible to catch everyone from the mercurial but marvelous Keith Jarrett and singer/songwriter Elvis Costello to Bobby McFerrin and Brad Mehldau solo. With Mehldau making a number of appearances at this year's FIJM, he also delivered his recent electronica-informed Mehliana (Nonesuch, 2014), with drummer Mark Guiliana; pianist Fred Hersch, the Heath Brothers, Ben Sidran and Peter Bernstein all had two-night residencies at the city's longstanding Upstairs Club; Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and B.B. King were all performing at PDA's large-scale Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier; while, earlier in the week, Canada's own Daniel Lanois, blues legend Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper, Pink Martini and soul-meisters Earth, Wind & Fire all performed at the same venue.

A truly international festival, up-and-comers and/or talent deserving wider recognition were represented by Israel's Shai Maestro, France's Baptiste Trotignon and American bassist Charnett Moffett, all joining Mehliana and others at the festival's own L'Astral club, situated on the ground floor of the Maison du Festival that was opened five years ago at FIJM's 30th anniversary edition; sublime Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen shared PDA's Théâtre-Duceppe with incendiary saxophonist Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano's remarkable Us Five group and trumpeter Tom Harrell's beautiful Colors of a Dream (HighNote, 2013) project; while the late night Jazz Dans La Nuit series, back at the Gésu—Centre de Créativité venue that also hosted the By Invitation series earlier each evening, brought a variety of its own, ranging from saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Gamak group, the Now This trio featuring Gary Peacock, pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron, and Jeff Ballard Trio, to the Christian McBride Trio, Dr. Lonnie Smith Octet, Monty Alexander and Felix Pastorius .

And that's but a small sampling of the myriad of fine performers that came to FIJM this year to help celebrate its 35th anniversary. While it was only possible to attend the festival for five days, after covering nine days at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, there were simply too many choices to make, and so one way to simplify and still catch a broad range of projects was to choose the two By Invitation series hosts—Ambrose Akinmusire and Tigran Hamasyan (now going solely by his first name, Tigran)—and fleshing those five early evening shows out with performances by Mehliana and Tord Gustavsen. There were so many choices that it was almost possible to be driven crazy trying to make the right choice but, at the end of the day, there are no right or wrong choices, only the best guesses at what will provide the broadest representation of FIJM's 450 performances.

June 29: Ambrose Akinmusire By Invitation with Bill Frisell

"I used to play along to your records when I was in High School," said trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire when introducing guitarist Bill Frisell for a duo set at Gésu that seemed over before it began, so consistently beautiful, so pure and organic, and so completely in-tune with each other were these two players representing two different generations. Akinmusire may have been, to some degree, in awe of the fact that now, perhaps 15 years later, he was on a stage at one of the world's most famous jazz festivals playing with one of his heroes; what was, perhaps, even more touching was how happy Frisell appeared to be playing with this 32 year-old trumpeter who has, over just the past few years, established himself as a player of significance (winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition) and a bandleader of equal import, with his two Blue Note recordings—2011's When the Heart Emerges Glistening and 2014's The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint—receiving both critical and popular acclaim.

On Gésu's stage—with a single microphone for Akinmusire and Frisell up front and close to the trumpeter—a variety of effects pedals set up by the guitarist's feet, with two Fender amplifiers spread far apart behind him on stage right—there was as much open space on the stage as there was in the music the two played during their relatively short 50-minute set, not including two encores demanded from a packed house that was simply not prepared to let the duo go with just one.

While much of what the two played was unrecognizable, there were two pieces that were both identifiable and clear highlights. First, a deep look at the traditional tune "Shenandoah," a song that Frisell has covered more than once, including on his 1999 Nonesuch album Good Dog, Happy Man, on his double-disc East/West, and on his Live Download Series #13: 2001-07-21 Tokyo, Japan set with regular trio mates Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen. With Akinmusire as respectful of the tune as Frisell, the two nevertheless took it to unexpected places, Frisell employing his pedals to create cloud-like loops and heavenly sonic washes; Akinmusire varying his embouchure to obtain textures ranging from pure and sharp to warm and nearly vocal-like. While the melody and the changes were never far away, both Akinmusire and Frisell stamped the song as not something of their own, but as something that collectively transcended anything that either player was doing individually.

Using the same Telecaster-based guitar as he did in Ottawa a few evenings prior—the first time, at least in recent memory, that Frisell has used an instrument with a whammy bar—Frisell's ears were wide open as he took cues from Akinmusire but also pushed the trumpeter in unexpected directions for the set-closing version of the guitarist's own "Throughout"—a tune that appeared on his very first solo album, Throughout (ECM, 1983) but which he has revisited many times, including the same Tokyo show with Scherr and Wollesen where he played "Shenandoah." A spare tune with a simple melody line, Ambrose used a repetitive single note, employing extended techniques to give it timbral variety, as Frisell demonstrated his remarkable ability to self-accompany, using open strings and/or held notes as he layered chordal motion and linear phrases, sometimes with the addition of effects that created oblique loops shot into the stratosphere with a pitch shifter.

The result was truly music of the heavens; a cinematic performance by just two musicians that set a high bar for Akinmusire's two nights to follow. Akinmusire barely moved at all, while Frisell rocked gently back and forth as he created lush warm colors over which the trumpeter could layer lines that rarely demonstrated overt virtuosity but, instead, oftentimes made the trumpeter's unmistakable instrumental prowess crystal clear by the notes he chose not to play rather than those he did. Musicians that reach this level of expertise and creativity have nothing to prove, a liberating freedom that allows them to make music that makes sense in the context within which it lives, rather than music that's a vehicle for "look at me" pyrotechnics. Neither "Throughout" nor "Shenandoah" required any kind of high octane, rapid fire playing; instead, they demanded an adherence to overall structure while allowing for complete and utter interpretive freedom—the kind of freedom made all the more impressive when it's players like Akinmusire and Frisell, who both possess the kinds of ears that allow them to respond, almost at the speed of thought, to what their partners are doing.

In the case of Akinmusire and Frisell, they were so in synch that it's hard to believe the two have rarely performed together before. Based upon their duo set at FIJM, this is a relationship that needs to continue, and one that would be well-served by a recording, whether a commercial release on either of the player's labels, or as part of Frisell's Live Download Series. Here's hoping someone was recording the show at the soundboard.

Jun 30: Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet By Invitation

Having seen Akinmusire at the 2012 Trondheim Jazz Festival with a trimmed-down quartet, the second evening of his By Invitation series at FIJM provided a great opportunity to hear the young trumpeter with his full quintet at many festival-goers' favorite venue, Gésu—Centre de Créativité. Saxophonist Walter Smith III was back, alongside fellow band mates Sam Harris (piano, Fender Rhodes), Harish Raghavan (double bass) and Justin Brown (second place winner in the 2012 Thelonious Monk Jazz Drums Competition). While Smith, Raghavan and Brown have been members of Akinmusire's group since his 2011 Blue Note debut When the Heart Merges Glistening—Brown and Smith going even further back to the trumpeter's leader debut, Prelude to Cora (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008)—Harris, despite being a member of Akinmusire's touring group for more than three years, didn't appear on record with the group until 2014's even more impressive follow-up, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint.

Explaining that most of the members of his quintet are friends he met as far back as high school (Brown) and university (Harris and Raghavan), and meeting Smith on the scene in Los Angeles, he spoke of being 15 and "dreaming of opportunities like this," pausing and then saying to the full house audience, with a chuckle, "I guess this is more about me than you...but I'm glad y'all are here." Akinmusire's music may seem serious—rigorous, at times, even—but the camaraderie shared by everyone in the group was clear, as Akinmusire stood towards the rear of the stage between Raghavan and Brown at one point early in the nearly 90-minute set, his eyes closed, head nodding back and forth and uttering the occasional "Whoo!" while Smith took one of a number of superb solos.

Akinmusire focused largely on music from The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, specifically the lyrical "Vertha," The Beauty of Dissolving Portrait"—here turned from a the chamber jazz version on record, with string quartet and flute, into a tumultuous rubato exploration—and the knotty "Bubbles," alongside music from When the Heart Merges Glistening, a particularly wonderful duo with Harris, "What's New," that was the first of two encores; the second featuring the full quintet before a brief piece that seemed to act as Miles Davis' "The Theme" did at the end of the legendary trumpeter's sets from the mid-'50s through to the early '70s.

Akinmusire's virtuosity was on far greater display this second evening—as was true of his entire group—in contrast to his more restrained, spare work the night before with Frisell; but there was not a single moment when it felt like it was anything but a means to a wholly musical end, even when the music became abstract and abstruse. Brown was particularly impressive, a veritable force of nature who often created a relentless maelstrom of sound beneath the group, with only Raghavan holding things down.

As fine as Akinmusire's Trondheim performance was, hearing Smith with the group made clear just how different Akinmusire's band is when he's with them. A saxophonist whose career was already established prior to joining up with Akinmusire—his Introducing Walter Smith III (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006) an impressive leader debut—at 34, just two years older than Akinmusire, Smith's upward trajectory had already commenced through work with artists ranging from Kendrick Scott to Sean Jones and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.

With three new songs also included in the set, Akinmusire is clearly a hard-working trumpeter, composer and bandleader who has just begun to deliver on promises made early in his career, when he could be found on albums like pianist Alan Pasqua's stellar The Antisocial Club (Cryptogramophone, 2007), David Binney's Third Occasion (Mythology, 2009) and Joel Harrison's Urban Myths (HighNote, 2009). Now easily able to fill a room like Gésu and sustain a three-night By Invitation run, he was clearly stretching himself beyond the comfort zone—though, given the amount of risk taken by this relentlessly imaginative band, "comfort zone" may not be the right words—of his regular working group. The series is often given to artists with far more years behind them, but with two of his three By Invitation nights over, it was clear that this young trumpeter is already so well-formed that he could have sustained an even longer run.

June 30: Tord Gustavsen Quartet

Tord Gustavsen is no stranger to Montréal, his first appearance dating back to a decade ago, with the trio that delivered his first three ECM recordings: Changing Places (2003); (2005); and Being There (2007). But as good as that trio was, it's the quartet with whom the Norwegian pianist, renowned for his exploration of a relatively narrow temporal range yet capable of finding so much in it, has released three subsequent recordings—2009's Restored, Returned, 2012's and 2014's Extended Circle—that has given Gustavsen the opportunity to continue expanding his purview in a patient, methodical fashion.

Gustavsen's evolution was as gradual as it's ever been, but with Mats Eilertsen replacing trio bassist Harald Johnsen and the increasingly well-known Tore Brunborg (saxophones) fleshing Gustavsen's group to a quartet which also features the only other holdover from the pianist's trio days, drummer Jarle Vespestad, there's been room for much greater expansion to the pianist's core values and raison d'être. For his Montréal performance, Gustavsen introduced something both new and very surprising for an artist whose allegiance to the purity of the acoustic piano has long been a strong definer: a Moog-produced bar that optically tracks the movement of the keys of any piano over which it is lain, allowing the pianist to connect, via MIDI, to other sound sources to broaden the instrument's textural palette.

Gustavsen got the idea from In The Country's Morten Qvenild, who has spent the last couple of years honing a technique he calls "hyper piano." Qvenild's use of it is more extreme, but it was no surprise to find the colors that Gustavsen used, for the most part subtly, to expand the colors of his instrument never impeded his absolutely direct connection with his instrument. The clearest use was in the group's first encore, where the pianist created an organ-like cushion beneath Eilertsen's characteristically lyrical solo.

It was a bit of a strange performance, for reasons beyond the group's control. During the quartet's first couple of tunes, the house lights kept flashing up and down, creating a real distraction for the audience that went largely unnoticed by the band. As Gustavsen picked up a microphone and began to speak, a surprisingly large percentage of the audiences leaped to its feet and began yelling "fix the lights" en Français; it clearly shocked the pianist, who had no idea what was going on, until a technician came onstage, took the microphone and announced that there was a technical problem, and that there would be a short break to allow them to correct the problem.

The group returned roughly 15 minutes later, with the lighting problem fixed and the audience back to being in a much better, more receptive mood—the lesson learned being that Montréal audiences are famous for their enthusiastic reception, but clearly you don't mess with them either (!). But with Gustavsen's elegant demeanor and even gentler approach to his instrument, it wasn't long before the group had the audience in its sway, performing material from Extended Circle like "Devotion," which the pianist described as an adaptation of the "Hallelujah" section of mass that he'd been commissioned to write in Norway; and the gentle "Right There," which Gustavsen used to start the program after the lighting problem was resolved, and which utilized the hyper piano to great effect, despite being so subtle as to be barely discernible. Perhaps not even noticeable to much of the audience, instead, it was something more felt than heard.

While always a player whose objective is to respect the music and never overplay, Gustavsen's performance was, perhaps, more overtly virtuosic than normal, a consequence of this particular group of musicians' ability to both respond to Gustavsen's often subtle cues and even more rarefied thematic constructs, as well as gently drive him towards unexpected territory. A Gustavsen performance is invariably very accessible, but not in a way that sacrifices either musical substance or risk, and this performance was no different: Brunborg, whether playing tenor saxophone or curved soprano, was as concerned with the tone of every note as he was the way his notes actually strung together; Vespestad, a drummer capable of great power in groups like Farmers Market, plays with Gustavsen, at times, so quietly that you almost have to lean forward in your seat to hear him; but in the context of this group has become a much more dynamic player than in Gustavsen's earlier trio; while Eilertsen proved, as ever, capable of perfection in tone and choice, whether playing pizzicato or con arco, with a rich tone that was, at one time, rarely heard from a jazz bassist but is becoming more the norm as the line between jazz and classical (and, for that matter, other artificially created genres) music becomes increasingly fuzzy.

The result was a performance that, despite being slightly marred by a technical problem in the hall, was even better than Gustavsen's 2010 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival performance—no mean feat. But with the pianist continuing to demonstrate a painstaking approach to change—in particular the very new addition of hyper piano to his palette (this was only his second performance to use it)—along with an ensemble that adheres to his aesthetic while at the same time, driving the pianist into unexpected territory, it was clear that there is still plenty of potential available for this superlative quartet to explore.

July 1: Ambrose Akinmusire By Invitation with Tigran

The Festival International de Jazz De Montréal has been running its By Invitation series for much of its three-plus decade history, and while placing two By Invitation artists back-to-back so that the first artist collaborates, on his/her final night, with the second—in effect passing the baton—is not exactly rare, it's also not exactly a regular occurrence either; but that's exactly what happened at the 35th edition of FIJM. After a glorious duo encounter with guitarist Bill Frisell, followed by a stellar evening with his regular working quintet, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire closed out his extremely successful three-night By Invitation run by inviting pianist/keyboardist Tigran for an evening that wrapped up the trumpeter's series in high style while, at the same time, opening the door to the Armenian pianist's own By Invitation series, where he performed in duo with renowned pianist Brad Mehldau, as well as bringing his cross-cultural Shadow Theater (Sunnyside, 2014) project to FIJM for the first time.

For Tigran's collaboration with Akinmusire, the two were joined by one member of Tigran's Shadow Theater group, bassist Sam Minaie, and Akinmusire's drummer, Justin Brown (who may have demonstrated even greater breadth here than he did during the trumpeter's quintet performance...and that's saying something).

The evening opened in particularly incendiary fashion with "As We Fight," an Akinmusire composition from the trumpeter's The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, with Tigran delivering the first of many definitive solos; an intense and very physical player, Tigran could be seen, at times, with his head down almost on the keys, or literally jumping out of his seat and coming back down with a powerful crash on his piano. Akinmusire, too, was on fire, bolstered by Minaie's potent electric bass and Brown's maelstrom-like approach to his kit. Minaie and Brown then left the stage, opening up a dark-hued duo between Akinmusire and Tigran that, based on a traditional Armenian song, was still an unexpectedly modernistic look at the tradition, with Tigran delivering another superb, motif-driven solo filled with powerful flourishes, the pianist dramatically raising his arm above the keyboard after a particularly impressive passage.

Minaie (on double bass this time) and Brown returned to the stage for the title track to Tigran's solo piano record, A Fable (Verve, 2011)—its lilting melody played by Akinmusire with a particularly burnished tone and clearly referencing Tigran's Armenian roots before opening up to a pedal-tone-driven middle section that gave both the pianist and trumpeter room to explore in more modal fashion, the big smile on Akinmusire's face during Tigran's extended solo just one example of how much fun the group was having together.

When Akinmusire stepped up to the microphone to introduce the band and the music, his saying that this three-night By Invitation series was "the most life-changing thing I've done in my musical career to date" was, for any who'd attended all of his shows—excellent all—a statement of the obvious. It's rare for FIJM to invite a musician as young as Akinmusire to the By Invitation series, but this is an artist who has accomplished, in his still relatively nascent career, more than many twice his age.

Akinmusire went on to describe how he'd first run into Tigran at a UCLA party, where the pianist was in the living room with an electric keyboard and two small speakers, "just going at it." Praising the pianist and, before launching into The Painted Savior's haunting "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child," joking with Tigran that "this is actually where you're supposed to say something nice about me," it was clear that, whether or not Tigran spoke any actual words about the trumpeter, his respect and admiration were absolutely clear throughout the set. Here, however, he moved from piano to his electric keyboards, initially eking out a sound not unlike a pedal steel guitar, but with a hint of the Fender Rhodes at its core as well. A beautiful ballad that was more light and optimistic than Tigran's Armenian folk song earlier in a set that ran well over 90 minutes—another indication of how much fun the group was having, given these sets are usually intended to be 60-75 minutes—following a spare, near-vocal solo from Akinmusire, Tigran contributed an electro-centric solo that was as much (or more) about color and texture as it was melody and chordal movement. It was a wonderful respite before Akinmusire launched into the next piece a cappella, his technical mastery at its most overt as he effortlessly leapt across broad intervals, layered cascading lines and, in just a few short minutes, provided all the justification necessary for his invitation to the series.

One of many high points in a set loaded with them came when Tigran and Akinmusire each took a turn reinventing a jazz standard alone in trio with Minaie and Brown, each player demonstrating, in very different ways, just how relevant this material still is, a half century or more since its inception. The four then came together for a complex set-closer defined by irregular meters and a knotty arrangement that also provided an ostinato-driven opportunity for Brown to solo—a drummer who, in just a single decade, has become an in-demand player for artists across a broad spectrum of music, ranging from Gerald Clayton and Josh Roseman to Joe Gillman and MC Overlord.

While it was not surprising that Gésu was filled for Akinmusire's opening night duo with festival regular Bill Frisell, that the house was similarly packed—and would not let the trumpeter go without at least one encore each night, in this case a soft piano/trumpet duo that shone a huge spotlight on Akinmusire's distinctive tone and embouchure—was a testimony to the young trumpeter's rapid rise to both critical and popular acclaim. If this three-night By Invitation series was a life-changing, musical high point in his career to date, it's almost impossible to imagine what milestones are ahead for this innovative, uncompromising musician...but one thing is certain: it will be an absolute pleasure to join him for the ride.

July 2: Tigran By Invitation with Brad Mehldau

That Brad Mehldau's meteoric rise to critical and popular acclaim in the jazz world now dates back nearly two decades is remarkable in itself, given the pianist is only 43 years old. But in a career that's ranged from the acoustic focus of his first marvelous trio, documented on The Art of the Trio: Recordings 1996-2001 (Nonesuch, 2011), to his recent electronics/progressive rock-tinged work with drummer Mark Guiliana on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch, 2014) only means that Mehldau now has even greater relevance for aspiring/up-and-coming pianists and keyboardists.

For Armenian pianist Tigran—2006 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition—the idea of being a By Invitation artist for whom playing in a duo setting with Mehldau may have been ..."a dream come true for me...as I have been listening to him since I was 13 years old," but if there's one thing his 90+ minute set at Gésu demonstrated to a packed house was that Mehldau may be the more established of the two, but Tigran easily held his own, whether performing twin-piano duos that felt even larger thanks to Mehldau's remarkable "two hands sounding like four" technique, or Tigran switching to his heavily effected Fender Rhodes, allowing the duo to go to places for which the audience may well have been unprepared.

With two such talented—and virtuosic—players, the possibility of train wrecks where they might step on each other's toes was completely averted, the result of both pianists possessing the kind of ears that kept close attention on what the other was doing—as well as a general tendency for Tigran to occupy the upper half of the piano while Mehldau stayed in the lower register of his instrument—exemplified beautifully in their look at Tigran's "The Year is Gone," from his Shadow Theater album that would form the basis for his second By Invitation performance the following day.

Driven by Mehldau's relentless forward motion, this version may have lacked the electronics and voices found on the album original, but it did feel far more open, as the two pianists faced each other from across two grand pianos placed together like two very large pieces of a puzzle. Mehldau may have an edge on the virtuosity front, but there's also seventeen years distancing the 43 year-old pianist from his 26 year-old partner. And if he did have a slight edge, it was less than noticeable as Tigran—whose duet with live sampler Jan Bang at the 2013 Punkt Festival was one of many unexpected highlights at the annual Live Remix event—clearly demonstrated his own mastery; a motif-driven pianist who has, in just a few short years, built a reputation for truly telling stories through his music.

While the set contained a number of overtly impressive pieces, some of the more captivating ones were those where the two pianists surrendered completely to the demands of more elegant and rarefied music...oftentimes either taken from traditional Armenian music or, in one beautiful case towards the end of the duo's set, a piece of religious music.

During the one piece where he moved to Rhodes, Tigran demonstrated his own very personal and natural approach to the integration of electronics, one which was significantly different from Mehldau's own emphasis on electric piano and synth at his Mehliana performance later that evening. But the real high points in this set was when the two were both at their grand pianos, finding ways to navigate either original material or, in the case of a version of "I Remember You," so radically re-harmonized as to be nearly unrecognizable beyond the first bar of the memorable melody.

After playing together for much of the set, and before concluding with a stunning duo performance—where it first appeared that Tigran was going to return to his electric setup but then decided otherwise and returned to his grand—each player took the opportunity to deliver one solo piece: Mehldau's case an unidentified piece that emphasized his roots in Bach and fugues; in Tigran's a chance to play an Armenian religious prayer; in both cases sublime performances that, as clearly masterful as each pianist was, also demonstrated their complete and utter respect for the song at hand.

It was a great chance to hear two masters of their instrument—one, fully established, the other quickly catching up—where neither had anything to prove, making their collaboration more a meeting of two minds where the result truly transcended individual contribution.

July 2: Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana: Mehliana

When Brad Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana appeared at the 40th anniversary of Vossa Jazz in Voss, Norway in the spring of 2013, it was beyond disappointing; in a country where the integration of electronics with acoustic instrumentation has become a world-renowned characteristic, the best that could be said about the duo operating under the name Mehliana was that they had some seriously big cojones. Still, that does not a great performance make, and Mehliana's performance was a real disappointment...so much so that when the duo released its 2014 Nonesuch debut, Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, expectations were low.

As it turns out, however, Taming the Dragon was a total and wonderful surprise—a tremendous album that combined spoken word with high octane, progressive-leaning music that was everything the duo's Vossa Jazz performance was not, an album that, for those who can get past Mehldau the groundbreaking acoustic pianist, might even be a considered a classic with the passage of time.

And so, with such a pleasant surprise (sometimes it's nice to be wrong), after a solo piano performance at the festival earlier in the week and his duo with Tigran earlier that same evening, it was a great opportunity to re-experience Mehliana once again, and find out if the prior judgment of its Vossa Jazz set was, if not exactly wrong, at the very least reflective of a less-than-great night that even the best musicians occasionally have, rather than a complete indictment of the duo.

Catching the first of two sets at L'Astral, the roughly 600-standing/350-seated club venue that—opened by FIJM when christening its Maison du Festival at the festival's 30th anniversary in 2009—has become a state of the art, year-round jazz club for the city, it was a special treat to report that not only was the packed house primed for the show (many clearly knowing the record, and well), but that Mehliana gave a performance that delivered on its earlier unfulfilled promise.

It's rare to see Mehldau break out into a glowing smile, his expression of pleasure more often than not a somewhat wry grin; but he was clearly enjoying himself with Guiliana—a drummer who first broke into the jazz world with Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen in the early aughties, but has since made an even greater name for himself playing with everyone from Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke to Jason Lindner, Donny McCaslin and the electronica-centric Heernt trio. Combining electronics with a drum kit that—like Jarle Vespestad's at pianist Tord Gustavsen's show earlier in the week—was outfitted with not one but two very different sounding snare drums, Guiliana demonstrated a remarkable ability to break rhythms down into multiple subsets components, playing so liberally with the time that it was also a credit to Mehldau that he was able to keep his own temporal core, given how hard it often was for the average person to "find the one."

Mehldau hasn't completely deserted his grand piano with Mehliana, but as was the case at L'Astral, it was but one of a broad palette of tonal colors available to him as the duo performed a number of tracks from the album, including a particularly evocative version of "Hungry Ghost" that received a round of applause as the pianist launched into its core pattern of three descending chords. Montréal audiences have a worldwide reputation for being one of the most enthusiastic, but their familiarity with the music was even more impressive, and as Mehldau delivered a staggeringly fine Rhodes solo, building things even further when he dialed in some dense synth tones, their enthusiasm was clearly well-justified.

A downright funky version of "Sassyassed Sassafrass" was another high point: with Guiliana taking more liberty with the time than on the recording, it was another example of Mehldau's remarkable reach. His inimitable technique allowed him to create in-the-moment layers that would normally require two pairs of hands to negotiate, but beyond that—something that, by this point in his career, has become something to be expected—it was his command over color and texture that was the real touchstone of Mehliana's performance. That Mehldau and Guiliana have developed a most personal vernacular should come as little surprise; that it has extended beyond the harmonic, the melodic and the rhythmic into something most decidedly textural, with both players demonstrating complete control and imagination when it comes to the nature of sound, is something that is of greater surprise...and import.

That Mehliana, now nearly two year old, continues to tour hopefully means that this will not be a one-off affair like 2002's Largo (Warner Bros.)—the first indication that Mehldau was more than a fine acoustic player reinventing the piano trio tradition, as he brought in well-known producer Jon Brion for a collection of tunes the likes of which surprised even the most die-hard Mehldau fan. With albums like Taming the Dragon and performances like that heard at L'Astral, this is a duo that absolutely needs to continue; as impressive as its 2014 FIJM performance was, it was even more important in its suggesting that there's still plenty more for this duo to explore and discover together.

July 3: Tigran By Invitation: Shadow Theater

Montréal audiences are , indeed, renowned the world over for their enthusiasm, but they might well have taken things up another notch in their reception for Tigran and his Shadow Theater performance, the second of two By Invitation evenings under his own name and his third night in Montréal after taking the baton passed by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire two nights prior, when he invited the pianist to collaborate with him on the last of his three-night By Invitation run.

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


Jazz article: Other Minds 25, Day 3
Live Review
Other Minds 25, Day 3
Jazz article: Other Minds 25, Day 2
Live Review
Other Minds 25, Day 2
Jazz article: Other Minds 25, Day 1
Live Review
Other Minds 25, Day 1
Jazz article: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah at Yoshi's
Jazz article: Pat Metheny Side Eye at the Paramount Theatre
Jazz article: Punkt Festival 2021
Live Review
Punkt Festival 2021


Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.