Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2014

John Kelman By

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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.
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