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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2016

John Kelman By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
July 3-7, 2016

In many ways, the front of one of the festival's new T-Shirt designs said it all:

swing
blues
soul
improvisation
latin
gospel
R 'n' B
crossroads
silence
groove
world

Many festivals once known primarily as jazz festivals have broadened their scope. Whether or not it still gives a festival the right to continue using the term "Jazz Festival"—or, as is the case in Québecois Canada, Montréal's "Festival International de Jazz"—is a topic for some occasionally heated discussion. But perhaps longer than most jazz festivals— certainly for more years than any other North American jazz festival—the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has significantly expanded its purview; if anything, the words on the above-mentioned T-Shirt aren't sufficiently inclusive, as over the past 37 years, FIJM has spread its reach to also include tangential or completely extracurricular musical genres including electronica, progressive rock, hard rock, pop and many, many others.

Still, despite the shrinking Canadian dollar, reduced funding and other challenges, FIJM has managed to meet the litmus test of a 2011 All About Jazz article, When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival : that, for those looking to ignore all the extracurricular shows and focus solely on jazz, there are more than enough choices to keep the broadest-minded jazz fan happy, whether they're visiting the festival for a day, a weekend, a week or the entire 10-day run of FIJM's 2016 edition.

That said, FIJM has not emerged unscathed from some of the challenges that face all festivals today, but are perhaps particularly significant for one the size of Montréal's festival—one that has seen literally millions cross, each year, into the six square blocks of a downtown core that are closed by the city every year, so that numerous outdoor stages (nine, at last count) can be erected for the multiplicity of free shows that the festival sponsors every year, augmenting a similar number of indoor venues where multiple ticketed events take place every day. These days, when you're as big as FIJM, it's hard not to make each year somehow bigger, somehow better.

And therein lies the rub. FIJM is world-renowned, especially since the completion of its Maison du Festival and Promenade for its 30th Anniversary year, which acts as the rallying point for the festival's largest outdoor stage—where acts like Stevie Wonder have drawn a quarter of a million people to the streets of downtown Montréal for shows that are replete with spectacular lighting and, occasionally, choreography that uses downtown buildings as projection screens and dance stages.

The cost to fund these festivals continues to rise and, with the expectation that FIJM will put on three of these "Grand Spectacle" outdoor shows each year (one at the beginning, one at midpoint, and one at the end of the festival), in addition to plenty of top-drawer acts in their ticketed venues----has resulted in one apparent casualty: a lack of some of the more intriguing small acts that often made the festival so appealing to those able to see the bigger names more readily in their own home towns.

That's not to say the 2016 festival was without its share of unique performances...especially when one considers that many of them did not appear at any of the other Canadian festivals that largely ran concurrent with FIJM. But, barring the overdue but most welcome appearance of Punkt Presents, at the Maison du Festival's own club venue, L'Astral—where Jan Bang and Erik Honore, the co-artistic directors of Kristiansand, Norway's world-renowned Live Remix festival (coming up on its 12th year), were invited to bring two acts so that Montréal audiences could hear what All About Jazz has been covering (and raving about) every year since 2006—there was precious little Norwegian content to be found...a presence that, for many years, was a given, a constant.

But it wasn't just Norwegian artists that were missing. While there was sufficient international presence at the festival to justify its moniker, the number of big name acts dwarfed the smaller ones and the weight seemed to be more emphatically North American than in prior years. Perhaps it's the inevitability of an event that has grown into the largest jazz festival in the world, but the programming this year felt a bit like a festival struggling to maintain a balancing act that must be increasingly difficult, year after year.

Still, there were plenty of appealing shows to consider, in this return to the festival after being unable to attend in 2015. Tord Gustavsen premiered his relatively new trio and its 2016 ECM Records debut, What Was Said, also featuring longtime drummer Jarle Vespestad and, for the Norwegian pianist, a relative newcomer in singer Simin Tander. Rising star guitarist Nir Felder was also invited to L'Astral and delivered a performance that was heavy on a unique blend of cerebral writing with oblique but still catchy pop/rock tendencies. Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith reprised music from A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM, 2016) in addition to other selections, while Tal Wilkenfeld—the young Australian bass phenom who looked like she was about 15 when she played FIJM with Jeff Beck back in 2009, and, bucking the passage of time, looked about 18 months older for her 2016 appearance—morphed from jazz/funk fusioneer into singer/songwriter.

Absent from the recording arena since 2012's ATunde Adjuah (Concord), Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was still hot property as one of this year's By Invitation artists at Gesù—possibly the festival's most appealing venue for its intimate size and superb sound—inviting, over three consecutive evenings, his regular group, seven- string guitarist Charlie Hunter and singer Lizz Wright (both festival regulars), while pianist Kenny Barron's By Invitation series included stints with his regular trio, in addition to duos with singer/flautist Elena Pinderhughes and guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Monument National was resurrected as a festival venue, housing (in addition to Gustavsen), artists including the precocious but justifiably lauded Joey Alexander, saxophonist Chris Potter, Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen, five-string acoustic bass virtuoso Renaud Garcia-Fons, Steve Coleman's Five Elements and organ wizard Joey DeFrancesco. Sadly, due to unexpected complications from routine sinus surgery turning very serious, guitarist Larry Coryell was forced to cancel his heralded summer tour, reuniting the majority of the founding members to his '70s fusion group The Eleventh House, also meant to perform at Monument Nationale.

As always, pop was a big part of the festival, with new waver-turned-broader spectrum'd pianist/singer Joe Jackson delivering an energetic and imaginatively arranged look at some of his many hits at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve, while the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson brought his Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary show to the arts venue's largest hall, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier; the mercurial Ms. Lauryn Hill also delivered the goods at the 3,000-seat venue, as did Rufus Wainwright, playing with a large orchestra and performing music from his opera, Prima Donna, along with many of his better-known songs.

But there seemed to be so much emphasis on well-known names and considerably less on the smaller ones that have always made FIJM so unique. Whether this is a trend that will drive the festival in future years has yet to be seen; still, in the five nights spent as a guest of the festival—and with its media people once again treating every one of the hundreds of media guests that attend from around the world each year as if they were the only journalist in town—there's still no doubt that Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is, indeed, a jazz festival that may be riding the winds of change (as so many others are), but still managed to put together a program with plenty of appeal to everyone walking through its gates.

Tord Gustavsen / Simin Tander / Jarle Vespestad
Monument Nationale
July 3, 2016

After building a strong international following both the trio that released the trifecta of 2003's Changing Places, 2005's The Ground and 2007's Being There, and a second trilogy from his quartet that included 2010's Restored, Returned, 2012's The Well and 2014's Extended Circle—all released by Munich's ECM Records—Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen took a completely different direction with What Was Said (ECM, 2016).

Or did he?

Well, while What Was Said may be Gustavsen's first ECM recording to more fully feature a singer in Afghan expat Simin Tander—who, after spending some years in Amsterdam and delivering at the 2010 Dutch Jazz & World Meeting before the release of her first album, Wagma (Neuklang), the following year, returned to Germany where she once again resides—the pianist had already recruited Kristin Asbjørnsen for seven of Restored, Returned's eleven compositions. A Norwegian vocalist with whom he'd already shared a lengthy history, the two worked together in the singer's group (seen at the 2009 Molde Jazz Festival), in a duo and in the Nymark Collective, whose 2008 release Bessie Smith Revisited-Live in Concert put a most distinctive spin on the music of the American vocal icon.

Still, What Was Said brings an even more spiritual sense of purpose to Gustavsen's already carefully considered, painstaking explorations of music that began with a very limited tempo range and, over the years, has expanded gradually—like the extended circle titling his 2014 quartet record. Tander's extant interpretation of Sufi poetry, often sung in the Pashto language of her family and ancestors, blended with English language interpretations of words sourced in Norwegian traditionalism and more recent writings, including San Francisco Renaissance figure Kenneth Rexroth and others, to create an album that is unlike any the pianist had previously recorded.

Another of What Was Said's fundamental shifts is Gustavsen's adoption—since his ECM emergence, known steadfastly as an acoustic pianist—of electronics, something with which he'd begun to experiment over the past few years...and which he actually introduced, for the first time (and very subtly), at his sublime 2014 FIJM quartet performance. While more dominant on What Was Said and at his 2016 FIJM show, it was not a complete surprise to find that Gustavsen's use of both a small keyboard (rested on top of his piano) and the midi plate, placed under his piano strings, that allowed him to trigger various sounds/samples—even create loops—with his grand piano were always employed with great subtlety and the utmost of care and precision.

All of which made his retention of drummer Jarle Vespestad—also known, amongst many other things, as a founding member of Norwegian noise improvising group Supersilent and the diametrically opposed, complexly constructed Farmers Market—an important constant in Gustaven's musical universe. While capable of muscular grooves in Farmers Market, and reckless abandon in Supersilent, Vespestad's role, with Gustavsen as possibly the world's quietest drummer—one who uses a variety of unusual implements to eke some of the softest, most whisper-quiet textures possible from his kit—continued with this new trio...though, just as Gustavsen's quartet represented a broadening of tempo and dynamics over his first ECM trio, the pianist's group with Tander and Vespestad, despite its more reductionist instrumentation, proved capable of even more expansive dynamics.

Both Gustavsen and Tander's song introductions focused on the spiritual aspect of the music and lyrics; if anything, their 2016 FIJM performance may go down as the most positively Zen show of this—or any—year. "The two ancient Norwegian hymns," as Gustavsen described the concert's openers including "Sweet Melting," "are based on folks tunes, but traveled through a journey of transformation into Pashto, becoming more like Sufi poems where we can meet." Gustavsen also talked about the focus of his music's lyrics: "to find the divine within ourselves as much as out there" or describing "Imagine the Fog Disappearing," later in the set, as being about "the moment when you finally see clearly again."
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