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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2017: July 3-4

Mark Sullivan By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
July 3-4, 2017

July 3-4 | July 5-6 | July 7-8

It is a pleasure to be back in Montreal for what many have called "the best jazz festival in the world" (saxophonist Joshua Redman said so last night on stage). One of the nicest things about hearing such a concentrated group of concerts is the possibility of the unexpected. Artists you know may present a different side of their work, and there are always plenty of performers to discover for the first time.

July 3

Gwilym Simcock

Two concerts billed as a "UK Marathon" began with pianist/composer Gwilym Simcock performing a solo set at the Monument-National, a lovely medium-sized concert venue. The performance opened with a gentle introduction, including some muting inside the piano, moving on to tremolando harmonies. It was sounding like an extended improvisation until the melody of the standard "Every Time We Say Goodbye" emerged. From there a dance rhythm introduced a vibrant closing section which Simcock later identified as an untitled Chick Corea tribute.

The pianist talked about his previous Montreal appearance: a series of flight delays made him an hour late for his own concert!. After the stress of that (including a story about washing up in an airport rest room), he described this occasion as "serene." Certainly his playing displayed an elegant touch and a calm control of the piano and his musical material. He is also an active composer for other ensembles, and the next selection ("Royalty") was adapted from a work for string quartet. It had a stately, very traditionally British sound: stylistically more classical than jazz.

Simcock's early classical training included exposure to Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16. He was especially fond of the middle movement (the lyrical Adagio), and wondered if it could not be treated like a jazz standard: it has the same kind of singable melody with harmonically interesting chord changes. Based on his performance, the answer was "yes." The next selection was also an adaptation. When asked to compose an album for the Delta Saxophone Quartet he chose to arrange songs by progressive rock icons King Crimson (who coincidentally were performing later that night: more on that later). It was an unsurprising choice, given that Simcock played in Earthworks (led for longtime King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford) for several years. He also wrote one original as an homage—"A Kind Of Red"—which translated very well to solo piano, complete with some of the characteristic hard rock rhythmic crunch.

Having performed with the late, great trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler (a native Canadian, though he spent much of his career in the U.K.) late in his career, Wheeler's "Everybody's Song But My Own" was a lovely tribute. The final piece was the rhythmic "Antics" composed for 50 street pianos (played one at a time!) and dancers for the 50th anniversary of the City of London Festival. His introduction included a humorous story about one of the performances in East London—a rough neighborhood—and the music had a charming, somewhat uncharacteristic rhythmic verve, perhaps recalling Thelonious Monk in places. I have never heard Simcock perform unaccompanied before, so the whole show was a beautiful surprise.

Portico Quartet

The Portico Quartet concluded the marathon at Club Soda, a dance club that is certainly an appropriate venue for the electronica side of their sound. The band originally became known for a blend of jazz and world music influences, especially their use of the Hang (a metal instrument that is essentially a refinement of the steel drum). After a brief foray into an almost entirely electronic sound they have returned to their original approach—as signified by the return of original member (and Hang player) keyboardist Keir Vine.

But the current sound does include significant electronic elements. Their opening tune was built on a sequencer pattern, with bassist Milo Fitzpatrick playing electric bass guitar, saxophonist Jack Wylie playing through digital delay, and Vine on electric keyboard. When they played "The Visitor" from Isla (Real World Records, 2009) the original sound was in full effect, Vine playing Hang and Fitzpatrick switching to an electric upright bass. It wasn't a huge contrast: the core of minimalist repeating rhythm patterns is still there regardless of the instrumentation. A blend of "Line" (from Isla) and "Rubidium" from Portico Quartet (Real World Records, 2012) continued the approach, although Wylie's saxophones use electronic manipulation to a much greater extent. At one point the delay loops reminded me of early recordings by minimalist pioneer Terry Riley (when he was still playing the soprano saxophone).

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