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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2017

John Kelman By

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After a roster in 2016 that was, to be honest, a little light, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has made a major comeback this year, with one of its broadest and most enticing lineups in years. And so, with just five nights here, it was no small challenge to pick and choose from amongst far too many acts to see. But, as the reviews that follow suggest, there may have been many missed opportunities, but those taken were all well-worth attending...beyond so, in fact.

June 29: UZEB R3union, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier

Can a band that has been away from the scene for more years than it existed during its run from 1976 to 1992 return, draw a crowd and not only come back as strong as it ever was, but actually improve? A hardcore fusion group that, first emerging from the relatively small city of Drummondville, Quebec, achieved international prominence—first as a quartet until 1987, when it trimmed down from a guitar/keys/bass/drums quartet to its most famous (and best) lineup of über-guitarist Michel Cusson, bass phenom Alain Caron and virtuoso drummer Paul Brochu—UZEB easily sold out Place des Arts' 2,982-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Expectations were high. Could the trio that released the uniformly excellent Noisy Nights (1988), UZEB Club (1988) and World Tour (1990) recapture the magic and power of its best years, and remain relevant 26 years after the 2006 release of its 1992 swan song, The Final Concert (technically not it's absolutely last concert, but who's counting?)?

In a word: Yes.

True, after an impressive but in some ways unnecessary opening act from Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and his admittedly talented trio, the crowd gave Cusson, Caron and Brochu a standing ovation as they hit the stage around 9PM, in the same venue where The Last Concert was recorded, breaking into ear-shattering applause as the trio launched into the funkified title track to UZEB Club, complete with Brochu's electronic drum intro. There was a little hesitancy, in particular on the part of Cusson—who, after leading the post-UZEB group Wild Unit for a few years moved more decidedly into film and television work, though he never gave up live performance entirely.

But by the trio's second tune, Noisy Night's more up-tempo "New Hit," everything began to fall into place, as Cusson regained his "sea legs" and delivered a solo that not only brought back memories of his blinding chops and effortless instrumental command, but also the growth and further maturity that would be expected/hoped for from a musician of his caliber. After opening the night on his fretted electric bass, slapping and popping the strings with similar ease and deep groove, Caron moved to fretless—which he used for the majority of the group's roughly 100-minute set (with three encores)—for a solo that, like Cusson, demonstrated that there's been plenty of evolution in his playing as well. It's too easy to mention the bassist that, perhaps, most popularized the instrument, Jaco Pastorius, but Caron has always possessed a style all his own, less reliant on relentless 16th-note pulses and more fluidly vocal-like.

By the time UZEB had trimmed down to a trio, guitar and bass synth technology had become as much a part of the band's sound as Brochu's electronics. But here, while Cusson had a laptop that allowed him to layer other textures beneath a guitar tone that ranged from clean and warm to gritty and overdriven, there was far less overt reliance than back in the day, when he managed to move between straight guitar tones and a bevy of synth textures with a precision and impressive speed matched only, perhaps, by Steve Morse, making it sound as if there were still a keyboardist in the band.

Cusson also used to employ far more guitars, including a Godin acoustic guitar that was a major feature of the group's look at Charles Mingus' evergreen "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," also from Noisy Nights. But here, Cusson relied strictly on two Fender (or, perhaps, Fender-like) Stratocaster-styled instruments, and while his acoustic playing on the original was in many ways a trademark of the tune, on electric he was able to change colors and deliver a solo that was actually a sonic improvement over the original (take that, Jeff Beck!).

Caron, too, used emerging synth technologies with his electric bass back in the day, in addition to a broader range of instruments including piccolo bass and double bass. Here, armed only with a fretted and fretless electric bass, he still managed to emulate the sound of his piccolo bass by using a harmonizer during his solo on the atmospheric ballad "Après les Confidences," managing to accomplish something few bassists can: make his instrument positively soar...and sing.

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