| Part 2
2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal,
June 29-July 3, 2018
Every return to Montréal for the city's annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is much-anticipated. Closing off six square blocks in the downtown core is rare enough; but, over the past 39 years since the festival's first edition in 1980, the program has grown to the point where it's a serious challenge to choose what to see, especially when limited to just one show per evening. There are literally hundreds of shows presented every year, ranging from ticketed events in a bevy of superb indoor venues (all within easy walking distance), accommodating from a few hundred people to over three thousand, to free concerts on seven outdoor stages that draw anywhere from a few hundred people to, some years, as many as a quarter of a million for FIJM's Grand Spectacle
Many jazz festivals having to come to the realization, over the past decade or so, that in order to continue to survive they must program not just jazz (even if it's still their primary focus), but music either tangentially related or, in some cases, bearing no connection at all. FIJM has always been a broader-reaching festival, with more than enough jazz in any day's program to justify its name, to blues, soul, rock, pop and world music: truly, almost anything that the programming team thinks would be a good fit.
As with any festival, some years are better than others, and FIJM, amongst the world's largest jazz festivals (if not the
largest) has been forced to face many of the same challenges that others do, in particular Canadian festivals that have to deal with artists whose contracts demand, irrespective of where they originate, payment in American dollars. Fluctuating, in recent years, from near-parity with the Canadian dollar to variances as wide as 35% (currently it's about 25), that alone has been enough to sink at least one Canadian festival in the past decade. For a festival like FIJM, which sees as many as 2.5 million people enter its grounds over its ten-day run, its very size and international reach, with many of its regular attendees coming from around the world, definitely helps it secure private support that dovetails with federal arts funding and, in particular, provincial support in Québec that far exceeds any other Canadian province.
Still, every year remains a challenge, and while its impact is rarely felt, those who've attended it for many years have seen changes ranging from shortening the festival from a peak twelve days to its current ten to fewer tickets being made available to the hundreds of journalists and photographers who come from the USA and farther afield to cover FIJM. Still, these changes have not only allowed the festival to continue, but to do so in the big
way that has defined the festival, especially since the '90s.
And, truly, nobody does big
the way FIJM does. With tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of people on the festival grounds on any given night, all the essential services are there, from ensuring proper ingress/egress to security and medical services, though the latter two remain largely invisible unless they are actually needed.
The festival stafffrom paid annual employees to its many volunteerskeep everything running like clockwork, also ensuring the grounds remain remarkably clean. Within a couple of hours of the last outdoor show of the evening, the streets look as clean as they were before people began coming through its numerous entry points. Even more so, after the final night's Grand Spectacle
, it's a remarkable thing to witness how, by early morning, the stages are torn down and the streets reopened to traffic, with almost no sign of the festival's existence beyond the outdoor promenade, built for FIJM's 30th anniversary, that remains in use all year around.
Each year, the festival delivers a number of awards that reflect its open mind and broad preview. Amongst this year's awardees were: blues rocker George Thorogood, recipient of the B.B. King Award
; Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain
, awarded the António Carlos Jobim Award
; Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which has collectively won the particularly prestigious Miles Davis Award
; pianist Renee Rosnes
, who has been recognized with the Oscar Peterson Award
; and Ben Harper, this year's winner of the Ella Fitzgerald Award
But it's the Montréal Jazz Festival Spirit Award
which best represents FIJM's expansive reach, presented to artists of any discipline who, as per the festival program, "underline a popular artist's extraordinary contribution to the musical world."
June 29: Ry Cooder, Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve
And so, it was particularly serendipitous that the first show covered for FIJM 2018 was Ry Cooder
, presented with the Montréal Jazz Festival Spirit Award
just minutes before his outstanding concert in Place des Arts' second-largest (but better-sounding than its biggest) hall, Théâtre Maisonneuve. Cooder has built a career, now in its sixth decade, that represents a complete and utter disregard for stylistic boundaries and, instead, has explored any and every kind of music that's been a draw for the guitarist/vocalist. If a single word can be used to describe Cooder, it's archivist
Drawing upon American music spanning the last century or more, Cooder has also gone deep into music from other countries, in particular Mexico and, with his Grammy Award
-winning Buena Vista Social Club
(Nonesuch, 1997), Cuba, bringing a wealth of artists from the Caribbean island to international attention, through the album, the many more it spawned from individual participating musicians, and Wim Wenders' marvelous 1999 film of the same name.
In his own seventeen album discography as a leader, Cooder has reworked music from artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Ben E. King to Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell, Vicente Fernández and Burt Bacharach. Cooder's own writing, never been particularly fecund, has always been compelling and, in recent years, more prolific. He has also been involved in cross-cultural collaborations like the two Grammy
-winning albums A Meeting By the River
(Water Lily Acoustic, 1992), with India's Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Talking Timbuktu
(World Circuit, 1994), where the guitarist collaborated with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that Cooder rarely tours, making his appearance at FIJM all the more welcome. The last time he toured extensively (at least, making it to Canada) prior to Buena Vista Social Club
, barring his 2016 trio tour with Ricky Scaggs and Sharon White, was in 1994 in support of Little Village, the supergroup also featuring John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Prior to that, his last Canadian appearances were a decade prior. At this rate, the chances of the 71 year-old Cooder returning to Canada again are slim, and so there were many fans in the audience who'd traveled from the USA and farther abroad to experience a guitarist who has also secured his reputation in music history for his distinctive slide guitar work, multiple tunings and use of other instruments including mandolin, banjo and ukulele.
Cooder was touring in support of his latest album, The Prodigal Son
, released this past May by Fantasy Records. The guitarist's albums are always welcome, but with The Prodigal Son
Cooder has released his best album in 30-plus years, right up there with early classics including Into the Purple Valley
(Reprise, 1972) and Paradise and Lunch
(Reprise, 1974), and mid-period watersheds like Bop Till You Drop
(Warner Bros., 1979), The Slide Area
(Warner Bros, 1982) and Get Rhythm
(Warner Bros., 1987).
One thing is certain: Cooder has always been relevant, no matter what decade/century he's exploring. Still, his FIJM show, along with his recent albums (Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
(Nonesuch, 2011), the unexpected Election Special
(Nonesuch, 2012) and, now, Prodigal Son
), the guitarist/vocalist has, perhaps, never been more apposite. Featuring no fewer than seven of Prodigal Son
's eleven tracks, Cooder's set also drew heavily on Bop Till You Drop
, featuring a full four songs from that record, as well as making brief stops on Into the Purple Valley
, Paradise and Lunch
and Get Rhythm
Cooder has, for the past several years, been collaborating with his son, and so it was no particular surprise that Joachim, who was also a member of Cooder's backing band for this tour, the Grammy Award
-nominated Hamiltones, performed a brief twenty-minute opening solo set, accompanied only by fellow Hamiltone saxophonist Sam Gendel.
Rather than playing the percussion and drums that largely occupied him during his set with his dad, Joachim Cooder largely focused his short set on what looked like a massive mbira, the African thumb piano. A couple of feet wide, it provided far more possibilities than the smaller traditional instrument, which Cooder took even farther by processing it through a variety of effects while, at the same time, triggering a bass drum sample with his right foot and playing cajón and a variety of hand percussion instruments, all occasionally looped into rhythms that allowed him to layer mbira chords and melodies in support of his vocals. Gendel, playing everything from alto to bass saxophone, also utilized a variety of effects, in particular a harmonizer that allowed him to build lush, harmonically shifting chordal backdrops for Cooder that clearly referenced Fourth World trumpet innovator Jon Hassell
The brief set was not without its flaws. Cooder is not a particularly strong lyricist, and so the blues that he introduced as being played by his father to him, on banjo, when he was very young, was the best of the set from that perspective. His voice, too, was only average. Still, the music Cooder and Gendel created between their instruments and effects transcended any such weaknesses. An album of Cooder playing his large mbira would be most welcome.
After a brief break, father Cooder came onstage with Gendel for an unusual but effective opener from Prodigal Son
, Blind Willie Johnson's plaintive blues, "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Looped electronics, ambient saxophone chordal backdrops and Cooder's inimitable acoustic slide playing and heartfelt vocals drew the capacity crowd (much like bluegrass singer Alison Krauss' whisper-quiet opener at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival a few days prior) away from their world and straight into Cooder's universe for nearly a hundred minutes.
Beyond the innate (and deceptive) challenge of some of Cooder's music, it's a simple truth that anyone looking for a sleek, polished performance would have had to look elsewhere. Instead, Cooder's set was loose, sloppy, sometimes not quite in tune...but heavy on an emotional resonance that rendered all other considerations immaterial. It was all about feel
, about getting deep inside the music, about taking risks and about looking forand, at times, findingthose wonderfully elusive moments of pure magic.
There were many to be found during Cooder's show. The set was also high on spirituality, whether it was a particularly moving version of the gentle, Cooder-penned opener to Prodigal Son
, "Straight Street," going to church with Blind Willie Johnson's "Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right," or straight to heaven with Cooder's own "Jesus and Woody," which finds Jesus opining with Woody Guthrie, the social justice singer/songwriter whose music Cooder has covered in the past.
Played in duet with Hamiltones pianist Glenn Patscha, "Jesus and Woody" took on special significance after Cooder's solo acoustic version of Guthrie's "Vigilante Man," originally the album closer on Into the Purple Valley
, where the guitarist added his own topical verse, which included: "Well Trévon Martin was only seventeen years old when he took a trip to the grocery store. He might have grown up to be president, but that's something we'll never know because he ran into a vigilante man."
These words made the sentiment of "Jesus and Woody" all the more poignant and relevant to today's circumstances: "So sing me a song 'bout 'This Land is Your Land' And fascists bound to lose You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie And I was a dreamer too.
Once I spoke of a love for those who hate It requires effort and strain Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice Which leads to destruction and pain.
Some say I was a friend to sinners But by now you know it's true Guess I like sinners better than fascists And I guess that makes me a dreamer too."
The beauty of Cooder's set, including his engaging song introductions, was that, if it preached anything (and it absolutely did not
proselytize), it was for love, compassion, tolerance and, even, hope.
Cooder's set wasn't all about such serious and currently topical matters, however. Songs like Bop Till You Drop
's soulful Arthur Alexander ballad, "Go Home, Girl" and Sidney Bailey's dark-hued but ultimately more propulsive "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)" were all about relationships, while Johnny Cash's title track to Cooder's Get Rhythm
was about finding joy, even when life seems an insurmountable challenge: "A little shoeshine boy he never gets lowdown But he's got the dirtiest job in town Bendin' low at the people's feet On a windy corner of a dirty street Well I asked him while he shined my shoes How'd he keep from gettin' the blues He grinned as he raised his little head He popped his shoeshine rag and then he said
Get rhythm when you get the blues C'mon get rhythm when you get the blues Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine It'll shake all your troubles from your worried mind Get rhythm when you get the blues."
As he did when he was playing with backup singers including the great Bobby King and Terry Evans, Cooder gave plenty of space to the Hamiltones' three singers, Antonio Bowers, James Tillman, Jr. and Corey Williams II, taking a mid-set break to let the Hamiltones go solo on two songs, including "74" and "Gotta Be Lovin' Me," where Cooder returned, but in support the group, rather than the other way around. He also let Bowers, Tillman Jr. and Williams II have the final words of the night with a soul-drenched version of Lester Johnson, Clifton Knight and Dave Richardson's "I Can't Win," again from Bop Till You Drop
. But throughout the set, bassist Robert Commagere and son Joachim anchored the group, while pianist Patscha and saxophonist Gendel not only provided empathic support but were also afforded plenty of their own space, with Gendel contributing a particularly fine bass saxophone solo on "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich" and Patscha's piano solo providing the perfect buildup to Cooder's mind-blowing slide solo (and rhythm work) on "Get Rhythm."
It's unlikely that even the hardest of hardcore Cooder fan expected to hear Bop Till You Drop
's opener, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Little Sister," the second of three encores. Nor would they have expected to hear Cooder's significantly reworked "Jesus on the Mainline," from Paradise and Lunch
, which Cooder said came about at a sound check just a few days prior. After that song, which features lyrics including "Jesus is on that mainline / Tell Him what you want / Call Him up and tell Him what you want," Cooder related a story about watching a woman (in his hometown of Santa Monica) texting as she was crossing the street against a red light, tripping and almost falling...but, nevertheless, continue texting. "Was she texting Jesus?," Cooder quipped, "We'll never know."
It was that kind of loose, comfortable humor about life, its many challenges and the troubled times times in which we live that made Cooder's message, during much of the show, so beautifully articulated without being, in the least way, overbearing. Relaxed but always clear, Cooder certainly has his opinions about the world in which we live. Still, the same way that he delivered his music with a kind of sloppy but masterful expertise, relying more on feel than perfection, Cooder may, indeed, have a particular viewpoint on the world as it is today, but delivered it in ways that would engender compassion and hope rather than divisiveness and irredeemable desperation.
Whether espousing Alfred Reed's words of wisdom and truth on Prodigal Son
's "You Must Unload" or Carter Stanley's words of hope on "Harbor of Love," Cooder's FIJM set was filled with messages, but delivered in ways that, rather than dividing people, could only bring his audience of 1,500 together.
Cooder's message may have been impossible to deny, but it was also a memorable set for other reasons, specifically how, in addition to his exceptional group of instrumentalists and singers, it was absolutely a guitar geek's dream.
Cooder seemed to switch instruments with almost every song, using a variety of electric and acoustic guitars, as well as an electric mandolin on a couple of tunes. Some of the guitars, contrary to what might be expected, were not particularly expensive but, as Cooder explained while he adjusted one of his many altered tunings, "I got this one for about $300...but if you touch it just right it makes a good sound."
Whether playing guitar or singing, Cooder never stuck to a script, instead taking constant risks. And, as with all risk takers, sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. But that was the beauty of his performance: there may have been a few near-train wrecks, but when everything worked, it was the kind of magic that only happens when
you take those risks.
At 100 minutes, it was a satisfying but, at the same time, all too short performance from one of the great guitarists and musical archivists of the last 50 years. Who knows if Cooder will ever return to these parts in his lifetime? It would be wonderful if he did, but if he doesn't, those who were at Théâtre Maisonneuve on this warm summer's evening experienced something all too rare: a show that, as imperfect as the human condition, reached a rare kind of musical height achieved only by risk-takers, and with a message that, hopefully, everyone in the audience will bring home with them.
Mike Stern with Randy Brecker, Monument National
Imagine this, as a guitarist's worst nightmare: an accidental trip on some construction debris, resulting in multiple fractures of not one, but both
arms, the damage so severe that a total of eleven screws are required to put things right.
This is exactly what happened to Mike Stern
in the summer of 2016. Still, the veteran guitarist, whose bright smile indicates an irrepressible positivity, managed the almost unimaginable feat of getting back in the game within just a few months. Since then, even with his right hand appearing oddly bent and Stern going through a substantial period of time where he literally had to glue his pick to his thumb so that he wouldn't drop it, there has been negligible perceptual change in his playing except, as much as it might challenge credulity, for the guitarist actually seeming to be the better for it.
Certainly, nobody in the capacity crowd at Monument National who didn't already know would have been able to tell that he'd broken both his arms, based on the incendiary performance he delivered with a crack group featuring, in addition to bassist Tom Kennedy
and the always mind-boggling drummer Dennis Chambers
, the great trumpeter Randy Brecker
Brecker and Stern go back a ways, on record at least as far as the guitarist's 1992 album Standards
(Atlantic) and, the same year, the heralded Brecker Brothers
reunion, Return of the Brecker Brothers
(GRP), which also spawned a fiery live show on VHS tape that's crying out for release in a more contemporary format. Brecker's career is a long and varied one, going back to The Jazz Composer's Orchestra
(JCOA, 1968), participation in the early commune-like White Elephant, and recording and/or touring with artists including Hal Galper
, Horace Silver
, Stanley Turrentine
and Billy Cobham
, before forming the first Brecker Brothers band for its 1975, self-titled Arista debut. Since then, beyond more jazz gigs than can be counted and his still-growing discography as a leader, the trumpeter has entered the pantheon of musicians whom virtually anyone with a radio has heard, with the trumpeter appearing on hits by big-name pop/rock artists including Paul Simon
, Steely Dan
, James Taylor
and Elton John
, amidst a complete discography numbering in the many hundreds (if not thousands).
Chambers and Stern go even farther back on record, to the guitarist's 1989 album that still remains a personal favorite, Jigsaw
(Atlantic). Chambers was also a member of the '90s Brecker Brothers reunion, and has his own storied history with artists ranging from John Scofield
, Parliament, the P-Funk All Stars and the late Bob Berg
(who was part of this family of players before a tragic accident took him 16 years ago) to John McLaughlin
, Steve Khan
and (also) Steely Dan.
Kennedy is relatively new to Stern, making his first appearance on the guitarist's New Morning: The Paris Concert
(In-Akustik, 2008) DVD and contributing to subsequent albums including, along with Brecker and Chambers, Stern's first album since his accident, the aptly titled Trip
(Heads Up, 2017). The virtuosic bassist can also be found, beginning in the mid-'80s, with artists ranging from Bill Connors
, the late Don Grolnick
and Dave Weckl
to Al Di Meola
and Steps Ahead
...even a live date with Swedish saxophonist Jonas Knutsson
at Sweden's 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival.
Together, Stern, Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers hit the ground running with an opening version of the modal-based blower "Out of the Blue," from 2012's All Over the Place
(Heads Up). Extending for well over twenty minutes, it gave everyone in the band, well, not exactly a chance to warm up (they were already on fire), but an opportunity to make clear what was in store with a show that, including its brief encore, ran about 95 minutes, following an unexpectedly impressive 40-minute opening set by a local duo featuring guitarist François Jalbert and pianist Jérôme Beaulieu, playing material largely from its debut, This is a Real Place
(Les Productions Multiple Chord Music, 2017).
Like Stern, Jalbert and Beaulieu also came charging out of the gate, but with a composition that, if the two players didn't sound anything like them, was richly reminiscent of the American Midwestern vibe blended with jazz undertones that have defined Pat Metheny
and Lyle Mays
, in particular on the guitarist and keyboardist's classic As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls
(ECM, 1981). It was a vibe that ran through much of the duo's set, though Jalbert and Beaulieu demonstrated greater reach on the more swinging "Muffin" and more challenging, episodic "I Put Too Much Hot Sauce on My Sandwich."
Beaulieu announced most of the tunes en Français
but, recognizing that they had a mixed audience including people who'd traveled to the festival from not just the USA but farther afield, did address the crowd in English as well (a welcome consideration, as it's not always the case). As a pianist, he reflected a number of influences, largely subsumed into an emerging personal style but occasionally surfacing with some Herbie Hancock
With both players worth keeping a watchful eye on, Jalbert was particularly impressive. Few young guitarists make the acoustic variant their main axe, but Jalbert made great use of the instrument's crystalline clarity, potential for punchy rhythmic injections and sparkling arpeggios. With a lot of picked rather than strummed chords, his facility with a pick was especially impressive, as he never resorted to the usual hybrid of pick/fingers or fingers or alone. His solos were well-constructed too, building upon motifs and feeling like they always had a clear sense of purpose, rather than merely being a scalar run-down. If he sounded little like Metheny, his approach seemed to be a confluence of other acoustic players like Will Ackerman, Al Di Meola (minus the scales) and, even, a touch of Michael Hedges
Together, the duo performed with rare synchronicity for musicians so young. The writing was challenging; often episodic, there were rarely any extended solos but, instead, they were part of the greater compositional whole, as individual solos often quickly came and went with either defined lengths or quick cues that the other player picked up on with keen reflexes.
Opening sets are often less than welcome, with the audience really there to hear the top artist on the bill, but Jalbert and Beaulieu surprised those there for Stern with a set so engaging, so impressive, so captivating that the crowd's response was almost as enthusiastic as it was for Stern, the duo even garnering a well-deserved standing ovation.
Still, twenty minutes later, when Stern, Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers hit the stage firing on all cylinders, it was clear that the FIJM audience was in for a show that would go down as one of the very best Stern has delivered in his many appearances in Montréal over the years. As the group effortlessly switched grooves, from Chambers' initially brushwork-driven pulse to more propulsive stick work, and as Stern built his solo from thicker-than-usual clean tone to more overdriven, demonstrating from the very start of his high octane playing, it became clear that any fears of his accident impeding the guitarist were completely unfounded. If anything, Stern is truly playing better than ever, having overcome an early tendency to build solos in a couple of ultimately particular ways. Stern's playing has become far less predictable, both in tone and harmonic complexion, with Stern a relentless student who regularly studied, in fact, with the late Charlie Banacos before the renowned educator passed away in 2009).
For that lengthy, positively nuclear opening tune, Brecker started his solo as the group brought it down to half time, but it wasn't long before he'd built up steam along with his mates, delivering a bright, burnished open horn tone as instantly recognizable as his swinging lines and seemingly effortless leaps into the stratosphere, along with a lithe dexterity in spontaneously shaping extended lines which always possessed a clear (but, like Stern, unpredictable) sense of purpose, and am instantly recognizable approach to phrasing. There may be other trumpeters who garner more popular press these days, but there really is only one Randy Brecker, and with Stern usually employing a saxophonist for his touring quartets, it was a great opportunity to not just see Stern's comeback, but to catch another player who will surely go down as one of jazz's great trumpeters, when the history of the last 50 years is finally written.
Chambers, too, will have a place in that history. With a smaller kit than he used to use with the Brecker Brothers, he nevertheless possessed a kit plenty sizeable enough to demonstrate his irrepressible virtuosity, though there's every suspicion he could have done so with just a snare, hi-hat, cymbal and bass drum. He combined powerful, rapid-fire double bass drum pedal work with thundering snare/tom tom polyrhythms and some particularly mind-blowing cymbal work, especially at one point, where he delivered a completely crazy cymbal/hi-hat figure that would have seemed impossible, were there not 800 people there to witness it. Like Stern, Chambers proved that he is well and fully back, following a serious illness around 2014-15 that left him looking frail and considerably lighter than his usual heft, much of which he has since regained.
Kennedy may be the lesser-known of the group, but he proved himself as capable as his band mates, delivering potent grooves, navigating Stern's oftentimes challenging compositions and soloing with a degree of mastery that made him a perfect foil.
While the set focused on Trip
, it also included material from past albums and a new tune by Brecker called "Dipshit," which the trumpeter dryly dedicated to American president Donald Trump, despite not actually writing it for him. A completely different composer than Stern, Brecker's tune revolved around a blues-informed form, comprised of a theme that ended with a long, descending staccato line...pure Brecker.
While the group's performance of material from Trip
was utterly impressive and as close to perfect as any group of players taking chances with material this deep, when it came to playing the show-closing title track, the relentlessly-smiling Stern introduced it by saying "We just started playing it, so if we fuck it up don't throw anything!"
And "fuck it up" they did not. Another modal barnstormer like the set opener it was, nevertheless, driven even harder by Chambers' muscular backbeat. Based on a pedal tone broken up by a series of difficult changes, it provided plenty of grist for everyone, in particular Brecker, whose solo was especially strong on a night where he was consistently powerful and potential-filled, with the trumpeter ending the final theme with a line that reached way up above the clouds.
After standing ovations following "Out of the Blue" and "Trip," despite it seeming as if there was a time restriction for the show, Stern and his group didn't leave the stage, with the guitarist, always grateful but especially taken aback by the power of the FIJM audience's beyond-enthusiastic response, yelled out "Do you want to hear one more?" Needless to say, the crowd screamed to the affirmative, as Stern launched into a short but fuel-injected version of Jimi Hendrix
's popular blues, "Red House."
Stern had already sung a couple of tunes earlier in the set, but largely as a wordless vocalist. Here, however, Stern provided another surprise amongst a litany of them this evening, proving himself a far more than credible blues-belter, ending the song by holding a long, high note that was just as powerful as his playing.
And his playing has certainly gone through some changes. Yes, his rapid bebop-informed phrasing remains, as does his ability to viscerally bend notes with gritty, blues-drenched attitude; but there's also more attention to space (even amidst this testosterone-fueled set) and even greater harmonic sophistication. At times he continued hanging onto a note on the upper end of his guitar while, at the same time, adding fluidly moving chords underneath, and his accompaniment for Brecker, whether open-horned or, as in a couple of tunes, employing a Harmon mute, was both supportive and driving, as he sometimes pushed everyone in the band into different places.
Beyond his playing, however, Stern has also been working on expanding the tonal palette of his guitar. Playing through two Fender Twin amplifiers, but with a variety of effects at his disposal, Stern still went for his usual combination of a clean, warm tone (sometimes made more expansive with a chorus), and both overdrive and delayed, which he often used, in the past, to drive his solos into even more energetic terrain. But he also creating lush chordal backdrops through the use of delay and volume swells, accomplished with his little finger on his axe's volume control rather than a foot-driven pedal, used a harmonizer (often set two octaves above his guitar's natural range) to create a sound that, at times, seemed like he was being doubled by a steel pan player, and employed a broader range of overall tonal colors that made his playing feel all the more diverse.
A set that, for the audience, could happily have continued into the next morning, it was irrefutable evidence that Stern was back
. And with Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers contributing to various tracks on Trip
, Stern not only had a band capable of delivering his new music (albeit, often, in a smaller setting than on record), but one that could literally play whatever came to mind. Even those who have seen Stern in concert before will be hard-pressed to recall a show from this fully recovered guitarist, composer and bandleader that was better than what they heard at the 2018 FIJM.
July 1: Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve
Along with Ry Cooder winning FIJM's Montréal Jazz Festival Spirit Award
, perhaps the other most significant of the festival's annual awards went, for the first time, to a group rather than an individual. That the winner of the Miles Davis Award
went to banjo innovator Bela Fleck
and his equally groundbreaking group, The Flecktones, couldn't have been more appropriate. Simply put, few groups as eminently virtuosic and connected telepathically have been so consistently groundbreaking from the get-go.
When the band first arrived in 1990 with its self-titled Warner Bros. debut, few could even conceive of such a strange conglomeration of instruments. Béla Fleck, playing both acoustic and electric banjos and, while still referring to his bluegrass roots with bands like New Grass Revival along with his own releases like his 1988 Grammy Award
(Rounder), was clearly speaking with a deep jazz vernacular.
Bassist Victor Wooten
quickly emerged as a new bass hero, absorbing not just those who came before, like Stanley Clarke
, Marcus Miller
and Jaco Pastorius
, but already possessed of new techniques and an remarkable ability to effortlessly combine them in any and every way imaginable.
Keyboardist/harmonicist Howard Levy
, aside from being able to play both instruments simultaneously, had developed his unique technique of taking a standard diatonic harmonica and, through bending the reeds as he played, making it capable of the same facility available to the more sophisticated chromatic harp.
And what of Future Man, Victor Wooten's older brother Roy, usually seen wearing a weird but wonderful pirate uniform? While he now mixes in acoustic instruments, in the early days his instrument was a weird hybrid called the Synthaxe Drumitar, its guitar-like shape possessed of an array of touch-sensitive buttons that triggered samples of real drums, but were entirely controlled by his fingers, allowing for a dexterity rarely possible on a real kit.
Over the course of three studio albums, also including 1991's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
and 1992's UFO Tofu
(both also on Warner Bros.), Béla Fleck & The Flecktones toured relentlessly around North America, including the first of many stops in Ottawa, Canada in 1991, where they played in a small club to about 75 people but, after a first 45-minute set, took a break and came back and played for nearly three hours, non-stop. This was a group that was hungry, finding its way, constantly evolving and, not unlike early Pat Metheny Group, built their audience one show at a time.
But after three years of touring almost non-stop, Levy left the bandon completely friendly termsit simply being a matter of growing tired of the road and wanting to spend more time with family. And so, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones became three for awhile, before recruiting saxophonist Jeff Coffin
, now a member of Dave Matthews Band. That lineup was no less impressive, technically, but never seemed to achieve the same kind of chemistry that defined the original group.
And so, after three studio albums and one live recording with Coffinand still fairly heavy touring but, with everyone in the band having begun solo pursuits alongside Fleck, less intensive time on the roadBéla Fleck & The Flecktones continued on, drawing huge crowds and becoming a jam band fan favorite. But after 2006's The Hidden Land
(Sony) and 2008's Christmas album, Jingle All the Way
(Rounder), the group continued to tour but ultimately went on hiatus as everyone pursued other interests.
Fleck pursued everything from classical composition and duets with Chick Corea
to a remarkable collaboration with African musicians on Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions
(Rounder, 2009). Victor Wooten continued his series of solo albums, begun in '96 with Show of Hands
(Compass) along with projects including the big ticket SMV (S
tanley Clark, M
arcus Miller, V
ictor Wooten), which released Thunder
(Heads Up, 2008) and led to extensive touring that included a stop at the 2009 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
. Future Man released a handful of solo albums, and collaborated with Eclectica
on the, indeed, eclectic Streaming Video Soul
(ArtistShare, 2009), while Levy continued with his own work and guesting with, in addition to some of his ex-Flecktones mates, artists including Paul Simon
, Donald Fagen
and Kurt Elling
As good as the Coffin-era Flecktones was, it just never seemed to possess the magic of the original lineup, and so it was huge news when it was announced that the original Béla Fleck & The Flecktones lineup was not just reuniting for an album, Rocket Science
(E One, 2011), but that they'd be hitting the road again, including a performance at the 2012 Festival International de Jazz
that made clear how, when you have the chemistry and sense of family that the original lineup possessed, you never lose the magic.
And so, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones being the first group to win FIJM's Miles Davis Award
was entirely appropriate; few bands today could meet the festival's criterion of "honour[ing] a great international jazz musician for the entire body of his or her work and influence in regenerating the jazz idiom." Of Fleck & The Flecktones, the festival has written: "Renowned for their bottomless creativity, fiery concerts and a unique style steeped in jazz, classical music, bluegrass, African music, electric blues and even East European folk, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones rank as one of the most innovative groups on the global music scene, challenging the limits of jazz and driving the music off the beaten track."
But after being given the award at the start of their 2018 FIJM appearance at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve (coincidentally, a much better sounding room for a group like this than PdA's large Salle Wilfred-Pelletier), the capacity crowd had to wait, as opening act, Delvon Lamarr
Organ Trio, delivered a short but extremely well-received set that most certainly made some new fans out of a crowd largely unfamiliar with this Seattle-based, soul/jazz-infused organ/guitar/drums trio.
Performing music largely from its studio debut, Close But No Cigar
(Colemine, 2018), but also drawing upon its early Live at KEXP!
(Colemine, 2018) and the just-recorded but due out in 2019 second studio release, Lamarr was definitely a member of the church of the Hammond B3 organ. Supported not being precisely the appropriate term but, instead, collaborating with guitarist Jimmy James and drummer David McGraw, Lamarr's set was high on energy, church infused spirituality and flat-out soul. The best comparison would be Booker T & the MG's
, but on steroids, as the trio worked its way through covers of Curtis Mayfield
and Big Big John Patton
to reworks of a tune with which Lamarr group up in church, and a handful of similarly booty-shaking originals.
James combined Steve Cropper
's bright rhythmic sense with B.B. King
's blues-fueled bends, meshing perfectly with Lamarr's mesh of everyone from Patton and Booker T. Jones
to Jack McDuff
, Johnny "Hammond" Smith
and even hints of Shirley Scott
, though his language was less overt jazz and, like James, leaned more towards blues as soul. Being the only white man in the band, Lamarr introduced McGraw as "the piece that holds the band together...kinda like the creamy centre of an Oreo cookie," which got both huge laughter and applause from the appreciative audience, giving the group a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of its short, roughly 30-40 minute set. And, true enough, McGraw may have used a small kitsnare, bass drum, one rack tom and one floor tom, along with hi-hat and two cymbals that sounded especially sweet, especially during his brief solo on the short piece that closed out the setbut he kept the engine running all the way through the set.
As with Mike Stern the night before, booking an opening artist before the main event can be a dicey proposition, but in both cases the FIJM programming team not only made perfect choices, but significantly different ones that eliminated any possibility of comparison to the headliners.
It's been six years since the original Béla Fleck & The Flecktones played together, but from the moment Levy began on Jew's harp for an exhilarating opener, "Frontiers," from the group's 1990 debut, it was clear, once again, that time simply doesn't destroy the kind of magic these four virtuosic musicians share. "You're my brothers," Fleck said when he spoke to the audience after a four-song opening that also included Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
's funkier "Flying Saucer Dudes," an even deeper-grooved "Magic Fingers" from UFO Tofu
and, from Fleck's '95 Grammy
-nominated solo album, Tales From the Acoustic Planet
(Warner Bros.), a more electrified (and electrifying) "Up and Running."
Not unlike just about every American act that plays in Canada these days (Ry Cooder, as well, but in a different way), Fleck began his introduction by saying "We'd kinda like to stay here if that's OK."
He also marveled that, after a previous six shows in six nights, the magic was clearly back. And it was. The set included deep cuts like Béla Fleck and The Flecktones
' two-part "Mars Needs Women," with its balladic "Space is a Lonely Place" and knottier, more up-tempo "They're Here," along with Rocket Science
's mind-boggling exploration of all things eleven, "Life in Eleven" and a brightly swinging "Hurricane Camille," from the group's debut. Throughout, Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Future Man demonstrated that nothing is set in concrete as they stretched some of the material out, playing liberally with tempo and, with each and every one of them having grown significantly in the intervening years, approaching the material with fresh ears and fresh insights.
Barring those first four tunes, the set was democratically chosen on the fly, as Fleck passed the microphone around and asked each of his brothers what song on their very long set list they'd like to play. Beyond those deep cuts, they made sure to include songs that Fleck fans have come to expect: Wooten's funkified "Sex in a Pan," from UFO Tofu
, along with Fleck's ambling "Sunset Road" and typical usual set-closer, "The Sinister Minister" (both from Béla Fleck and The Flecktones
), the latter which included Victor Wooten's usual incomparable bass solo, though he only flipped his bass around his band and back to front again once, rather than the many times he used to. But once was enough for the similar crowd to go wild.
The set also included some new material. Following a first encore (after the third standing ovation of the night) of the audience participation title track from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
(fingers snapping, men going "oooh," women following with "aaah"), Fleck asked if the audience wanted one more (they did), and closed the evening with a new short but truly death-defying piece of musical acrobatics, the aptly titled "Vertigo." He described it as "a new tune, complicated, we just learned it," and then, after his band mates agreed to his question as to whether or not they needed a quick run-down, were subjected, along with the crowd, to Fleck's rapid-fire description that began with "two quick bars of five, then one of six, another two of five, one of six..." and became only knottier and more complicated from there. It was a short piece, maybe four minutes long, but probably long enough, though Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Future Man all pulled it off with effortless confidence.
There was another relatively new tune, "Juno," written five year's ago for Fleck's then-newborn son, its genesis described by the banjoist. "He arrived three weeks early, and I couldn't find a flight that would get me there in time. So I had to play a show and missed his birth. I live in Nashville," he continued, dryly adding that he "caught a 4am red eye and found myself in the purgatory known as the Dallas/Fort Worth airport." The simpler, more lyrical "Juno" (which may come from his 2017 collaboration with the Colorado symphony, Juno Concerto
, was evidence of Fleck's capacity for lyrical beauty, even if he is, perhaps, better known for compositions so metrically challenging that few but these four players could actually pull them off.
In a group this talented, nobody outshined anyone else. Insteadand a very different experience to the Coffin/Flecktones lineup, which seemed more about the virtuosity and less about the musiceach and every member of the Flecktones have proven themselves both extraordinarily talented and unmistakable innovators on their respective instrument(s). Fleck's technique has only grown deeper with time, as he built motif-driven improvised passages that were completely about respecting the music, even as he demonstrated an almost unbelievable facility at threading melodic needles through the tight pin holes of his and his band mates' writing.
Wooten's effortless mastery on electric bass (largely fretted this evening, though he did pull out a fretless for the glissando-driven "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo) has only become more natural, more organic, whether he was slapping, thumb-popping, tapping, contributing light-speed phrases or all the other mind-bending things he does on an instrument that truly feels like an extension of his body, mind and soul.
Future Man's Drumitar (a new version first seen at the 2012 FIJM show, that is much smaller than the modified SynthAxe he originally used) was as impressive as ever, but even more so when he sat behind his modified drum kit and began playing the acoustic set with his right hand and his Drumitar with his left. From close seats, it was actually possible to see a small laptop amongst his onstage gear, where his Drumitar work was actually visually translated to the virtual kit he was effectively playing.
It's a long way from the Flecktones' early days, and Levy touring with an electronic keyboard utilizing, amongst other things, sampled piano. Now, he's able to ask for (and get) a Steinway grand piano, and he spent the evening moving back and forth from his piano stool, where he played piano and, oftentimes, harmonica simultaneously, to front of stage stage, where he sometimes played through a microphone on a stand, but other times grabbed the mike so he could move around more freely. As strong a pianist as he absolutely was, however, it was his harmonica work that was most impressive, especially during his a cappella
solo introduction to "Life in Eleven," where he actually alternated so rapidly between consonant tritone chords (and on a diatonic harmonica, to boot) and rapid-fire single-note linesbent, twisted and turned on their sidethat it felt like there were two players onstage rather than just one. He used to be introduced as the "man with two brains" by Fleck, for his ability to simultaneously play keyboards and harmonica, but after witnessing this solo, it made perfect sense when Fleck added "the man with two tongues" to his intro.
With Montréal the seventh show of an originally planned short tour of just eight performances, the group has already added five more dates. Whether or not it continues to expand into a larger tour, and whether or not the group ever returns to the studio (though their FIJM show was recorded for international television broadcast, so hope springs that they might release a live album or, with this multi-camera shoot, a live DVD/Blu Ray), Béla Fleck & The Flecktones' FIJM performance and winning of the Miles David Award
made the group's return to Montréal a most welcome event that will surely go down as one of the best performances of the 39th edition...and, even, the festival's nearly 40-year history.
July 2: Hommage à Carla Bley, Monument National
When Carla Bley
was forced, at the eleventh hour, to withdraw from her planned FIJM performance with life partner and equally acclaimed electric bassist Steve Swallow
in collaboration with Montréal's Orchestre National de Jazz, beyond concerns for the renowned pianist and composer's health, the question arose: what to do?
Well, fortunately the ONdJ, formed in 2012 of some of the absolutely best musicians from the Montréal area and giving its first performance the following year, had been collaborating with Canada's crown jewel of jazz composers and arrangers, Christine Jensen
. And so, following the old adage of "when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade" (though neither Jensen nor the ONdJ could hardly be called "lemons"), Jensen was recruited to turn Bley and Swallow's visit to FIJM into Hommage à Carla Bley
, featuring seven guest performers, women all (with one exception), in these times of increase awareness for women's rights, and recognition that Bley was truly a trailblazera groundbreaking artist for women in jazz, emerging at a time when few women could be found beyond singers and the occasional pianist.
It's hard to know Bley's feelings on the subject, beyond her simply doing what she did so well from the very start, and transcending the "boy's club" that defined too much of the jazz scene in the mid-to-late '50s, when she first emerged as a pianist but, soon after, as a composer and bandleader who, beyond her sizeable discography, has paved the way for women like Jensen, Myriam Alter
and Maria Schneider
, amongst many others.
And so, as everyone hopes for Bley's recovery (she may be 82, but the world is simply not ready for her to be gone), Jensen led the Orchestre National de Jazz Montréal in a program that drew upon three of Bley's large ensemble recordings on her own WATT imprint: 1991's The Very Big Carla Bley Band
; 1993's Big Band Theory
; and 2008's Appearing Nightly
With six different pianists including, alongside local stars Gentiane MG, Marie-Fatima Rudolf
, Marianne Trudel
, Francois Bourassa
(the sole male guest) and Lorraine Desmarais
, two New York-based musicians also made the long drive to Montréal: Jensen's increasinglyand appropriatelycritically/popularly recognized sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen
; and Texas-born pianist Helen Sung
. With the exception of Rudolf and Ingrid Jensen, the rest of the guests contributed to one piece each, though given the length of Christine Jensen's choice for a set-opener, Appearing Nightly
's nearly 30-minute, multi-movement suite, "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid," with its liberal quotes from standards including "My Foolish Heart" and "As Time Goes By," it could easily be suggested that Gentiane MG also contributed to more than just one piece.
Bley's writing is filled with a broad range of emotion, ranging from darker-hued lyricism and bright, joyous optimism to wry wit. All that and more was encapsulated in the show's opening piece that, in addition to providing specific solo spots for tenor saxophonist David Bellemare, trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier
, soprano saxophonist (tripling on alto and flute) Jean Pierre Zanella
and trumpeter Aron Doyle, also went, round robin style, around the entire Orchestre at one point, providing everyone in the 17-piece ensemble a moment in the spotlight, an approach that was repeated again, later in the set. MG's approach to piano was not unlike Bley's: spare, with as much space as there were notes played, and a considered approach to voicings that applied, for that matter, to her playing throughout the piece.
Jensen's conducting, seen, of course, from behind, was firm yet relaxed, as she brought the Orchestre from moments as close to a whisper as a group this large and horn-infused can be, to more dynamic passages filled with burnished (sometimes brash) brass and a potent rhythm section, feat tie game double bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Kevin Warren
. If there was any issue with the performance, it was in the mix coming out into the house. Some soloists stood, others did not; some had clip-on microphones on their horns, others did not. And while the mix was largely fine during much of the set, from a relatively central position in the hall, when things kicked into high gear the drums often tended to overshadow everything else (despite Warren being clearly a superb drummer), as did passages where a soloist was being supported by the full band, with five saxophonists/flautists, four trombonists and four trumpeters. That organist Daniel Thouin
, who had the capacity for being loud and overbearing was the precise opposite spoke to his ensemble-oriented approach.
Thouin rarely soloed, in fact, though his contributions to the Orchestre's overall complexion was not to be underestimated. And when he finally did get to solo, on the wonderfully balladic, set-closing "Lawns" (the only non-Bley composition of the set, written by Christine Jensen as a tribute to the pianist/composer), his considered approach to soloing with clear compositional focus was well worth the wait.
Ingrid Jensen also performed on "Lawns," as well as two Bley pieces: Appearing Nightly
's buoyantly swinging "Awful Coffee," next to Sung, and Big Band Theory
's more relaxed and, at times' atmospheric "Fresh Impression," with Lorraine Desmarais on piano. As always, Jensen's tone was a thing of beauty, with a particular strength in the instrument's lower register that few explore, in addition to being able to hit, Kenny Wheeler
-like, some truly stratospheric high notes. Any performance with Ingrid Jensen in it (and sister Christine, too) is bound to be worth seeing, and this was no exception.
Both "Awful Coffee" and, from the same album, the appropriately titled "Greasy Gravy" (featuring Marianne Trudel), with its slow and, yes, greasy
groove, made references to other songs dealing with food, including Herbie Hancock
's "Watermelon Man," Dizzy Gillespie's evergreen, "Salt Peanuts" and Ray Henderson's "You're the Cream in My Coffee." The Orchestre even shouted out another Gillespie reference in the midst of Jensen's solo during "Awful Coffee": "Hey Pete, Let's Eat Mo' Meat." Suffice to say that, while these are all part of the script' the Orchestre nevertheless imbued them with the appropriate dry, understated sense of humor so endemic to Bley's writing.
Every pianist invited to perform was suitably impressive. Bourassa, whose solo piece, "Pièce solo dédiée a Carla Bley" was a relentless stream of invention and virtuosity, was particularly notable, as was the especially intense Sung and equally masterful Desmarais. But as undeniably masterful as every invited pianist was, only a couple, specifically Gentiane MG and Marie-Fatima Rudolf, captured the spare, restrained and considered essence of Bley the pianist, whose playing, in particular on her two recent ECM trio releases with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard
and 2016's Andando el Tiempo
), is especially revelatory.
Instead, Trudel, Sung, Bourassa and Desmarais delivered extraordinary performances, to be sure; but beyond Bourassa's self-penned solo tribute, it's hard to say if the others did the music full justice. Of course, a tribute need not be one that specifically references its subject, and there's little doubt that the restrained yet nevertheless freewheeling Bley would (as did Christine Jensen) encourage anyone and everyone performing her music to be exactly
who they are.
And that dictum was, most definitely, the modus operandi
for Christine Jensen and Orchestre National de Jazz Montréal's Hommage à Carla Bley
. As frantic as it must have been to put this performance together on such short notice, it most certainly didn't appear so once the lights went down and the two-hour set began. Instead, whether reverential, referential or personally interpretive, Hommage à Carla Bley
was as captivating as would be expected from this group of A-list, largely Canadian (and, even more so, predominantly Montréal) musicians, many of whom came together on very short notice to deliver a performance that would, no doubt, have made Bley proud.
July 3: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Monument National
It's hard to believe that Brian Blade first introduced his Fellowship Band twenty years ago in 1998, with its Blue Note debut Fellowship
. The original septet was a uniquely configured core lineup that, in addition to the drummer, pianist (and group co-composer, along with Blade) Jon Cowherd
, double bassist Christopher Thomas
, tenor/soprano saxophonist Melvin Butler
and altoist/bass clarinetist Myron Walden
, also featured on-the-rise guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel
and, most distinctively, a remarkable pedal steel player, Dave Easley. This seven-piece lineup put on a powerful performance at the 2000 FIJM, defining Fellowship as a group to absolutely keep watching, but also one which increasingly evolved into a band of musicians' musicians, capable of a great many things but including, most specifically, the folkloric ribbons which ran through the group's admittedly jazz-infused complexion, as Blade and Cowherd contributed sometimes complex but always profoundly lyrical and surprisingly accessible music.
The core group remained intact for its even more compelling 2000 Blue Note follow-up, Perceptual
, which remains a high point in the group's small but significant discography to this day.
But change was in the air as Easley left the group, making seven into six, but that immense loss was handled in a unique fashion, demonstrative of just how important the word "Fellowship" is to his group, as a 2014 All About Jazz
interview, FellowshipMore Than Just a Word
rendered crystal clear.
Fellowship Band truly is a band of brothers, despite coming from different cities and representing some disparate cultures and musical backgrounds. The specificity of Fellowship meant that, while the group would recruit other musicians as guests on their subsequent three recordings, when it came to true membership and touring, the band has never replaced a single core member. Instead, through attrition, as Rosenwinkel's ascendant career meant no time for Fellowship, the guitarist was forced to leave the group after 2008's Season of Changes
(Verve), as six became five and the remaining members continued on as a quintet.
Fellowship Band's first stop at the 2009 FIJM
following Rosenwinkel's departure, was certainly a good one, but it also seemed that the band was still trying to find its way; losing two of its five front-line voices clearly presented no small challenge to the group. Still, by the time Fellowship reached Norway's Oslo Jazz Festival
in 2011 and a show the following year at Canada's TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
which would have raised the roof (as it did in Oslo) had the outdoor park actually possessed a roof to
raiseit became increasingly clear that the group had found its way as a quintet, navigating Blade and/or Cowherd's melody rich charts with increasingly quiet confidence, somehow finding a way to make charts, some originally written for seven (or six) players, lose absolutely nothing when reduced to five.
But before Fellowship delivered its stellar Monument National show (with encore, hovering at roughly 100 minutes), an opening act that was this year's winner of the festival's annual TD Jazz Prize
not just a sign of recognition, but also a prize that included a stipend of $5,000performed an opening set that, while well-received, was not without its flaws.
SHPIK is a Montréal group featuring the seemingly irrepressible pianist Arnaud Spick-Saucier, double bassist Etienne Dextraze, drummer Philippe Lussier-Bailargeon and saxophonist/flautist Alex Dodier. The band's modus operandus
was to create immersive, impressionistic music, music into which the audience could lose itself and which was as informed by film music as it was jazz. While achieving its goal at times, it was, perhaps, too early for the group to assert its intent as it did not consistently achieve its ambitious objective.
With Dodier employing a vast array of effects, all on tables in front of him and controlled by hand, the closest reference point would be British progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator
's co-founding (but, sadly, no longer) woodwind/reed specialist David Jackson, who expanded the possibilities of his instruments through use of various effects, beginning with the band's early days in the late '60s. Still, Jackson's work, which often included playing more than one horn simultaneous à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk
, was more dominant to VdGG's overall sonic complexion. Instead, while there were occasional bits of flute and saxophone floating through the rest of SHPIK's sound, Dodier was largely lost amidst his band mates' more overbearing sonics.
While nowhere near as virtuosic, the piano trio shared certain elements with the sadly defunct Esbjorn Svensson
Trio (e.s.t.), in particular the way that Dextraze used his bow to create deep in-the-gut bowed lines, and in Spick-Saucier's occasional references to Keith Jarrett
and Herbie Hancock
, albeit with a less-sophisticated language.
And so, a loosely defined combination of e.s.t. and VdGG's horns and flutes could have been a winning combination, and there's no doubt that the group's melodic concerns, atmospherics combined with more grounded rhythms, and Spick-Saucier's positive energy made for a set that, if not entirely memorable, was certainly enjoyable enough. Still, it's likely (given this was the first opening act heard this week that didn't receive a standing ovation and demand for an encore) that few in the audience actually felt having that opening act was necessary and would have been just as happy with nothing but Fellowship Band's 100-minute set.
Opening its set with Season of Changes
' slow, hauntingly lyrical "Stoner Hill," Blade and the Fellowship Band began a set that, despite certainly containing more than enough blowing space for everyone, was more about the writing and, in some cases, completely faithful performances of some of its through-composed works. Still, "Stoner Hill" was extended to include brief space for the deeply earth-toned Thomas and for Cowherd, even as Blade blended remarkable restraint and unfettered freedom, moving from delicate cymbal work to powerful injections of sheer energy across his kit. Later in the set, Cowherd's thoroughly beautiful harmonium work introduced a faithful rendition of Season of Changes
' look at the American traditional "Shenandoah," with Walden's deep, dark and warm bass clarinet meshing perfectly with Butler's tenor. The combination of two reed instruments with the similarly reed-driven harmonium has always been an particularly synchronous sound, and amongst a number of touchstones that have come to define Fellowship Band.
Despite being a quintet of virtuosos (and everyone proving so throughout the set), Fellowship Band has always been more about the collective, about a family of friends who make music together because it's simply who they are and what motivates them. Still, everyone got one or more chance to shine amidst a setlist that drew, in addition to Season of Changes
, from its more recent albums Landmarks
(Blue Note, 2014) and Body and Shadow
(Blue Note, 2017). À particularly powerful version of Landmark
's "Farewell Bluebird" was taken into the stratosphere by Walden's visceral alto solo, which began with long-held shrieking notes...and built from there into a potent example of Fellowship Band at its empathic, telepathic best. A brief encore from the same album, "Friends Call Her Dot"another largely through-composed tune with warm melodies coming from Walden's bass clarinet and Butler's tenor saxophone, with Blade's soft brushwork, Thomas' spare but ever-perfect choices and Cowherd's equally inspired harmonic choiceswas the only song actually introduced by the drummer, who (like his band mates) stayed silent throughout the set, only picking up a microphone to introduce his brothers before the main set ended.
Past shows in Oslo and Ottawa made clear just how unique a bond is shared amongst a group of players originating from across the United States, with Blade from Shreveport, LA, Thomas from St. Louis, MO, Cowherd hailing from Kentucky, Walden originally from Miami, FL and Butler's place of birth in Kansas City, KS. it is, in fact, the very cultural diversity of Fellowship's five members that has turned it into a musical melting pot referencing church-driven spirituality, folkloric lyricism, an expansive jazz vernacular and the effortless ease with which they bring their various touchstones together, making every Fellowship Band performance an utterly memorable and enthralling experience.
While Blade rarely soloed, his ability to find a multiplicity of underlying grooves and polyrhythms were bolstered by Thomas' largely simple, spare and ever-astute choices, creating a fluid foundation for Cowherd, Walden and Butler. Butler's soprano solo on Landmarks
' extended "Ark.La.Tex," for example, drew a huge round of applause from the enthusiastic capacity crowd, while a similarly expanded look at Body and Shadow
's 7/4-driven "Traveling Mercies" was another highlight, featuring a vivid piano solo from Cowherd and, ultimately, some exhilarating in-tandem work between Walden and Butler.
Beyond everyone's undeniable virtuosity, some of Fellowship's most defining qualities were the way that, scored or improvised, Walden and Butler's lines orbited in, out and around each other, often creating the impression of a larger section. Cowherd remains one of music's (and not just jazz) hidden treasures, with too few solo albums (albeit including 2014's stellar ArtistShare recording, Mercy
) and a résumé that includes, along with Blade, recording and/or touring with everyone from Lizz Wright
and Rosanne Cash to Cassandra Wilson
and Iggy Pop.
Blade's relaxed, completely liquid command of his kit has made him one of the most in-demand players of his generation, with an even larger C.V. that includes, in addition to Wayne Shorter
's nearly two-decade old quartet, collaborations with artists ranging from Emmylou Harris
, Daniel Lanois
and Joni Mitchell
to Bob Dylan
, John Scofield
and Shawn Colvin
. Together with Cowherd, he's responsible for Fellowship's material but there's absolutely no doubt that the band would not be what it is without the longstanding chemistry, friendship and, yes, fellowship
the two share with Thomas, Walden and Butler.
Together for 20 years, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band have evolved into not just one of jazz's most longstanding ensembles, but one of its most distinctive in its blend of jazz and various other American music traditions, its five members' mitochondrial connection, and a sense of joy, each time they play together, that is as palpable and deep as it is captivating and commanding, it's hard to imagine this influential ensemble continuing to improve and becoming even more connected over timeeven when separated by, in some cases, many yearsbut it does. And with its appearance at the 2018 FIJM the clearest evidence anyone needs, its performance will certainly go down as another milestone in this year's already high bar.
And so, with the Fellowship Band show over, so too does another year of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal coverage wrap up, with All About Jazz
's Mark Sullivan
picking up the baton and seeing the festival through to its conclusion in a few days.
Beyond being a landmark festival with an embarrassment of riches, it's important to shine a light on the festival's media staff, which treats journalists from Montréal and abroad with the kind of friendly professionalism that ensures their needs are always met. Much of the time the staff are invisible, having done their jobs so well that journalists need rarely ask for help. But when help is needed, they're always there to take care of anything and everything, quickly and completely.
With 2019 looming as the festival's 40th anniversary, it's likely that this already massive festival already has something even bigger in mind. It'll be a long wait, but when the festival rolls out its 2019 program, there's little doubt that it's going to be something very
Photo Credit: Dave Kaufman