| 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.