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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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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 lines—bent, twisted and turned on their side—that 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 trailblazer—a 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 increasingly—and appropriately—critically/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.

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