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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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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 (2013's Trios 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.

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