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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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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, Fellowship—More 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 raise—it 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 $5,000—performed 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.

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