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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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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.

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