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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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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 band—on completely friendly terms—it 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 Coffin—and still fairly heavy touring but, with everyone in the band having begun solo pursuits alongside Fleck, less intensive time on the road—Béla 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.

Fleck pursued everything from classical composition and duets with Chick Corea to a remarkable collaboration with African musicians on Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (Rounder, 2009). Victor Wooten continued his series of solo albums, begun in '96 with Show of Hands (Compass) along with projects including the big ticket SMV (Stanley Clark, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten), which released Thunder (Heads Up, 2008) and led to extensive touring that included a stop at the 2009 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. Future Man released a handful of solo albums, and collaborated with Eclectica on the, indeed, eclectic Streaming Video Soul (ArtistShare, 2009), while Levy continued with his own work and guesting with, in addition to some of his ex-Flecktones mates, artists including Paul Simon, Donald Fagen and Kurt Elling.

As good as the Coffin-era Flecktones was, it just never seemed to possess the magic of the original lineup, and so it was huge news when it was announced that the original Béla Fleck & The Flecktones lineup was not just reuniting for an album, Rocket Science (E One, 2011), but that they'd be hitting the road again, including a performance at the 2012 Festival International de Jazz that made clear how, when you have the chemistry and sense of family that the original lineup possessed, you never lose the magic.

And so, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones being the first group to win FIJM's Miles Davis Award was entirely appropriate; few bands today could meet the festival's criterion of "honour[ing] a great international jazz musician for the entire body of his or her work and influence in regenerating the jazz idiom." Of Fleck & The Flecktones, the festival has written: "Renowned for their bottomless creativity, fiery concerts and a unique style steeped in jazz, classical music, bluegrass, African music, electric blues and even East European folk, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones rank as one of the most innovative groups on the global music scene, challenging the limits of jazz and driving the music off the beaten track."

But after being given the award at the start of their 2018 FIJM appearance at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve (coincidentally, a much better sounding room for a group like this than PdA's large Salle Wilfred-Pelletier), the capacity crowd had to wait, as opening act, Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, delivered a short but extremely well-received set that most certainly made some new fans out of a crowd largely unfamiliar with this Seattle-based, soul/jazz-infused organ/guitar/drums trio.

Performing music largely from its studio debut, Close But No Cigar (Colemine, 2018), but also drawing upon its early Live at KEXP! (Colemine, 2018) and the just-recorded but due out in 2019 second studio release, Lamarr was definitely a member of the church of the Hammond B3 organ. Supported not being precisely the appropriate term but, instead, collaborating with guitarist Jimmy James and drummer David McGraw, Lamarr's set was high on energy, church infused spirituality and flat-out soul. The best comparison would be Booker T & the MG's, but on steroids, as the trio worked its way through covers of Curtis Mayfield and Big Big John Patton to reworks of a tune with which Lamarr group up in church, and a handful of similarly booty-shaking originals.

James combined Steve Cropper's bright rhythmic sense with B.B. King's blues-fueled bends, meshing perfectly with Lamarr's mesh of everyone from Patton and Booker T. Jones to Jack McDuff, Johnny "Hammond" Smith and even hints of Shirley Scott, though his language was less overt jazz and, like James, leaned more towards blues as soul. Being the only white man in the band, Lamarr introduced McGraw as "the piece that holds the band together...kinda like the creamy centre of an Oreo cookie," which got both huge laughter and applause from the appreciative audience, giving the group a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of its short, roughly 30-40 minute set. And, true enough, McGraw may have used a small kit—snare, bass drum, one rack tom and one floor tom, along with hi-hat and two cymbals that sounded especially sweet, especially during his brief solo on the short piece that closed out the set—but he kept the engine running all the way through the set.

As with Mike Stern the night before, booking an opening artist before the main event can be a dicey proposition, but in both cases the FIJM programming team not only made perfect choices, but significantly different ones that eliminated any possibility of comparison to the headliners.

It's been six years since the original Béla Fleck & The Flecktones played together, but from the moment Levy began on Jew's harp for an exhilarating opener, "Frontiers," from the group's 1990 debut, it was clear, once again, that time simply doesn't destroy the kind of magic these four virtuosic musicians share. "You're my brothers," Fleck said when he spoke to the audience after a four-song opening that also included Flight of the Cosmic Hippo's funkier "Flying Saucer Dudes," an even deeper-grooved "Magic Fingers" from UFO Tofu and, from Fleck's '95 Grammy-nominated solo album, Tales From the Acoustic Planet (Warner Bros.), a more electrified (and electrifying) "Up and Running."

Not unlike just about every American act that plays in Canada these days (Ry Cooder, as well, but in a different way), Fleck began his introduction by saying "We'd kinda like to stay here if that's OK."

He also marveled that, after a previous six shows in six nights, the magic was clearly back. And it was. The set included deep cuts like Béla Fleck and The Flecktones' two-part "Mars Needs Women," with its balladic "Space is a Lonely Place" and knottier, more up-tempo "They're Here," along with Rocket Science's mind-boggling exploration of all things eleven, "Life in Eleven" and a brightly swinging "Hurricane Camille," from the group's debut. Throughout, Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Future Man demonstrated that nothing is set in concrete as they stretched some of the material out, playing liberally with tempo and, with each and every one of them having grown significantly in the intervening years, approaching the material with fresh ears and fresh insights.

Barring those first four tunes, the set was democratically chosen on the fly, as Fleck passed the microphone around and asked each of his brothers what song on their very long set list they'd like to play. Beyond those deep cuts, they made sure to include songs that Fleck fans have come to expect: Wooten's funkified "Sex in a Pan," from UFO Tofu, along with Fleck's ambling "Sunset Road" and typical usual set-closer, "The Sinister Minister" (both from Béla Fleck and The Flecktones), the latter which included Victor Wooten's usual incomparable bass solo, though he only flipped his bass around his band and back to front again once, rather than the many times he used to. But once was enough for the similar crowd to go wild.

The set also included some new material. Following a first encore (after the third standing ovation of the night) of the audience participation title track from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (fingers snapping, men going "oooh," women following with "aaah"), Fleck asked if the audience wanted one more (they did), and closed the evening with a new short but truly death-defying piece of musical acrobatics, the aptly titled "Vertigo." He described it as "a new tune, complicated, we just learned it," and then, after his band mates agreed to his question as to whether or not they needed a quick run-down, were subjected, along with the crowd, to Fleck's rapid-fire description that began with "two quick bars of five, then one of six, another two of five, one of six..." and became only knottier and more complicated from there. It was a short piece, maybe four minutes long, but probably long enough, though Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Future Man all pulled it off with effortless confidence.

There was another relatively new tune, "Juno," written five year's ago for Fleck's then-newborn son, its genesis described by the banjoist. "He arrived three weeks early, and I couldn't find a flight that would get me there in time. So I had to play a show and missed his birth. I live in Nashville," he continued, dryly adding that he "caught a 4am red eye and found myself in the purgatory known as the Dallas/Fort Worth airport." The simpler, more lyrical "Juno" (which may come from his 2017 collaboration with the Colorado symphony, Juno Concerto, was evidence of Fleck's capacity for lyrical beauty, even if he is, perhaps, better known for compositions so metrically challenging that few but these four players could actually pull them off.

In a group this talented, nobody outshined anyone else. Instead—and a very different experience to the Coffin/Flecktones lineup, which seemed more about the virtuosity and less about the music—each and every member of the Flecktones have proven themselves both extraordinarily talented and unmistakable innovators on their respective instrument(s). Fleck's technique has only grown deeper with time, as he built motif-driven improvised passages that were completely about respecting the music, even as he demonstrated an almost unbelievable facility at threading melodic needles through the tight pin holes of his and his band mates' writing.
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