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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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Wooten's effortless mastery on electric bass (largely fretted this evening, though he did pull out a fretless for the glissando-driven "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo) has only become more natural, more organic, whether he was slapping, thumb-popping, tapping, contributing light-speed phrases or all the other mind-bending things he does on an instrument that truly feels like an extension of his body, mind and soul.

Future Man's Drumitar (a new version first seen at the 2012 FIJM show, that is much smaller than the modified SynthAxe he originally used) was as impressive as ever, but even more so when he sat behind his modified drum kit and began playing the acoustic set with his right hand and his Drumitar with his left. From close seats, it was actually possible to see a small laptop amongst his onstage gear, where his Drumitar work was actually visually translated to the virtual kit he was effectively playing.

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.

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.

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.
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