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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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This is exactly what happened to Mike Stern in the summer of 2016. Still, the veteran guitarist, whose bright smile indicates an irrepressible positivity, managed the almost unimaginable feat of getting back in the game within just a few months. Since then, even with his right hand appearing oddly bent and Stern going through a substantial period of time where he literally had to glue his pick to his thumb so that he wouldn't drop it, there has been negligible perceptual change in his playing except, as much as it might challenge credulity, for the guitarist actually seeming to be the better for it.

Certainly, nobody in the capacity crowd at Monument National who didn't already know would have been able to tell that he'd broken both his arms, based on the incendiary performance he delivered with a crack group featuring, in addition to bassist Tom Kennedy and the always mind-boggling drummer Dennis Chambers, the great trumpeter Randy Brecker.

Brecker and Stern go back a ways, on record at least as far as the guitarist's 1992 album Standards (Atlantic) and, the same year, the heralded Brecker Brothers reunion, Return of the Brecker Brothers (GRP), which also spawned a fiery live show on VHS tape that's crying out for release in a more contemporary format. Brecker's career is a long and varied one, going back to The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCOA, 1968), participation in the early commune-like White Elephant, and recording and/or touring with artists including Hal Galper, Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine and Billy Cobham, before forming the first Brecker Brothers band for its 1975, self-titled Arista debut. Since then, beyond more jazz gigs than can be counted and his still-growing discography as a leader, the trumpeter has entered the pantheon of musicians whom virtually anyone with a radio has heard, with the trumpeter appearing on hits by big-name pop/rock artists including Paul Simon, Steely Dan, James Taylor and Elton John, amidst a complete discography numbering in the many hundreds (if not thousands).

Chambers and Stern go even farther back on record, to the guitarist's 1989 album that still remains a personal favorite, Jigsaw (Atlantic). Chambers was also a member of the '90s Brecker Brothers reunion, and has his own storied history with artists ranging from John Scofield, Parliament, the P-Funk All Stars and the late Bob Berg (who was part of this family of players before a tragic accident took him 16 years ago) to John McLaughlin, Steve Khan and (also) Steely Dan.

Kennedy is relatively new to Stern, making his first appearance on the guitarist's New Morning: The Paris Concert (In-Akustik, 2008) DVD and contributing to subsequent albums including, along with Brecker and Chambers, Stern's first album since his accident, the aptly titled Trip (Heads Up, 2017). The virtuosic bassist can also be found, beginning in the mid-'80s, with artists ranging from Bill Connors, the late Don Grolnick and Dave Weckl to Al Di Meola and Steps Ahead...even a live date with Swedish saxophonist Jonas Knutsson at Sweden's 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival.

Together, Stern, Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers hit the ground running with an opening version of the modal-based blower "Out of the Blue," from 2012's All Over the Place (Heads Up). Extending for well over twenty minutes, it gave everyone in the band, well, not exactly a chance to warm up (they were already on fire), but an opportunity to make clear what was in store with a show that, including its brief encore, ran about 95 minutes, following an unexpectedly impressive 40-minute opening set by a local duo featuring guitarist François Jalbert and pianist Jérôme Beaulieu, playing material largely from its debut, This is a Real Place (Les Productions Multiple Chord Music, 2017).

Like Stern, Jalbert and Beaulieu also came charging out of the gate, but with a composition that, if the two players didn't sound anything like them, was richly reminiscent of the American Midwestern vibe blended with jazz undertones that have defined Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, in particular on the guitarist and keyboardist's classic As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM, 1981). It was a vibe that ran through much of the duo's set, though Jalbert and Beaulieu demonstrated greater reach on the more swinging "Muffin" and more challenging, episodic "I Put Too Much Hot Sauce on My Sandwich."


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