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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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Beaulieu announced most of the tunes en Français but, recognizing that they had a mixed audience including people who'd traveled to the festival from not just the USA but farther afield, did address the crowd in English as well (a welcome consideration, as it's not always the case). As a pianist, he reflected a number of influences, largely subsumed into an emerging personal style but occasionally surfacing with some Herbie Hancock-like octaves.

With both players worth keeping a watchful eye on, Jalbert was particularly impressive. Few young guitarists make the acoustic variant their main axe, but Jalbert made great use of the instrument's crystalline clarity, potential for punchy rhythmic injections and sparkling arpeggios. With a lot of picked rather than strummed chords, his facility with a pick was especially impressive, as he never resorted to the usual hybrid of pick/fingers or fingers or alone. His solos were well-constructed too, building upon motifs and feeling like they always had a clear sense of purpose, rather than merely being a scalar run-down. If he sounded little like Metheny, his approach seemed to be a confluence of other acoustic players like Will Ackerman, Al Di Meola (minus the scales) and, even, a touch of Michael Hedges.

Together, the duo performed with rare synchronicity for musicians so young. The writing was challenging; often episodic, there were rarely any extended solos but, instead, they were part of the greater compositional whole, as individual solos often quickly came and went with either defined lengths or quick cues that the other player picked up on with keen reflexes.

Opening sets are often less than welcome, with the audience really there to hear the top artist on the bill, but Jalbert and Beaulieu surprised those there for Stern with a set so engaging, so impressive, so captivating that the crowd's response was almost as enthusiastic as it was for Stern, the duo even garnering a well-deserved standing ovation.

Still, twenty minutes later, when Stern, Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers hit the stage firing on all cylinders, it was clear that the FIJM audience was in for a show that would go down as one of the very best Stern has delivered in his many appearances in Montréal over the years. As the group effortlessly switched grooves, from Chambers' initially brushwork-driven pulse to more propulsive stick work, and as Stern built his solo from thicker-than-usual clean tone to more overdriven, demonstrating from the very start of his high octane playing, it became clear that any fears of his accident impeding the guitarist were completely unfounded. If anything, Stern is truly playing better than ever, having overcome an early tendency to build solos in a couple of ultimately particular ways. Stern's playing has become far less predictable, both in tone and harmonic complexion, with Stern a relentless student who regularly studied, in fact, with the late Charlie Banacos before the renowned educator passed away in 2009).

For that lengthy, positively nuclear opening tune, Brecker started his solo as the group brought it down to half time, but it wasn't long before he'd built up steam along with his mates, delivering a bright, burnished open horn tone as instantly recognizable as his swinging lines and seemingly effortless leaps into the stratosphere, along with a lithe dexterity in spontaneously shaping extended lines which always possessed a clear (but, like Stern, unpredictable) sense of purpose, and am instantly recognizable approach to phrasing. There may be other trumpeters who garner more popular press these days, but there really is only one Randy Brecker, and with Stern usually employing a saxophonist for his touring quartets, it was a great opportunity to not just see Stern's comeback, but to catch another player who will surely go down as one of jazz's great trumpeters, when the history of the last 50 years is finally written.

Chambers, too, will have a place in that history. With a smaller kit than he used to use with the Brecker Brothers, he nevertheless possessed a kit plenty sizeable enough to demonstrate his irrepressible virtuosity, though there's every suspicion he could have done so with just a snare, hi-hat, cymbal and bass drum. He combined powerful, rapid-fire double bass drum pedal work with thundering snare/tom tom polyrhythms and some particularly mind-blowing cymbal work, especially at one point, where he delivered a completely crazy cymbal/hi-hat figure that would have seemed impossible, were there not 800 people there to witness it. Like Stern, Chambers proved that he is well and fully back, following a serious illness around 2014-15 that left him looking frail and considerably lighter than his usual heft, much of which he has since regained.

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