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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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Kennedy may be the lesser-known of the group, but he proved himself as capable as his band mates, delivering potent grooves, navigating Stern's oftentimes challenging compositions and soloing with a degree of mastery that made him a perfect foil.

While the set focused on Trip, it also included material from past albums and a new tune by Brecker called "Dipshit," which the trumpeter dryly dedicated to American president Donald Trump, despite not actually writing it for him. A completely different composer than Stern, Brecker's tune revolved around a blues-informed form, comprised of a theme that ended with a long, descending staccato line...pure Brecker.

While the group's performance of material from Trip was utterly impressive and as close to perfect as any group of players taking chances with material this deep, when it came to playing the show-closing title track, the relentlessly-smiling Stern introduced it by saying "We just started playing it, so if we fuck it up don't throw anything!"

And "fuck it up" they did not. Another modal barnstormer like the set opener it was, nevertheless, driven even harder by Chambers' muscular backbeat. Based on a pedal tone broken up by a series of difficult changes, it provided plenty of grist for everyone, in particular Brecker, whose solo was especially strong on a night where he was consistently powerful and potential-filled, with the trumpeter ending the final theme with a line that reached way up above the clouds.

After standing ovations following "Out of the Blue" and "Trip," despite it seeming as if there was a time restriction for the show, Stern and his group didn't leave the stage, with the guitarist, always grateful but especially taken aback by the power of the FIJM audience's beyond-enthusiastic response, yelled out "Do you want to hear one more?" Needless to say, the crowd screamed to the affirmative, as Stern launched into a short but fuel-injected version of Jimi Hendrix's popular blues, "Red House."

Stern had already sung a couple of tunes earlier in the set, but largely as a wordless vocalist. Here, however, Stern provided another surprise amongst a litany of them this evening, proving himself a far more than credible blues-belter, ending the song by holding a long, high note that was just as powerful as his playing.

And his playing has certainly gone through some changes. Yes, his rapid bebop-informed phrasing remains, as does his ability to viscerally bend notes with gritty, blues-drenched attitude; but there's also more attention to space (even amidst this testosterone-fueled set) and even greater harmonic sophistication. At times he continued hanging onto a note on the upper end of his guitar while, at the same time, adding fluidly moving chords underneath, and his accompaniment for Brecker, whether open-horned or, as in a couple of tunes, employing a Harmon mute, was both supportive and driving, as he sometimes pushed everyone in the band into different places.

Beyond his playing, however, Stern has also been working on expanding the tonal palette of his guitar. Playing through two Fender Twin amplifiers, but with a variety of effects at his disposal, Stern still went for his usual combination of a clean, warm tone (sometimes made more expansive with a chorus), and both overdrive and delayed, which he often used, in the past, to drive his solos into even more energetic terrain. But he also creating lush chordal backdrops through the use of delay and volume swells, accomplished with his little finger on his axe's volume control rather than a foot-driven pedal, used a harmonizer (often set two octaves above his guitar's natural range) to create a sound that, at times, seemed like he was being doubled by a steel pan player, and employed a broader range of overall tonal colors that made his playing feel all the more diverse.

A set that, for the audience, could happily have continued into the next morning, it was irrefutable evidence that Stern was back. And with Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers contributing to various tracks on Trip, Stern not only had a band capable of delivering his new music (albeit, often, in a smaller setting than on record), but one that could literally play whatever came to mind. Even those who have seen Stern in concert before will be hard-pressed to recall a show from this fully recovered guitarist, composer and bandleader that was better than what they heard at the 2018 FIJM.

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