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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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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."

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