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Festival International De Jazz De Montréal 2018: Part 2

Mark Sullivan By

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Part 1 | Part 2

2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Various Venues
Montréal, Canada
July 3-7, 2018

It is always a pleasure to return to Montréal for the festival. This is only my third year, which makes me a relative newcomer; many of the journalists I have met have been regulars for ten or twenty years. But I have always felt welcome, and experienced hands have freely shared their knowledge with me. I suspect that this edition will be long remembered for its challenging weather. It was in the 90s all week, with a heat index approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat wave finally ended on Friday, making it much more comfortable to be outdoors. It was strange to see attendees wearing jackets in the evening!

The heat had the most impact on the free outdoor stages and street food vendors, although the crowds seemed normal (large!) to me. The high-profile acts—jazz and otherwise—all performed in air-conditioned theaters, where the outside temperature only affected audiences coming and going. According to the festival organizers at the wrap-up press conference, attendance was lower during the afternoons of the heat wave, but went up in the evening, effectively balancing out the total attendance numbers.

July 3: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band / SHPIK

Montréal's SHPIK took the stage immediately after being presented with the TD Grand Jazz Award, complete with a Commerce Clearing House-style giant check. Pianist/composer Arnaud Spick-Saucier (who accepted the award onstage) was joined by double bassist Etienne Dextraze, drummer Philippe Lussier-Baillargeon and saxophonist/flutist/soundscaper Alex Dodier. This was clearly a real band, albeit one with the pianist in the leadership role. They even had a band logo hung above the stage.

Their music was impressionistic, in the ECM mold, recalling someone like Tord Gustavsen. Dodier barely functioned as a jazz horn soloist at all, emphasizing electronic modification and looping; much of the time his contributions brought to mind soundscapers like Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset more than other horn players. So the total sound was like a contemporary piano trio with electronics. Dodier's parts were frequently in the background as atmospherics, but he occasionally was in the foreground. One piece featured a looped flute interlude, and concluded with a soundscape of wordless vocals. The overall audience response was lukewarm, but the band did succeed in getting the crowd to clap along to the final piece, built around Spick-Saucier's manic rhythmic piano part.

The audience was clearly there for drummer Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band (in fact, many had apparently not even noticed that there would be an opening band in the festival program), and they were not disappointed. I have been fortunate to hear Blade in a number of live settings, including Chick Corea and John McLaughlin's Five Peace Band; the Chick Corea Trio (here in Montreal in 2016); the Wayne Shorter Quartet; the tribute band Still Dreaming (Montreal, 2017) and the John Patitucci Electric Guitar Quartet. In all of those settings Blade brought energy, excitement and unpredictability to the table. Along with unbridled joy; I can think of no other musician who looks so happy to be making music when onstage. It always makes me happy just to watch him. I'm also a fan of the Fellowship Band recordings, but this was my first opportunity to hear them live.

The group was very guitar-oriented in the beginning, including both electric guitar and pedal steel. But, while there was a guitarist (Dave Devine) on their most recent album Body And Shadow (Blue Note, 2017), the role has become far less central. So this guitar-less quintet never sounded less than complete, all of the parts covered and performed with verve. Even without a guitar the sound tends to have a traditional, folk music-like atmosphere. Their recordings are often quite succinct. In performance they took the opportunity to stretch things a bit, but not dramatically so. They were a powerful group of improvisers individually, but collectively there was an emphasis on composition rather than blowing.

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