Festival International De Jazz De Montréal 2018: Part 2

Mark Sullivan By

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The corner of St-Antoine/de la Montagne showed little evidence of the clubs in her historical photograph, but there were still some residential buildings dating from that period. Chez Parée (now a strip club) hosted performers like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and Blythe played a live Parker recording made from a performance there. The area still known as the Golden Square Mile was once an elite residential location before becoming a downtown entertainment area with nightclubs. Rue Metcalf was a center, with one club above Dunn's restaurant, which may have been the location Leonard Cohen's first recording, reciting a poem with jazz instrumental accompaniment. There was also still evidence of two large theaters (we saw a photograph of Cab Calloway and his band performing to a mixed race audience), one now an upscale yoga studio. The tour was a fascinating experience, rewarding even in the extreme heat.

July 5: Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio with Chris Potter / Vincent Peirani & Émile Parisien / Steve Kuhn / David Binney's Alhambra Quartet

Veteran American organist Dr. Lonnie Smith began his run of Invitation TD concerts at Gesù with his regular Trio (guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake) and special guest tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. Kreisberg began organ great Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Mood" with funky rhythm guitar, and it just kept on from there. Smith joked that it wasn't really very mellow. He opened the second tune with an organ bass line that grooved like crazy, and which was the watchword for the night. I had not seen him perform live before, and was struck by the way he directed the band with gestures and head nods. He gave his players a lot of space, but was clearly in charge. Everyone on stage looked like they were having a good time! At the end of this tune he directed repeats of the head, before the band went into a gentle coda. "For Heaven's Sake" was the ballad of the set, its melody reminiscent of "Our Love is Here to Stay." Kreisberg played the opening melody phrasing with a volume pedal, followed by an especially brilliant solo.

Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" featured a drum solo, then an organ/drum duet, with Smith quoting pianist McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance" during his solo. During the slow coda, which demonstrated Smith's ability to creatively arrange even well-known tunes, as Blake (often a very busy player, though never at the expense of the groove) showed how restrained he could be when called for. For the encore, the band played what sounded like "Alhambra," which always features Smith's sampled trumpet and strings. It segued into "My Favorite Things," following saxophonist John Coltrane's famous arrangement. At one point, Smith played an "All Blues" quote using a trumpet sound, a callback to the great Miles Davis. Potter stuck to tenor saxophone for the entire set, the horn most often used in organ groups. His solos were so consistently good I can't even single one out, but his playing was clearly inspirational to the rest of the band. A great night of organ jazz.

French duo Vincent Peirani (button accordion) and Emile Parisien (soprano saxophone) opened the Steve Kuhn show with a dazzling display of virtuosity and wit. I have never heard an accordionist who could match Peirani's technique, and Parisien is right there with him (as well as possessing the widest variety of physical contortions while playing that I have ever seen). Their music was hard to place stylistically. Jazz was part of it; they played two compositions by the great American soprano saxophone innovator Sidney Bechet. But the set also included a Franz Schubert arrangement, and a composition by Michel Portal (a French composer, saxophonist and clarinetist known for film composing and as one of the founders of European free improvisation). The stage presentation had elements of cabaret: the first piece included two false endings, which was hilarious, albeit not the sort of thing usually seen at a jazz show. Along with the fun, the pair played one fast, intricate tune after another. It was a fascinating and surprising programming choice for this concert.

Steve Kuhn's performance was billed as a celebration of his 80th birthday, but the only indication of that was an audience member shouting "Happy Birthday!" during one of the American pianist's stage announcements. Kuhn commented that it's a big number, but there's nothing to be done about it but to keep on. And keep on he certainly did, in the company of British double bassist Aidan O'Donnell and American drummer Billy Drummond.

The trio played a mix of standards and Kuhn originals, opening with "There Is No Greater Love." "Two By Two" was an original blues, followed by the lovely Johnny Mandel/Johnny Mercer standard, "Emily," with Kuhn reminding the audience that it was introduced in the soundtrack of the movie The Americanization of Emily. Kuhn's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower" was introduced with an excerpt from Claude Debussy's "La Plus Que Lente," and featured a melodic drum solo from Drummond. In addition to his fine timekeeping, Drummond's performance was marked by surprises: he did not always play the usual thing, which contributed to the freshness of the trio's sound. The set concluded with the jazz standards "In A Sentimental Mood" (the ballad of the set) and "Confirmation," followed by a medley of two Kuhn originals: "Triads"; and "Oceans in the Sky." Even at age 80, Kuhn has not lost a step. His creativity and technical brilliance were both on display, making this performance a classic example of the jazz piano trio.

The late spot at Gesù belonged to veteran American alto saxophonist David Binney, who named his Alhambra Quartet not for the place in Spain, but the neighborhood in Los Angeles where he grew up and recently returned to, splitting his time between there and New York City. His mostly young Californian compatriots are pianist Luca Mendoza (age 19, and son of renowned composer/arranger Vince Mendoza), double bassist Logan Kane (21) and drummer Nate Wood (the old man at 38). Not only a gifted pianist, Mendoza also contributed two compositions that were performed by the group: "Daytona"; and "La Casa."

Binney seemed invigorated by the company, blazing his way through solos. It's amazing that he is not often mentioned when contemporary saxophonists are listed, at one point playing a John Coltrane-style saxophone/drum breakdown. Binney had teased the possibility of surprise guests on social media, and the audience was delighted when Chris Potter brought out his tenor saxophone to sit in on one tune. One of the joys of this year's festival has been the opportunity to hear Potter play in several different musical contexts, and he once again excelled here. Later in the set, Binney finally made use of the electronics on the floor in front of him, first setting up a saxophone loop, then dropping it down an octave and using a harmonizer. He continued manipulating the repeating vamp for some time, effectively creating an electronic solo piece before bringing the rest of the band back in. It's the sort of thing one might expect from a band as exploratory as this, and I look forward to hearing what they do in the future.

July 6: Dr. Lonnie Smith Evolution / Shai Maestro

Dr. Lonnie Smith devoted his second Invitation concert to Evolution, a large group with his Trio (guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake), four horns (trumpeter Andrew McFinch, trombonist Robin Eubanks, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, and baritone saxophonist Jason W. Marshall), and vocalist Alicia Olatuja. The official program described it as a recreation of his Evolution (Blue Note, 2016), the organist's return to the label after many years. But while the large group roughly mirrored the record, the repertoire also included material from the recent All In My Mind (Blue Note, 2018), plus standards and older Smith originals.

"Falling In Love" featured the first of several excellent tenor saxophone solos from Ellis, plus powerful statements from Kreisberg and the leader. "Too Damn Hot" spotlighted solos from Marshall (including a quote from "It Ain't Necessarily So") and Eubanks. Then, Smith brought out vocalist Alicia Olatuja to reprise her role on the title tune from All In My Mind. Smith is no slouch as a soul vocalist, but Olatuja was powerful and memorable. After "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," Smith brought Olatuja back onstage to sing his own "Pilgrimage," which he said was another sad song: "I don't know why I write so many of those; maybe it's the world." Kreisberg provided an electrifying, overdriven guitar solo.

The audience wanted more from Olatuja, so Smith obliged by adding "Talk About This" to the set, which he humorously introduced with the first line of the song, "We talk about this, we talk about that, that ain't right." McFinch finally got a solo. I was feeling bad for the guy, but Smith explained that he had stepped up at the last minute as a substitute, and this was his first appearance with the band.

An encore was demanded, and the band hastily threw together a funky blues to comply—it looked like they really may have already played everything they knew. So it may have sounded a bit looser than the rest of the set, but the spirit was certainly there.

Israeli-born/New York-resident pianist Shai Maestro took the late Gesù slot with his trio: double bassist Joe Martin; and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro announced that they would be improvising the set order, and began playing an original that sounded like a standard ballad, later identified as "Gal," from 2013's The Road to Ithaca. Unaccompanied at first, the pianist was joined first by the drummer, and then the bassist. There was a period of calm, featuring a melodic double bass solo, then a fast, intense ending.

Maestro began "A Man, Morning, Street, Rain," from 2016's The Stone Skipper, whistling along with his piano, which dissolved into textural sound as he played inside the piano, accompanied by skittering scraping noises from bass and drums. Music like a chorale emerged from that; this trio moves between a wide variety of musical gestures. "From One Soul To Another," also from The Stone Skipper, began with Maestro's contemplative solo piano. After the bassist joined in, drummer Nehemya began to sing along with the piano part, a simple, folk song-like line. Maestro encouraged the audience to join in, and before long he had a full sing-along, which he soloed over accompanied by the rest of the band. It was quite magical, a feeling I expect to remember for a long time. The band played "Parlo" as an encore, a piece which they recently recorded for his fifth album, due out in October. Maestro mentioned that the trio had never played together in this formation before, something one would never have guessed from their empathetic, beautiful music-making.
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