Festival International De Jazz De Montréal 2018: Part 2

Mark Sullivan By

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July 7: Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio / Soft Machine / Jamie Saft

Dr. Lonnie Smith took the stage for his last Invitation concert with only his current Trio (guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake)—the core group that had welcomed guests onstage the previous two nights. This was kind of backwards from a programming perspective: the usual practice in this series has been to start with a small group and add guests as it progressed (or sometimes to feature a different grouping each night). No doubt there were logistics at play here.

It was good to hear the trio by themselves, if a touch anticlimactic. Their set leaned heavily on the current All In My Mind, which Smith plugged several times. After an atmospheric introduction, the band launched into the laconic groove of "Devika," which showed off Kreisberg's bebop chops, at one point employing Wes Montgomery-like octaves. Slide Hampton's "Frame For The Blues" appeared on Spiral (Palmetto, 2010), but the rest of the program was from the current record.

"50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" was a creative arrangement of Paul Simon's hit, spotlighting Blake's high energy drumming. "On A Misty Night" wound down for a mellow blues. "Alhambra" showcased just about everything of which the band was capable. Beginning with Smith's rubato sampled trumpet and strings (which he found a way to incorporate into the set all three nights), the groove really kicked in with Kreisberg's rhythm guitar, and there was room for Blake's big unaccompanied drum solo. For the encore they brought the temperature down with a slow ballad.

Legendary British rock/fusion band Soft Machine appeared in Montréal for the first time since 1974. It's a band that has always been influential far beyond its relatively meager album sales. But any group that has been around more or less continuously since 1966 will have gone through some changes, so different fans may have different ideas about what the name "Soft Machine" even means. Is it the psychedelic trio with organist Mike Ratledge, bassist Kevin Ayers (replaced by Hugh Hopper), and drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt? Or the free rock/jazz fusion version with saxophonist/keyboardist Elton Dean added and drummer John Marshall replacing Wyatt? Or the guitar-oriented fusion version with Allan Holdsworth, later replaced by John Etheridge?

In the Soft Machine timeline, bassist Roy Babbington first appeared on Fourth (Sony, 1971), joining the band as a member in 1973; drummer John Marshall joined in 1971 for Fifth (Sony, 1972); guitarist John Etheridge joined in 1975 for Softs (Harvest, 1976); and new kid Theo Travis joined the Legacy band in 2006.

This version of Soft Machine grew out of Soft Machine Legacy, which originally combined Dean (later replaced by Travis) and Etheridge with Hopper and Marshall. The Legacy band has always created new music as well as drawing on past repertoire, so it seems appropriate that the current lineup has reclaimed the Soft Machine name. While they do not reflect the precise membership of any of the earlier versions, they have a shared history that spans almost the entire life of the group; the ability to play a wide range of the earlier material with authority; and the skill to create new music in the same tradition.

The set opened with keyboardist/reed multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins' title tune from 1975's Bundles (Harvest), which featured guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Etheridge came as close as anyone could to Holdsworth's unique brilliance. Founding member Mike Ratledge's "Gesolreut" was the first of many nods to the band's founders, in this case from the live album of the original two-LP set, Six (Sony, 1973). Its Ornette Coleman-like start and stop theme was a direct reference to the jazz tradition that inspired it, while Etheridge's octave-doubled guitar solo demonstrated how the band has incorporated modern sounds unavailable to them when the original recording was made. At this point Etheridge introduced the band members, referencing their years of service in earlier versions of the band. "Chloe and the Pirates" was another Ratledge composition from Six, this time from the studio LP. The original had a lot of studio processing; here, Travis played his flute part with echo, and Etheridge accompanied with a backwards guitar loop.

"Voyage Beyond Seven" was one of the recent originals, from Legacy's Burden of Proof (Moonjune, 2013), which included a free rubato section, the whole band blazing away. Softs' ballad, "Song of Aeolus," featured an intense, sustained guitar solo; another Karl Jenkins composition from the same album, "Tales of Taliesin," featured an intense guitar/drums breakdown. Ratledge was further represented by Bundles' "The Man Who Waved At Trains," while Hopper ("our original bassist, who we really loved," said Etheridge) was featured through his "Kings and Queens," from Fourth, the oldest album (and tune) in the set.

"The Relegation of Pluto/Transit," a recent original from Legacy's Live Adventures (Moonjune, 2011), gave Marshall the spotlight for an unaccompanied drum solo. "The Nodder," from Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris (Harvest, 1978) was the encore, featuring an odd-metered ostinato with the theme integrated—a Soft Machine trademark. Regardless of which version of Soft Machine a listener knows, the current band proved capable of supplying a satisfying live representation. If you want to experience a living piece of jazz/rock history, go see them. You will not be disappointed.

My final late "Jazz dans la nuit," show in the intimate Gesù, belonged to American solo pianist Jamie Saft. The concept was simple: he sat at the piano and played songs he likes. Many of them were pop songs, but he also included jazz tunes and originals. It was pretty genre-free stylistically; he doesn't radically re-harmonize the pop songs, or swing them to make them sound like jazz. He just interprets them, in a very pianistic way, full of lush arpeggios and melodies doubled in octaves. He did not make any announcements until he had played three songs: Curtis Mayfield's "The Making of You"; his own "The New Standard"; and a Joni Mitchell medley of "The Dawntreader," "Black Crow," and "Moon at the Window." His tune had such a folk-like melody that it fit right in, sounding like a song you might have heard before.

Next was "Ode To A Green Frisbee," trombonist Roswell Rudd's dedication to composer Carla Bley, featuring some of her typical loop-like repetition. A medley of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" and John Coltrane's "Naima" made them sound completely natural together. Saft went to another Canadian source (he said the Joni Mitchell tunes were a natural for the Canadian setting), this time Montréal native Leonard Cohen. "Be For Real," written by Frederick Knight," was sung by Cohen on his 1992 The Future (Columbia). With that I had to take my leave because of an early morning flight. Saft's solo piano playing was a marvel: quietly virtuosic and unabashedly beautiful. It was a lovely way to end the festival.

As this was the 39th edition of the festival, next year will be a big landmark. I can only imagine that the festival organizers will outdo themselves for the occasion, and can hardly wait.

The final wrap-up press release teased one new thing, the ambitious "Hubs" project, writing: "Specifically, the Festival aims to be a vehicle for all, promoting the discovery of cultural and social wealth by anchoring itself in various neighbourhoods throughout the city. While continuing to occupy its central site in the Quartier des Spectacles with large musical gatherings, indoor shows and family activities, this global Festival will also get very local thanks to the launch of new festival centers called 'Hubs.' These hubs will promote encounters between citizens and generate new spin-offs for the boroughs, in a spirit of inclusion and integration. They will be accessible free of charge and offer the same artistic quality the Festival is renowned for."

Sounds like a great excuse to see more of the lovely city of Montréal.

Photo Credit: Dave Kaufman
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