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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2019

John Kelman By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Various Venues
Montréal, Canada
June 27 -July 1, 2019

Forty years. Not a lifetime, perhaps, but a remarkably long time for any festival to not only continue to exist but, despite increasing challenges, to thrive. An even greater achievement when it's the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, which has grown from its humble beginnings In 1980 into the largest festival of its kind in the world. A festival that closes off six square blocks of the downtown core for twelve days each year, to create a music bubble where, between indoor ticketed venues and a series of free outdoor stages, and between hotels, restaurants and shops, it's possible for attendees to literally ignore the rest of the world for a brief time (if they should so choose) and immerse themselves in something positive, free of the trials and tribulations that dominate world news, day in, day out.

FIJM has never been a festival about purity; still, it's long considered itself a jazz festival first while never shying away from bringing acts either tangential or even completely disconnected to a genre where purity, in truth, is a myth. Jazz is, after all, a genre of inclusion rather than exclusion, whether it's indigenous folk music from countries far away, urban elements like hip hop, electronics innovations or any of the other many stylistic markers that have cross-pollinated with jazz, especially over the past 50 years but, truthfully, since its inception.

Still, there are those who bemoan the harsh reality that to exist as a jazz festival, it's not just important but necessary to bring completely unrelated acts into the programming mix. And this year's 40th Anniversary FIJM is no different than any of its previous ones. For every Brad Mehldau or Steve Gadd there's a Peter Frampton or Alan Parsons. For every Tord Gustavsen (one of a number of ECM Records artists in the program, celebrating the lauded, award-winning label's 50th anniversary), Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah2 or Gilad Hekselman there's a Blue Rodeo or Sue Foley, and for every Ravi Coltrane, Antonio Sanchez or Joshua Redman there's a Victor Wainwright or alt-J.

The bottom line? With a litmus test introduced in the 2011 All About Jazz article When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival, the Festival international de Jazz de Montréal continues to pass with flying colors. For those who don't want to hear about the festival's non-jazz programming, there wasn't a single day during this year's 11-day run, where there weren't so many choices in the jazz arena that choosing what to see was no mean feat.

Steve Gadd Band
Monument-National
June 27, 2019, 8:00PM

Take the first official day of the festival (there was an opening "Party Surprise 40e" the previous evening, one of the festival's Grande Événement outdoor shows that have, in some years, seen as many as a quarter million people on the streets): from the Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn piano duo that opened the ECM 50th celebration and Brad Mehldau's current quintet to Norah Jones, Susie Arioli and Melissa Aldana, that would have been a tough enough call.

But for the first of five evenings covering this year's Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the clear choice had to be the Steve Gadd Band. Not just because the veteran 74 year-old jazz, rock and pop drummer, who's appeared on so many recordings that it's time to stop counting, rarely tours, let alone with his own project; but because of the band he's been playing with, for the most part, for the past several years—and who have all played together, in recent years, in singer/songwriter James Taylor's touring band.

Beyond Taylor, pianist Kevin Hays, has been (relatively) quietly amassing a significant résumé that includes, in addition to his own work as a leader (over 20 releases since 1990), he's been recruited for sessions or gigs with artists, amongst the many, who include Bob Belden, Benny Golson, Eddie Henderson, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman and Mark Turner.

But while it's relatively easy to find Hays on the road, either with his own band or as a member of another, it's the other three members of Gadd's band—all busy west coast session players who only occasionally hit the road and rarely seen in this neck of the woods—that made catching this show all the more essential.

Trumpeter/flugelhornist Walt Fowler first made his name, alongside his two brothers (bassist Tom Fowler and trombonist Bruce Fowler) in Frank Zappa's mid-70s band and, again, with brother Bruce in the iconic progressive composer/guitarist's last band of the mid-to-late '80s. But in the ensuing years, he's been heard with artists ranging from Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Chad Wackerman, Brandon Fields and Scott Henderson to Allan Holdsworth, Toto and, yes, The Muppets. Between a glorious tone and chops that are there when needed (but never substituted for the needs of the song), Fowler is, indeed, a musician's musician.

Similarly, bassist Jimmy Johnson has nothing to prove when it comes to instrumental mastery. He may be relatively easy to find on the road with James Taylor and, before the guitarist's untimely passing a couple years back, Allan Holdsworth, but beyond that he's spent far more of his long career recording with everyone (amongst many others) from Stan Getz, Billy Childs and Vince Mendoza to Albert Lee, Roger Hodgson and Paul Brady. An electric bassist of staggering virtuosity, he's also a player who knows when just one note is required. An impeccable groove-meister, he's a perfect fit for the similarly disposed Gadd.

And then there's guitarist Michael Landau, like his band mates a musician too few people know by name but almost certainly have heard. Beyond a small discography as a leader that includes Organic Instrumentals (Tone Center, 2012) and the more vocal-oriented Live (Tone Center, 2007), in addition to regular appearances with Taylor, Landau has graced hundreds of recordings by everyone from Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Bonnie Raitt to George Duke, Joe Sample and Boz Scaggs. While often pigeonholed as a blues-centric, Hendrix-informed player, the truth is that Landau's reach extends much farther, with a particularly rare attention to tone, color and detail that matches his often-times sparse yet visceral approach. Still, it would be a mistake to suggest that Landau cannot turn more virtuosic when the time is right.

With a quintet of virtuosos, in fact, it might be reasonable to expect a chops-heavy show with extended soloing. But ever since he first stepped out into a collaborative project with Stuff in the '70s, Gadd's own projects have been more about groove, more about song, more about group interaction and more about relatively constrained solo space that encourages everyone to make the most of those very short passages...no small challenge. With only one personnel change—Hays replacing original keyboardist (and fellow Taylor band alum) Larry Goldings for Steve Gadd Band (BFM Jazz, 2018)—this is also group, together since Gadditude (BFM Jazz, 2013), with plenty of intrinsic chemistry.

Largely drawing on material from Steve Gadd Band (while also culling material from past Gadd and Gadd Band albums), which features compositional contributions from everyone in the band (and then some), the group opened, briefly, in abstract territory before launching into the lightly funky "Where's Earth," a Gadd/Hays/Landau composition that largely set the pace for the evening at one of the festival's oldest venues, Monument-National. What was most initially striking was just how quiet the band was, and yet it in no way impacted the potency of its delivery. Even if Gadd largely focused, as he did here, on just snare, high hat and bass drum, he propelled the band with a relaxed and deceptively lazy groove. It may look easy, but few drummers can deliver a behind-the-beat backbeat like this; rather than encouraging people to stand up and dance wildly, it was subtler, with much of the audience swaying in their seats, their heads "chicken-necking" in time.

And groove was, indeed, the order of the day, with Johnson's warm tone and slippery lines anchoring the band, and only occasionally resorting to overt displays of virtuosity. Still, when he did, as with the band's unique take on The Crusaders saxophonist Wilton Felder's "Way Back Home" towards the end of an 11-song set that ran about 100 minutes (encore included), it left no doubt about his instrumental strength and broader capabilities.

Trading off with a Landau, whose gritty tone, visceral bends, whammy bar inflections and occasional forays into light-speed phrases were matched (and raised) by Johnson, it was a tune, first heard on the group's CD/DVD combo, Way Back Home: Live in Rochester, NY (BFM Jazz, 2016), that ultimately led to an extended feature for Hays.

It was just another example of how this group could turn a simple idea on its side, with no bass-driven pulse for almost the entire song. Instead, propelled simultaneously by Johnson and Landau's Steve Cropper-infused chords over Gadd's simple but driving snare, high hat and bass drum, it was largely about intimation rather than anything more overt. Gadd finally took one of just a handful of solos during the set (making them all the more meaningful), building with effortless inevitability and a strong sense of composition for a crowd, which clearly included a healthy number of drummers that hollered, whooped, whistled and clapped so relentlessly that Gadd, who typically introduced every song of the set, had to wait a lot longer before his audience finally quietened down enough for him to be able to speak.

There wasn't a weak song in the set. Still, amongst its many highlights? Landau's darkly balladic "Auckland by Numbers," its form making clear that the guitarist's language is far more sophisticated than his general reputation might unfairly suggest. With Fowler's burnished flugelhorn doubling the melody alongside Landau, it also provided an opportunity to hear the guitarist weave singable melodies through more sophisticated harmonies, all the while employing the swelling lines and, in particularly, chords that he often bent up to with his whammy bar. His solo was a lesson in simplicity, space and tone, where each and every note counted more than any more virtuosic demonstration ever could. Fowler, too, contributed brief but absolutely perfect connective threads, a similar instruction in the value of "less is more" and subtle dynamics that were a significant aspect of the entire show.

Fowler's "Duke's Anthem," a ballad first heard on the aptly titled 70 Strong (BFM Jazz, 2015), was another delicate high point. Written for the great George Duke, who passed away too young in 2013 and was another fixture on the Los Angeles scene, its gentle groove, and lyrical melody formed a lovely eulogy that was as soulful as the late keyboardist, both in his work but also as a person. With Landau, Fowler and Hays all taking tasty, soul-drenched solos, its soft dynamics created some of the evening's most painfully beautiful moments.
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