Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
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
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
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 yearsand 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 bandall busy west coast session players who only occasionally hit the road and rarely seen in this neck of the woodsthat 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 changeHays 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.
"Auckland by Numbers" and "Duke's Anthem" needn't suggest, however, that the set was largely defined by its ballads. Fowler's "Timpanogos," Steve Gadd Band
's closing track, was this evening's second, a somewhat Latin-inflected composition that may have possessed a relaxed, ambling groove, but intimated at greater power to come later in the set. Between Fowler and Landau's similarly tasty timbres defining the melody and Hays' Fender Rhodes solo just one of many impressive features for this often overlooked pianist, it also demonstrated a rare quality that defined the entire group. More often than not, when a musician writes a song it's meant as a feature for him/herself. And while it's true that Fowler did, indeed, improvise towards the end of the song, it was clearly all in service of the song.
The attention to rhythm and feel may have suggested music that was, in fact, deceptive at its core, with plenty of sophistication to be found but couched in ways that made it completely accessible. Still, Larry Goldings' closing "Sly Boots," from 70 Strong
, made clear just how effortlessly the entire band could play with time. Alternating between a driving 6/4 pulse and 4/4 rhythm that, with the same underlying tempo, shifted the feel significantly, it was an exhilarating set-closer that, following solos over its riff-driven vamp, led to a closing Gadd solo that closed the main set with a major climax. From initial explorations of the potential of a single snare drum to subsequent thundering toms, reminiscent of his '70s work with Chick Corea
on Polydor albums like 1974's The Leprechaun
(in particular, "Nite Sprite") and 1978's The Mad Hatter
, it would be unfair to suggest that Gadd saves the best for last. Still, he certainly knew how to bring a set to a definitive conclusion.
Still, Montréal audiences are known for their enthusiasm, and this night was no different. Just about lifting the roof off Monument-National, it was clear that there would be no way for Gadd not
to return for an encore, the band delivering something completely unexpected: a take on Bob Dylan
's minor hit, "Watching the River Flow," initially released as a single only, but subsequently included on the iconic singer/songwriter's Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II
(Columbia, 1971) and later included on the bonus discs in the The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1
(Columbia/Legacy, 2013) megabox, it was a feature for Hays...the singer.
Hays proved a more-than-capable singer whose bluesier approach had little to do with Dylan's inimitable vocalizing; it also turned into a swinging, walking blues for Landau's final (and, yet again, impressive) solo of the night and a feature from Hays where he scatted along with his grand piano lines. The song was firmly anchored by Johnson's unshakable yet ambling lines and Gadd, who did more with the bell of his ride cymbal, a bass drum and a snare than many drummers do with massive drum kits.
Gadd's kit was, in fact, relative basic, with his snare (he kept a couple onstage), high hat and medium-sized bass drum augmented by two rack toms and one floor tom, in addition to four additional cymbals. Not a small jazz kit, to be sure, but still a more modest one than used by many. Gadd also had an electric metronome onstage to his left, where he'd dial in the precise tempo for each song in an earphone, before counting in the band. While there can be a certain excitement generated by counting a song in with an approximation of the tempo used, say, on a recording, it's also a crapshoot, sometime just too slow or fast enough to completely lose the groove,
With Gadd and his band so deeply committed to feel
, to dynamics ranging from subtle to more dramatic, and from solo approaches that favored tone, spontaneous compositional form and the value of space (which made any move towards greater virtuosity all the more dramatic), it's no surprise that Gadd wanted to make sure the tempo was precisely what it needed to be.
It was a stunning performance from a group of veterans with nothing to prove but still plenty to say. Whether they were drummers, bassists (sitting beside Canadian singer Nikki Yanovsky's current bassist), horn players, keyboardists or guitarists, or whether they were simply fans of one of the last half century's greatest drummers, the Steve Gadd Band delivered for its audience on all fronts...and then some.
Tord Gustavsen Trio
June 28, 2019, 6:00PM
If Steve Gadd's show was, amongst other things, a clear lesson in the value of dynamics, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen
's early evening performance at the exceptional Gesù venue was an even deeper, more sublime exploration of dynamics and the greater potential of relatively slow tempos. As a roughly 400-seat theater inside a church that has great sight lines and is one of the best sounding venues used by FIJM, it was the perfect venue for the pianist, no stranger to FIJM but who hasn't come with a trio in eleven years,
Gustavsen was one of the third wave of Norwegian artists, also including Nils Petter Molvaer
, Trygve Seim
, Trio Mediaeval
and Frode Haltli
and given broader international, exposure by Munich's ECM Records, first emerging in 2003 with Changing Places
. One of the label's more successful artists of the new millennium, Gustavsen's résumé reaches farther back, including work with singers Kristin Asbjørnsen
, Solveig Slettahjell
and Silje Nergaard
When he emerged on ECM with Changing Places
in 2003 however, he immediately established a reputation for himself as a pianist exploring a narrow area of tempo and a range of dynamics so subtle that just the slightest elevation was surprisingly dramatic. While these characteristics might seem limiting for some, Gustavsen's primary touchstones, including Norwegian folk music and hymns, European classicism, American gospel music and the nexus between Caribbean music and New Orleans jazz, provided the pianist a firm foundation over which he and his trio could slowly evolve.
Gustavsen, double bassist Harald Johnsen (tragically, passing away in 2011 at the too-young age of 41) and drummer Jarle Vespestad
slowly expanded their purview into newer terrain on 2005's The Ground
and 2007's Being There
, the trio's growth not unlike the expanding ripples from a stone thrown into a pond.
That a subsequent album with his quartet (featuring, in addition to Vespestad, double bassist Mats Eilertsen
and saxophonist Tore Brunborg
) was titled Extended Circles
(ECM, 2014) came as really no surprise to any familiar with the pianist. It was, indeed. is as clear a definition of Gustavsen's overall approach to slowly building upon the new ground covered with each successive release.
Whether interpreting music ranging from Johan Sebastian Bach to the late Leonard Cohen
, cresting spontaneous compositions drawn from the ether or contributing his own darkly lyrical compositions, Gustavsen's playing has also evolved over his nearly two-decade relationship with ECM. Never one to rely on overt, excessive virtuosity, he"s nevertheless a masterful player capable of more expansive, prodigious displays, but only on occasion and only when it feels right. His control over dynamicsnot just going from a whisper to a roar but with inflections that are all the more dramatic for their nuanced subtletyhas become even more focused, more firmly controlled over the years. And if he began to introduce subtle electronics into the mix just a few short years ago, not unlike many other Norwegian musicians including Arve Henriksen
, Eivind Aarset
and Hakon Kornstad
, they've gradually become a natural extension of the grand piano that is his main instrument: more like a physical extension of his body, his mind and his soul.
With The Ofher Side
(ECM, 2018) representing his first trio album since Being There
(but releasing four additional recordings featuring different lineups in the years between them), and with Johnsen now gone, Gustavsen recruited double bassist Sigurd Hole
to round out his new trio, still including Vespestad. A longtime member of Eple Trio
, featuring drummer Jonas Howden Sjøvaag and (ECM label mate with trumpeter Mathias Eick
) Andreas Ulvo
, Hole has released, so far, five albums with that trio, including the particularly special In the Clearing / In the Cavern
The double bassist launched his own Elvesang imprint in 2018, bravely making his first release for the label a solo bass recording, Elvesang
, released the same year. Recorded in a small wooden church, as the All About Jazz
review describes about an album that placed amongst the year's best recordings
: "A wooden church may, for some, be far from an ideal recording facility, but it was clearly the perfect place for Hole to shape Elvesang. The intrusion of outside sounds, ranging from thunder and bird sounds to gentle rain on the roof, only add to the album's overall nature-driven ambiance, made all the more so by the room's lovely natural reverb. It may be a bold move for Hole to make his first release under his own name a solo bass record, but even when it reaches beyond melody to more adventurous texture and color, Elvesang is an album of profound beauty and, more often than not, calming quietude. A recording that trades nuanced, delicate evocations for the merely obvious, Elvesang is all the more impressiveand captivatingfor it."
Unfortunately, Hole was unable to make this transatlantic tour for family reasons, and so Gustavsen has been forced to recruit more than one substitute. That the pianist's Montréal show would be the first and only appearance by Gjermund Silseth (Mari Boine
, Karl Seglem
, Hildegunn Oiseth
) made the performance all the more special. He may not share the intrinsic chemistry that has evolved between Gustavsen, Vespestad and Hole since the younger double bassist joined the trio, but he acquitted himself with confidence and creativity as a member of a trio where listening and engaging at a deep level with his trio mates is a necessity. Silseth also delivered a series of fine solos throughout the set, ranging from brief passages to his extended a cappella
feature near the main performance's conclusion.
During a first-time performance of the trio's imaginative interpretation of a rural Norwegian folk song, Silseth demonstrated tremendous facility con arco
, as he seamlessly moved between normal registers and delicately executed harmonics, with copious reverb causing many of his phrases to sustain through subsequent lines to create a more expansive melodic and harmonic tour de force. Cheers The only constant in all of Gustavsen's ECM recordings, Jarle Vespestad is a drummer who would surprise Gustavsen fans, were they to investigate his other work. Beyond being a charter member of the innovative noise improv group Supersilent
, alongside trumpeter Arve Henriksen, keyboard wizard Ståle Storløkken
and producer/engineer/guitarist/electronic manipulator Helge Sten
(AKA Deathprod), Vespestad left that group after 12 years and eight albums but remained a member of multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen
's completely unfettered, progressive/jazz-leaning band of effortless complexity and instrumental mastery, Farmers Market
, last heard on its particularly potent Slav to the Rhythm
(Division Records, 2012).
That most recent Farmers Market album, compared to his work with Gustavsen, only serves to demonstrate the full breadth of Vespestad's capabilities. On one hand, he's muscular and virtuosic; on the other, all about subtlety and nuance. Vespestad seems to ferociously attack his kit with Farmers Market; with Gustavsen he often plays so quietly that it feels like he's barely whispering on his kit. Moving from turbulent rubato to firm groove, Vespestad used a reductionist kit with just a snare drum, bass drum and single floor tom, alongside a high hat and two cymbals.
While, in his early days with Gustavsen, he sometimes used small chains to evoke the quietest of colors from a cymbal, other times using a "stick" made of cardboard to match the pianist"s softest touch, these days, in addition to his hands/fingers, Vespestad employs a variety of wooden sticks, brushes and mallets. With the significant contribution of his sound engineer, Vespestad was able to evoke deep-in the-gut timbres from his cymbals (sometimes sounding like gongs), or the most delicate tone from his floor tom (other times, a thunder-like complexion), as he struck it with a mallet, only to immediately mute it with the palm of his hand.
Vespestad rarely solos, and last night's show at the wonderful Gesù theater inside the Église de Gesù was no different. But when he took an extended improvisation during the same Norwegian folk song that featured a cappella
features for Silseth and, ultimately, Gustavsen, he demonstrated just how much was possible, even with such a small kit.
Gustavsen has come so far since those early days with ECM near the turn of the millennium. He's still exploring relatively slow tempos when there are tempos at all; like many of his Norwegian colleagues, Gustavsen and his group are all masters of rubato playing. Still, these days he's as likely to investigate dynamic and turbulent maelstroms as he is more delicate elegance. The pianist occasionally expanded into brighter tempos as well, but while nuance and understatement remain fundamental cornerstones to his playing and overall aesthetic, Gustavsen has become a much more potent player as well. The pianist took full advantage of his instrument's entire range, sometimes barely touching the keys but elsewhere attacking them with sheer physicality as he stood up, swaying, at times, with a clear or inner pulse.
The set, lasting slightly over ninety minutes, was largely drawn from The Other Side
, though with more muscle at times and even broader dynamics during, for example, the rubato tone poem "IIngen Vinner Frem Til den Evige Ro," the pianist's collaborative interpretation of a Norwegian traditional folk song. His trio set also featured, as with The Other Side
, imaginative looks at a number of compositions by Johan Sebastian Bach, including back-to-back looks at a profoundly lyrical "Schafes Bruder," supported by Vespestad's pliant pulse and Gustavsen's slowly building solo; and an equally melody focused but more brooding "Jesu Meine Freude / Jesus, del Eneste," blending one of the Baroque-era composer's six most recorded motets with a Norwegian hymn composed by Oscar Löfgren and inspired by an early 20th Century sermon at an Oslo church, which turned into one of the concert's most flat-out gorgeous moments.
In addition to interpretations of hymns and Bach compositions, Gustavsen included originals like The Other Side
's melancholic opener, "The Tunnel," and a rare look back in time with Being There
's closing "Wild Open," which rendered his gospel and church roots most clear, both driven by Vespestad and Gikseth's gentle rhythmic support.
But one of the set!s highlights was the pianist's look at Leonard Cohen
's "Came So Far for Beauty," from the Canadian's Recent Song's
(Columbia, 1979). Gustavsen delivered it with both appropriate reverence (the melody and changes largely intact) while, at the same time, taking it to places Cohen could likely never have imagined. So far unrecorded by Gustavsen on any of his albums, there is
a recording made at the BBC in 2017, where the pianist delivers a moving, sixteen-minute solo piano medley of Cohen"s tune and The Ground
's "Tears Transforming."
Gustavsen's use of electronics ranged from deep register support of his piano and reverb to sustain lines, to gentle synth washes and, at one point in the set, a blending of grand piano (left hand) with a higher register (right hand) synth line that initially doubled the piano but then diverged into two different, improvised contrapuntal melodies. While utilizing electronics more than ever before, he nevertheless avoided any kind of superfluous excess; instead, his use was consistently tasteful and largely organic in execution and sound.
The pianist also demonstrated a growing interest in middle eastern tonalities, which popped up throughout the set while, at the same time, augmenting Gustavsen's existing musical foundations.
Having seen Gustavsen many times since he first appeared in Montréal in the early 2000s, this trio performance may be his best yet, all the most surprising for it being Gjermund Silseth's one and only date collaborating with the pianist. Still, in many ways that only made the performance that much more special, as what it lacked in intrinsic chemistry it more than made up for in the kind of energy that comes from a first live encounter.
Clearly the audience agreed, responding so loudly that, following the trio's single encore, it was equally encouraged to do another. Sadly, while Gustavsen's trio didn't play a second one (with Silseth onboard, it may not have had another piece to play), its three members did come back on stage for one final curtain call. A regular at FIJM, there's little doubt that this was a performance that the sold out crowd will likely not soon forget.
June 29, 2019, 8:00PM
First garnering international attention touring and/or recording with significant pop/rock artists like Peter Gabriel
, Robbie Robertson
, and with jazz musicians including bassist Kyle Eastwood
and pianists Herbie Hancock
and Yelena Eckemoff
, drummer Manu Katche
's star has remained on the ascendance. But while he released a couple of jazz/funk solo albums including It's About Time
(BMG, 1992) and the Stick Around
(Zilgjian, 1999) EP, it was when he began a relationship with ECM Records as a leader, following a series of albums and tours with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek
, culminating with the double-disc live set Dresden
(ECM, 2009), that the veteran drummer's name as a solo artist truly took off.
Following a string of four recordings for the groundbreaking label (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) that began with 2006's Neighbourhood
and ended with 2012's Manu Katché
(not including the 2015 compilation, Touchstone for Manu
), the drummer packed up his sticks for ostensibly sunnier climes with ACT for 2014's Live in Concert
, the first of three recordings for two different labels (moving to the French Anteprima imprint for 2016's Unstatic
) that also found Katché grabbing a seat in the producer's chair.
This isn't always a good idea. Many musicians are, indeed, capable of self producing, but just as every writer needs an objective editor, most musicians need an ear that's not so deeply and directly invested in the music. It's what made Katché's four ECM albums so good; for many, ECM lite to be sure but, nevertheless, between the cachet and strength of the musicians with whom the drummer playedfrom Garbarek, Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko
and fellow Pole, pianist Marcin Wasilewski
, to Norwegian saxophonists Trygve Seim
and Tore Brunborg
, guitarist Jacob Young
and trumpeters Mathias Eick
and Nils Petter Molvaer
, to British musicians like keyboardists Jason Rebello
and Jimmy Watson
, and bassist Pino Palladinoit was label head/producer Manfred Eicher
who, with a characteristically steady hand and keen ears, helped guide Katche's four ECM studio recordings into territory that may have been as groove-laden as would be expected from the sixty year-old drummer, but also paid attention to the space, nuance and interaction that still kept Katché's tendencies well within the jazz sphere.
Katche's live album for ACT was still just an in-concert reflection of his ECM work, with eight of its ten songs drawn from 2007's Playground
, 2010's Third Round
and Manu Katché
Katché's Anteprima debut, 2016's Unstatic
, was, in many ways, a continuation and logical next step from his ECM work (featuring Jim Watson, Tore Brunborg and previously touring trumpeter Luca Aquino
, alongside Pixel
bassist Ellen Andrea Wang
); it also signalled a move into new territory as both the drummer and Wang contributed vocals to the set. The Scope
moves even further away from his groove-informed but still jazz-disposed work towards more electro-centric, pop-oriented music, and it was this project that formed the basis for his 2019 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal performance at Monument-National. Unfortunately, much like the album, Katché's live set demonstrated that the drummer could have used a more distanced set of collaborative ears, and on a number of fronts.
Clearly, most everyone does, indeed, need a producer or, at the very least, co-producer.
Still, let it never be said that Katché doesn't put together a crack band, or that his own playing is ever anything less than impeccable. But comparing two drummer-led shows just two nights apart, the differences were significant, and not in a "different but good" kind of way.
First and foremost, while Steve Gadd was the titular leader, his band was as egalitarian as could be, with everyone contributing compositionally and the set defined by no single star but, instead, as a group of five equally impressive musicians who shone, both individually and collectively, throughout the evening, even as Gadd demonstrated clear leadership, albeit in a subtler fashion. While Katché gave everyone in his quartet, featuring keyboardist Elvin Galland, guitarist Jim Brandcamp and electric bassist Jérôme Regard
, plenty of solo space, the mix in the house was so weighted towards Katché's ever-dominant kit that they were invariably buried beneath the drummer. This meant that, while it seemed as though his band mates were contributing a great ideas to the mix, they were often so secondary to Katché as to feel less than relevant.
Second, if Steve Gadd demonstrated his unmistakable mettle throughout the show, especially during a handful of most impressive solos, Katché always seemed to be front and center, both when he ought to have been but, worse, when it was his band mates who were in the (subdued) spotlight. Empathic fills when engaging with his players was one thing, but his sharp snare and powerful cymbal work more often acted as distractions rather than meaningful additions to the music around him.
Third, with electronics becoming a more dominant force that oftentimes overshadowed Katché's compelling drum sound and Brandcamp's compelling guitar work, the drummer was also taking risks that diminished his overall approach. A recent review
of The Scope
on the S.B.G.
website said it all: "In the ninth album of his discography, Manu Katché has introduced so many elements from groove, pop, dance, and even reggae, that at this point it's almost impossible to say which kind of music we have in The Scope. Even because the quantity of 'synthetic' components has definitely surpassed the amount of 'analogue' ones, which include his drums."
Unfettered stylistic purviews and broader cross-pollinations can, indeed, work. On ECM, beyond Katché's own recordings, more significant ground breakers like Nils Petter Molvær's Khmer
(1997), Jon Hassell
's Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street
(2009) and Ambrose Field
's remarkable collaboration with classical vocalist John Potter
on Being Dufay
(2009) are all examples of how an organic melding of electro-acoustic concerns can well and truly succeed.
But on the basis of The Scope
and his FIJM performance, Katché seemed, at the very least, to be losing the script. Despite a good percentage of the audience clearly connecting to the drummer, his band and his music, a surprising number could be seen leaving the hall throughout the concert, never a good sign. Beyond the poor mix and songs that grooved hard yet still seemed somehow lightweight, Katché's introduction of vocals was also a less than ideal move. Even beyond the Auto-Tuning, Katché has a pleasant enough voice, but certainly nothing to compare with his virtuosic, polyrhythmic skills behind the kit.
Furthermore, while there was little doubt as to who was leading Steve Gadd's band in the same venue two nights prior, it wasn't because the veteran American drummer was dominating the proceedings. At this point in his career, Gadd (and his band mates) simply have nothing to prove, a lesson from which Katché could well learn.
At this point in his career, Katché has long since transcended having anything to prove either. And yet, between his relentlessly domineering playing and front position in the mix, along with song introductions that were delivered with such frenetic speed (en Français, of course) that it was almost impossible for language- challenged folks in the crowd to discern even the names of his songs...or his band mates, for that matter. It would seem, at least, that Katché was far better off when he had an active producer who could help constrain his excessive tendencies while, at the same time, encouraging his strengths as a composer and performer.
That said, given the larger percentage of the audience that was clearly thrilled with Katché's performance, maybe it is
working for him. With Afro- tinged polyrhythms, electro-soul songs and persistent virtuosity (even if it overshadowed that of his band mates), there certainly was plenty about which to be impressed. But when comparing Katché to the plenty more relaxed Gadd, it's hard not to feel like the Parisian drummer was working a little too hard to entrance and trying a little too much to dazzle.