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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2019

John Kelman By

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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.

"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.
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