Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2019

John Kelman By

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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.

And it's a shame, because at this point in his career, and especially with his four ECM recordings and single ACT live album, Katché appeared to have struck a perfect balance that was really working to his advantage. But being in the minority about his Monument-National FIJM performance suggests that his new, vocal-oriented and self-producing approach may well be working for him. Only time will tell.

Antonio Sanchez & Migration / Ravi Coltrane Quartet
Théâtre Maisonneuve
June 30, 2019, 8:00PM

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has a long history of great double bills, but in pairing drummer Antonio Sanchez and his Migration group with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane's Quartet, the festival may well have outdone itself.

It's hard to believe that both Sanchez and Coltrane have been around for over twenty years (in Coltrane's case, thirty). The Mexican-born/American resident Sanchez first came to attention in the late '90s with pianists Marcus Roberts and Danilo Pérez, as well as with saxophonist David Sanchez (no relation). But it was in 2002, when the drummer was recruited by guitarist Pat Metheny for Pat Metheny Group's Speaking of Now (Warner Bros)—the first of nine recordings and countless tour dates over the next fifteen years with the guitarist—that Sanchez achieved much broader (and well deserved) international acclaim.

Sanchez's exposure with Metheny, and subsequent work with artists including Gary Burton, Enrico Pieranunzi, Donny McCaslin and Miguel Zenon ultimately led to Sanchez releasing the first of eight albums for the Italian Cam Jazz label (including three with his Migration band, beginning with 2013's New Life), where, in addition to being a powerhouse drummer, Sanchez began to emerged as a captivating composer and conceptualist of no small significance, and one who clearly believes in music's transformative power.

In addition to bassist Matt Brewer and saxophonists David Binney and Donny McCaslin, New Life also featured New York staple but ever-undervalued pianist John Escreet, alongside an impressive singer/electronic manipulator, Thana Alexa. Despite other personnel moving in and out of Migration, including guitarist Adam Rogers and saxophonist Seamus Blake, it was Escreet and Alexa who have become Migration's most consistent members, also contributing to 2015's The Meridian Suite and, most recently, 2018's Lines in the Sand.

Lines in the Sand also includes Chase Baird, and it was the saxophonist/EWI player who, alongside Sanchez, Thana, Escreet and relative Migration newcomer (but nevertheless another fixture on the NYC scene), bassist Orlando Fleming, formed the drummer's current Migration lineup, making its first-ever FIJM appearance. Delivering a set drawn entirely from Lines in the Sand, Sanchez's Migration performance demonstrated music's potential for socio- political change.

Everyone in Migration is a leader in his/her own right, with Alexa and Baird both relative newcomers. Still, despite both Escreet and Fleming being busy players on the New York scene, literally everyone in Migration, with the exception of the higher-profile Sanchez, are well deserving of broader recognition, with this band representing its members' most eminently visible gig. As young a group of players as Sanchez (the oldest, at 47) has recruited for the current Migration, ranging from 31 to 42, they all proved to be potent, creative and undeniable musical forces with which to be reckoned, both individually and collectively.

As on the album, the set opened with "Travesia Intro," a prerecorded collage of sirens and the sounds of children crying, people screaming and questions being asked as they're being arrested and detained by ICE agents ("Do you have a warrant? Are you with ICE? This is wrong," and more), the band walked onstage in relative darkness. When "Travesia Intro" suddenly halted, the band launched into a thirty-minute version of Lines in the Sand's multi-part "Travesia Suite." An episodic (and epic) journey through a myriad of stylistic feels that nevertheless centered on Sanchez's fluid polyrhythmic playing, it was a lengthy suite also based upon Escreet's simple, repetitive Fender Rhodes pattern, and ultimately traversing considerable dynamic terrain, filled with complex compositional constructs that also left plenty of solo space for everyone in the band.

Alexa, in addition to demonstrating a rare ability to both execute broad intervallic leaps with absolute precession and navigate Sanchez's often-times knotty, serpentine (yet still, somehow, eminently lyrical) themes, expanded upon them with her seamless integration of electronics, controlled from a series of devices on a stand before her. Not unlike Sanchez's ex-employer, Pat Metheny, who did a lot of writing for wordless voice, Alexa was largely used in a similar fashion, though she did contribute topical prose to the relatively brief "Home" and narrated two different sets of poetry during the set (and album)-closing "Lines in the Sand Part 1 and 2." In her solo features, she demonstrated even greater control over dynamics and melodic constructions, with a broad range covering huskier lower registers to purer, more powerful leaps into the stratosphere.

Whether contributing repetitive, minimalist-informed patterns or soloing with the kind of expansive harmonic constructions and compositional focus he's also brought to his own albums, including Don't Fight the Inevitable (Mythology, 2010) and, more recently, The Unknown (Sunnyside, 2016), Escreet proved as distinctive as ever, moving fluidly between Fender Rhodes and grand piano, and from spare lines to more complex phrases and detailed, sophisticated voicings.

Fleming didn't just anchor the group throughout, whether on electric or double bass; he was also used as a melodic foil throughout, one example being the simple, long notes at the start of "Long Road," which began with Escreet alone, but subsequently joined by Fleming and Alexa, as the spacious introduction gradually moved into a more delicate ensemble piece. Fleming also contributed a number of impressive solos throughout the set, mostly on electric bass but always demonstrating an allegiance to the needs of the material rather than forcing the material to become secondary to his own contributions. He may still largely be known for his double bass work but here, in particular towards the end of "Lines in the Sand," his slapping and popping bass acted as a firm anchor for Escreet's final solo of the set.

Baird was an impressive saxophonist, but it was his work on EWI (electronic wind instrument) that was most affecting, even adopting a tone similar to Metheny's signature Roland GR-300 "trumpet" patch near the end of "Lines in the Sand." It's odd, in fact, that EWI never really took off as an instrument, though it was an important instrument for fellow reed men like the late Michael Brecker. Still, Baird took full advantage of its sonic possibilities throughout the set, often doubling or harmonizing with Alexa's similarly remarkable articulations of Sanchez's labyrinthine yet still largely memorable melodies.

The exhilarating combination of EWI and electronically enhanced voice in the first climatic build-up during "Bad Hombres Y Mujeres" rendered it the set's heaviest tune, with Fleming's thundering electric bass blending with Escreet's heavily distorted Fender Rhodes. Both bolstered Sanchez's frenetic kit work, and the remarkably high-speed, high-octane lines doubled by Alexa and Baird. Based upon one of the rhythmic themes on Sanchez's brave solo drum record, 2017's Bad Hombre (Cam Jazz), it was similarly captivating, and one of the set's many clear milestones.

Beyond being one of the most distinctive drummers of his generation, Sanchez has evolved, since his first solo album for Cam Jazz, 2007's presciently titled Migration, as a composer of note. There's little doubt that his lengthy tenure with Metheny has influenced the drummer's often complex, often episodic and multi-part writing. But his own experiences, musical and otherwise, have contributed to the complexion of his writing, and so if there are traces of Metheny to be found in Sanchez's compositions, they're just that: traces.

There were plenty of other touchstones, including the thundering rock rhythms that concluded "Lines in the Sand Part 2" and Sanchez's entire FIJM performance, which anchored Escreet's overdriven, ring-modulated solo halfway through its two parts. And, for a drummer-led band, Sanchez may have limited his own solo space, but when he did, as he did right near the end of the set, it was focused, compositionally oriented and utterly thrilling,

Furthermore, Sanchez's music is as tightly tied to his experience as a Mexican expat living in the USA since 1993, and who has held dual citizenship for the past three years: "Perfect timing," he quipped during one of his introductions. "Now they can arrest me but they can't deport me." It was a clear statement about the racial profiling that has increased significantly since Trump took office. Sanchez's lengthy but important introductions at a couple of points during the set helped clarify the life and music resonances and influences that have driven his writing.
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