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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2019

John Kelman By

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Sanchez described going to a "jam session festival" that took place at the USA/Mexico border of Tijuana and San Diego, with people coming from around the world and, setting up on both sides of the border, dancing and singing the same song just inches from the rusted fence that starts at the Pacific and runs to the Gulf of Mexico, with the fence going right out into the water. It's that image, in fact, with a lone young woman on one side, that became Lines in the Sand's cover. Sanchez was writing the music for the album when he encountered a poetry contest; so moved by two of them that he located the authors and had them read their own prose for the album's closing two-part title track, with Paola Gonzalez and Karla Gutierrez contributing prose to "Lines in the Sand Part 1," and Jonathan Mendoza narrating his poetry during "Lines in the Sand Part 2." In performance, Alexa assumed both roles.

Sanchez made clear just how grateful he is for the opportunities he's been afforded since moving to the USA. At the same time, however, he clearly never forgets the plight of his many abused Mexican brothers and sisters, in addition to cousins from Guatemala, Ecuador and Honduras,relying upon his music to articulate their struggles in a most positive and compelling fashion. Music can, indeed, be an instrument for social awareness and, even furthermore, societal change. With Sanchez's Migration delivering increasingly strong statements on albums like Lines in the Sand, the drummer/composer has clearly found a way to reconcile his own experiences and articulate them, both lyrically and musically, in a way that reached his audience directly, as it most certainly did during his 90-minute set at Montréal's Théâtre Maisonneuve (one of Place des Arts' best rooms), to a near-capacity crowd.

Following a short break, Ravi Coltrane took to the stage at Théâtre Maisonneuve with a quartet that couldn't have been more different from the group he last brought to FIJM in 2013. Unlike his recordings since 2005, beginning with In Flux (Savoy Jazz, 2005) and which almost consistently featured a quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland, Coltrane's 2013 show employed a thoroughly commanding guitar-centric configuration, with six-stringer Adam Rogers joining double bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Johnathan Blake.

He hasn't released an album under his own name since 2012 but, in addition to producing Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!, 2018), the unexpected but extraordinary archival find from the late John Coltrane, the 53 year-old saxophonist (who has now outlived his legendary, groundbreaking saxophonist father by thirteen years) has appeared on other albums, including two ECM recordings: drummer Jack DeJohnette's In Movement (2016); and trumpeter Ralph Alessi's Imaginary Friends (2019). Coltrane's most recent Spirit Fiction (Blue Note, 2012) again featured, amongst others, Perdomo, Gress and Strickland, but for his 2019 performance the saxophonist brought rising Cuban star pianist, David Virelles, alongside the returning Dezron Douglas and Johnathan Blake.

Surrounding himself, again, by a group of leaders in their own rights, Coltrane's performance was far more left-of-center than his 2013 show, which took place in a different Place des Arts venue, the smaller Théâtre Jean-Duceppe. Virelles, now in his mid-thirties, has emerged on ECM with a series of solo albums including 2014's Mbókò, after appearing on albums for the label by artists including Chris Potter (2013's The Sirens) and the late Tomasz Stanko (2013's Wislawa). While it's true that the music of his native Cuba persistently informs what Virelles achieves, it's always through a refracting prism of freer, more outside American jazz concerns and a strong compositional sense.

Douglas may have a relatively diminutive discography as a leader, but he's been an in-demand bassist since the middle of the new millennium's first decade, recording and/or performing with artists Including Willie Jones III, Steve Davis, Cyrus Chestnut and George Cables. As capable of a firm swing as he is more intimate work in a freer context, Douglas not only proved a terrific anchor for Coltrane's quartet, but a particularly responsive partner for Blake, who first emerged, just a few years before Douglas, as a member of the ongoing Mingus Big Band.

Blake has also recorded and/or toured with seminal jazz artists like Tom Harrell (for five HighNote releases, including Prana Dance and 2011's Time of the Sun), Dr. Lonnie Smith and Kenny Barron. Still, it's his slowly expanding discography as a leader that's most significant, beginning with the larger-casted The Eleventh Hour (Sunnyside) and leading to the more intimate saxophone trio of Trion (Giant Step Arts, 2019).

In his own work, Blake draws upon the greatest pillars of the jazz tradition, from ambling swing to free-bop intimations. He brought the same breath of experience to Coltrane's show, while continuing the largely winning streak of drummers who've graced various stages at the 40th FIJM, including Steve Gadd, Jarle Vespestad and Antonio Sanchez. For such a big guy, Blake plays the smallest of kits. With what looks like a 16" bass drum (maybe even smaller), Blake's snare, rack and floor toms are at roughly the same heights, not unlike Bill Bruford's larger but similarly vertical-consistent kit with his second, acoustic version of Earthworks documented in the recently released Earthworks Complete (Summerfold, 2019) box set. But unlike Bruford, even Blake's cymbals and high hat were at nearly the same level.

But unlike the stage setup that, in 2013, was similarly intimate, with the musicians positioned closely together, Coltrane's 2019 quartet was even more tightly placed, with Virelles on stage left, followed by, moving left to right, Coltrane, Douglas and Blake, with the pianist and drummer both facing inwards, in order to ensure proper eye contact could be maintained throughout the ninety minute set.

If Coltrane has absorbed and reflected anything of his father's music (and he has, but not in an overt fashion), it's in the more relentlessly unfettered approach his father adopted, whether playing entirely free, tumultuous rubato, or a more rhythm-heavy manner. Nothing from the setlist was announced, with the group sometimes bringing the music to a definitive conclusion, at other times segueing seamlessly into the next piece.

Coltrane brought a broad array of horns to the date. Not only did he use the more standard, muscular tenor and sweeter soprano saxophones (the latter, played far less nasally than his father); he also played what appeared to be that smallest of the saxophone family, the piccolo or sopranissimo saxophone. It was difficult to ascertain if Coltrane was, indeed, using the more dulcet sopranissimo rather then an Eb sopranino, which is also rather small, but slightly larger than the 12" sopranissimo. Still, the sopranissimo is, like its soprano and tenor brethren, a Bb horn, albeit one pitched an octave higher than the soprano and two above the tenor, making it the more likely instrument.

The set opened with a drum solo, a stunning demonstration of Blake's ability to combine effortless instrumental mastery with an unmistakable approach to shaping improvisations that were possessed of vivid spontaneous form. Coltrane joined Blake in duet on sopranissimo, reminiscent of the kinds of fiery interactions his father would engage in with either Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali, but this was a far more contemporary approach to empathic, dual-instrument extemporaneous interplay.

Coltrane then took over, as the entire band coalesced around him, ultimately leading to a piano solo bolstered by a hard-walking Douglas and ferociously swinging Blake. This was a band clearly firing on all cylinders from the very start, as the swing dissolved, once again, into the tempestuous maelstrom that seemed to always bubble, just beneath the music, whether it was with time and changes or in a far freer context where the collective size of the quartet's ears was in constant evidence.

In contrast to Sanchez's set, with writing that managed to straddle that fine line between greater freedom and complex compositional form, Coltrane's performance was even more challenging and more exacting in its cerebral nature. The majority of Sanchez's music was eminently accessible, even if what was going on under the hood was relentlessly demanding. Coltrane, on the other hand, largely dispensed with any intentions of accessibility. Not that his music left the enthusiastic crowd behind—far from it. But with the more open-ended variations that defined virtually all of Coltrane's music and the liberated, reckless abandon of his stellar quartet, it was also more decidedly rarefied and intellectual than Sanchez's more visceral aesthetic tendencies.

All told, it was an exceptional pairing, with each group travelling across considerably different terrain while, at the same time, possessed of certain markers that rendered them ideal bill-mates.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Monument-National
July 1, 2019, 8:00PM

For the last show covered at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, first: a disclosure. When covering one of the earliest performances by Sound Prints at the 2014 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, leaders Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano were joined, alongside drummer Joey Baron and bassist Linda May Han Oh, by a very young pianist named Lawrence Fields. While seeming to demonstrate plenty of promise, the review was less than kind to him, suggesting that he may not have been ready for a band with such esteemed players.

Wrong. Or, at least, more than a bit unfair because, just a few short years later, Fields showed up at FIJM's 40th edition, playing with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah2. Wrong, because not only was the still seemingly shy Fields (now, seven years later, 34) the perfect, stylistically expansive choice for the trumpeter, composer and bandleader's current group; he was, quite simply, an absolute standout, whether playing a sampled grand piano, Fender Rhodes or synth. With touchstones including a clear appreciation of the jazz tradition and classical tinges that imbued his work (most notably, 20th century minimalism), Fields also contributed a myriad of styles, colors, textures and timbres to a set that spoke to a worldwide confluence of influences that also included western modernism, profound Africanism and hints of eastern harmonies. Whether soloing with finesse and construction or creating a context over which his band mates could soar, Lawrence Fields was the real deal.

Sure, such a player (especially one like Fields) would inevitably evolve and improve over time; but watching him throughout Adjuah's 90-minute set, it was hard to escape the feeling that, at his 2012 Sound Prints Ottawa show, the problem was most certainly not of his making; instead, it's become most certainly clear that it lay with the reviewer. During his introduction of the band, Adjuah enthused about Fields: "He can find a way to marry anything to jazz. To be able to do that you have to care about other peoples' cultures...and place people first. Laurence cares...I prefer, rather than introducing him as my pianist, to introduce him as: my friend."
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