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.
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