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Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 1 - May 15, 2008


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Jean Derome / John Zorn
Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada
May 15, 2008

Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, held in May each year in the rather unlikely location of Victoriaville, Canada, has built a reputation for cutting-edge music and premiere presentations so distinctive that fans return year after year from locations around the globe.

While the 2007 edition of FIMAV had a fine roster,with 2008 being the festival's 25th year Artistic Director Michel Levasseur pulled out all the stops. Along with a host of lesser-known artists—at least to those unfamiliar with FIMAV, as its loyal following is remarkably well-versed in many of the artists who have more of a cult following—Levasseur has invited big names, including Roscoe Mitchell, John Zorn, Joe McPhee and Joe Morris to this year's event. In fact, Zorn is performing twice—first with his highly accessible The Dreamers project; and later with a reunion of the more hardcore Moonchild group.

One of the undisputed highlights, making the 25th edition of FIMAV a very special year, is the participation of intrepid multi-instrumentalist/composer Fred Frith. No stranger to the festival, Frith brings his latest rock group, Cosa Brava, as a perfect bookend for FIMAV's very special closing concert: Art Bears Songbook. Here, Frith and long-time collaborator/percussionist Chris Cutler along with four others will revisit the music of his exploratory late-1970s/early-1980s trio with Cutler and Dagmar Krause (who is not appearing at FIMAV). For fans of this avant-garde pop band, it's reason enough to attend, although the entire line-up is one of the festival's best ever.

Jean Derome et les Dangerous Zhoms + 7

Montreal-based saxophonist Jean Derome has been on the bleeding edge of the contemporary blending of complex, cued composition and unfettered free improvisation for over twenty years. For his performance—which kicked off FIMAV's 25th edition at the Cinema Laurier—he brought an expanded edition of his Dangerous Zhomes quintet, fleshed out with an additional seven musicians, premiering two new pieces, the 35-minute "Traquenards" and the shorter, but no less challenging "Plates-formes," named after Productions Platforms, the organization behind FIMAV.

It was an expansive palette, featuring reeds, strings, voice, guitar, bass, drums and turntables. Contemporary classicism reminiscent of groups like Univers Zero juxtaposed with moments of chaotic collective spontaneity, with a sonic landscape reliant equally on conventional acoustic sounds as it was the unorthodox, most notably from vocalist Joane n Hetu, who brought her own multi-media project, Filature, to the final day of FIMAV 2007. More about texture than melody, Hetu comes from the same school as vocalists like Meredith Monk and Sidsel Endresen, but has her own unconventional slant to making the voice guttural, percussive and, at times, akin to white noise.

"Traquenards" took full advantage of the potential for subsets within the group, with pianist Guillaume Dostaler and trumpeter Gordon Allen creating a lulling sense of ease before suddenly being engulfed in a flurry of reckless, anarchistic free play from the entire twelve-tet. Rock beats from bassist Pierre Cartier and drummer Pierre Tanguay—another Montreal actuelle mainstay, whose 2007 performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival with bassist John Geggie and viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel was a highlight of that festival—alternated with dark, complex ensemble passages where clarinetist Lori Freeman meshed with Derome's various saxophones and flute along with Nadia Francaville's violin and Jean Rene's viola to paint a chamber music soundscape at once appealing and foreboding. Guitarist Bernard Falaise ran the gamut from scratchy tones to wild feedback, contributing sonic colors alongside turntablist Martin Tetreault, last heard at FIMAV 2005 with Michael Cote.

Derome's two pieces were a fitting opening for the festival, demonstrating the boundary-busting, genre-defying breadth of Musique Actuelle.

John Zorn—-The Dreamers

Satirized by American political satirist/television celebrity Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) for the kind of extremes demonstrated at his 2007 FIMAV solo performance, what has been most remarkable about following the career of saxophonist/composer/Tzadik label founder John Zorn has been the rich diversity of his music. From his ear-splitting Painkiller trio and equally hardcore Moonchild group (which will be featured on day two of FIMAV 2008) to the sublime Bar Kokhba sextet and his mammoth, career-defining Masada songbooks, Zorn has proven himself an artist with few, if any, limitations. That FIMAV has programmed two Zorn performances demonstrating his full stylistic breadth within a 24-hour period is another sign, from FIMAV's Levasseur, that serious art can encompass both approachable beauty and challenging, cathartic aggression.

Zorn's The Dreamers is, indeed, a dream band, featuring the cream of the New York Downtown scene—guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Jamie Saft, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen (better-known as a drummer), bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Joey Baron and percussionist Cyro Baptista. With material culled from the 2008 Tazdik album of the same name as well as The Gift (Tzadik, 2001), Zorn has found yet another stylistic nexus, this time at the juncture of his ever-evolving Radical Jewish Culture music, surf, film noir and more. Like his Masada songbook, the material was largely sketch-like in nature, with basic themes and grooves providing a roadmap for plenty of soloing, collective and individual.

Still, Zorn—largely in the role of conductor—only occasionally picked up his saxophone, instead directing the septet, vividly encouraging individual members and acting as a focus to bring the music back to form. His use of hand signals to cue his groups, though nothing new, had its own appeal. In the instrumentalist's unaccustomed role, it proved just as exciting to watch him guide and encourage the group as it was to listen to the music itself.

Saft—with a truly mighty beard hitherto only seen on the members of ZZ Top—was both an inventive soloist and colorful accompanist on Fender Rhodes and a synth used, for the most part, to emulate organ. Along with Ribot's sometimes visceral and jagged, other times smooth and relaxed playing, Saft was a highlight of the group, he and Ribot receiving the lion's share of delineated solo space, though the other group members were no less compelling. Baptista's array of percussion and ability to work hand-in-glove with Baron, pushed and pulled the music every which way, as responsive to the soloists as it was suggestive of alternate avenues to pursue. Dunn—a Tzadik fixture heard on albums by artists including Jenny Scheinman and Ribot, and with Zorn in Electric Masada and a number of film scores—has always been a rock solid anchor, regardless of the project. Live, however, his ability to provide an unshakable foundation and melodic counterpoint is far clearer

In recent years Baron appears to have largely deserted the Downtown scene, working in sparer, more nuanced contexts, including guitarist John Abercrombie's quartet, the sublime The Third Quartet (ECM, 2007), and Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's trio with bassist Marc Johnson, last heard on As Never Before (Cam Jazz, 2008). Here, however, it's clear the drummer has lost none of the fire that powered groups like the original Masada Quartet with Zorn, Dave Douglas and Greg Cohen, and Bill Frisell's trio from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. From propulsive rock grooves to soft brushwork, it was when Zorn gave Baron the signal to ratchet up a notch or ten that his ability to create a tumultuous wash of power lit a fire beneath the entire group.

The concert was one of the most well-attended shows in FIMAV history, the Colisee—with rows of chairs replacing the normal tables and chairs, club-style layout to accommodate the larger than usual crowd—so packed that media and musician guests had to wait until ticketed attendees were all in before being allowed entry. Musique Actuelle has always had an accessible component and, while extremes are often more definitive, Zorn's performance proved that it's possible to be challenging, exploratory and easy on the ears at the same time.

Tomorrow: Tim Brady/Martin Messier, Fred Frith's Cosa Brava and John Zorn's Moonchild.

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