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Jazz, Zen, and Hip-Hop: The 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival

Matt Hooke By

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Exploring the grounds of the Montreal Jazz Festival is like going to all you can eat Las Vegas buffet.

"Look over there at table four; there's Dixieland. Wait at table six, there's Latin jazz, supposedly the main table as a new head chef, let's go there."

You can stuff yourself by going to more than ten concerts during a single 13-hour day at the festival. The best part is that all of the outdoor concerts, over 300 shows, are free. An audience member can bounce around from stage to stage from morning to night, taking in everything as they please, creating a unique opportunity to discover veteran performers along with up-coming bands.

The diversity of acts is nothing new; since its founding in 1980, the festival from June 26 to July 6 has always been progressive, embracing international artists and fusion. The event still passes All About Jazz writer John Kelman's 2011 test "When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival?" If you only want to see traditional jazz, there is more than enough options to satisfy your eardrums.

However, this column is about the fusion of jazz with other genres of music and how its spirit is evolving. The festival proved especially inviting for people looking for experimental takes on the genre, as countless artists excelled at pushing the music forward. Much of the music of the Montreal Jazz Festival would seem out of place at a jazz festival in 1980, but much like how a 10-year-old has a different personality than the adult he becomes, Montreal has changed while still maintaining its essence of creativity and freedom throughout the years. Though some performers such as Alt-J may have only a tangential at best connection to the genre, most of the time the wide array of artists showed how innovators both young and old are adding their own ideas to the jazz tradition.

Nik Bärtsch Ronin

Saxophonist Sha's silhouette, illuminated by the lights behind him, was etched on the brick columns of the Gesù church during Nik Bärtsch's Ronin performance on July 5. The hallowed ground of the church fit Bärtsch's music perfectly, as he integrated spiritual practices into his creative work and mindset.

Bärtsch breaks down the capabilities of his instruments in the way a child who just received guitar or piano would (what young guitarist hasn't strummed the taut strings past the nut of a headstock?), exploring the possibilities of pure sound without regard for convention. A piano is a keyboard instrument, but it is also a box, so why not slap your hands on it like a Cajon? It has strings, so why not pluck them or mute them like you would a bass?

Bärtsch's answer to those questions was a resounding yes.

His exploration should not be surprising considering Ronin came out of 27-hour music rituals that he would organize in an old brewery in his home base of Zurich. His playfulness makes this highly complex polyrhythmic music accessible to an audience who may otherwise not be receptive. You can enjoy it for the simple fact that it grooves like the legendary funk groups, such as The Meters, that Bärtsch idolizes or you can enjoy the intellectual exercise of understanding his mastery of harmony and quickly shifting time signatures. It is music for the brain and the body. The music stays true to the Funkadelic maxim, that if you free your mind, your ass will follow.

Bartsch is a master at developing a slow burn into a white heat. The first track he performed at Gesù, "Modul 58," started off slowly with Bartsch playing a simple piano line while drummer Kaspar Rast created ambiance with light cymbal hits. After several minutes of music light enough to float on the air, the beat dropped like an anvil as Rast and bassist Thomy Jordi ratcheted up the energy while Bartsch played the piece's central piano figure.

Bärtsch's composing philosophy is about simplicity. Though his music is quite involved the individual parts are minimal each one building on each other, by emphasizing different beats within a measure or having a different time signature, to create a single dynamic organism that has each instrument function as an integral organ within a great mystic beast.

It is hard to talk about Bärtsch's composing separate from the Zen spiritual practices that inform his work. At a workshop the afternoon before his concert at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal; organized by Sébastien Sauvageau the leader of jazz band L'Oumigmag, Bärtsch took the eight-person group through a series of physical exercises before teaching them his composition "Modul 23." The group consisted of a mix of professionals seeking new ways to enhance their musical talent and amateurs who came to gain more insight on one of their favorite artists.

One participant, Tim Doherty, had previously spent nine days with Bärtsch in Zurich to learn about his compositional technique. Doherty said that Bärtsch's workshops taught him about the importance of community in creative work, along with more technical aspects.

"I discovered his music about ten years ago, and I became obsessed with it right away," said Doherty, a Boston-based guitarist with the Ben Levin Group and the leader of the groove band Shibui. "It wasn't like anything I hadn't heard before; it opened up my understanding of rhythm and how instrumentalists can listen and perform with each other."

Though Doherty is an up and coming musician, Josée Campeau is the opposite, as she has been a cellist for Montreal Cirque de Solei for 20 years. Despite Campeau's long career, she is always searching for artists who search for new ways to create and went to the workshop hoping to connect to like-minded musicians.

"The spaces between the notes," said Campeau when asked about what made Bärtsch's music stick out. "Even though it's highly structured, there's always a flow. There's a high level of presence when you play the music, and that's what attracts me."

"(Bärtsch) teaches you about community, how to listen to each other," said Doherty. "How to be open to the spontaneous and react accordingly without holding all this tension in you. Without pretension without ego, just getting to the heart of what the music can be."

The exercises started as tasks meant to explore the feeling of being in one's body, to gain an understanding of an individual balance or imbalance. We stood still without instruments and saw how our weight balanced between our legs, analyzing the tension in our shoulders when walking with arms relaxed like dead weight falling off your shoulders.

For Bärtsch, these exercises are not just a method for enlightenment, but a necessity for survival after several injuries he suffered as a teenager due to overexertion during practice sessions.

"The goal (in music) is to have fun and play together until you're very old," said Bärtsch. "If you compare that to sports for example, in sports when you hit 35 it's over, just because of the physical capacity. In music, you have the chance to play forever, but the physical thing is very important."

"You need to learn how to be intelligently lazy," said Bärtsch. "Very often we put in a lot of pressure a lot of strength when it is not necessarily needed. Which means, in the long run, you lose a lot of energy. You can do a movement, play a bass, sing, with less effort but more presence."

Bärtsch rejects the idea of art as a young man's game. He sees music as a lifelong process where one continues to grow and develop as one gets older. At 47 years old he is producing some of his most exceptional creative work, with even more life and vitality than his earlier projects.

He tries to pass these lessons down to the young musicians he mentors through his label Ronin Rhythm Records, trying to get his young charges to think in terms of five-year cycles instead of six-month-long ones.

His exercises did not solely consist of solitary self-discovery as Bärtsch believes that community is one of the most critical aspects for any musician. One exercise had us walk around, shaking each other's hands, in another Bärtsch tasked us to form triangles with other people at the workshop. All communication was non-verbal, creating many comic moments when signals were misread. After the series of body exercises, the class took a break before going to the first music portion. Bärtsch focused on an instrument often thought of as glamorous as a brown toad in the swamp, the shaker. Bärtsch chose the shaker because it is one of the simplest instruments to play; it does not require any technical knowledge to hold something and move your arm up and down. It is also one of the oldest instruments, Bärtsch joked that the shaker might have its origins in people listening to a fruit full of seeds.

Everyone started by standing in a circle, moving the shaker in basic four-four time. Then like a chef adding layers to a lasagna, he introduced more elements, transforming the simple act the musical equivalent of navigating a canoe in a hurricane. By the end everyone had to keep time with their shaker, balance a juggling ball on their head, count to five in a clockwise order that reversed every time someone said "and" in front of a number, and clap your free hand on your body in a permanent clockwise motion.

The latter two elements caused the most confusion as in a previous exercise he had every clap their hand on their leg when they said the number, so going to this new form forced you to retrain your muscle memory. The point of the exercise was to turn off what Bärtsch calls "the monkey mind," the part of the brain that wants to analyze every action, to focus on "the musical mind," the natural affinity human beings have for rhythm.

Bärtsch makes it clear that he does not think all analysis is bad; the detailed works he makes required him to examine many forms of percussive music and classical music ranging from Stravinsky to Japanese drumming traditions.

When Bärtsch took the group through "Modul 23" a piece that emphasizes five vs. three vs. four, the group, despite playing together for the first time, felt like a well-oiled machine. The hours spent chuckling at each other when a juggling ball fell off someone's head, interrupting a peaceful moment with a loud thud, created a quick sense of camaraderie.

"We can train and rehearse and practice a lot, but you cannot make it safe for yourself on stage," said Bärtsch. "It goes to the next level you need to somehow let go in terms of trust. The group together has such a big possibility to risk something. That's one of the most inspiring phenomena as a band, and you need that moment where you don't hold it."
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