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.
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