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Jazzahead! 2014

John Kelman By

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But the most intriguing group of the afternoon was, most certainly, Double Trouble. No, not Stevie Ray Vaughan's backing group reunited, but instead an all-acoustic quartet with one saxophonist (Peter Ehwald), one drummer (Jonas Burgwinkel) and not one, but two double bassists (Robert Landfermann and Andreas Lang). Blending elements of modern jazz, chamber music and a little rock aggression, this was a group capable of some real extremes: at times, far-out and far-reaching; other times, positively beautiful, with the use of two arco basses to create a deep, warm cushion for Ehwald's ruminations.

Any suggestion that the bass is a timekeeping instrument these days is hardly worth mentioning, but while there was no true chordal instrument in Double Trouble, the group's three linear instruments had the capacity for both contrapuntal interaction and vertical harmony. That there was plenty of opportunity for free exploration by the quartet was belied by Ehwald's assertion that the music was, nevertheless, "thoroughly composed."

The Köln-based quartet employed elements of Balkan rhythms and even some Kazakhstan overtone singing (albeit played on instruments rather than sung), with some of its music approaching chaos and elsewhere taking full advantage of the two basses to focus more heavily on groove and melody. Together for two years now, Double Trouble has been around long enough to forge an identity that goes beyond its unique instrumentation, while still being early enough days to suggest that there's plenty more potential for this unorthodox quartet to explore.

April 25, Evening: Overseas Night

Which, sadly, brings things to not the final evening of Jazzhead! but, with an early morning flight home for a quick respite before returning to Europe the following week for Mai Jazz in Stavanger, Norway, the last evening to be spent at Jazzahead! 2014. It's strange how things transpire. Despite being a mere 200 kilometers away from Montréal, it was necessary to travel nearly six thousand of them, and across an ocean as well, in order to find an opportunity to catch Christine Jensen's superb Jazz Orchestra. Since the release of Treelines (Justin Time, 2010) and its follow-up, Habitat—also released on Justin Time in Canada in 2013, but in the US just two months ago in March, 2014—the saxophonist/composer has taken some major steps forward, in particular in her evolution as a writer and bandleader of note.

Jensen, in a quintet front-lined with her New York-based sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, at last year's Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (in the same venue, L'Astral, the same evening as Phronesis, coincidentally), has long demonstrated her acumen with a horn—and as a writer, too. But this recent leap into jazz orchestra territory has now positioned her to be easily mentioned in the same breath as American-based large ensemble leaders like Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue.

That Jensen was able to collect the majority of the 17-piece ensemble on Habitat for what may go down as the longest collective trek for a 30-minute gig ever—with the exception of Swedish pianist and co-collaborator with the two Jensen sisters in Nordic Connect, Maggi Olin, who substituted for John Roney, as well as a couple of other deps including, sadly, sister Ingrid— was remarkable in and of itself. That the group managed to pull off a quartet of challenging tunes from Habitat after such a long trek was even more so. While there was neither time nor space to allow all the soloists in the band to get some time in the spotlight, there were, nevertheless, some magical moments, in particular from altoist Donny Kennedy on the opening "Blue Yonder," and Jensen's husband, tenor saxophonist Joel Miller , sharing solo space with trombonist Jean-Louis Trottier on "Tumbledown," Jensen's homage to the earthquake in Haiti, a country which she'd visited in the years leading up to that tragic event.

While Jensen left the majority of the solo space for the rest of her orchestra, she engaged in some marvelous interplay with Olin on "Treelines," while guitarist Ken Bibace got some unexpected feature time on the closing piece, dedicated to expat Canadian saxophonist François Théberge. But while the solos were key to the success of every one of the four pieces Jensen performed in her 45-minute slot (this evening's showcases extended, with thanks to the Jazzahead! organizers), it was the writing and her capable hand at conducting the orchestra through her long-form compositions that made the showcase such a success. While the harsh reality of booking an 18-piece group (including Jensen) for a lengthy road trip is unlikely, that Jensen was able to bring a group of players largely familiar with her music for the showcase will hopefully encourage the chance of her going to various cities around the world, where she can work with local musicians to perform her increasingly compelling music.

Back-to-back with another Montréaler, pianist (and, this evening, accordionist) Marianne Trudel and her Trifolia trio, featuring double bassist Étienne Lafrance and percussionist Patrick Graham, provided a unique opportunity to hear two very different aspects of the city's vibrant jazz scene. Graham's unique percussion setup ("the Paganini of the tambourine," Trudel called him at one point) gave the group a different complexion than the usual drum-based piano trio. Diminutive in size, Trudel's enthusiasm and virtuosity remained a clear rallying point for the entire trio throughout its set.

While attention would normally focus on her skills at the piano, Trudel's story about finding the accordion she brought, in the family home, was so poignant that it ultimately ended up dominating her already fine set. Asking her grandmother about instrument, she was told that her grandfather had wanted to learn the instrument at one point, but moved onto other things instead. At the time that she was composing for Trifolia, her grandfather was suffering from terminal cancer and was unable to open his eyes or speak. With her grandfather largely deaf as well, Trudel recounted holding his hand in silence for an hour the last time she saw him, but when she had to leave—not wanting to, but forced to in order to play a concert—she had to yell that she was leaving; "He opened one eye," she said with a small smile, "and said, 'play loud.'" It was the last thing he said to her, and she went to the concert and played the tune, called "Steppe." Played here at Jazzahead!, its melancholy melody, echoed by her soft voice, reflected her love of, as she put it, "vast landscapes, where silence is." The song also featured a lovely bass solo, and if the rest of Trudel's set was just as good, it was this tune that remained in the mind long after, as much for the story of how it came to be as for how good it was.

While it was unfortunately necessary to skip the evening's final act, American-based pianist Shai Maestro, there was still time to catch one more group, and who could resist a group with a name like The Vampires. Any piano-less group with saxophone (Jeremy Rose), trumpet (Nick Gabrett), bass (Alex Boneham) and drums (Tobias Backhaus) was bound to be compared to Ornette Coleman, but while the free jazz progenitor was undeniably one touchstone for this Australian quartet, he was by no means the predominant one. Instead, The Vampires' music blended everything from hints of soul to tinges of the Balkans, a taste of African and Jamaican influences and, of course, a liberal heaping of jazz-centric interplay for a distinctive gumbo that was more eminently accessible, grooved harder and, through clever arrangements for the two horns, created a bigger sound than might have seemed otherwise possible.

The Sydney-based group has been around awhile, with four albums out including its most recent, Tiro (Earshift, 2013), but for its Jazzahead! debut the group dug right back to its first record, South Coasting (Jazzgroove, 2008), for Rose's appropriately titled opener, "Action Reaction."

With the effortlessly relaxed vibe that seems endemic to so many Australians, Rose introduced "Mother's Dance," also from South Coasting and named after his mother's "hippie-style dancing," driven by Backhaus' near-second line rhythm, which set the tone in an opening duo with Gabrett before ultimately leading to a rhythm-heavy feature for Boneham. The group closed with two very difference tunes: "Euro Schmarp," written by Gabrett after coming back from Europe "in Euro style" and Rose's closing track to Garfish (Earshift, 2012), "Life in the Fast Lane," which moved from visceral free bop intro to a sudden injection of structure, closing the set on an exciting note.

And closing Jazzahead! 2014 on a thrilling note as well. While others would stay for another day of meetings, showcases and, no doubt, some liberal partying the closing night as they club-hopped around Bremen, that early morning flight beckoned. But after missing Jazzahead! in 2013 it was great to be back, and hopefully it will be possible to plan a return visit to the city in 2015, for Jazzahead!'s tenth anniversary.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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