Coverage: Week 1
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Although the center of the Montréal Jazz Festival was situated in a specially bordered downtown area, it was clear that the spirit of jazz had permeated the entire city. The music was everywhere, whether it was Dinah Washington's "After Hours With Miss D" playing in the Renaud-Bray Bookstore, a couple of guys on acoustic bass and tenor sax playing John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." on a street corner, or Wes Montgomery's version of "Con Alma" running through my head. Official posters and other merchandise trumpeting the festival were displayed in full force throughout Montréal, which is justifiably proud of it's still growing twenty five year-old. Naturally, at gatherings of this scope diversity engenders debate, if not cynicismdo k.d. lang and The Roots really belong in the same milieu as Dianne Reeves and Oscar Peterson?but it's a debate which, if explored properly, enriches all who participate in it.
Right after I picked up my press pass from the festival's media room in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, I went next door to the press conference honoring singer Ibrahim Ferrer as the winner of the first Antonio Carlos Jobim Award, presented in recognition of "musicians whose contributions to their national musical traditions have had a significant impact on jazz worldwide." When the turbo-powered, digitally enhanced paparazzi began jostling each other for pole position to photograph the honoree, I adjusted my freshly minted credentials around my neck, anchored my body, pulled my 35mm disposable camera out of my pocket and joined the fray, whipping off quality shots like a grizzled veteran.
Charlie Haden took the baton from Chick Corea as the featured artist of the Invitation Series, and on this night he played in a trio setting with saxophone legend Dewey Redman and drummer Matt Wilson. Shortly after taking the stage Haden joked about how he and Wilson happened to be the parents of triplets, which he described as "quarter-note triplets," then the music began. Redman opened on tenor and his rich, deep tone filled the Monument-National concert hall easily. Haden then laid down a complex plucked solo, with Wilson galloping alongside him on the rims. Redman switched to alto for the next song, which had an ominous, foreboding theme. As Haden and Wilson brewed behind him, Redman constructed a passionate solo that spiraled and shrieked as it continued. He played like a man who knew he was going insane and was desperately trying to explain why before the madness drove him beyond articulation. Haden soloed partly by strumming the strings at the bottom of the bass, and Wilson comped economically. Too many drummers think that bashing their kits into submission defines a solo. Wilson could play with that kind of power but he preferred coherence over volume. The trio's version of "Body And Soul," with Redman's dreamy tenor and Wilson's brushes, was the highlight of the show and drew a rousing ovation. During the up-tempo r&b-flavored tune that followed, Redman interrupted his solo to urge the audience to clap along with him, which it did enthusiastically. When the trio played its encore Redman picked up the alto and they played another unidentified piece which, based on the interplay among the musicians, seemed to be improvised.
Later that evening I went to the GESU Centre de Créativité, the oldest performance space in the city, to catch the Danilo Perez Trio, featured as part of the "Jazz Dans La Nuit" series. Joining the great pianist were bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. I took my seat and everything was fine until some people sat in the row front of me. Their seats leaned back, knocking against my knees and pinching the tips of my toes. I immediately looked around to see if there were any open seats and saw an almost empty row a section over. As I was about to bolt I noticed that my present seat, however uncomfortable, would give me a great sightline on Perez' hands as he played. So I decided to sacrifice comfort for perspective and endured the seat backs wedged against my knees.
As GESU's announcer was delivering the obligatory caveat concerning no recording devices/no pictures/turn off your cell phones and pagers, an alarm began buzzing loudly somewhere. It was stopped briefly but resumed as the announcer continued with his warning. It stopped again and the trio took the stage. As Perez went into his opening statement the alarm went off yet again. The audience groaned but Perez was undaunted. He escalated the intensity of his playing in response to the nuisance, reacting as though the alarm was a fourth musician who had shown up for an unplanned improvisation. The audience picked up on this right away and wildly applauded the effort. I remember thinking that if that had happened while Keith Jarrett was playing, he would've walked off the stage.
From there the trio went on to marvelously deconstruct songs by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Ruben Blades, among others. But it was during one of Perez' own tunes, "Native Soul," that the fun really started. When he introduced the other members of the trio he referred to Cruz as "my little brother." The two men played with a simpatico that was astonishing to hear and watch. Perez thrives on the unconventional, playing songs in odd keys and time signatures, often changing tempos like Peyton Manning calling audibles at the line of scrimmage. No matter what he did in this regard, though, Cruz was right there with a corresponding answer on the drums, laying down wicked polyrhythmic answers to Perez' challenging questions. This astonishing game of cat and mouse continued throughout the set, song after song, leaving Perez and Cruz sweat-soaked and beaming, while the audience sat with its collective jaw on the floor at this extended display of virtuosity. Nearly lost in the middle of these blistering exchanges was bassist Street, who had considerable chops of his own but on this night seemed to expend most of his energy toward not becoming an afterthought to the dynamic between Perez and Cruz.
After the tune we gave the trio a wild standing ovation and screamed for an encore; when they returned Perez showed that he had a sense of humor to match his fluency on the piano when he quoted "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the middle of "Besame Mucho."
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