Montreal Jazz Festival 2011

John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4- 6

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montreal, Canada
June 25- July 4, 2011

After a hiatus in 2010, in order to take a three-week Norwegian road trip, it's great to get back to the festival that the Guinness Book of Records calls "The biggest jazz festival in the world." But for those who think such a designation has to mean a populist-driven festival, geared towards accessibility and big names, they'd be right...and they'd be wrong.
Sure, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has the cachet to bring the biggest names in jazz, blues, world music and beyond, and one look at the 2011 roster is enough to support that, with names including Robert Plant, Diana Krall, Return to Forever IV and Tony Bennett. But the festival's massive size doesn't preclude more intimate performances by artists such as pianists Kenny Werner and Brad Mehldau—the latter, a star in his own right, but here performing solo at the lovely, 425-seat Gésu. The festival also brings international acts that deserve greater North American exposure, like Norwegians Eivind Aarset, In The Country and Jaga Jazzist; Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz; and the trio of French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, expat French bassist Francois Moutin and American drummer Ari Hoenig, who put on a tremendous show in Ottawa, earlier in the week.

While the center of the festival, on St. Catherine Street between St Laurent and Bleury, remains under heavy construction, forcing the festival to work around it and place some of its outdoor stages elsewhere, it still has the core of the city closed down for its 10-day run, making it an otherworldly experience. Keep the TV off and skip the newspapers, and it's possible to bask in a world of jazz, with everything you'll ever need contained within a six square block radius, from hotels and restaurants to shops and more. And, with the festival's headquarters opened two years ago for its 30th Anniversary, there's a new club (L'Astral), a much improved press room, and the Médiathèque, a jazz resource center with all the archival information a festival now in its 32nd year has accumulated, and much more.

There are some new things as well. Across the street from Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, there's an outdoor bar, with a small stage, and much larger merchandise tent than the festival has ever had before, all in the space where one of Montreal's institutions, the Spectrum club, existed for nearly three decades before closing its doors in 2007. Renovations to Place des Arts—the city's arts center and home to a number of venues, ranging from a few hundred to three thousand—are complete, and the interior is home to a multimedia installation and a number of new facilities.

And for a festival that accredits over four hundred journalists, FIJM knows how to treat the media, picking them up as they arrive by train or air, driving them to their hotels, where another representative is there to ensure the check-in process is as smooth as possible and that any questions are answered. The new Press Room offers a place to hang and have a drink (gratis), a place to work, and a place to attend press conferences, in the festival's Stevie Wonder Room, where Jeff Beck was interviewed in 2009, prior to his kickass show at Place des Arts.

It was, quite simply, a real pleasure to return to Montreal for FIJM, a festival that, with 475 concerts, has it all, and continues to bring it, each and every year, to the two-and-a-half million people who come through its gates.

Chapter Index
  1. June 29: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
  2. June 29: Dave Holland Quintet
  3. June 29: Apex: Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green
  4. June 30: Anouar Brahem Invitation: Thimar
  5. July 1: Anouar Brahem Invitation: Le Voyage De Sahar
  6. July 1: Jaga Jazzist

June 29: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Catching a first show at the intimate Gésu Centre de Créativité—situated beneath a church on Rue de Bleury, just around the corner from the Maison du Festival—was the perfect way to kick off six days of coverage that will include thirteen indoor shows. While his first album, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam, 2009) is nearly two years old, composer/arranger/bandleader Darcy James Argue's 18-piece Secret Society continues to gain traction as a large ensemble of the most modern kind. Now in his mid-thirties, Argue has been slowly building a reputation, but seemed to burst onto the scene with Infernal Machines, winning a place on many critics' "best of" lists for the year—and for good reason. This ain't your granddaddy's big band (something that will be a bit of a running theme this year at FIJM); instead, Argue brings in references from many sources, including the energy and tonalities of rock music, minimalist pulses and an approach to coloration that make his band, not unlike the award-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra, something more expansive than a conventional jazz big band.

For Argue's first appearance at FIJM—in the middle of a Canadian tour that saw him in Vancouver and Ottawa on previous nights, wrapping up on June 30 in Toronto—he focused largely on material from Infernal Machines, though he did also include a sneak peak at his next project, a multimedia affair with artist Danijel Zezelj, called Brooklyn Babylon. Intended to be a modern fable, Argue's "Chapter One: The Neighborhood" introduced a number of elements that are expansions on ideas from his first record. Pianist Gordon Webster's repetitive, Steve Reichian pulses acted as the rallying point for the opening of a piece that felt like an overture of things to come, even as it worked as a self-contained unit that episodically moved from one interconnecting section to another.

Darcy James Argue conducting his Secret Society

Drummer Jon Wikan—no stranger to Montreal, the husband of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who was also onboard for the evening—opened the set-starter, "Phobos," with a cajon solo as he did on the record, but with even more copious delay. Clearly Argue's a forward thinker, unafraid to "tarnish" the jazz tradition with contemporary ideas and sound worlds. As the band entered, it became even clearer that Argue's personal touchstones range far and wide, with guitarist Sebastian Noelle creating orchestral swells and gritty power chords, Matt Clohesy pushing the time on electric bass and Wikan driving the groove with plenty of spontaneous action. The serpentine melody of "Induction Effect" wound its way over the polyrhythmic interlocking of Holober's 5/4 pulse on Fender Rhodes and Wikan's ¾ groove, its middle section demanding many of the winds and horns to circular breathe, creating a hypnotic underpinning to Matt Holman's impressive flugelhorn solo.

A highlight of the early part of the set came during Infernal Machines' "Jacobin Club"—introduced, as were all the pieces, by Argue, who's clearly as deep a thinker in other areas as he is a composer—when saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and trombonist Mike Fahie entered into a lengthy exchange that demonstrated the kind of chemistry that can only come from playing together on a regular basis. It's hard enough to keep a small group together for the long run, but with monthly gigs in and around the New York City area for the past three years, Argue has managed to not just keep Secret Society together as a vehicle for his innovative writing, but as a means for its musicians to develop a language and a familiarity with each other that's clearly paying big dividends.

June 29: Dave Holland Quintet

Speaking of longevity and chemistry, the music world can often be a fickle place. Bands emerge to great acclaim, for breaking new ground, but as time goes on, interest wanes as the group settles into comfortable familiarity, "damned if you do, damned if you don't": criticized for staying true to its original vision, but equally lambasted for too much change. Fortunately, in the jazz world, that's less of a problem. Sure, groups emerge and have a period of greater visibility, but even when things settle down, they're often able to continue for the long term, and still create plenty of excitement, even if they're afforded less attention in the media.

The current incarnation of bassist Dave Holland's 14 year-old quintet has been around long enough now that even drummer Nate Smith (who replaced original drummer Billy Kilson) is no longer the new kid on the block he was when the quintet performed at Montreal's Outremont Théâtre in 2004. The quintet has released only one disc since that time, Critical Mass (Dare2, 2006), but it's remained at the core of both the Dave Holland Big Band, last heard on Overtime (Dare2, 2005), and the Dave Holland Octet's Pathways (Dare2, 2010). The excitement of a new sound and a new approach may be over, but based on the quintet's performance at Place des Arts' 750-seat Théâtre Jean- Duceppe, there's still plenty on offer from a group of players clearly at the absolute top of their game.

Trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter are monstrous enough players on their own—each, a leader in his own right, with Eubanks' Live Vol. 1 a stunning set from his EB3 trio that would be impossible to believe, were it not for the DVD included, where it was possible to actually witness Kenwood Dennard playing keyboard bass and drums simultaneously; and Potter's Ultrahang (ArtistShare, 2009), another great set from his electrified and evolving Underground group. But the collective language these two players began honing with their first appearance together on Holland's Prime Directive (ECM, 2000) has only grown with time, their in-tandem soloing on the bassist's set-closing "Lucky Seven" (from Critical Mass), so absolutely energizing as to get the capacity crowd on its feet for an enthusiastic standing ovation, even before Holland announced that this was, indeed, the end of the set.

A set that the crowd was not ready to let go with just one encore, as Holland's "Easy Did It" simply kept the energy level too high to encourage folks to vacate the premises sated, as vibraphonist Steve Nelson's head-tilting harmonies interlocked with Smith and Holland's ability to create unshakable, booty-shaking grooves in any meter. The vibraphonist's balladic "Go Fly a Kite," from Not for Nothin' (ECM, 2001) sent everyone on their way on a more relaxed note.

A new piece, "Walk the Walk," opened the set, with Eubanks taking a first solo that set the bar high, but Holland raised it with a solo that saw the bassist more physically engaged than usual, lifting onto one leg as he pulled muscular lines out of the ether. Clearly this was going to be a good set for a quintet that may tour less regularly than in previous years, but whose chemistry remains intact, the way it does for good friends who may not see each other all the time, but pick up where they left off, when they do, as if no time has passed. Eubanks opened his own "The Sum of All Parts"—first heard on Holland's Pass It On (Dare2, 2008), a sextet album with a revamped lineup, with Eubanks the only holdover from the core quintet—with an a capella solo that demonstrated why he's Holland's trombonist of choice, his seamless integration of multiphonics creating compelling harmonics that, coupled with unerring accuracy and vocal-like tonalities, was another high point in a set filled with them.

Dave Holland Quintet, from left:
Steve Nelson, Dave Holland, Robin Eubanks, Nate Smith, Chris Potter

Nelson's a less overtly virtuosic performer, but Holland's expression said it all during the vibraphonist's solo on "Lucky Seven"—the epitome of economy, as he built a solo of gradually unfolding harmonic layers before Eubanks and Potter turned the heat up to full-blast. Potter's one lengthy solo of the set was as thrilling as ever—muscular, built on a foundation of motivic constructs that gave him latitude to build a solo of tremendous narrative value, even as he moved across his tenor's register with the kind of effortless aplomb that has made him one of his generation's most important players.

And Holland? With more solo space than usual (not that he's ever light on it, but he seemed particularly ready to play here), he not only made prefect use of the extra time to demonstrate an approach and tone that may be instantly recognizable, but is still (thankfully) an ongoing work in progress, as he pulls in his experiences in other contexts to continually build his own projects. How does a band get past its own reputation for breaking ground, to stay in it for the long haul? Well, according to the Dave Holland Quintet's exhilarating performance, it's equal measures commitment, mutual friendship and respect, and an ongoing search for new ways to mine the same context.



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