Montreal Jazz Festival 2011

John Kelman By

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June 29: Apex: Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green

If Darcy James Argue's Infernal Machines was one of the surprise hits of 2009, then saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Apex (Pi, 2010) was the equivalent in the following year. Mahanthappa—a unique altoist bringing the Indo-Pakistani tradition into a jazz context through a series of recordings with pianist Vijay Iyer, in addition to his own records including Apti (Innova, 2009), with his Indo-Pak Coalition—has helped rescue alto saxophonist Bunky Green from relative and criminal obscurity with Apex, and if there were no other reason but that, his show at Gésu would have been worth attending.

From left: Matt Mitchell, Carols De Rosa, Bunky Green, Damion Reid, Rudresh Mahanthappa

Mahanthappa's always been a cerebral writer with a penchant for quirky melodies and complex harmonies, but with Apex, he's upped the energy quotient, on a set that burns from the opening "Welcome," a modal blast where both saxophonists move in and around a turbulent underpinning, before the quintet rallies around an Indo-centric line that repeats and speeds up, hailing the start of Mahanthappa's up-tempo "Summit." The quintet opened its show with the same two tunes—the rest of the 90-minute set also culled from the album—and if the album is hot, the group's live performance was positively nuclear. Swinging with, at times, unbridled energy, Mahanthappa's group delivered music clearly inspired by the latter days of John Coltrane's classic quartet, combining modal fire with expressionistic freedom.

With only drummer Damion Reid on tour from the album (sharing the drum chair with Jack DeJohnette in the studio), Mahanthappa recruited bassist Carlos De Rosa in place of François Moutin, who's on tour with Jean-Michel Pilc, and Matt Mitchell, described by the altoist as a hidden treasure of New York, in place of Apex's higher profile pianist, Jason Moran. And he was right, as Mitchell—back largely to the audience as he faced into the group—played with a style as imbued with contemporary classical concerns as it was the jazz vernacular; a patient player who built his solos with care, eschewing the overt virtuosity that's a clear foundation, for focused construction. De Rosa—whose Cuneiform debut, Brain Dance, was released earlier in 2011 and is clearly getting him some attention—is a very different player to Moutin, though both clearly have an ability to think freely in any context. Still, his solos demonstrated both lithe dexterity and tangential thinking, finding ways to move out of the box while ultimately finding his way back in.

Of course, everything about Mahanthappa is about thinking outside the box, as he incorporated Indian microtonality into his melodies, and soloed with unfettered ferocity, bobbing up and down as he created cascade after cascade of long, flowing lines, bolstered by Reid's tumultuous support. The more diminutive Green may have been less physical than his saxophone partner, but he was just as passionate— lyrical, even, on a beautiful version of his "Little Girl I'll Miss You," written for and performed by the late Abbey Lincoln, even as this reading took greater liberties and, at times, went to unexpected, angular places.

It may have been a late night show, starting at 10:30PM, but the crowd was not just alert, it was positively invigorated, as it applauded loudly during the solos, in particular for Reid, who—with a sharp snare drum cutting through the entire group throughout the set—proved as deserving of greater recognition as Mitchell, De Rosa, Mahanthappa...and, of course, Green. A player whose respect amongst musicians has never wavered—his music performed by none other than Dave Holland, who recorded "Little Girl" both solo on Ones All (Intuition, 1995) and in duo with saxophonist Steve Coleman on Phase Space (DIW, 1994)—Green's career has clearly been revived by Mahanthappa and, based on Apex and their outstanding FIJM set, it's a match made in heaven, and one that will hopefully continue, as there's clearly plenty more potential.

June 30: Anouar Brahem Invitation: Thimar

In a rare move—if not the first time in the festival's history—FIJM managed to program its Invitation series so that one artist passed the baton to the next. Dave Holland's quintet performance, the previous night, was his second performance at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe—the first being on June 28, in duo with pianist Kenny Barron—and so his participation in the first show by the next invitee created the perfect transition.

Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem has, in the last twenty years, released a wealth of significant music for his instrument, on the ECM label, and for his three-night Invitation Series, he'll be bringing two of his more recent projects: the piano/accordion trio of Voyage De Sahar (2006); and his most recent, the percussion/bass clarinet/electric bass quartet of The Astounding Eyes of Rita (2009). But for this, his first evening at FIJM 2011, the oudist reunited one of his most critically acclaimed groups, a trio that has released just one album to date, Thimar (1998). The passing years sometimes melt away almost immediately, as a sold-out Montreal audience quickly discovered, when mutual respect, appreciation and trust are as strong and unconditional as they were between Brahem, Holland, and saxophonist/clarinetist John Surman.

In a bit of stressful last-minute craziness that is the regular experience (and bane) of festival programmers everywhere, travel delays meant that Surman touched down in Montreal an hour or so before the show, resulting in a 45-minute delay to the start of the show. But if there was any stress happening amongst a trio that was about to perform for the first time in a decade, it was internalized completely, as the 80-minute set began, creating a tranquil island in the venue, with Holland's lyrical arco and Surman's pastoral soprano. The opening piece gradually assumed shape, with Holland putting down his bow and turning to an ever-remarkable ability to build slow, gentle grooves while remaining a strong unison foil for Brahem's serpentine melodies. The oudist took his time to enter, but when he did, there was that sound— a deep, dark confluence of strings, with reverb (both from the hall and the soundboard) giving it a three- dimensional quality that filled the room, even when it was clear that Brahem was barely touching his instrument, whisper-light.

As instantly compelling as the trio was—Holland, the flexible anchor, Surman's bass clarinet a particularly strong interactive partner to Brahem's evocative oud work, as well as orbiting around his partners in empathic support—something suddenly happened, about thirty minutes into the set. In the midst of an already strong solo, imbued with a lyricism that demonstrated just how well Holland has absorbed the music of other cultures into his own vernacular, the bassist began a repetitive series of lines, liberally playing with tempo. It was as if a fire was lit, with both Surman and Brahem smiling and, looking to each other and to Holland. A change was in the air, as the trio suddenly took music that may not have been played in a decade, but was clearly still a part of its collective DNA. More than just a homecoming, this was the affirmation of a relationship honed so strongly, the first time around, that the music has remained as meaningful and filled with possibility as it was when it was first recorded, in the spring of 1997.

From left: John Surman, Dave Holland, Anouar Brahem

From that point on, the music went from peak to peak; often transcendental and, with the trio rarely breaking a sweat, evidence that great emotional power can come, sometimes, from the quietest of places, the deepest recesses of the mind and heart. As the trio revisited music from Thimar— largely written by Brahem, but with contributions from Surman and Holland also—there was a palpable sense of discovery, as each player brought individual growth of a decade to bear, pushing individual envelopes while, collectively, taking the music to places it had never gone before: music of antiquity, and decidedly Middle Eastern in its complexion; but music, also, of timeless modernity.

In the set-closer, Surman combined circular breathing and note-bending to create visceral soars and swoops, Holland responding in kind as the trio dissolved into a brief period of complete freedom— fluttering saxophone, rapid-plucked bass, and tremeloing oud—before reuniting in form to take the set out on a high note. An enthusiastic ovation and encore ended an evening that—the first of just three scheduled dates, including North Sea Jazz and Molde Jazz festivals—was memorable in more ways than one. It would have been enough, had Brahem, Surman and Holland performed well; but with a set this closely knit, where it was possible to feel that moment in time when the music suddenly leapt to another level, it was the kind of memorable concert experience of which artists and audiences often dream, but rarely achieve.

July 1: Anouar Brahem Invitation: Le Voyage De Sahar

Brahem's second Invitation series performance may not have reached quite the same transcendental high as the prior evening's show with Dave Holland and John Surman, but it came close. With a house about 80% full, Brahem presented the trio responsible for Le Pas du Chat Noir (ECM, 2002) and Le Voyage De Sahar (ECM, 2006), featuring two French artists who are no strangers to the oudist's record label: Francois Couturier, whose Un jour si blanc (ECM, 2010) continues the pianist's exploration of music inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier—who, in addition to being a member of the quartet responsible for Couturier's Nostalghia—Song for Tarkovsky (ECM, 2006), also played on clarinetist/saxophonist Louis Sclavis' Dan La Nuit (ECM, 2002). It was another evening where the compelling power of silence and subtlety trumped more overt demonstration, though everyone in the trio was an unmistakably masterful performer.

From left: François Couturier, Anouar Brahem, Jean-Louis Matinier

Interacting with Couturier and Matinier on as deep a level as he did with Holland and Surman the night before, Brahem's music for this trio leaned more to a kind of European romanticism, though he didn't desert his Tunisian roots entirely. But the compositions were less linear in nature, in no small part because every instrument in the group was capable of more orchestral harmonies. That there were no clashes anywhere during the set was a testament to each player's acute perception of his band mates, and a mature restraint that encouraged a "listen first, play later" approach.

The music ranged from the neoclassical leanings of "Vague / E la nave va," which could have easily fit in a concert by Brahem's Norwegian label mate, pianist Ketil Bjornstad, to the brighter, almost folkloric "Nuba," where Brahem's shifting of the pulse gave it a slightly idiosyncratic complexion that belied an inherent melodism that imbued the entire performance, as Brahem doubled his theme with soft, wordless singing. Effortless mastery was endemic to the performance, whether it was Brahem's relaxed but always perfect articulation, Couturier's gentle cascades of notes or Matinier's similarly lithe ability to play Puckish call-and-response. Brahem didn't exploit the possibilities of his fretless instrument often, but at one point his own smooth glissandi were matched by Matinier, on an instrument not normally disposed to note- bending.

With music that, even when it was exciting, was somehow not of its time—where everything seems to be noisy and fast-paced—Brahem clearly struck a deep chord with his audience, which wouldn't let the trio go until it had satisfied them with not one, but two encores, both separated by enthusiastic standing ovations. Ovations that were both well-deserved in an evening of music that, along with his other two Invitation series shows, contextualized Brahem in a much broader sense. Populated with numerous a capella solos, as well as passages where the trio broke down into subset duos, Brahem's merging of form and freedom in the context of genre and culture-transcending beauty was clearly the thread that ran through the three projects being presented at the festival, making his final performance, with his current The Astounding Eyes of Rita band, one to be as eagerly anticipated as the other two shows in his Invitation series.



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