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Montreal Jazz Festival: Day 1, Thursday, June 28th, 2007


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"Bienvenue au festival, Welcome to the festival. May I please check your bag? So began the experience at this, the 28th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

Luckily, your faithful correspondent was not trying to hustle in beer bottles or any other unauthorized spirits, although the excitement did account for a slight stutter of step. After all, this year's festival ranks among the largest yet, boasting 500 concerts, both free and charged, that include a staggering 3000 musicians from 30 countries.

Over the next 11 days, many of the biggest names in music will descend upon this fair city, seeking to dazzle locals and tourists alike with their creative wares. Jazz luminaries like Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Roy Haynes and John Abercrombie are all expected to make appearances, along with countless legends from other realms, such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Cesaria Evora.

But perhaps most notable among all of the festival's guests is guitarist Mike Stern, this year's Miles Davis Award recipient for excellence in jazz, and host of the first leg of the Invitation Series. Over the next five nights, Stern will perform with a variety friends and collaborators, in the cozy confines of Théâtre Jean- Duceppe, before handing over the reigns to bassist Richard Bona, for second leg hosting duties. Look to Day 5 of this coverage, when both Stern and Bona share the stage with trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

Also worth mentioning is the festival site. Those of you who have yet to attend the jazzfest might find it hard to believe that the city hands over three square blocks of prime downtown real estate for the celebrations. Well, believe it. For this edition, the site includes no less than nine outdoor venues for free concerts, and over a dozen indoor spaces for paid performances. Add to this a panoply of merchandise tents, food and beverage kiosks, listening booths, and a play-place for kids, and you get a pretty good sense of the unique atmosphere created.

Anyway, that just about does it for the preamble. Now on to the music!

First up on Day 1 was a 6pm performance by the jazz world's newest super-group, Trio Beyond. Consisting of John Scofield on guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Larry Goldings on keyboards, the band was formed last year in tribute to the music of drummer Tony Williams, and more specifically his acclaimed fusion trio, Lifetime. Since then, they've released a CD, Saudades (ECM), and toured extensively through Europe and North America.

L-R: Larry Goldings, Jack DeJohnette and John Scofield

Set in the smallish Théâtre Maisonneuve, there could hardly have been a better venue for this concert. The air was charged with anticipation as the group took the stage, both Scofield and DeJohnette being familiar (and very popular) faces to the festival, and fusion acts a steady favorite of Montrealers.

The opening number, Woody Shaw's "If , immediately gave the audience a sign of swing to come. The trio carved it's way through the tune with unrelenting energy—all three parts perfectly attuned to each other. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have DeJohnette at the rhythmic helm: the proverbial glue that never gets unstuck.

From there, they went on offer a medley of songs strung through the title track of their recording, "Saudades , as well as memorable versions of Ornette Coleman's "Invisible , Woody Shaw's "Moontrane , and Scofield's own, "Flower Power . Throughout the two 45-minute sets, all three men were found at the height of their games, reminding the audience of why each is considered among the finest on their respective instruments.

What was perhaps most intriguing about the show was the interplay between the band on stage and the band to which they were paying homage. Here were three musicians with firmly established musical identities, paying tribute to three other musicians with legendary personalities of their own. The pollination between the two sides made for a peculiar type of magic, unmistakable to those in attendance. The same could be said of Don Byron's Ivey-Divey Trio (a tribute to the famous Lester Young Trio of the mid-1940s) at last year's festival. Invariably, one feels carried into a strange realm that straddles two separate times. Pure poetry...

By the time the house lights went up, there was just enough time to cross the Place-des-Arts pavilion to the next show on the docket—Congo Square: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Yacub Eddy and Odadaa. It being the official festival opener, the concert was held in Salle Wilfred-Pelletier— far and away the largest hall on the site. In fact, with its immense stage and four full balconies, the venue can sometimes dwarf a performance, especially that of smaller ensembles. But in this case, with Wynton, his orchestra, and a large troupe of Ghanaian percussionists, the space seemed almost tailor-made.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Yacub Eddy and Odadaa

Before the concert began, festival founders Alain Simard and André Ménard took the stage for the usual words of welcome and introductions. The show was to mark the 25th anniversary of Marsalis' first visit to the festival, in 1982. As their speech tailed off, from behind the dimly lit stage could be heard the echo of a single trumpet. Slowly, the sound approached, until Marsalis finally appeared, followed by nearly three dozen accompanying musicians. Once each member had squeezed onto the stage, they broke into the parade romp, "Ring Shout , the opening track from their soon-to-be-released CD, Congo Square.

The performance that followed was worthy of opening night. Marsalis, who is often criticized for his strict adherence to traditional forms of jazz, was for the first time in memory offering a show that ventures somewhat off the straight-rails. As it turned out, the coupling of sounds was quite effective. While the Lincoln Center Orchestra ran down its usual set of swinging numbers, their Ghanaian counterparts wove a lush percussive base and bright vocal harmonies.

If there was one thing that caught the eyes and ears as strange, however, it was that Marsalis himself was hardly to be heard. Mostly, he spent his time conducting the two sides through highly precise arrangements. Other than the opening lead, he was only found at the horn once in the first set, and only for a short, albeit skillful solo. One had to wonder whether the sheer complexity of leading such a large group was to answer for this lack of playing. Or could it be explained by the rumored split lip that forced a cancellation of his concert at the festival three years ago? Or worse still, perhaps it was indigestion, brought on by the notorious 'festival dogs', sold at grills throughout the site? Who could say? Whatever the case, the concert proved among Marsalis' finest here in Montreal, and a wise choice for the opener...

L-R: Dave Holland, Robin Eubanks and Chris Potter

To cap off Day 1, your trusty correspondent made his way for a 10pm date with the Dave Holland Quintet. Unfortunately, this proved easier said than done, as the first night of the jazzfest usually means the first of three free outdoor mega-shows. This year, the theme was Brazilian Carnival, with special guest Carlinhos Brown. Nearly 100,000 revelers packed the streets heading east and north from the main outdoor stage, making movement a serious challenge.

By the time the venue for the Holland gig was reached, one was thankful for the fact that it was Le Spectrum—a showbar rather than concert hall. After all that surfing through crowds, a few beers would hit the spot. Which is to say nothing of one of the finest ensembles in jazz. Well, as it turned out, both were as refreshing as expected. The beer was cold and the Holland quintet was hot hot hot.

As an annual fixture in the festival, the band enjoys a solid following among festival goers. But as predictable as their presence here is, it is rare to enjoy them in such an intimate atmosphere.

Unlike the two previous shows of the evening, this was a group with a long history with together. As a result, music was characterized by an openness and interplay that few other bands can rival. Song after song, different members of the band took impossibly long solos (sometimes spanning what seemed like ten choruses), entered into realms of groove that could make the hair on the back of your knees stand straight up, and struck collective chords with remarkable ease.

Quite frankly, there isn't a whole lot else to say, except that the whole place was alight.

Waddling back home to bed, it seemed incredible to think that three separate acts could have hit such high praise. What a first day. It was nothing short of an embarrassment of riches. Looking up at the midnight sky, a full moon smiled down. That explained it.

Tomorrow: The Wayne Shorter Quartet, the Erik Truffaz Quartet, with Ed Harcourt, and fun in the SIMM guitar tent. See you then!

Photo Credits

Outdoor Photo: Riel Lazarus
Performance Photos: Rogan Coles

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5-1 | Day 5-2 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11

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