Montreal Jazz Festival Day 5, Part Two: July 2, 2007

John Kelman By

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Arriving in Montreal for the second week of the 2007 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, it took only a few minutes to be swept back up into the vibe that makes this North America's best jazz festival and one of the top music spectacles around the globe. With six square blocks in the downtown core closed off, more than fifteen ticketed shows and countless free shows beginning at noon each day and running through to the early hours of the morning, the only frustration is that it's not possible to catch everything.

Still, Day Five provided an opportunity to attend two performances—one, a welcome return after far too many years; the other, a collaboration by a group of artists brought together by one record label and, while artists in their own rights, delivering a stylistically diverse and musically challenging show that provided the Montreal audience a taste of the kind of stylistic cross-pollination that's de rigueur at Norway's annual Punkt Festival.

Chapter Index
  1. Allan Holdsworth Group
  2. Jazzland Community with Bugge Wesseltoft
Allan Holdsworth Group

He may be a guitar legend, but in recent years Allan Holdsworth has nearly disappeared off the map despite being one of the most distinctive players and composers of the past four decades—an artist who is often emulated but never copied. If one way to judge artists' worth is by how quickly recognizable they are by sound alone, Holdsworth ranks at the very top. From the first notes of his 10:00 PM performance at Spectrum de Montreal—an institution that, tragically, is being torn down after the conclusion of the 2007 festival—not only did Holdsworth make his unique presence known, but he made it clear that he's back with a vengeance. There are those who, in recent years, have criticized Holdsworth's evolved legato approach as losing its edge, but during his two 45-minute sets with longtime collaborators Jimmy Johnson on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums, he delivered solo after solo of endless invention and, at times, unbridled power on complex material of such stunning harmonic depth that, while the reception was tremendous, during the quiet portions of the set you could, indeed, hear a pin drop.

The audience was captivated by the group's performance of material that spans Holdsworth's career from his short time in the mid-1970s with the New Tony Williams Lifetime to his own The Sixteen Men of Tain (Gnarly Geezer, 2000). Opening with a relaxed Chad Wackerman tune from the drummer's Forty Reasons (CMP, 1991), Johnson took the first solo of the night, demonstrating the kind of imagination and focus that explains why he's such a busy player with, Holdsworth aside, artists ranging from singer/songwriter James Taylor to trumpeter Chris Botti and recently departed icon, pianist/vocalist Ray Charles. The perfect melodic foil for Holdsworth, he's also a rock solid anchor, capable of keeping things completely in-the-pocket with Wackerman while, at the same time, responding with unfailing élan to Holdsworth's challenging constructs.

Wackerman, an equally virtuosic and responsive drummer who has worked with everyone from guitarist Frank Zappa to trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and singer Barbra Streisand, was uncanny in his ability to work adroitly around his exceptionally well-tuned kit. Powering the groove behind Holdsworth's enduring "Fred" and "Devil Take the Hindmost," he delivered solos that, while brimming with ideas, remained focused and surprisingly melodic for a drummer working in the fusion sphere, his duo with Holdsworth in the middle of the latter song being one highlight of a show filled with memorable moments.

While Holdsworth has participated in a collaborative group with Wackerman, keyboardist Alan Pasqua and bassist Jimmy Haslip, releasing the superb DVD Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip (Altitude Digital, 2007), it's with this longstanding trio that the guitarist has the greatest opportunity to explore and expand his inimitable compositions. Wackerman and Johnson are locked in with Holdsworth at the deepest of levels, creating a group sound that, while capable of extreme energy, is equally disposed to subtleties and nuance rare in a fusion context.

Holdsworth, whose fluid legato runs have influenced more than one generation of guitarists, has acquired a greater edge recently. While the warmth and vocal-like delivery were still in place, so too was a return to a more incisive and aggressive, even visceral, attack. He executed lines of such staggering dexterity and intervallic breadth that, even to someone familiar with his work, it was often difficult to believe one's own eyes and ears. Lightning fast lines that ascended with a purpose and cascaded in gravity-defying streams, he also proved himself a textural player. "Madame Vintage," first heard on the Soft Machine offshoot Soft Works' Abracadabra (Tone Center, 2003) as a relatively short duet between Holdsworth and drummer John Marshall, became an extended group tour de force closer to the first set, which went from abstraction to groove, from the ethereal to the deeply grounded. Throughout, Holdsworth shifted his tone from almost cello-like to thick swells and rich chordal passages, filling the hall, the sounds swirling around and seemingly coming from everywhere.

Throughout the performance Holdsworth seemed genuinely taken aback by the emphatic reception. When one fan yelled out "Thank you for coming!" he responded, "Thank you for having us." Later, when another audience member shouted "Thanks Allan!" the guitarist—who has always been his own worst critic— replied, "Let's see if I can screw this one up as well." While it's impossible to know how he felt about last night's performance, based on the audience's complete attention and unrestrained enthusiasm, Holdsworth's return to greater visibility, in no small part due to the efforts of MoonJune Records owner Leonardo Pavkovic, is not only welcome, it's essential. It's time that Holdsworth, now in his early sixties, regain the wider acclaim he enjoyed earlier in his career. With the empathic and collaborative Johnson and Wackerman—Holdsworth's group of choice for many years—a rigorous touring schedule, and the reissue of a number of long out-of-print releases, the next couple of years should prove very interesting to watch.

Jazzland Community with Bugge Wesseltoft

For a country of 4.5 million people, the wealth of artistic diversity coming out of Norway is almost unprecedented. Labels like ECM have been exploring the wellspring of music coming from the Scandinavian country for over thirty years, but there are also a number of Norwegian labels that are pushing the boundaries of improvised music. Keyboardist/producer Bugge Wesseltoft's Jazzland label, in particular, has taken the concept of electronica/ambient-centric Nu Jazz to another level, introducing conceptual and philosophical elements that, while well- known in Europe, are sadly underexposed in North America.

Still, for many years Wesseltoft and some of his Jazzland artists, including guitarist Eivind Aarset, singer Sidsel Endresen, Wibutee saxophonist Hakon Kornstad and drummer Wette Holte, and bassist Marius Reksjo have been coming to Montreal under a variety of contexts both solo and collective. Celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2006, Jazzland Community brought these six artists together for a series of individual performances sequenced so that they largely segued seamlessly from one to the next, culminating with everyone on stage for a finale that was boldly dramatic in its blend of understatement and expressionism. As Wesseltoft explained at the start of the group's midnight show at Club Soda, the performance represented a number of new things that each artist was working on, giving the performance something of a laboratory feel, but nevertheless a powerful and captivating show that the Montreal audience was privileged to see and hear.

That technology can be integrated organically with traditional instruments was established immediately with Wesseltoft's opening solo performance. Beginning on piano, developing vivid themes, he was, at the same time, sampling his playing so that he could ultimately begin processing the samples and feeding them back, creating a foundation for further exploration. He even added processing to the mix, taking the stark, economical piano work and, by applying a generous amount of reverb, creating a sudden swell that expanded the sound outwards. A true innovator, Wesseltoft is an artist who sees limitless potential in the expansion of the musical palette, making his relatively brief solo set a strong introduction to the concepts that would be augmented by the other performers as the set progressed.

Wesseltoft ended his segment with a cushion of sound that allowed Aarset, Reksjo and Holte to gradually take the stage and shift the emphasis to more groove-driven music that, for all its potent rhythm, remained dark, brooding yet evocative of expansive vistas. Almost the polar opposite of Holdsworth, Aarset's music is as much (if not more) about texture and ambience than definable melodies, though themes do emerge. Holdsworth is unquestionably a textural player as well, but Aarset's amplification of the sonic possibilities of the guitar, often sounding like anything and everything but a guitar, positions him as an innovator who, though he may not have the sheer chops of Holdsworth, is to be reckoned with. And while there were plenty of atmospherics, firm foundations did appear at times, if only to disappear again into the ether.

Konrstad joined Aarset's trio towards the end of the guitarist's segment, gradually taking the reins until he was left alone on stage, delivering an all-acoustic solo tenor performance demonstrating that the innovations taking place in Norway extend well beyond the marriage of technology and tradition. Two pieces reflected Kornstad's ability to not only create percussive bursts and harsh, almost Ayler-like cathartics, but great beauty as well. The latter part of his set was devoted to a unique multiphonic ability, as he created a folk-like chordal foundation for melodies that he'd alternate so naturally that momentum was retained despite his rapid shifts from soft chords to powerful linear phrases.

The only non-segue of the set was when Kornstad left the stage and Endresen entered. Endresen's experiments with the seemingly limitless potential of a single voice was a highlight of the 2006 Punkt Festival and documented on One (Sofa, 2007). Here she began with a strong, folkloric melody that was stark but beautiful. As the piece developed, she introduced a series of conversational phrases, interspersed with stutters and quirky stop-starts. But this was only the beginning. As with One, her voice gradually took on a more abstract quality, creating guttural gestures and tones that one would think were electronically generated if it weren't clear that she was doing it all with just her voice. Her ability to rapidly articulate the most extreme percussive, gutteral and high pitched sounds was simply remarkable.

Endresen began her enduring "Western Wind," from Undertow (Jazzland, 2000), alone, but was gradually joined by Aarset, Reksjo, Holte, Kornstad and Wesseltoft for a version that was even better than the one on the recording. An unusual juxtaposition of bleakness and beauty, it was an immensely powerful group performance, despite the spare and abstract soundscape. The concert ended with another group piece that delved deeper into rhythm and texture, building to a climax that left the audience demanding more. The Community was happy to comply, though the enthusiastic crowd made it clear that it would have been happy to stay all night, as long as Jazzland Community kept playing. Wesseltoft's Jazzland Community may have left its audience hungry for more, but the good news is that the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal has always been a strong supporter of the Norwegian scene, so even though the crowd ultimately had to leave, they could do so content in the knowledge that these artists will undoubtedly be back again for future festivals.

Tomorrow: Le Grand Evenement General Motors, featuring Seun Kuti & Egypt '80.

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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