Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 1-3 July 1-3, 2009

Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 1-3 July 1-3, 2009
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-9

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
July 1-3, 2009

It's the 30th Anniversary for the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) and, based on the stellar line-up, it promises to surpass its 25th Anniversary celebration from 2004. Opening with one of the outdoor street festivals for which it's become world renown, over 200,000 people attended a free pre-festival concert by the legendary Stevie Wonder on June 30, 2009. With 12 days of ticketed indoor and free outdoor programming, including eight more spectacles including the Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae extravaganza on July 7 and a closing show featuring Ben Harper and Relentless 7 on July 12, it may not be entirely jazz, but it's a festival that long ago deserted purity in favor of a trifecta of jazz, world music and blues.

And there's still more than enough jazz to go around. With a roster that includes By Invitation series guests Erik Truffaz, Joshua Redman and Renaud Garcia-Fons, as well as single performances by artists ranging from Jeff Beck, Dave Brubeck, Bill Frisell, Kenny Werner and Jimmy Cobb to Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Hadouk Trio and Greg Osby, not to mention local representation by André Leroux, Joel Miller and Jean Pierre Zanella and much, much more. There's something for everyone.

All in all, 35 series, featuring performances on almost every day amounts to over 400 performances by thousands of artists. And with the festival's new digs—a new Maison du Festival that features, in addition to a larger and much more well-designed press room, a bistro that will house the nightly jam sessions led, this year, by drummer Jim Doxas, and a new concert venue that will seat 350 and accommodate 600 standing, the festival finally has the home it's deserved for years. There's also a large terrace that integrates with the outdoor grounds of Place des Arts, one of the festival's most prominent venues, to make ground zero of the FIJM an even more exciting place to be, in addition to the six square blocks that are closed in the heart of downtown Montreal every year for the festival. It's like being on another planet, but one that's now expanded in size. Chapter Index
  1. July 1: Erik Truffaz By Invitation: Benares
  2. July 1: The Monterey 4: Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Eric Harland
  3. July 2: Erik Truffaz By Invitation: Mexico
  4. July 2: Sadao Watanabe
  5. July 2: Nightly Jam Session with Jim Doxas Trio
  6. July 3: Sylvain Provost Effendi Records Press Launch
  7. July 3: Erik Truffaz By Invitation: Paris
  8. July 3: Aaron Parks Trio

July 1: Erik Truffaz By Invitation: Benares

Swiss-born, France-based trumpeter Erik Truffaz has been a friend of not just the FIJM, but the city of Montreal for many years, performing during and outside the time of the festival almost since he first emerged in the late-'90s with albums including Bending New Corners (Blue Note, 1999). Over the past decade the trumpeter has released a wide range of projects with which to explore his often electronics-tinged style, with the double-disc live set Face-a-Face (Blue Note, 2006) a terrific consolidation of two groups that occupied most of his time until that point.

Since then, Truffaz has been expanding his horizons further on the more pop-centric Arkhangelsk (Blue Note, 2007), but it's his three-CD set Rendez-Vous (Paris -Benares -Mexico) (Blue Note, 2008)—each disc also available separately—that may be his most accomplished and diverse work to date. Featuring three sessions recorded in three locales with groups of local musicians—Benares, Mexico and Paris—it ranges from Indo-centric improvisation to ambient electronica and rap-driven improv. With FIJM's By Invitation series based on the idea of inviting artists to the festival for a series of evenings where a different performance is given each night, Truffaz's three-night invite dovetails perfectly with the three premises of Rendezvous.

For his first night, Truffaz brought his Benares group to the intimate Gesú Centre de Créativité—Indian singer Indrani and tablaist Apurba Mukherjee, as well as Brazilian pianist Malcolm Braff—for a 75-minute set that may have drawn on the music from the CD, but in performance was stretched out considerably, with pieces often running as long as 20 minutes, as the trumpeter explored the nexus of Indian rhythms and linear melodism with Western harmonies, all in a spirited improvisational context.

Truffaz, Braff and Mukherjee came onstage first for an instrumental piece that set the tone for the entire performance. Truffaz's less-is-more style, with a tone that was often breathy, but became sharp at times as he demonstrated a broad range on his instrument, gave only occasional clear indicators of his greater virtuosity, instead choosing to focus on the demands of the music, with occasional injections of subtle, but palette-expanding electronics. Braff leaned mainly towards and equally lyrical style, consonant accompaniment adding an uncharacteristic harmonic aspect to this largely melody-driven music, while Mukherjee proved an impressive tablaist, capable of working with the group in ways as often understate as they were, at other times, more fervent.

The music raised a notch when Indrani took the stage, her singing lending the performance a vibe not unlike percussionist Trilok Gurtu's early CMP records like Usfret (1988) and Living Magic (1991), though this group's writing was far less complex, avoiding the irregular meters so definitive of Gurtu. Still, Mukherjee—who delivered some staggering konnakol vocal percussion—demonstrated a remarkable ability to subdivide rhythms in an impressive solo that was on of the high points of the set.

It was, however, only one highlight. Truffaz's solos were short and to the point, but worked a remarkable chemistry with Braff and especially Mukherjee, though he was equally engaged with Indrani, whose vocals ranged from boldly dramatic to gently melancholy, often within the space of a single tune. The capacity crowd was clearly engaged, with a standing ovation at the end of the set demanding an encore from the group, who delivered a brief, five minute piece because of the necessity to clear the stage in preparation for the 10:30 PM Jazz Dans La Nuit series.

July 1: The Monterey 4: Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Eric Harland

Despite the dominating presence of bass icon Dave Holland, The Monterey 4—named for its first performance at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival and soon to be released as Live at the 2007 Jazz Festival (Concord, 2009)—is a democratic project featuring original material written for the quartet by all four members—Holland, longtime musical parter/saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Eric Harland. Still, Holland acted as MC for the quartet's performance at Théâtre Maisonneuve, the second largest of Place des Arts' five concert venues, introducing every tune in his usual graceful manner.

Graceful he may have been, but the performance was largely about fire and passion, especially from Potter and Harland, who kept the energy level at maximum for most of the 100-minute set, burning through Live's eight tunes. The increasingly ubiquitous Harland, who'll be dividing his time between this group and Charles Lloyd's quartet this summer, was on fire, pushing the group during Potter's visceral solos and Rubalcaba's equally flexible but at times more harmonically abstract features, while at the same time delivering in-the-pocket grooves—regardless of complex metric shifts— with Holland. But it was in his solos, especially on Potter's closing, Middle Eastern-tinged "Ask Me Why," where the drummer literally brought down the house with fluid ideas and unbridled power.

Montreal audiences are known for their attention and energy, and the capacity for The Monterey 4's show was clearly giving something back to the group. Potter is one of the few saxophonists on the scene who can manage long-form soloing, creating multiple mini-climaxes throughout, as he mines motifs to lead up to a peak ending. What's made Potter one of the most important (and in-demand) saxophonists of his generation is his ability to avoid signature lines, making every solo fresh and inventive, equally demonstrated on his own recent release with his Underground group, Ultrahang (ArtistShare, 2009).

Rubalcaba may have run the risk of being slightly overshadowed by the effervescent Potter, but on his own dark ballad, "Otra Mirada," he proved himself every bit as imaginative, with a composition that was lyrical, but in a less-than-predictable fashion. His solo was the perfect combination of elegance, abstraction and nuanced authority, while elsewhere on Harland's burning modal opening, "Treachery," he played with sinewy muscle. Despite The Monterey 4 being far from the pianist's Cuban roots, his playing lent even the most distanced writing the slightest hint of Afro-Cuban-centricity.

Holland may have taken few solos but was a dominant presence throughout, as he is in his own groups. His writing for The Monterey 4 isn't exactly a surprise—detailed charts with plenty of shifting meters, all couched within a groove whose complexity is masked by its effortlessly physical nature—but he continues to create outstanding jumping points for whatever band he's in. With his quintet and big band not exactly on hiatus, but working less as he tours with this group and his new Overtone Quartet (where Rubalcaba is replaced by Jason Moran), Holland is back to the smallest ensemble he's had since Dream of the Elders (ECM, 1995), and also appears to have fallen in love with the piano, only recently recording under his own name with a pianist for the first time in his career on Pass It On (Dare2, 2008).

Pushing the audience hard for 90 minutes, with hoots, hollers and loud applause greeting most solos, the instantaneous standing ovation meant a well-deserved encore for a group that, despite the more subdued approach of Holland's "Veil of Tears," couldn't avoid simmering to a near boil during Potter's solo. A smoking performance by a terrific line-up of players, The Monterey 4's FIJM performance is an early contender for one of the 30th Anniversary's best shows.
July 2: Erik Truffaz By Invitation: Mexico

For the second night of his By Invitation series, trumpeter Erik Truffaz recreated the ambient electronics of the Mexico disc from his Rendez-Vous three-CD set. A sharp contrast to the largely acoustic performance the night prior, the trumpeter once again collaborated with Mexican sound sculptor Fernando Corona, aka Murcof to create an aural landscape that ranged from dark-hued and static to energetically propulsive.

The set would have been more than sufficient with just Truffaz and Murcof, as the opening duo piece made clear, but with tablaist Apurba Mukherjee still in town after the Benares performance, the trumpeter chose to add him to the mix, making it a far more rhythmic affair—not to mention providing Murcoff with another sound source to sample, process and feed back into the mix. Not unlike the kind of innovatively seamless integration of conventional instrumentation and electronics being made in Norway by artists including Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang, Truffaz, Murcof and Mukherjee brought their own complexion to a meaty stew of lyrical melodies with no uncertain reference to the jazz vernacular, broad sonic washes that ranged from recognizable to invented sounds, and the appealing, near-vocal expressiveness of the tablas—and Mukherjee's konnakol vocal percussion.

Truffaz processed his trumpet more extensively than the previous evening, with delay, reverb, harmonizer and even a bit of distortion, in addition to unorthodox techniques and an acoustic tone that ranged from breathy to tart. During a Middle Eastern-tinged segment halfway through the 80-minute set, Truffaz began to approach some of the imaginative embouchure variations of Henriksen, Jon Hassell and Nils Petter Molvaer, where his horn adopted even greater vocal expressiveness; but for the most part his tone was clean and pure, with strong melodies and occasional leaps into more unfettered serpentine flight. A player with impressive technique and an open mind that has seen him explore a wide range of contexts over the past decade, Truffaz was always in service of the music, using space as an equal partner and avoiding any kind of superfluous displays.

Murcof, armed with a laptop, sampler and small keyboard, appeared as static as some of the more ambient music; but he remained as visually unmoving during the more propulsive segments, which at times approached techno territory (but, with Mukherjee's tablas, never quite made the leap) and even, during the trio's encore, a touch of reggae. With more rhythms to choose from, and more colors on his palette, Murcof turned Mexico into a more elastic and eclectic set than the previous evening, using the material from the CD as a starting point—in particular the dynamically expansive "Al Mediodia," that opens the CD. He also turned, along with his trio mates, into something more than what the CD represented. Improvisation was a large part of the picture, and while certain markers, like the tune's repetitive three-note descending line, remained definitive and referential, the trio took the music to places not heard on disc.

But it may well have been Mukherjee who stole the show, based on the reaction of the packed house. It's sometimes difficult to discern, since high energy percussion solos seem to reach into some kind of primitive Jungian place to evoke great response, but what was most impressive about Mukherjee was his open-minded approach that took two instruments—tabla and voice—and used them in far more unpredictable ways than with the undeniably fine but more stylistically focused Benares show. Turning his tabla upside down and using the body as an alternate source of sound, and bringing the konnakol tradition into the 21st century with some surprising variations on its already remarkable ability to subdivide any rhythm with seemingly endless variety made his contribution to the performance and Benares project distinct and defining.

With both Benares and Mexico performances exhilarating and creative, it raised the bar even higher for Truffaz's third By Invitation performance, Paris to close his series on the following evening.
July 2: Sadao Watanabe

Now on the far side of his eighth decade on the planet and sixth as a performing artist, Japanese saxophonist/flautist Sadao Watanabe has led a near-double life. He's worked, throughout his career, in mainstream contexts with artists including Gabor Szabo, Chico Hamilton, Hank Jones, the recently deceased Charlie Mariano—of whom he made specific mention at his FIJM show—and Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose recent performance was a highlight of the 2009 Ottawa Jazz Festival. He's also spent considerable time mining more contemporary, groove-laden material, both as a leader who continues to mentor generations of young Japanese musicians, and with artists including Lee Ritenour. For his performance at the 30th edition of FIJM, he leaned more to the contemporary side of the equation, with an impressive group of young Japanese musicians that also included an expat Senegalese percussionist.

Dancing around the stage like a man a few decades younger, his set did briefly reference more straight-ahead concerns, but for the most part it was fiery, funky grooves that provided grist for solos by his pianist, guitarist and bassist—not to mention Watanabe himself, who played soprano and tenor saxophones, as well as flute on a handful of tunes that were amongst the show's best. His sextet was accomplished, if not a little generic, which made introducing them as some of Japan's finest musicians somewhat questionable. There was no shortage of prodigious chops and clear references, with Watanabe's bassist clearly channeling Marcus Miller, especially during his impressive but somewhat predictable solo. But Watanabe's use of both a drummer and percussionist—something that can work but also has an inherent potential for train wrecks if the two don't stay out of each other's way—resulted in an often overly busy rhythm section filled with youthful exuberance but oftentimes in great need of breathing space.

Watanabe was a charming front man, with a pleasant demeanor and solid connection with the three-quarters full house in Place des Arts' Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, but at the end of the day while his group wasn't lacking in talent, there was little to distinguish them from the plethora of groove-based jazz musicians on the international scene. Watanabe may be an icon in his native country and rightfully so, but in a global context he'll more than likely go down in the history books as a solid, if not particularly distinctive, musician, best known for his associations rather than his own work.
July 2: Nightly Jam Session with Jim Doxas Trio

Every year FIJM runs a highly successful late night jam session, and for the past few years it's been hosted by pianist John Roney, with bassist Zack Lober and drummer Jim Doxas—one of Canada's most impressive (if not the most impressive) drummers. Roney is extremely busy this summer touring his Silverbirch Project, which gave an outstanding performance in Ottawa on June 29, as well as squeezing in some dates with bassist Alain Caron and saxophonist Jean-Christoph Beney}, so while he will appear on some nights as part of the core trio hosting FIJM's jam session, this year it's Doxas leading the trio.

With the new festival home, across the street from Place des Arts, not quite complete but largely functional with a new 350 seat venue and massively expanded press room, the jam sessions have moved from their old home at the Hyatt Regency to the Bistro de la Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, a much more intimate and comfortable locale. Once the crowds and musicians begin to arrive it turns into the place to be once the evening performances at the indoor venues and outdoor stages have finished.

With Lober off in New York, Doxas' trio is completely revamped but equally impressive, featuring up-and-coming bassist Remi-Jean LeBlanc and more established pianist Jeff Johnston, who has recorded and performed with a number of outstanding artists over the years including Kenny Wheeler and, more recently, Dave Liebman, with whom he's recorded a duet disc pending release. He's also playing in Montreal's Upstairs Club with vocal legend Sheila Jordan as part of the festival's Les Soirées Jazz Upstairs series on July 3, so he does get around.

The jam sessions run each night from 11:00 PM through to 3:00 AM the following morning, and have been the place to see musicians congregate from their own performances to let loose and have a little fun. The core trio opens each night with a short set of standards, with their July 2 set including a bright take of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" that, in addition to fine solos from Johnston and LeBlanc, demonstrated Doxas' increasing significance as a drummer—a particularly empathic accompanist whose eyes and ears are always on his band mates regardless of context, and a loose, interpretive soloist whose drum sound is as distinctive as his melodic and polyrhythmic ideas.

In past years guests have included Esperanza Spalding, who was touring with Joe Lovano at the time and was already creating a stir that's only been increasing as her own career has taken off. As for who will appear each night? There's no way of knowing, but the one thing that is predictable is Doxas' world class trio, hosting the jam sessions with the prerequisite knowledge of a broad jazz repertoire so that it can support anyone who comes their way.
July 3: Sylvain Provost Effendi Records Press Launch

One of Canada's best kept secrets, guitarist Sylvain Provost has been an increasingly significant presence on the Montreal scene since first emerging at the 1981 FIJM at the age of 21. Désirs Démodés is his third release for the Montreal-based jazz label Effendi Records, and so with a new, performance-capable room as part of the festival's much expanded and improved Press Room in its new home, the label put on a press launch for the guitarist's new release, that also featured a brief live performance to introduce Provost to some of the literally hundreds of media people at the festival from around the world.

Provost is an easy-on-the-ears amalgam of a number of references that include Pat Metheny's overt lyricism, George Benson's unmistakable soulfulness, and the dark, woody tone of Kenny Burrell. With his new trio, featuring double-bassist Guy Boisvet and drummer Alain Boyer, Provost brief set focused on original compositions from Désirs Démodés that gave Provost plenty of room to maneuver, demonstrating a capable command of thoughtful melodism, refined voicings and an ability to combine the two into a self-accompanying approach that gave the trio a larger voice. Entrenched in the modern mainstream, Provost group proved as capable of gentle balladry as it was solid swing.

The beauty of FIJM is its tremendous roster of talent known and unknown, established and up-and-coming, with nearly 10 outdoor stages for free concerts that dovetail with the festival's many indoor venues for ticketed shows. For an artist like talented Provost, in a time where CD sales are at best hovering, at worst dwindling, the chance to be heard not only by a large audience of fans who travel to the festival from around the world, but by so much international media, is a rare, almost unparalleled opportunity. With five public performances in addition to the Effendi press launch, hopefully a wider audience will cotton onto what Montreal jazz fans have know for nearly 30 years.
July 3: Erik Truffaz By Invitation: Paris

For his final By Invitation series performance, trumpeter Erik Truffaz brought beatbox master Sly Johnson to recreate the music of Rendez-Vous' third disc, Paris. But like his expansion of personnel for his Mexico performance the previous night, he again augmented the duo, this time with powerhouse drummer Philippe Garcia. With all three shows now over, Mexico may have been the most intrepidly experimental and impressive night, but Paris was, far and away, the most entertaining—and a significant improvement over the already fine studio verson.

That's not to say Paris wasn't without risk or in search of new ideas, but it was the most structured show of the three, where there was often clear song form, especially on a distinctive version of The Beatles' classic "Come Together," one of two duet pieces with just Truffaz and Robinson that opened the set prior to Garcia taking the stage.

Truffaz, over the course of the three concerts, proved himself to be a broad-minded and stylistically unfettered performer, composer and improviser. And for those who view him as removed from the jazz tradition (despite demonstrating many clear linguistic references, even in the most distanced contexts), his gorgeous version of Eden Ahbez's classic "Nature Boy" made clear that he may have left the mainstream behind, but it's still an unequivocal part of who he is. Whether processing his horn, using it to create odd, non-trumpet textures acoustically, or adopting a purer tone, Truffaz's voice has proven distinct and recognizable, even across the three radically different environments he created at theBy Invitation series.

Beatboxing is an almost unfathomable technique that uses the human voice to emulate not only percussion, but bass and other instruments—and in the hands of Robinson, clearly one of the best beatboxers on the planet, it became even more expansive as he imitated turntables, otherworldly electronics and more. Like Truffaz, real electronics were also part of the picture as he sampled himself in real time to create loops and triggered programmed samples of vocal choruses. But as impressive as his command of the technology was, his unadorned voice remained the most remarkable as he both stretched the limits of its potential and, at times, soulfully sang real melodies with real lyrics. He was also a tremendously charismatic stage presence, and his rapport with Truffaz and Garca was not just visible, but palpable as well.

Garcia also triggered a variety of programs and altered the sound of his drums, but like his bandmates, he proved that his seamless integration of technology was simply a means of augmenting his unmistakable strength as a drummer. Interacting with Robinson—at one point, Truffaz left the stage for a beatbox/drums solo of incredible invention and near unrelenting power—Garcia was not only a potent groove-meister, but an interactive participant who made his instrument's potential as limitless as that of Robinson and Truffaz.

"Mr. Wyatt," dedicated to ex-Soft Machine drummer/vocalist/cornetist and now singer/songwriter Robert Wyatt—whose Comicopera (Domino) was one of 2007's best releases—was one of many highlights of the 80-minute set, as was its reggae-inflected encore. That encore was a repeat from the previous night's show, but in a radically different context acted as further demonstration of Truffaz's barrier-breaking approach.

Humor was also a component, especially towards the end of the set and in the encore, where Robinson adopted his best MC voice to introduce the group. Once again, the capacity crowd at the beautiful and acoustically inviting Gesú Centre de Créativité gave the trio a well-deserved standing ovation. For those who attended the entire series, it was a chance to hear Truffaz take the essential qualities of Rendez-Vous and turn them into something bigger and, ultimately, better.
July 3: Aaron Parks Trio

Since emerging in his late teens with mentor Terence Blanchard, appearing on the trumpeter's outstanding Flow (Blue Note, 2005) ambitious A Tale of God's Will (Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007) , as well as live shows including a powerful performance at the 2005 Ottawa Jazz Festival, pianist Aaron Parks' star has been on the rise. His debut as a leader, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008), deservingly hit many reviewers' "best of" lists for the year, proving that mentoring works. Parks, now in his mid-twenties, has rapidly evolved a personal voice that references the abstract impressionism of Herbie Hancock—with whom he worked on Flow—while never losing sight of individualism and identity.

Parks' 70-minute set at the new L'Astral, a roughly 350-seat concert venue in the new Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, only included two tracks from Invisible Cinema, the subtly propulsive "Travelers" and softer "Afterglow," both providing further evidence of the pianist's continuing and rapid evolution, as he and his trio—bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Ted Poor—stretched it into something considerably more open than the studio version. Poor, in particular—who seems to be popping up everywhere these days, playing with everyone from guitarist Ben Monder and his outrageously inventive Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005) and equally fearless trumpeter Cuong Vu and the highly eclectic Vu-Tet (ArtistShare, 2008)—was an outstanding accompanist, demonstrating a broad palette and open ears that lent even a well-heeled standard like Miles Davis' "Solar" a fresh perspective that swung in its own distinct way.

Brewer, another increasingly ubiquitous player, acted as the grounding force between Parks' often ethereal approach and Poor's equally searching method of interaction. He was also a fluid soloist and fine composer, whose "Lunar Incandescence" was an early high point of the set.

Parks was impeccable, constantly on the lookout for new ways to express a clear as disposition towards the lyrical. Even on the Midwestern-tinged set close, "In a Garden," the pianist found ways to reference folkloric ideation with a more modernistic bent. As a leader, he quickly engaged the audience with a dryly absurd sense of self-deprecating humor, describing his longtime relationship with Brewer as one where they each know "some deep, dark secrets," and apologizing for a bad hair day.

A poetic player who has surrounded himself with others who can either provide a more earthy balance or match his more impressionistic approach, Parks is a remarkably mature player for his age—though, at this point, it's really unfair to use the age card. As he demonstrated during his interview clip on the recent four-part television series Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense (Paradigm Studio, 2009), he's a deep thinker with very specific ideas about his direction, one that he's honing at an almost unprecedented rate, and resulted in a fine FIJM performance that will go down as one of the sleeper hits of 2009.

Visit Eric Truffaz, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Sadao Watanabe, Sylvain Provost and Effendi Records, Aaron Parks and Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on the web.
Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman

Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-9

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