Montreal Jazz Festival, Days 4-6, July 2-4, 2011

Montreal Jazz Festival, Days 4-6, July 2-4, 2011
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
June 25-July 4, 2011
Montréal is a city in transition, and in a move that's absolutely uncharacteristic of other Canadian cities, is planning a downtown renovation driven, in no small part, by the arts. Place des Arts has been undergoing renovations for the past couple years, both internally and externally, in conjunction with the expansion of the TD Festival International de Jazz de Montréal that has not only seen the opening of the Maison de Festival in 2009—business headquarters, but also a press room, a museum and a year-round club, L'Astral—but the creation of La Place des Festivals, a 7500 square meter space for large outdoor events that sports the biggest installation of animated fountains in the country, with 235 water jets, four lighting tours, and room for restaurant facilities.

Artist's Conception: La Place des Festivals

But there's so much more. FIJM 2011 has been marred, but only slightly, by the still-unfinished work on Rue Ste-Catherine, but when it's completed, it will be well worth it, as it will be better designed for its pedestrian only status during major festivals like FIJM. Reflecting a rare commitment to culture on a municipal level, Montréal is growing into a city like none other—not just in Canada, but in the world, and one that could only be possible through the cooperation, vision and growth of major festivals like FrancoFolies, the world-famous Just for Laughs comedy festival—and, of course, FIJM.

Artist's Conception: Sainte-Catherine Axis

And with the opening of Adresse Symphonique , the city's new home for the L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts will expand to six venues in September, 2011. FIJM is not the only organization in Montréal that thinks big, but it's been one of the major contributors to a cultural rebirth and evolution in the city that will only become even more exciting as the major expansion and revamp of the area now called "Quartier des Spectacles" is completed. Chapter Index
  1. July 2: Anouar Brahem: The Astounding Eyes of Rita
  2. July 2: Eivind Aarset Sonic Codex
  3. July 2: In the Country
  4. July 3: Christian McBride's Inside Straight
  5. July 3: Béla Fleck and The Flecktones
  6. July 4: Black Dub, with Leif Vollebekk

July 2: Anouar Brahem: The Astounding Eyes of Rita

When the lights went down on Anouar Brahem's final night of a three-evening run in FIJM's Invitation series, and a voice filled the hall to announce that percussionist Khaled Yassine would not be making the show, as originally scheduled, it was, at first, disappointing that the entire quartet responsible for the Tunisian oudist's The Astounding Eyes of Rita (ECM, 2009) would not be available to perform the music in Place des Arts' 750-seat Théâtre Jean-Duceppe. Those fortunate enough to have seen the group—which also includes bass clarinetist Klaus Gesing and electric bassist Björn Meyer—know that the group's gentle pulse as due, in no small part, to Yassine's contributions on darbouka and bendir. So, without the drive of hand percussion, how would The Astounding Eyes of Rita sound, especially when it was only learned that Yassine would be unable to attend, due to visa problems, the day before the show?

From left: Klaus Gesing, Anouar Brahem

If Brahem's previous two evenings at FIJM taught his audience anything, it was to have the same level of trust that the oudist clearly has for the musicians with whom he chooses to surround himself. Whether it's the Thimar group—a trio with reed player John Surman and bassist Dave Holland that hadn't played together on more than a decade—or his more recent Le Voyage De Sahar trio, with pianist Francois Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier,a common thread was the comfort level that existed amongst the players. Not the kind of comfort that breeds complacency; instead, the complete trust that, if one player goes out on a limb, he can do so with the knowledge that his partners will be right there with him, without hesitation or even conscious thought.

A knowledge that Gesing confirmed immediately after a performance where the group may have been short a percussionist, but made clear that, in addition to demonstrating Brahem's tremendous diversity and virtuosity, also highlighted the consistently high level of all his various projects. While there were some moments of extreme magic that made the first evening, with Surman and Holland, particularly special, the truth is that all three of Brahem's shows were inspired and inspireing.

As with the other groups brought for his Invitation series, Brahem's partners on The Astounding Eyes of Rita are no strangers to fans of the ECM label. Gesing has been a partner with singer Norma Winstone and pianist Glauco Vernier for nearly a decade, last heard on Stories Yet to Tell (2010), though in that context he can be heard on soprano saxophone in addition to the bass clarinet he brings, alone, to The Astounding Eyes of Rita. Meyer has been a longtime member of pianist Nik Bärtsch's evolving Ronin group, heard most recently on Llyrìa (2010), an album that found the masters of Zen Funk introducing more space into their distinctive approach to interlocking melodies and grooves. Both players are honing individual voices, but when they come together with Brahem, their extracurricular experiences are somehow subsumed in the very specific demands of the oudist's work—in this case, a group defined by lower registers, yet often focusing in the upper realms of their instruments.

Not that Gesing didn't venture into the bottom end of his bass clarinet, combining gentle thematic accompaniment with percussive tonguing that, in Yassine's absence, became even more crucial to the forward motion this music requires, in contrast to the sometimes more ethereal environs of Brahem's Le Voyage de Sahar trio. But when Gesing took to soloing, his soaring lines transcended conventional approach to the instrument, as did an occasional predilection for a grittier tone that combined in curious elegance with the buzz of Brahem's oud when he struck the strings with greater force. Also introducing the occasional tinge of multiphonics—more a point of tension and release than a means of creating aggressive dissonance—Gesing's solos, as the set progressed, seemed to open up and take even greater risk, to the clear delight of the audience and his band mates.

Björn Meyer

Meyer is also stretching the electric bass, in a context where overall dynamics are low, though there were points, during the 95-minute set, when the trio achieved a kind of gentle density, the combination of instruments with intrinsically rich and robust qualities. Whether combining gentle bass harmonics with Gesing's lush melodies (the near-static opener, "The Lover of Beirut") or adopting a parochial role (the more propulsive "Dancing With Waves")—periodically ventured beyond groove and pulse, his supporting lines intertwining briefly with Brahem and Gesing—Meyer's ears were keenly attuned and his choices impeccable. Combining hammer-ons with right-hand tapping, in this more intimate context, it was easier to discern Meyer's strengths than in the larger group context of Ronin.

After two nights experiencing the unique enthusiasm of a Montréal audience, Brahem seemed even more relaxed, smiling often and playing with a different kind of enthusiasm. In contrast to Le Voyage De Sahar's more ethereal, rarefied nature, this was a set even more grounded than Thimar, two nights prior. Without the quartet's percussionist, it would be easy to compare the two shows—both trios, both featuring bass and bass clarinet (though Surman also played soprano sax), but beyond surface similarities, the two projects could not be more different, even though they share, of course, a common thread in Brahem's writing, playing and gentle singing. But as much as Holland is an undeniable groove-meister, and Surman a master of soaring lyricism, it was of a completely different complexion; much of Astounding Eyes of Rita is characterized by a joyous positivism and, even without Yassine, an often persistent forward motion, as the group demonstrated on the up-tempo "Al Birwa."

Brahem's three evenings were superficially constructed chronologically, moving from his oldest project to his newest. But beyond that, there was an arc to the three shows that started with the excitement of rediscovery, turned more romantically lyrical, and ended with buoyant optimism. Each show stood on its own, with its own strengths and defining qualities, but for those who invested the time in attending all three of Brahem's dates, the reward was even greater, as FIJM brought one of the more memorable Invitation series to the festival in recent years.

July 2: Eivin Aarset Sonic Codex

While he's something of a regular in Montréal, it's been almost a decade since Eivind Aarset has brought one of his own projects to FIJM. Finishing up a brief tour that saw the Norwegian guitarist hitting festivals in four cities across the country, Aarset has been traveling with the same Sonic Codex group that played at Natt Jazz in Bergen last year—the twin drum team of Wetle Holte and Erland Dahlen, along with electric bassist Audun Erlien. The focus may have been on much of the same music, but the group has come a long way since that 2010 Norwegian date, and also benefitted, in Montréal, from having a few dates under its belt, not to mention a couple much-needed days off, after back-to-back shows in Vancouver and Ottawa.

Eivind Aarset

Perhaps the biggest evolution in the group is the inclusion of a variety of other percussion instruments, beyond Holte and Dahlen's drum kits. The two drummers laid a thundering groove on "Electromagnetic," which moved from a whisper to a roar as Holte and Dahlen demonstrated almost frightening telepathy, playing unison parts but each contributing individual expanding parts that never once conflicted with what the other was doing. This may have been scripted music, but with the freedom of interpretation that's been a part of Aarset's music since he released the groundbreaking Electronique Noire (Jazzland) in 1998, a seminal time in Norway that also saw artists trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, noise improv group Supersilent and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft change the landscape of improvised music in ways that continue to be felt to this day.

Dahlen and Holte also brought a variety of tuned percussion instruments to the table: Dahlen, with a series of hand bells on a rack so he could hit them with the palm of his hand, in addition to a steel drum, xylophone and tunes wood block; Holte some electronics, and small bells that managed to cut through the sometimes dense nature of the music, thanks to Johnny Skalleberg, a sound engineer who has been doing live show mixes for Aarset, Molvær and others, in Norway and on the road, for years. Unlike many North American acts that rely on festival engineers to handle their sound, most Norwegian groups travel with their own, viewing them as integral members of the band—something that became clear, not just from the understanding Skalleberg had of the music in terms of actual mix, but with the addition of processing that, for example, gave the drums extra weight on "Electromagnetic" and, in particular, the head-banging, King Crimson-esque "Sign of Seven," which closed the set to enthusiastic screams from the nearly full house at Gésu.

From left; Eivind Aarset, Wetle Holte, Audun Erlien, Erland Dahlen

Like Dahlen and Holte, Erlien did double duty, with a Fender Rhodes and small synth set-up nearby. And while his sometimes delicate Rhodes work helped flesh out the gentler material, it was on his main axe where he demonstrated his greatest strengths. More than a timekeeper or riff-master, Erlien was, at times, a melodic front man to Aarset's soundscapes, including one of the downright ugliest distorted electric sounds since guitarist Jeff Beck's vomit-inducing tone on "You Shook Me," from his 1968 debut, Truth (Epic). Still, with Aarset's expansive soundworlds as much about texture as they were creating melodies (that role left just as often, in fact, to Holte and Dahlen's tuned percussion), Erlien was fundamental to maintaining an anchoring forward motion, and it's no surprise that he's also the bassist of choice for artists like Mathias Eick, heard most recently on the trumpeter's Skala (ECM, 2011) and in performance at Jazzahead 2011.

In a world of guitar posturing, Aarset remains a refreshing alternative. It's not that he doesn't have the chops to stand front and center, he just chooses not to—but, unlike King Crimson's Robert Fripp, Aarset was clearly engaged in the music, swaying back and forth to the beat and pulling his guitar back and forth as he created swirling sonic colors. He demonstrated an almost unparalleled ability to layer densely distorted chords—sometimes played gently, other times strummed furiously—with serpentine EBow lines and, at the end of "Sign of Seven," a rare sojourn into a near-solo, albeit still more concerned with being part of a larger whole than in any kind of "look at me" pyrotechnics, even as it was clear just how much Aarset could do, were he to choose to.

From left; Eivind Aarset, Wetle Holte

Instead, in a set where improvisation was intimately tied to the structure of Aarset's writing, but more collective and interpretive rather than delineated, the members of Sonic Codex shone without ever once doing anything to explicitly draw attention. The only shame was that, because this late night show at Gésu was a double bill with another Norwegian group, In the Country, Aarset had to perform a slightly abbreviated set. Still, with a group that is evolving in concept an execution, it was a welcome return to Montréal for Aarset, and one that was clearly hotly anticipated by fans of the festival.


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