Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 4-6, July 4-6, 2009

John Kelman By

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

Joshua Redman By Invitation Day 1 / Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
Joshua Redman By Invitation Day 2 / Kenny Werner Quintet
Jeff Beck / Anat Cohen
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
July 4-6 2009

With the new Maison du Festival housing the press room, performance spaces and more, the closing of Montreal's legendary Le Spectrum club a couple years back is quickly becoming a distant memory. There's a lot of construction and renovation going on in Montreal to increase the availability of performance spaces, including a new 2,000 seat venue being built in Place des Arts as a permanent home for the Montreal Symphony, leaving the larger Wilfred Peltier hall available and wired for non-classical performances. And as the terrace behind the Maison du Festival nears completion, the downtown core of Montreal is turning into a cultural mecca few cities can match.
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

That a festival can close off six square blocks in the core of a busy urban center is remarkable. That it can do so and create a party atmosphere that's like being on another planet is even more incredulous. But visiting FIJM is truly like being transported to another place where it's easy to lose track of the days and what's going on in the outside world, and instead become immersed in nothing but music.

The 30th anniversary continues with saxophonist Joshua Redman taking over the By Invitation series for three evenings, each with a different and stellar line-up. It's impossible to catch anywhere close to all the free and ticketed shows, and so the only way to handle the festival is to make choices and, for the rest of the shows, live vicariously through the experiences of others. With a roster of shows including Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Kenny Werner Quartet, Jeff Beck, Anat Cohen and more, there's plenty of great music to be found each evening—and that doesn't include checking out the free shows at the numerous stages around the festival grounds.

The festival also continues to reach into the music industry with both the general Salons des Instruments de Musique de Montreal (SIMM) and the more specific Salon de Guitare de Montreal trade shows—the latter a three-day mini-festival that features free workshops and performances by a broad range of six-stringers. It's difficult to imagine how much further FIJM can expand, yet each year there's something new to broaden the appeal of the festival to include fans of all ages, as well as professional and aspiring musicians.
Chapter Index
  1. July 4: Joshua Redman/Aaron Parks/Matt Penman/Eric Harland
  2. July 4: Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
  3. July 5: Joshua Redman/Joe Lovano/Sam Yahel/Reuben Rogers/Gregory Hutchinson
  4. July 5: Kenny Werner Quintet
  5. July 6: Jeff Beck
  6. July 6: Anat Cohen

July 4: Joshua Redman/Aaron Parks/Matt Penman/Eric Harland

With saxophonist Joshua Redman taking over the intimate Gesú Centre de Créativité for two days (his third show will be at the larger Place des Arts), other than knowing the personnel there was little to indicate what the shows would be about. Redman's last couple of albums have focused largely on saxophone trios—Way Out East (Nonesuch, 2007) featuring three different trios with a handful of special guests, and Compass (Nonesuch, 2008) a more ambitious project with, on most tracks, a double rhythm section of two bassist and two drummers.

Neither release could prepare the capacity crowd for Redman's opening night. With pianist Aaron Parks, whose own trio performance the previous night was an early festival highlight; bassist Matt Penman, last seen in Ottawa with the SFJazz Collective in March of this year; and drummer Eric Harland, already seen earlier in the week with the Monterey 4, the quartet's Montreal show was its first, and if its 80-minute set was any indication of how this group is going to sound with a few more dates under its collective belt, then this may well be one of the most exciting new acoustic jazz groups to emerge in recent years.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Joshua Redman / Aaron Parks / Matt Penman / Eric Harland
l:r: Aaron Parks, Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Eric Harland

Redman may have arrived on the international scene a little early but, in recent years, he has been delivering on the promise of a beginning that was, perhaps, overly hyped as the next big thing before he was truly ready to assume any kind of mantle. With a set of largely original material by himself, Penman and, in particular, Parks—most of it segueing together to create a series of long, suite-like performances—there was more than enough solo space for everyone and a never-ending sense of excitement that made it one of the festival's hottest shows. Redman also played with an uncharacteristically fierce and visceral power on both tenor and soprano, encouraging screams of approval and applause by the audience from the get-go. Three suites that stretched out over 70 minutes, with little pause in-between and with absolutely no introductions from the saxophonist, wound their way through a variety of feels, tempos and dynamics; a thoroughly modernistic set that was imbued with classical elements, unfettered free expression and a plethora of rhythmic contexts that ranged from delicate and impressionistic to raw, backbeat-driven grooves.

Recruiting a trio that already has considerable chemistry makes for a quick transition into a group that sounds as though it's been playing for years. Parks, Penman and Harland played together on the pianist's debut as a leader, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008), and a number of pieces from that album provided some of the performance's best moments, including a barnstorming version of the episodic "Harvesting Dance" that featured a solo from Harland, over a relentless ostinato, that literally brought the house down.

And yet, even when the material's often detailed thematic constructs opened up into more open-ended improvisational features for everyone in the group, there was a remarkable focus that avoided excess and, instead, gave the entire performance the feeling of a directed form of free play. Penman, who took a number of outstanding solos, remained the group's focal point, at times barely containing the unbridled energy coming from the rest of his bandmates, but always managing to hold things together. Redman proved an egalitarian leader, leaving considerable space for Parks in particular. Still in his mid-twenties, Parks can only be compared to a young Keith Jarrett in his ability to pull an endless flow of remarkable ideas out of the ether, improvising with the kind of élan that suggests if he's not already considered a giant (and by all rights he should be), he's clearly one of the emerging icons that the recent television documentary series Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense was referring to.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Joshua Redman / Eric Harland

But if a single star had to be chosen from the four—a challenge in itself—it would have to be Harland. Shuffling between so many different gigs (in addition to working with the Monterey 4 he'll be in Ottawa with Charles Lloyd the following evening) in the space of only a few days with almost uncanny aplomb, his playing was incendiary. His final solo on "Harvesting Dance" was not just a marvel of invention; it was a wonder of texture, polyrhythm and pulse. Calling what he does beneath other soloists accompaniment is a disservice, as his role is nothing short of equal, whether he's providing a fervent backbeat, creating a staggeringly rapid rhythm by using two sticks in one hand, over and under the high hat, or responding to everything going on around him with the kind of empathic spontaneity that's truly rare. As he grows seemingly exponentially, he's clearly another artist headed for iconic territory.

When the set ended, and it seemed to go by in a flash, Redman and his quartet received the strongest applause and ovation of any act seen yet this year. Returning to the stage with Parks' very Jarrett-like, gospel-tinged "Roadside Distraction" was an astute choice to feed the audience the encore it demanded, while at the same time slowly turning the heat down to allow the group an easier chance of exiting the hall.

Far too many touring projects don't end up being recorded, but if this project isn't documented, then it'll be more than a shame, it'll be a crime. The heat and excitement of Redman's first show certainly raised the bar—and expectations—for the second one, coming the following evening with saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and pianist Sam Yahel.

July 4: Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band

Over the years drummer Brian Blade's Fellowship Band has been gradually diminishing in size. Starting as a texturally distinct septet that featured two reeds, keys, guitar, pedal steel, bass and drums, in recent years and on Season of Changes (Verve, 2008), the group became a sextet when pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley, who made Perceptual (Blue Note, 2000) such a groundbreaking record, left the band. Carrying on as a sextet with longtime members Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Jon Cowherd (keyboards), Myron Walden (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Melvin Butler (tenor saxophone) and Chris Thomas (bass), the group's voice was retained by both the combination of players and Blade's unique writing, which found its own way to blend the instruments—especially the horns—into a sound where the whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band

While there was plenty to recommend about the group's late night performance at Gesú, this even further slimmed down Fellowship Band—now a quintet with Blade, Cowherd, Walden, Butler and Thomas—still retained its identity, but equally has lost something. The guitar—and especially the combination of guitar and pedal steel—always gave the group a distinct complexion, especially since it's relatively rare to see a horn-led group with both piano and guitar (let alone piano, guitar and steel guitar), and Rosenwinkel, in particular, added a slightly countrified but sophisticated style and ethereal tone that helped give Fellowship its sound.

Still, any opportunity to watch Blade is one worth grabbing, and when he's with his own group, performing his own material, he seems to become even more energized than usual. At the performance he was like a dervish at times, a physical player whose arms seemed to flail and whose body would lift out of the drum chair as he leaned forward to hit the kit with a paradoxical combination of power and grace. Seeing two of the most remarkable young drummers in jazz in one evening—Blade and Harland—only demonstrated the differences between the two. Harland is a crisp and definitive player, while Blade's tone is warm and woody, his cymbals dark-hued. Harland seemingly constructs his solos with great care; Blade enters a zone and plays in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, despite remaining completely focused. Both drummers are an education to watch; all the more so for their vastly different approaches.

The quintet wound its way through a set that mixed new material with some culled from Season of Changes, including the opening "Stoner Hill"—a brief, lyrical and folkloric tune that, as gentle as it was, established a very different vibe for a set that gradually turned up the heat to feature strong solos from everyone. Walden was particularly impressive, especially on the haunting "Improvisation," from Season of Changes—a bass clarinet duet with Cowherd on pump organ—and later, when a lengthy alto solo gradually, inexorably built to an almost orgiastic climax that not only had Blade yelling in admiration, but the audience as well. The ensemble work, especially the way in which Walden and Butler orbited, weaved and came together in unison on Blade and Cowherd's charts, was definitive of the Fellowship sound, but while Cowherd did much to capably fill the gap left by Rosenwinkel's absence, that absence was felt nevertheless.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
l:r: Jon Cowherd, Myron Walden, Melvin Butler, Chris Thomas

The sold out crowd at Gesú was clearly primed for Blade and the Fellowship Band before it hit the stage, and once it did, all expectations were met for a performance that was almost as cathartic as Joshua Redman's, in the same venue a few hours earlier. But for Fellowship to continue with the sound that has defined it since the beginning, it truly needs to go back to at least a sextet with Rosenwinkel (or any of a number of other guitarists who might fit the bill, although Rosenwinkel has proven himself the right one for the band). As powerful as its performance was, it does run the risk of losing the very qualities that give it a unique and immediately recognizable voice.



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