Friday, July 31, 2009

On Interview Music

A term that's come up in this highly intriguing and informative discussion of grant funding for jazz is "interview music." Coined, as A Blog Supreme states, by an unidentified colleague of Mulgrew Miller, it seems destined to be a disparaging phrase.

For me, as a composer, I suppose I write a certain kind of "interview music." The majority of my tunes have a backstory, whether it's a tribute to someone, a piece based on poetry or art, a tone poem for a place or life experience, or even just a certain set of musical challenges I set up for myself. That backstory keeps me focused throughout the compositional process, which can sometimes drag on over a long period of time. When I look at the tunes I'm writing now vs. tunes I wrote four or five years ago that were purely tunes - no story, no nothing, just musical ideas - both the end result and the actual process are much tighter with the backstory tunes. As a listener, I find pieces that come from a specific musical or extra-musical place - e.g. DJA's "Transit," Maria Schneider's "Hang Gliding," Don Byron's "Himm," Geoffrey Keezer's Aurea, Dave Douglas' work - often more immediately compelling.

I sympathize with the point that's being made - music composed under the banner of projects, suites, cycles, oratorios, and other lofty terms, with heady influences recognized and loved by traditional arts-funding agencies, are what tend to get the money. Whether the end result is technically and formally a suite, song cycle, or Hiphopketball: A Jazzebration is sometimes besides the point. John Murph and Joe Phillips raise another valid point, that the use of hip-hop, r&b and broken-beat influences by Black jazz artists is somehow less "jazzy," less "academic," or less "interview music" than the incorporation of rock (indie or no) and various indigenous and folk musics from around the world. Certainly, the role of electronics in modern classical and jazz pieces is generally closer to the world of Subotnick than J Dilla. I wonder if Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's Suite for Ma Dukes would have garnered grant funding.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Francofolies Day 1

To make a truly reductive comparison, Corneille is Quebec's answer to John Legend. A singer-songwriter of Rwandan descent who moved to Montreal in 1997, he is one of the few, if not only, francophone soul artists in this province, complete with a large band and equally large stage show. To open the 21st edition of les Francofolies, he welcomed guests from the multicultural community of Quebec musicians.

The night opened with one of Corneille's big hits, "Ensemble," delivered with fantastic sound and groove by the tight band led by guitarist Andy Dacoulis. Corneille followed it up with one of a handful of tunes from his forthcoming album that he sprinkled throughout the set. They were all good tunes, if not as memorable as some of his earlier hits, and sometimes stalled the momentum of the night.

The first guest was multifaceted Luck Mervil, performing a duet on "Africain à New York," a rewrite/cover of Sting's "Englishman in New York." It worked surprisingly well, with a driving highlife beat courtesy of drummer Sam Harrisson, Denis Chiche on percussion and J-B Carbou on bass. Quebec hip-hop group Sans Pression followed, with Corneille singing their hooks and the MC hyping up the crowd.

After a couple more Corneille-only tunes, guitarist Lokua Kanza came out on stage. Corneille was quite candid about the influence Kanza has had on him musically and personally, opening doors for his own success in Quebec. Kanza's emotionally charged, keening tenor was showcased on "Wapi Yo." Marie-Luce Beland, a young singer I had never heard of, came out and performed two songs and was trying her damnedest to bring some life into the crowd. Her delivery and stage presence reminded me a bit of Divine Brown, with a swaggering kiss-off in "Je ne t'appartiens pas." After Corneille took the momentum down a gear again with the slow jam "Le bon Dieu est une femme," the energy rocketed up with compa legends Kassav'. Fresh off their closing show for Nuits D'Afrique, the crowd went crazy for their three-song set, including their ubiquitous Afro-party staple "Zouk la se sel medikamen nou ni."

A couple of more slow tunes from our evening's host, and the night ended close to two hours later, with "Les marchands de rêves" (the title track of his last French album) and "Parce qu'on vient de loin" (his breakout hit). It was here that the John Legend comparison bore itself out - fronting a choir and all the invited guests, hints of gospel and the complete R&B tradition were present in the tunes and in Corneille's slightly weathered tenor. There's very few artists in Quebec doing what Corneille is doing - in some ways he's more aligned with the Toronto R&B scene of Jully Black, Divine Brown and Jacksoul, and for that I applaud him. The band (rounded out by keyboardist Alister Philips and MD/guitarist Andy Dacoulis) was uniformly superb, with a horn section featuring Ron DiLauro on trumpet. If the show had been shortened by half an hour and had three less ballads, it would have been a truly incredible opening show.

Nuits D'Afrique 2009

I caught a couple of shows at Nuits D'Afrique this year, my first time going to any of the festival's indoor programming.

Balattou was crammed likely beyond capacity for banjo player Jayme Stone, from Toronto, and griot Mansa Sissoko, now living in Quebec City. Their album Africa to Appalachia fully deserves its Juno award, tracing the African roots of the banjo and demonstrating the commonalities between traditional West African and American folk music, from bluegrass to Maritime fiddle tunes. Stone rarely sounded like a regular banjo player; with his instrument tuned down to F to match Sissoko's kora, he sounded at times like a second kora, or in the vein of Malian guitarists like Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traoré. The rhythm section of bassist Paul Mathew and drummer Nick Fraser, on kit and calabash, rounded out the sound and gave it a deeper bottom than on the record. One thing about the intimacy of mostly acoustic African music is how deep the groove can be at low volume.

This was starkly contrasted the following night with Peru's Novalima, highly electrified and using the amplification to power their grooves. They're a band that rocks the party hard, mixing reggae and electo touches into Afro-Peruvian music - or would it be better described as bringing cajons into reggae? I was compelled by the songs where the polyrhythms of Afro-Peruvian music (and Novalima's three percussionists) were allowed to shine. The majority of the set was typical of electro-reggae-pop from across the diaspora, with the guitarist unleashing a dubbed-out siren from some sort of oscillator on top of his amp. I was impressed with how seamlessly loops were integrated into the band and how tight the percussionists played to the beats.

Afro Cuban All Stars & Los Van Van - 07/12/2009

The fiesta cubana that closed the 30th anniversary of the Jazz Fest was a case study in the contrasts of Cuban music. The All Stars, led by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, are rooted in the big band tradition of Afro-Cuban son and Latin jazz, with bold brass, an impeccable rhythm section, fantastic soneros, and killer soloists. Pianist Gabriel Hernandez was a marvel, holding down rock solid montunos, turning in great solos and a beautiful piano introduction to "Guajira." The harmony vocals on "Chan Chan" were pristine, and each of the soneros came down to the platform below the stage to interact more closely with the crowd.

Los Van Van's showcased their funkier timba, with a dense blend of violins, trombone, sax and synthesizers. They performed a solid cover of "Birdland," so seamlessly integrated into their sound that it took me a while to clue into the tune. Adding to the Michael Jackson tributes throughout the festival, the horn line from "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" made an appearance, as did the "Hey Jude" singalong. I've been meaning to check out Van Van more deeply for a long time, and this show, as well as their midnight set at L'Astral, provided a solid catalyst.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ornette Coleman Quartet - Theatre Maisonneuve, 7/9/2009

It wouldn't be an Ornette Coleman concert if it wasn't intensely challenging. After being presented the Miles Davis award, Coleman went on one of his trademark tangential speeches about love and life. He gave a similar sermon in a press conference earlier in the day, bewildering many journalists unfamiliar with his style.

Bassists Tony Falanga (on contrabass) and Al Macdowell (on electric piccolo bass) did most of the heavy lifting, playing the heads of "Blues Connotation" and "Peace" in unison, with Ornette only coming in afterwards to blow. Ornette sat centre stage, spending most of his time on alto, only picking up the trumpet and violin for a phrase or two, for a burst of different colour, and possibly to cue changes. His sound is still full in its idiosyncratic way, showing no real signs of his physical frailty.

Denardo Coleman had two modes on drums: frenetic swing interspersed with fills (which lended itself to the edge-of-your-seat momentum of the group), or a sloppy, non sequitur backbeat. The effectiveness of Denardo's complete lack of hookup with the rest of the band is debatable - my friend Adam Kinner at the Gazette really liked that element, but I prefer my Ornette with a more musically sensitive drummer (Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Jack DeJohnette). The superimposition of the backbeat on a truly gorgeous ballad early in the set really annoyed me. When it recurred throughout the set, I wasn't sure if it was some sort of inside joke.

A singer came out towards the end of the set, singing and reciting poetry half in English, half in Japanese. In true Ornette fashion, she was not acknowledged, her presence as ephemeral as the music. I left shortly after, to catch Curumin outside on the groove stage, missing what was by all accounts a tremendous reading of "Lonely Woman."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Bill Frisell Quartet - Theatre Jean-Duceppe, 7/8/2009

I've been spoiled by my Frisellian experiences. Watching him in the intimacy of the now-departed spectrum, both shows were full of heart-rending melodicism, with Frisell's endearingly strange guitar tone seeping in through my pores, emphatically moving me towards laughter or sorrow. In the much larger space of Jean-Duceppe, I wondered if that would happen again.

For the majority of the set, it did not. Tony Scherr was his usual self, dancing around with his upright bass and providing the exact bottom the tunes needed - a cushion on "Moon River," dirty walking, or angular broken feels. Ron Miles was the sound of surprise here, with his clarion melodies suddenly dissipating into extended trumpet techniques, and playing underneath Frisell in pedal tone. Rudy Royston responded to Frisell's music like a modern jazz drummer would. Which is to say, he was lacking the ragged, surprising edginess that characterizes Frisell's interface with Matt Chamberlain, Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen. He was a fantastic player, whose music I greatly enjoyed, don't get me wrong. There was a certain novelty in hearing Frisell's music framed by that particular style of drumming. He was missing that wonk factor that would have elevated his hookup with Frisell and Scherr. The set was constantly attention-grabbing, and everyone played great. It was just missing that weird sense of emotional engagement that characterizes so much of Frisell's music for me.

The band hit that other level in the encores, reaching that epic grandeur of the Spectrum shows. Coming out to thunderous applause, Frisell set up an electronic soundscape that sounded like a music box and an Atari in a punch-up. The band eventually coalesced into "Baba Drame," which then led into Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now." Here it was - that keening melodic cry, from a band fused together, that dares you to be unmoved.

The second encore was prefaced by a rare Frisell speech. After noodling with the first three notes, he said, "I played this song on nearly every gig for eight years. And then one night I was playing with Rudy, and there was a big celebration, and I didn't feel like I needed to play it anymore." Following that, he launched into another fabulous and gutwrenching version of "A Change is Gonna Come." Whether it was necessary or not, it was more than welcome. As always, Frisell has wrangled his way near the top of my Jazz Fest list.

Haden Family & Friends - Theatre Maisonneuve, 7/8/2009

Sitting in the lobby waiting for the doors to open at the Charlie Haden concert, I heard one older Québécois man bemoan the lack of real jazz at the Jazz Festival. Part of me wondered whether he even bothered to look at this year's program; another part of me wondered whether he knew what ticket he had just purchased. Judging by the steady stream of people leaving throughout the show, many concertgoers bought a ticket based on Charlie Haden's name, and not the content of his last record, Ramblin' Boy.

It's a pity, because the concert was a solid set of great music, played by some phenomenal musicians. The band was staffed by the best in Nashville's bluegrass and newgrass - Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Rob Ickes on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Dan Tyminski on banjo, and Mark Fain trading off with Haden on bass - and the Haden offspring have uniformly moving voices. The triplet daughters in particular - Tanya, Petra, and Rachel - have a reedy blend that hearkens back to the family bands that populated the Midwest and South in the early 20th century, where Charlie's roots are.

The repertoire ranged from chugging bluegrass of opener "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" and "Old Joe Clark" (which Haden admitted to quoting in his bass solo on "Ramblin'"), the loping melancholy 3/4 of so many Anglo-American folk tunes and early country classics, and tunes dear to Haden's heart. There was a story behind many of the tunes: "Ramblin' Boy" was taught to him in his childhood home by Mother Maybelle Carter herself.

Son Josh Haden came out and sang his original "Spiritual," a plea to Jesus to not die alone that was immensely passionate. Charlie even sang backup in a thin, raspy baritone on Roy Acuff's "Precious Jewel." Tyminski did most of the male lead vocal work, with his traditional twang. The rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" was true to his O Brother Where Art Thou? recording, with the other musicians chiming in on the responses.

Charlie reiterated the notion that good music is good music regardless of genre - a lesson lost on the exodus of purists.

RIP Len Dobbin

If this year's 30th anniversary didn't have a sombre lining to it with the constant Michael Jackson tributes, it certainly does now. Len Dobbin, journalist emeritus of the Montreal (and international) jazz scene for over 50 years, is gone.

Word is spreading via Facebook - the most details that have surfaced are here (French only). Len had been sick for many years, to varying degrees of severity - he had to be rushed out of the CKUT studios a couple of years ago. Since that incident he'd been weakened, but he looked to be in better form this year than last.

I can't express just how deep this loss is - Len, as an historian, wasn't just someone who memorized facts and trivia. He was there, for many things, and was incredibly passionate about the things he wasn't able to personally attend. When I first moved to Montreal, Dobbin's Den was the first jazz show I heard, and he served as a template for my own entry into CKUT. I've had the distinct honour of filling in for Len over the years -- the first time was quite possibly the most nervewracking two hours of radio I've ever done.

Len was truly a fantastic resource for us Montrealers, and a beautiful man. I was just hanging out with him in the press room, very aware of how lucky I was to be around him and other great journalists. It will be a very strange atmosphere in the press room today. He will be greatly missed.

EDIT: Via Christine Jensen, some of Len's beautiful photography.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rocksteady @ FIJM

A few years after Motown's Funk Brothers blowout at the Jazz Fest, another group of crack musicians and honeyed vocalists rocked the Place des Festivals. Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt of the I-Threes, Stranger Cole, Ken Boothe, Hopeton Lewis and the Tamlins graced the stage with a 2-hour Jamaican history lesson. Hearing a solid one-drop with a bounce that only comes from a true reggae drummer, with the undiminished vocal blend of the Tamlins, is a wonderfully enjoyable thing.

Each lead vocalist was solid in their own right. Highlights included Stranger Cole indulging in a freakazoid James Brown dance, and Marcia Griffiths' exhortation to indulge the band in a supremely grooving "rub-a-dub stylee." The requisite Bob Marley covers - Marcia and Judy singing "No Woman, No Cry" and "Could You Be Loved," the finale of everyone singing "One Love" - brought me back to my memories of porting in Jamaica off Cruise Ship X. Judy Mowatt attributed the musicality of so many Jamaicans to the grace of God. Montreal was grateful for them to share their gift with us.

Gazette colleagues Jake Shenker and Bernie Perusse have more reviews(incidentally, Bernie and FIJM head honcho André Menard were shaking their tailfeathers with equal, unrivalled enthusiasm); Natasha Hall provides the setlist.

Notes: the crew never actually left the stage for the encores, merely the rest of the singers came out to join those already on stage; the band was tight once they hit their grooves, but some of the entrances, punches, and endings were tighter in the media rehearsal; and special shoutout to Montreal's Mossman, who was instrumental in putting together this project and whose involvement went sadly unacknowledged.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Miscellaneous Jazz Fest notes

- Nomadic Massive rocked the Groove stage July 3. MCs Waahli and Narcicyst wore white gloves in tribute to the late MJ, as the band, featuring Butta Beats behind the kit, laid down some solidly funky backdrops for the MCs and vocalists (rounded out by Vox Sambou, Lou Piensa, Meryem Medusa and Tali). Nice to see them bring their multilingual hip-hop on a big stage.

- Also big up to my brothers and sisters in Kalmunity, who absolutely owned the Groove stage two nights later. After 6 years (and counting!) of slogging it out at the tiny Sablo Café, they seized their opportunity to shine on a large scale. I only caught the last half of the show, after Lionel Loueke's set, but was beaming with pride to see my friends and colleagues Jahsun, Mark Haynes, Jordan Peters, Zibz and Yussef holding it down behind Jonathan Emile, Katalyst, Malika, and Fabrice Koffy.

- Caught a snippet of Ola Onabule on my way out last night. Decent enough start to the set (and his keyboard player is fantastic), but it went downhill with pseudo-operatic vocals and a lot of crowd-baiting.

Anat Cohen Quartet - L'Astral, 7/6/2009

It was such a pleasure to see four musicians having visible fun onstage. When flowing lines weren't exiting her clarinet, Anat Cohen was off to the side, dancing and encouraging her bandmates with shouts of "Yeah!" She and guitarist Gilad Hekselman shared a similar liquid tone, with more emphasis on the body of the note than the attack. Anchored by bassist Joe Martin and drummer Daniel Freedman, the quartet played a mix of truly swinging tunes.

The set opened with Anat's arrangement of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," the head as a syncopated 9/8 Latin creature, releasing into swing for the solos. Cohen really hooked into the rhythm section, phrasing her lines with deep rhythmic intensity and locking in with Martin and Freedman. Hekselman phrased more like a horn player, riding over the rhythm section. All the soloists quoted the head, with varying degrees of liberty, to cue the end of their turns. Freedman's drum solo had him using his elbow to alter the pitch of his snare drum.

"The Purple Piece," an original Cohen composition, was a minor 3/4 tune that made great use of Cohen's facility with pitch-bend and glissando. Hekselman unleashed his chops on this tune, tapping a passage on the fretboard - perhaps in homage to visiting guitar heros Jeff Beck and Stanley Jordan. This led into a 6/8 Latin feel with Hekselman's bubbling comping.

"J Blues" opened with Cohen's intro, filling out a solo groove in the vein of Eddie Harris. Quotes from various big band chestnuts came out in the solos, including "Air Mail Special" - fitting, coming off Anat's Clarinetwork tribute to Benny Goodman at the Vanguard last week. Martin and Freedman hooked up on a soft yet intensely propulsive swing feel, Freedman swinging the side-stick like Philly Joe.

After a gorgeous reading of "Body and Soul," the set ended with the choro "Uma Zero" by the grand master Pixinguinha. Freedman used his floor tom as a surdo and nailed the particular brand of snare-drum swing of a Brazilian percussion group.

Hommage Eval Manigat - L'Astral, 7/6/2009

I didn't know Eval Manigat. I didn't know about Montreal's world music scene until a few years ago. By that time, Manigat wasn't as active on the scene as he had been in the 1980s and 1990s, focusing his energy on establishing the St-Marc Music Academy in his native Haiti. So the nostalgic element was a bit lost on me; the emotion I felt was more along the lines of wishing I had known him. A great bassist, vibraphonist, arranger and composer that passed away last year, the program was comprised of his tunes, save a couple of tributes penned for the concert.

The band featured Eval's compatriots from over the years, ranging from singers Karen Young and Sara Renelik, a horn section of saxophonists Yvan Belleau and Jean-Pierre Zanella, trumpeter Jocelyn Couture and Richard Gagnon on trombone, pianist Jean-Francois Groulx, bassist Fritz Pageot (father of Ric'key), and drummer Yvon Plouffe. Jean Vanasse assumed Eval's position behind the vibes on a few tunes.

The show opened with Belleau's tune "Compas pour Eval," a great fanfare and tribute, featuring Belleau and Groulx and the solid percussion section. Manigat's tunes incorporated rhythms from across the Caribbean, from Haitian compa to Cuban descargas, all with a strong sense of melody. All the soloists were in top form - Groulx's montunos were powerful, especially on "Rhapsody pour Haiti" alongside Richard Lalonde's flute; Martial Méroné's crystal clean Stratocaster evoked the Afro-pop diaspora. Young Haitian poet/vocalist Jahnice and pianist Genevieve St-Pierre offered a moving piece called "Bam La Vi," and Young, accompanied by pianist Tim Jackson, sang one of Eval's beautiful ballads, "Le Silence."

May Eval rest in peace - his music lives on in his colleagues, and the St-Marc Academy which will prove to be his legacy.

Le Large Ensemble - L'Astral, 7/3/2009

Dan Thouin could easily move his mattress to the Jazz Fest site. The multi-keyboardist is renowned around Montreal for his sonic mastery and his musical sensitivity, but doesn't always have the room to stretch out. With his Large Ensemble paying tribute to the music of early electric Miles, he had all the room he needed.

The band was comprised of some of the best and brightest on the local scene: Jocelyn Tellier and Olivier Langevin on guitars, Jim Doxas and Tony ("The Buddha of Beat") Albino on drums, Remi-Jean Leblanc on electric bass, Miguel Zaraipa on percussion, and a horn section of Maxime St-Pierre on trumpet, Yannick Rieu on soprano sax and Chet Doxas on bass clarinet and tenor sax. Thouin limited himself exclusively to Rhodes, run through Moogerfooger delay and modulation pedals. His improvising language is as solid as his attention to sound, incorporating elements of all the keyboard associates of that period - primarily Herbie in note choice and phrasing but with Chick's penchant for ring modulator and distortion, and Zawinul's swath of colour.

The band nodded at the 70s Miles era, without mimicing it outright - Yannick sounded especially indebted to Wayne on soprano, and Maxime St-Pierre had Miles' darkness in his sound without always deploying that characteristic weep. Tellier and Langevin combined with Thouin for some swirling soundscapes, while the three drummers and Remi-Jean hooked up to drive the group forward. Chet Doxas took some superb turns on bass clarinet and tenor. Tellier had a smooth, distorted sound for his solos, while Langevin sometimes got lost in the mix, but seemed to be unleashing Nels Cline-ish bursts of sound.

My favourite tunes of the set were the percolating take on "It's About that Time," with the band ferociously owning that groove, and the melancholy read of "In a Silent Way." It should not be another five years between a reunion of this Large Ensemble. If you can't get enough Dan Thouin at the festival, he's playing with Jedi Electro (joined by fellow journeymen Alex McMahon, Martin Lizotte and Jean-Phi Goncalves) at the Savoy at midnight tonight and tomorrow.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Lionel Loueke - L'Astral, 7/5/2009

What a brilliant show by Lionel Loueke and his trio at the new L'Astral. The same members, but different concept, from his Gilfema group, the trio played music from Loueke's Blue Note album, Karibu, far more powerful and engaging live than on the record.

Drummer Ferenc Nemeth and bassist Massimo Biolcati (the brains behind the iReal Book app) have a tremendous hook-up, ranging from the broken straight-eighth grooves to full-out walking swing. The metric shifts that dominate Loueke's music were performed with unified elasticity, and Nemeth's drumming style brings out the musicality of them, and not the mathematics, the way Marcus Gilmore might. Nemeth's small arsenal of percussion - cowbell and woodblock integrated to his kit, tambourine and dumbek off to the side - provided a novel percussive texture change behind Biolcati's bass solos. Nemeth has a way of building and releasing rhythmic tension alongside Loueke and Biolcati, without ever copying their lines verbatim. His solo on "Seven Teens," starting only on the snare and hi-hat while feathering the kick, as Biolcati and Loueke nailed the downbeats, was the highlight of the set.

Biolcati has a plucky attack in his upper register with a round woodiness on the bottom, a great anchor. His opening solo on the second tune had him anchoring the groove on low notes while filling in the gaps. The tune had a feel of metrically-shifted highlife, with Biolcati and Loueke in unison, opening up in the bridge.

Loueke was in phenomenal form throughout the show. Playing a nylon-string Godin guitar (and shouting out Robert Godin, who was in the audience) through Whammy and delay pedals, Loueke's sound was clean, with a warbling chorus effect via the Whammy's not-quite-accurate pitch tracking. In my brief interview with him, he affirmed that African music in all its forms is still a very prevalent and personal influence, and it was clear throughout his music: utilizing the clicks and pops of African dialects as another form of percussion; sticking a piece of paper under his strings to emulate a kora; the vocal harmonizer splitting his voice into a South African gospel choir; and the killing juju groove of "Nonvignon," complete with an audience singalong and a guest on soprano saxophone whose name I didn't catch.

Like The Bad Plus, Loueke proved that powerfully engaging music doesn't always come at high volume - his solo intro to "Karibu" and his coda to the second tune held me and the rest of my table in rapt attention.

Joyce - Club Soda, 7/4/2009

My friend, Rômmel Ribeiro, called me and said "Are you going to see Joyce?" After his recommendation, and Luciana Souza's cover of her "Feminina," I got myself a last minute ticket. What a pleasure it was. Drummer Tutty Moreno had the textbook bossa feel I've heard off the Milton Banana records - laidback, effortless, and swinging like crazy. His fills were subtle - a snare accent here, hi-hat and sidestick rolls there - but highly effective and never disrupted the groove. Pianist Helio Alves is my discovery of the festival so far; for whatever reason his name never popped up on my radar. Featured as much as Joyce, every tune had a fantastic Alves solo, well-constructed, melodically sound and harmonically rich. Very few people talk about the great legacy of Brazilian pianists, from Wagner Tiso to Walter Wanderley to Amilton Godoy and many others. Helio Alves is directly in that line.

Joyce's first set was more languid bossa nova, with tributes to the masters of bossa Johnny Alf, Dorival Caymmi (a fantastic version of "Lá Vem a Baiana") and Jobim (a slow, simmering "Desafinado"). She proved herself to be a terrific self-accompanist on guitar, never getting in Alves' way, and adding another layer of richness underneath her strong alto. She told stories behind her songs, including the English "Band on the Wall" written at the club of the same name in Manchester. The second set was full of more uptempo samba, including a wordless (save the bridge) take on "One Note Samba" and a thrilling rendition of "O morro não tem vez." Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano were in the house, and Joyce dedicated one song to them.

The Montreal crowd, nearly filling Club Soda, had been waiting forty years to see Joyce, and it showed. After an encore of "Berimbau," the crowd clapped strong and slow for minutes through the canned music, with stagehands running around backstage before Joyce returned to the stage solo for another version of "Aguas de março."

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Opinions are free

There's a lot of well-deserved brouhaha over this "review" of Maria Schneider on the Gazette blog. When I first read it, like many, I thought it was a joke. I've read bad reviews, I've even written a couple, but I never imagined there was any way a review could be entirely wrong. This is the textbook example of how not to review -- at no point whatsoever does Heinrich talk about the music. I'd have even accepted complete and utter misrepresentations of Maria's music, her musicians, and their instruments, over what wound up being published.

I disagreed with many of Mr. Heinrich's reviews of last year's festival, and I assumed that he was brought in to fill the space of the then-ailing Juan Rodriguez. Juan's better this year and is his usual bright spark around the press room, so why they still sent Heinrich to cover anything is beyond me. I don't recall having read his political or "diversity" writings, so I'll withhold further judgement.

This should not reflect on the rest of the Gazette's music and Jazz Fest team. Juan Rodriguez is one of the best music writers around with his wide range of expertise; Bernard Perusse and Irwin Block produce some great work throughout the year, and are fantastic people to trade concert impressions with; Adam Kinner is a buddy from my McGill days, a killing saxophonist, and an insightful writer; and Natasha Hall is a burst of energy in the press room, seemingly going to every show and dutifully reporting on them. I haven't yet met Jordan Zivitz or T'cha Dunlevy but I admire their work as well. Whether I agree or disagree with their reviews (and I tend to agree with most of them, most of the time) is beside the point -- all of them consistently back up their arguments and word them well. How Heinrich's piece slipped through the cracks is an egregious aberration that I sincerely hope the Gazette will not repeat again.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Bad Plus - L'Astral 7/1/2009

It seems that a review of the Bad Plus has to address the critical (mis)perception of the band, as well. Ever since they exploded onto the major jazz radar with their cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," they've been painted with the wide brush of being a strictly bombastic band. Throughout their set at L'Astral, they proved that power can come without volume.

The set opened with Reid Anderson's "Everywhere You Turn," almost "Nefertiti"-like in its economy. Dave King rarely strayed from his soft yet propulsive backbeat (until the tune's final build), and Ethan Iverson gave a direct reading of the tune's melody, allowing Reid to solo in the gaps with his amped-up tone.

Ethan's introduction to his own "Mint" featured his distinctive sense of counterpoint, where it sounds like it could go off the rails at any moment but won't because of Ethan's startling sense of control. I really appreciated the dry sound of the trio in the new L'Astral, as opposed to the immense reverb they were saddled with when they were Mike Stern's guests at Place des Arts.

King's "Thriftstore Jewelry" followed, featuring the twisted TBP take on the '60s "Latin" feel. Dave's drum solo seemed to be the percussive equivalent of Ethan's melodic language. By the way they unleash elements of the standard language of common-practice jazz, you can tell by inference that Ethan, Reid and Dave have done their homework, and are tweaking the paradigms with strong intent.

It was quite revelatory to hear two of the modern classical pieces - Ligeti's "Metal" (from the second book of piano etudes) and Babbitt's "Semi-Simple Variations" - live. They didn't sound drastically different from a Fieldwork tune, with the intervallic consistency and logic and the rhythmic twists-and-turns that Dave brought into relief with his drum patterns. The Babbitt served as a prelude to Reid's "Physical Cities," in all its tension-ratcheting, thundering glory. The immense hookup between the three, the massive groove that sometimes comes out, is an underrated element of the Bad Plus.

Wendy Lewis came out for the second half of the set. I really appreciated how the tunes were recast in ways that truly suited the songs - not subversive for the sake of being subversive. In the chorus of Nirvana's "Lithium," the trio starts to wobble like a warped record, pulling the rug from under Wendy. Ethan's harmonic language substitutes for the noise of Cobain's distorted, chorus-laden guitar. Wendy's straight voice, without vibrato, allowed every element to come across clearly. She has phenomenal intonation to keep everything in place over the reharmonized passages. Wilco's "Radio Cure" opened with a duet between Reid and Wendy, as Ethan peppered polytonal flurries over a relatively straight rock beat. The song gradually got dismantled harmonically, before it fell apart rhythmically. Reid showed off his backing vocal chops here, and on "Comfortably Numb."

This harmonic pulling-apart was a characteristic of all the other covers: the lugubrious swing of "Long Distance Runaround," the plaintive plea of "How Deep is Your Love" which started off as is and then gradually disintegrated in the second chorus. Ethan sped up Gilmour's chiming arpeggios in "Comfortably Numb," turning them into beautiful cascades of piano.

Luciana Souza/Romero Lubambo - Club Soda, 7/1/2009

Luciana Souza and Romero Lubambo in duo displayed the variety and potential in such a sparse duo. Lubambo played exclusively nylon-string guitar, and Souza proved to be a terrific pandeirista and triangle player in addition to her tremendous vocal skills. Throughout the evening it was clear that they take great joy in playing together. Souza's time feel is precise, and the two of them share the same sense of swing, be it on sambas, forró or jazz. Lubambo's voicings are rich and dense, full of crunchy semitones, and he unleashes them over a solid surdo-esque bassline. The arrangements were fantastic, breaking up the traditional vocal-plus-accompaniment with counterpoint and supremely tight unison lines.

Their repertoire choice was inspired as well, ranging from Paul Simon's "Amulet" (recorded on Souza and Lubambo's new album, Tide), a gorgeous rendition of "Chega de Saudade," a heartbreaking take on "You Go To My Head," and a jovial romp through "But Not for Me." They closed their first set with Hermeto Pascoal's "Chorinho pra ele," an incredibly difficult song to play, let alone sing. Whenever I hear true bossa nova, I'm fascinated by the nuance that the performers bring to it, instead of the way many jazzers approach bossa as an archetype that must remain in tact the whole way through. The loose version of "So Danço Samba" that opened the concert and the expansive version of "Dindi" that closed it were two more examples of this open spirit.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Stevie Wonder setlist - 06/30/2009, Place des Festivals (FIJM)

I was kind of beyond critical commentary last night. DJ Kobal warmed everybody up with a killer 2-hour set of his own, dropping Michael Jackson classics interspersed with well-known and lesser-known soul and funk gems, and trying to move the clouds with Bill Withers' "Lovely Day."

After an opening speech honouring Michael Jackson, calling the never-ending gossip "bullshit" and proclaiming that tonight would be a celebration, Stevie started his marathon set in earnest. Every time I thought the set had to be over, he continued. The band was supremely tight (will get everyone's names later today and add them here). From my vantage point, I couldn't tell whether the first couple of Michael Jackson tunes were coming through the PA (as they apparently were) or if it was one of Stevie's incredibly talented back-up singers mimicing Michael to a T. During the earliest portion of soundcheck, Stevie's male back-up vocalist stood in for him, sounding note for note like the boss. The show ended with beautiful fireworks, set to among other things, "Manteca."

Set List
I Can't Help It
As If You Read My Mind
Master Blaster (Jammin') [with lyrics about Obama]
Shake Your Body Down to the Ground (PA)
Did I Hear You Say You Love Me
All I Do
Knocks Me Off My Feet
[new, Algerian sounding tune from the forthcoming spiritual record]
The Way You Make Me Feel (PA)
Higher Ground
All Blues [done with a 9/8 feel, Stevie on harmonica]
Giant Steps
Spain [Stevie playing Concerto de Aranjuez on harmonica, with each band member taking a chorus]
Our Love is Here to Stay
Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing
I'm Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life [Nancy Wilson song with Aisha Morris singing lead]
My Cherie Amour
Signed Sealed Delivered I'm Yours
Uptight (Everything's Alright)
For Once in My Life
Do I Do
I Just Called to Say I Love You
These Three Words
Sir Duke/I Wish/Isn't She Lovely
Superstition [with "Sex Machine" quotations]
MJ Finale: ABC/Got to be There/Never Can Say Goodbye/Shake Your Body/Rock With You/Billie Jean/Way You Make Me Feel/Man in the Mirror (PA)

We can feel it all over

So here's the story of how I met Stevie Wonder, in full.

I was at home, having lunch, waiting to see if ominous storm clouds would roll in as forecast. On the noon news, there was a piece about Stevie Wonder at the Jazz Fest and that he would be holding a press conference at 1 pm. I hustled to get down to the press room, arriving around 1:05 to a lobby full of journalists waiting to get in.

Once we were ushered into the new conference room, it was business as usual: reporters sat down, camera crews took to the wings and back. The lead press organizer made an announcement about how long the conference would be and to limit questions about Michael Jackson.

Festival co-founders Andre Menard and Alain Simard came out with Stevie close behind. After describing the festival's Spirit Award (a bronze statue based on a painting Miles Davis did for the festival) to Stevie, and Stevie's heartfelt words about jazz, the festival and Michael Jackson, they opened the floor to questions.

I had the first question. Identifying myself from CKUT (college and community radio), I asked him to talk about the influences that shaped his unique sense of melody and harmony. Since there was a piano onstage, I figured it would be a good way to get him showing examples and playing tunes - an Inside the Actors Studio moment. Stevie almost answered and then said, "You know, let's take the other questions first, and then you can come up here and hang and I'll show you some tunes."

Other questions were taken about Michael Jackson, child stardom, Motown, a forthcoming spiritual record, etc. I'm not sure who reminded him about me - someone in his crew or someone from Jazz Fest - but he said, "Where's that student? Come up here and let's talk." Not expecting it, the media organizer popped up beside me and prompted me to go up! I went up and introduced myself, thanking him, and he said to me, "So what do you want to know?" Flustered, I blurted out "Bridge of 'Living for the City' and 'They Won't Go When I Go'." He proceeded to talk about "They Won't Go," written on a Monday in New York as he was trying to get out of some contracts, and how Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff's Moog synthesizer programming really made the song come alive. "I Can't Help It" (from Off the Wall) is his take on "A Night in Tunisia." I suppose he was willing to continue, and I didn't want to cut him off but I knew time was running out.

Quite possibly the most surreal and flabbergasting experience of my life.