Atomic 5, like many younger bands on the Montreal scene, has its roots in university. Made up of McGill students and an outgrowth of a for-credit student combo that enjoyed playing together, the quintet played at this past summer's Montreal Jazz Festival. Last night, they invited Monk competition winner, iconoclastic alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon. There were some really special moments last night that I could relate to - Indigone is an extension of my own McGill combos, and playing with older players that I admire have led to some fantastic growth in my own playing.
The band is definitely under the influence of a certain section of mainstream jazz that holds sway over many musicians in the Jazz Now set - Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin, David Binney, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Aaron Parks come to mind. The sound of the group is surprisingly dry - guitarist Nicolas Godmaire's jazz tone (he would switch to a Telecaster for the more rock or ambient sections) was completely clean; Aaron Landsberg's cymbals were of that gasping, choking quality that I love; bassist Kathryn Palumbo, referred to as the anchor, solidly held down the bottom; and pianist Beavan Flanagan's lines had fluidity without being flowing. Tenor saxophonist Steven Salcedo is a confident band leader, at ease on the mic and cueing sections with clarity. His bright, pop-influenced sound blended well with Irabagon and cut over the rest of the band.
Many alto saxophonists have a characteristic honk that appears in the more aggressive manner of playing. Irabagon has that edge, but the squawk is an affectation that he can add or remove at will. Throughout the two sets, he was the catalyst for the best playing from the group and amply proved why a vocabulary that is all-encompassing is important. His control of tone and timbre obviously comes from working with extended techniques in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, while his intervallic language and keen sense of motivic development gave his solos a highly cohesive logic. The combination of all these elements was riveting.
The majority of the tunes were by Atomic 5 band members, with one by Irabagon and an arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "Mahjongg." Most were done in varied straight-eighth feels. Salcedo's tunes, in particular, had a distinct Latin undertone recalling his experience in salsa bands both in NYC and Montreal. The attention to sound was surprising - Godmaire, as mentioned, switched between a semi-hollow Ibanez for the jazz sound and an effected Tele for the rocking and atmospheric sections. He and Flanagan avoided stepping on each other's toes, but there were a few parts where the layering of guitar and piano would have been more effective than one of them just laying out. Some tunes featured more free sections, and the improvised solo guitar interlude by Godmaire was a highlight of the first set. The most revealing moment of the evening was during "Mahjongg," which vaccillated between medium swing and blistering freebop. It took a while for the faster tempo to settle in behind Flanagan, but Irabagon set it up clearly for his solo and locked the entire rhythm section behind him.
The best way to learn is on the bandstand, and Atomic 5 lived up to the challenge the presented to themselves. If they can take the lessons learned this weekend with them, they will surely be a band to watch.