Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Montreal High Lights (En Lumiere) - Feb 19/2010

The Montreal High Lights festival (Montréal en Lumière en français) is always capped off by Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts marathon that takes over the city. My own personal, literal Nuit Blanche was a week earlier.

My evening started with the launch of Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra album, Treelines, at Salle Gésu. Christine had given me an advance copy of the album while we were in Banff, but I had not had the chance to listen to it before the concert. All the better, as Gésu is easily one of my favourite rooms in the city, especially when its sound board is being manned by engineer extraordinaire Paul Johnston (who also recorded Treelines). He let the band master their own sound on stage, boosting solo microphones and guest soloist Ingrid Jensen's effects as necessary.

Christine's large ensemble music is a very natural outgrowth of her small band music. With brand-new compositions fresh in my ear from Banff, the relationship was very clear. Her large ensemble writing is at its best in burnished, harmonically rich chorales that unfold and embrace the listener, as in "Red Cedar," "Vernal Suite" and the 9/8 of "Western Yew." The introduction to Joel Miller's "Dropoff" (a tune Joel and I played together at our Mandigone concert in early January) cast the tune in a new light, elaborate without weighing down the source material. She also winked at Joel's own writing methods, with a double-time soli replete with "Moose the Mooche" fragments - compare with the soli from "Anonymity" from Joel's record Tantramar that leads into a quote from "Four," or the "Gingerbread Boy" references on "Rashers" from Mandala. Standout solos came courtesy of Ingrid, of course, deploying delay effects, using the harmon mute much like a synthesizer filter, and even an octave pedal at one point; and almost the entire saxophone section - Donny Kennedy on the opening "Arbutus" swinging hard and clean, and fellow altoist Erik Hove unleashing his contrasting flurries of creativity on "Red Cedar," and tenors Joel Miller and Chet Doxas conversing over "Dancing Sunlight." In a big band, it makes a true difference having a rhythm section that has a strong simpatico as a self-contained unit, and the quartet of Kenny Bibace, Steve Amirault, Fraser Hollins and Martin Auguste have played enough with each other and with Christine to propel the rest of the band as one powerful engine.

From Gésu, I split to go be a judge for Red Bull's Thre3style DJ competition. A nation-wide caravan led by MC Curtis Santiago and featuring DJ Scratch Bastid, the concept is to pit 8 DJs up against each other, give them 15 minutes in which they have to mix among at least 3 different genres, and see what they can do. The top 3 DJs win prizes and the winner goes to compete in the national finals (against winners from all the other cities) in Toronto during Canadian Music Week. It's an international thing, but I don't remember where the international finals are. My fellow judges included Alain Mongeau from MUTEK, current RBMA participant Ango, Parvez from Montreal State of Mind, Morgan "Beatseeker" Steiker, and DJs Hatchmatik and Scratch Bastid.

My experience as a DJ is more from a radio end than from an actual mixing/scratching/performance end, but I've become friends with great DJs in town. Seeing 8 vastly different DJs go on one after another was quite eye-opening for me, and it became apparent throughout the night who had skills and who did not, who could read the crowd and who did not. I kept relating it in my mind to a jazz jam session. Competitors were strongly advised not to repeat tracks (although a few did, especially by the end of the night), the same way at a jam session you're not supposed to call a tune that's already been played. Some competitors made some really intriguing transitions between styles - some just jump-cut from one tune to the next, and some fluidly got from one place to the other in some surprising ways. The winner of the Montreal battle, A-Rock, unanimously won over us judges (at least, all the guys I talked to). 2nd and 3rd places wound up in ties between a bunch of fantastic DJs that Montreal partygoers should be proud to call our own.

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