Saturday, July 10, 2010

FIJM 2010: final days

Got caught up in the whirlwind of my post-Jazz Fest life and realized I did not wrap things up here.

July 4 was Allen Toussaint day. You can read my account of the solo show at Gésu at Nextbop.

July 5: I arrived a few minutes late for the Dave Brubeck press conference. It was a true honour to be in the same room as him, to hear him talk mostly about his links between classical and jazz, and some of his history. He quoted what Mingus said about him: "To know if Dave is playing jazz, just look at the audience's feet when he plays!" Right after I whispered to Vy from Nextbop if anyone had asked about his studies with Milhaud, Brubeck mentioned one of Milhaud's pieces of advice: "Don't give up jazz. It's what makes you American. You can survive anywhere there's a piano! I have to go to universities and suffer through faculty meetings!" A lot of chronological details escaped Brubeck and were left to manager/producer/conductor Russell Gloyd. I got to shake the man's hand and tell him the truth: if it weren't for Time Out I would not be a jazz pianist.

More press conferences: My boys in Parc-X Trio won the Grand Prix this year. Can't think a better bunch of guys to take it. All the best to them! Don Thompson was awarded the Oscar Peterson prize, for outstanding contributions to Canadian jazz. He gave a brief interview and was obviously a little stunned by the whole award. Hearing Thompson talk about how the scene isn't like it was in the good old days left me ambivalent - normally I would write it off as just nostalgia, but he made a valid point. There are no house rhythm sections in clubs to play for touring artists anymore, and so a lot of that on-the-bandstand trial-by-fire education no longer exists. Those rigorous playing opportunities of three or four sets a night, five days a week, are very much a thing of the past. The musicians now, Thompson said, are as good as they've ever been and have so much information at their fingertips via YouTube. There is the risk, though, that we can begin to take that information for granted because we don't have to wait for it and treat it like a major event.

Onto the music. I caught about an hour of Karen Young, Eric Auclair and Bugge Wesseltoft. Having missed Bugge's solo set at Chapelle de Bon-Pasteur I was happy to see him in this group. WWPV-FM's David Beckett had seen the solo recital, and we had been talking about Bruce Hornsby in a somewhat unrelated manner. I wouldn't normally think of Bugge and Bruce in the same sentence, but they do share a pastoral sense of tonality. Both Auclair and Wesseltoft have extensive experience with live electronics and sampling, and both of them were manipulating their own sounds, triggering loops. Young was at her best soaring over the sound with wordless vocal improvisations. Her voice, for my taste, was drowned in way too much artificial reverb. The poetry she had written to the pieces composed by Auclair were not really to my taste either; at points it felt like the text and music were somewhat forced together, not part of a cohesive whole. Young was visibly engaged with Wesseltoft, though, and for having only met at soundcheck the Norwegian pianist shared great chemistry with the two Montrealers.

I caught the Orchestre Septentrional d'Haiti on the Tropiques stage. The musical institution of that country delivered a solid, joyous set of kompa to an eager crowd. Then it was off to Emir Kusturica's No Smoking Orchestra, which was more a provocateur rock show than I think most people expected. In a blue spandex Batman-meets-Mexican-wrestler outfit, Kusturica's lead singer prowled the stage, pumping his fists, interacting with his musicians, creating chants of "Are you agree? [sic] FUCK YOU MTV!". I enjoyed the parts that incorporated traditional folk-like melodies, just because it was the strongest musically, and generally featured the phenomenal violinist. The "Smoke on the Water" intro to something was hilarious. In general, they were not very compelling or strong as a pure rock band. If I want world-punk, I'll take Manu Chao.

July 6: final day. The heatwave is on. Secured a spot on the Christ Church Cathedral steps to watch the Mardi Gras parade, featuring some of the real floats from New Orleans, various bands from here and abroad, a nod to Brazilian Carnaval with the batucada from Estação da luz, and (this is something I never want to hear again) bagpipers playing "When The Saints Go Marching In." Made it through the crowd, somehow, to catch the last half of Zachary Richard's set, with David Torkanowsky on piano. The Soul Rebels Brass Band walked through the crowd and played an all-too-brief set of new-school brass band music. Trombone Shorty took the stage - I knew he was a phenomenal trumpet player and trombonist but he's also a great singer! The band was incredibly tight, nailing NOLA and Oakland-style funk, an Isley Brothers-esque slow jam, and a roaring cover of the Guess Who's "American Woman." The crowd thinned out as Allen Toussaint took the stage, introduced as the "High Priest of New Orleans music." He played all the tunes I wanted to hear in the solo show - "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?", "Get Out My Life, Woman," and all the classic New Orleans R&B he's crafted. He only repeated a couple of tunes from Sunday's recital, including "Southern Nights." Don Byron took a guest spot on "Bright Mississippi." The whole bash concluded with Soul Rebels at midnight in L'Astral, cranking out hard-grooving covers of "I Want You Back," "Could You Be Loved," Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," and many many more. Another Jazzofolie (term courtesy Mark Nelson) over.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

FIJM Day 9

Keith Jarrett's concert in Wilfrid-Pelletier was preceded by an additional announcement beyond the usual "Bell thanks you in advance for turning off your cell phones and all other devices with an alarm": "Flash photography and video is explicitly prohibited throughout the entire concert, including the bows. This is a request from the artists themselves and we ask you to respect their wishes." Visions of Umbria danced in my head.

Musically, it was peerless. Jarrett's touch is still second-to-none, ranging from the opening "You Go To My Head" as a Bud Powell-ish medium swing, the heart-melting balladry of "Too Young to Go Steady," and the impossible task of making uptempo romps through "Autumn Leaves" and "All the Things You Are" captivating and intriguing. His double-time lines are full of invention and exploration, and when he sinks his teeth into more stock bebop and blues phrases they have a sense of catharsis and authority. Gary Peacock had a less aggressively amped sound than I remember, his solos concise statements. Jack DeJohnette at times threatened to overwhelm Keith, nailing the dirty gospel-blues in the first set and providing the most unpredictable yet entirely perfect fills throughout the whole concert.

Temperamentally, it seemed Keith was in better spirits than usual. There were coughs and he played through them. There was an inordinate amount of time between two tunes, and during the negotiations he joked "Three heads are better than one." Jarrett paced around the piano during much of Peacock's solos and was constantly drinking fluids and at one point seemingly taking medication. They repeated the "No flash photos even during the bows" announcement as we returned from intermission. At the end, they walked off during a standing ovation, returned for a second bow, and by popular demand they returned to the stage. Yet some moron decided to take a flash photo. Here's what ensued:
It's obvious I have created an atmosphere where I don't even have to say anything and everyone knows what is going on. So, the people behind that person, take their camera away and I'll shut up.
Walk offstage. House lights up. No encore.

You know what? From now on, I will celebrate Keith's FIJM appearances by playing Tokyo '96 and Whisper Not in the comfort of my own home, where I can wheeze and sneeze as I please. I wonder if there will ever be a critical mass of people fed up with Jarrett's antics who will just buy the records and stop going to the concerts. Fair enough - there really is nothing like hearing Keith's command of the piano live, to be in the same room as the trio creates spectacular versions of standards. But the records come close, and the mastery and vocabulary has been the same for 27 years, and it's much less expensive and a more pleasurable listening environment, quite frankly.

The Ninja Tune party at Metropolis was the perfect palate cleanser. No pretension, no diva behaviour. Just Mr. Scruff rocking the house with a set full of reggae, afrobeat, salsa and funk and potato-head animation shouting out various Montreal neighbourhoods and advising us: "Warning: Incoming bassline alert!" Perhaps Jarrett should adopt the same proviso: "Caution: virtuoso pianist with God complex ahead. Tread lightly."

Saturday, July 03, 2010

FIJM Day 8

Gretchen Parlato is a very savvy vocalist. She knows the capabilities and role of her voice and uses her musicians and arrangements to frame them to their fullest. With her band of Taylor Eigsti on piano and keyboard, Alan Hampton on bass and Otis Brown III on drums, she captivated a sold-out Savoy. Using the presentation formula of every traditional jazz singer - band performing an intro, vocalist coming on last and leaving first, band vamping out and introductions over the last tune - made her repertoire choices and delivery all the more striking. Parlato and Eigsti had a fantastic interaction, Parlato feeding Eigsti melodies and Eigsti providing intriguing, inspiring harmonic beds for Parlato. They previewed some brand new material from an album to be recorded in August, produced by Robert Glasper. Parlato's two new originals, "Better Than" and "Winter Wind" have that Glasper kind of gloss to them already - an R&B sensibility with unpredictable twists and turns. Her duo with Brown on "Doralice" was a rhythmic masterpiece and Brown laid into a phenomenal partido alto samba feel.

Setlist: Within Me; Butterfly; On the Other Side; Doralice; Better Than; I Can't Help It (setbreak); Blue in Green (as a swinging hip-hop inflected tune); Juju; Me and You; Winter Wind; Ugly Beauty (duo w/ Eigsti); Weak.


Adam Rudolph's set was, frankly, plagued by all sorts of disappointments. I had high hopes for this show, solidified by the promise of his album Dream Garden and his work with Yusef Lateef. Gésu was half-empty and the concert started more than 20 minutes late, due to bassist Jerome Harris running over from his earlier show with Jack DeJohnette. Both reed players from the album (Ned Rothenberg and Steve Gorn) were absent, replaced by Ralph Jones. Graham Haynes was on flugel, trumpet, and borrowed a couple of flutes from Jones. Brahim Fribgane was the revelation of the festival for me, on cajon, frame drums and oud. Kenny Wessel was on electric guitar and banjo.

They opened with the steamrolling percussiveness of "Oshogbo," Fribgane's cajon and Rudolph's congas locked into each other with the horns cueing small figures and guitar swells. It then broke down into an open, free section of bowed bells, gongs and "little instruments" reminiscent of the Art Ensemble, except it was painfully static and not moving towards anything. I found Jones, throughout, to be distracting and interruptive - some beautiful moments courtesy of Fribgane and Rudolph would be derailed by Jones picking up another ethnic flute and noodling on it off-mic. Wessel seemed to be in his own world, not listening or responding to anything else going on. That's fine, though it either needed someone else also improvising out of context or he needed to lay out more. There were fragments of potential themes, melodies and rhythms that never cohered or moved anywhere. It picked up steam in the last third of the concert, with a meditative raga-like piece in D with a repetitive melody chased around the group, and another uptempo theme in Eb.

If the concert had been a half-hour shorter and the interludes more condensed, it would have been a thrilling mixture of folkloric rhythms and free improvisation. As it stood, it was a concept unrealized and promise unfulfilled.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

FIJM Day 7

Last night's shows on the TD Stage were two bands who have one foot in the jazz tradition and one foot in forward-thinking electronica and groove music.

Toronto bassist Rich Brown and his band rinsethealgorithm took the stage at 6 pm, playing music from their album Locutions. Throughout the set, elements of Rich's experience with Andy Milne and Steve Coleman were mixed with a smoother R&B gloss and inspiration from London's broken-beat scene. Drummer Larnell Lewis was taking his cues as much from the drum programming of Bugz in the Attic as Steve Coleman's phenomenal history of drummers. I grew up listening to pianist Robi Botos in Toronto, hearing him in acoustic jazz contexts at the Rex. He also has a tremendous pocket, unleashing a funky clavinet solo on the final tune and creating pad-laden atmospheres behind Brown's heartstring-tugging bass solos. I could have used more of Botos and saxophonist Luiz Deniz in the mix - Deniz was a bit drowned out but his solos were full of intensity and invention.

José James and his band followed up with two sets of music drawn from their album Blackmagic, along with some tracks from The Dreamer and white-label releases. The 9 pm set was plagued by terrible sound - James' lower mid register fell victim to a massive, distracting woofiness, and Frank LoCrasto's Rhodes was lost entirely. They still rose above it with fantastic versions of Freestyle Fellowship's "Parkbench People" (based on "Red Clay") and Coltrane's "Equinox." Richard Spaven is the perfect drummer for this band, stomping the Flying Lotus beats from Blackmagic as well as swinging his ass off on "Equinox." Bassist Chris Smith, a new name for me, matched Spaven's pocket the whole way through. LoCrasto's rich harmonic palette was on display in his many solo turns. The 11 pm set was much better sonically and it showed, as the band seemed to be a lot more at ease on stage. The Rhodes was clearer, and there was almost no woof to be heard. The only repeated tune in the two hour-long sets was "Electromagnetic," delivered in two entirely different versions. James' improvisations are superb. He nailed upper extensions with perfect intonation, hanging out on the #11 of the final chord of "Save Your Love For Me" and laying into the 6ths on "Equinox" and a couple of other tunes. In the 11 pm set he was really digging into Spaven, engaging him with extremely quick passages of scat but also more generally in the whole time feel. The highlight of the second set was his interpolation of "A Love Supreme" (with all of its harmonic complexity) into another tune. His phrasing is obviously indebted to hip-hop, especially in the way he would chop the phrase of a tune the way a DJ would scratch a record, but also to the laidback phrasing of Billie Holiday and Andy Bey. James is proving to be the epitome of a 21st-century male jazz singer.

FIJM Day 6

Last night was marked by party music of all kinds. I kicked off my evening with LA-33, a band from Colombia best known for their viral YouTube hit "La Pantera Mambo." I had written them off as one of those YouTube joke bands like Pomplamoose, but boy was I wrong. This crew delivered some of the grooviest, funkiest salsa I've heard live in a long time. Rooted in the classic Fania records of Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe, with a modern funk and hip-hop edge. Their covers are totally kitschy - "Roxanne," the aforementioned Pink Panther theme - but musically they work.

Then it was off to Slavic Soul Party. I've been meaning to see this Balkan brass band of Brooklynites for years, and they pulled no punches in their 9 pm set. Furious amounts of energy, tremendous precision by the trumpeters in their ornamentation, and the loudest tuba I have ever heard, played by the mohawk-sporting Ron Caswell.

Last night was also my first time seeing Dave Douglas' Keystone live. Playing music from the new film collaboration with Bill Morrison, Spark of Being, two things struck me immediately: 1) the absence of DJ Olive (on parental leave, and being subbed by Jeff Countryman behind the scenes); and 2) the similarity between Keystone and Dave's quintet. The instrumentation, obviously, is remarkably similar - Marcus Strickland on tenor, Adam Benjamin on Rhodes, Brad Jones on Baby Bass, and Gene Lake on drums. It's the slight differences in the players from their counterparts in the Quintet that really mark the two bands apart - Strickland has more air around his sound than the razor edge of Donny McCaslin; Benjamin processed his Rhodes with filters and delays that allowed him to be the glue between the band and the sound design; Jones' Baby bass has a hollow sound (and unfortunately wasn't working for most of the show); and Lake is an entirely different beast on kit. But it seems that Douglas' compositional voice is now cohesive across his many projects - the Quintet, Keystone and Brass Ecstasy are all quintessentially Dave.

Based on Morrison's film, which is itself based on Frankenstein, the opening themes had that quality of unpredictable ascension that only Douglas writes. The recurring themes often featured repetitive motivic figures, in one tune sounding like an air raid siren. The repetition of repetition led to a couple of "Epistrophy" quotes - how very meta. In other places, it seemed that Douglas has been checking out J Dilla and Flying Lotus, Lake delivering powerful beats that had Douglas and Strickland in full-out headnod mode. At times it was truly difficult to tell what was Benjamin's processed Rhodes and what samples Countryman was triggering from the stage, and that was truly important: the samples were truly integrated into the band sound. Lake used his powers of chops and gear for good and not ill - there were some pyrotechnic rolls but they were at the service of the music, and very few have a groove as deep. He absolutely nailed the unique swing of Dilla and post-Dilla experimental hip-hop, the Afro-Cuban 12/8 feel that popped up a few times, and the swampy funk and shuffle of the encores.

The first few pieces of Spark of Being were delivered continuously, and I think the music may have even been more effective delivered as a continuous suite or even screened with the film. Even without that, Spark of Being is compelling music and perhaps the most seamless integration of electronics in Douglas' career.