Thursday, July 21, 2011

FIJM: Wrap-up & 2012 Wish List

Nearly a month late, I just realized I never did a final summation on the Montreal Jazz Fest. The final show I saw was Malian vocalist Khaira Arby, who was just absolutely stunning. The obstacles which she has had to overcome are enough to warrant attention, but above and beyond that her voice is golden. She's got that indescribable power that Milton Nascimento and so many other great singers share to just cut to the core of a song and a listener, without fanfare or flash but with sheer emotional acuity. Arby is described as a fierce feminist, but I feel like she's more a humanist, advocating the equality of sexes. She is the reason women can sing in Tuareg communities. What an inspiring way to close the festival.

These are acts that got away in 2011 (and in previous editions too). Here's my wish list for 2012, and I've even taken it upon myself to suggest the venues! Most of these artists have not performed at the FIJM to my knowledge, the exceptions being Zenón and Forró in the Dark who are just way overdue for a return.

- Guillermo Klein y los Guachos in Gesù
- John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble in Gesù
- Miguel Zenón Esta Plena in Gesù or Club Soda
- Ambrose Akinmusire in (guess where!) Gesù
- Tirtha in Gesù
- Kneebody (with or without Theo Bleckmann) in L'Astral
- Calle 13, outside or in Metropolis
- Instituto at Savoy at midnight
- Criolo, at Club Soda
- Forró in the Dark, outside or Club Soda
- Mark de Clive-Lowe featuring Nia Andrews, Rahel and/or Sy Smith, outside or in Club Soda
- Aloe Blacc in Club Soda

And my two personal pipe-dreams:
- Ruben Blades opening or closing the festival outdoors
- Zimbo Trio in L'Astral

Monday, July 04, 2011

Montreal Guitar Show 2011

No, I'm not a guitarist. I have always been fascinated by the instrument, though. Also being in love with all things shiny, and having hung out in music stores since a young age, I have made a point over the last three years of going to the Montreal Guitar Show, one of the biggest guitar expositions in North America. It was created to coincide with the Jazz Festival, having now spawned its own award and its own sub-series of programming.

The show is split into two large conference rooms at the Hyatt: one of electric guitars (with soundproofed booths with boutique amplifiers), and one of acoustics (also with soundproofed module studios). Of the electrics, I got to lay my hands on Mike Potvin's Ranchero Grande Thinline - I've always had a thing for Thinline Telecaster-style guitars - and Kauer Guitars' Daylighter, both of which played amazingly for this non-guitarist. I wish I remembered the name of the amp I played them through. One guitar I played a couple of years ago, and still covet, is Marc Lupien's Convertible, presented again this year in all its glory. James Trussart's instruments looked far too intimidating and beautiful for this pretender to pick up and play.

I didn't spend as much time in the acoustic side, but I did see Batson Guitars' flat-fronted offerings, and a beautiful luthier from Tijuca, Fernando Bernardo. I've also been nursing an obsession over lap steels, so I was happy to refresh myself with the work of Joseph Yanuziello, and really wanted to check out Bill Asher's work.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

FIJM 2011 - Day 8

Another Jazz Fest day dominated by the outdoor stages. Singer Magos Herrera kicked off the evening with a set of music from her new album Mexico Azul. Herrera takes songs from the golden era of Mexican cinema spanning the 1930s-50s, and re-arranges them in a polished, modern jazz setting. Many of the tunes were reset in odd meters, reflecting the traditional Mexican 3 feel with a subtle lilt. Pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Nir Felder laid a lush harmonic carpet for Herrera's voice. Both of them were strong, impressive soloists, especially Perdomo with his post-Herbie Hancock language. The balance between drummer Alex Kautz and percussionist Rogerio Boccato was something to behold - the two never got in each other's way, and with Boccato playing his multi-percussion setup with sticks most of the time, it really blended into the sound of Kautz's kit. Herrera pushed her voice (which sounds more powerful now than it did on Distancia) with a bit of a pop-ish manner. The only headscratching moment came at the end of the set, when she delivered the beautiful "Tres Palabras" in English, which seemed to rob it of its poetry.

I caught a bit of Peru's Novalima, whose electronically-enhanced Afro-Peruvian funk translates far better on a big outdoor stage with lots of bass than in the cabaret setting of Lion D'or (as I saw a few years ago). Still riding the wave of their last album, Coba Coba, they previewed some new material from an upcoming record. Based on the set, I look forward to hearing it.

Nomadic Massive & Groundfood tore the roof off Savoy late night. Nomadic warmed up the crowd with some of their live set staples, with a couple of new tracks interspered. Then they made way for Groundfood, who added an MC alongside their usual crew of Kalmunity-affiliated band members. Then, the masterpiece was the all-killer, no-filler, hybrid set of Hip Hop Revival greatest hits. What started as a one-off night of Native Tongues covers has grown into a new Montreal tradition. Their set on Saturday included Black Star's "Definition," Tali & Meduza taking on Lauryn Hill's "That Thing," and the closing posse cut "Scenario." The highlight of the night was seeing the hip-hop colours of guitarist Ali Sepu (taking the mic for "Insane in the Membrane") and poet/trumpeter Blackbird. A night not to be forgotten.

A note: Tali mentioned on the mic (and this was corroborated by FIJM programmer Marc-André Sarault) that on the first night of Nomadic's midnight residency, there were up to 2000 people waiting outside that couldn't get in. On Saturday, Savoy was full well before midnight. In a year where the outdoor "blowouts" have been referred to by the Gazette's Bernie Perusse as "underwhelming," perhaps FIJM should consider booking Nomadic, Groundfood, and their extended family of the Montreal soul & hip-hop scene for a real homegrown expo next year. Just a thought.

FIJM 2011 - Day 7

After the modernist Latin jazz of John Benitez and Yosvany Terry, and the knockout salsa of La Excelencia, I was looking forward to hearing the more traditional sounds of Sierra Maestra. A group of traditional soneros, active since 1976, their former members include Juan de Marcos Gonzalez - the mastermind of Afro-Cuban All Stars - and Jesus Alemany of Cubanismo.

They immediately portrayed the difference of people learning the music vs. people living the music - though not loud or in-your-face like brass-driven salsa, the time feel of Sierra Maestra was powerfully deep. With the traditional complement of percussion (conga, bongo, guiro and cowbell) and electric bass, the sound was well grounded. The rhythmic changes - from son to changui to 6/8 - were highly effective; they spurred the crowd of dancers, and while they weren't necessarily executed in the tightest fashion, they always felt good.

With a band this culturally and historically important, a group that very rarely plays Montreal, the show at Club Soda was disappointingly short: 40 minute first set, then an intermission, then a half-hour second set. No encore, house music on, techs abruptly and diligently tearing down the mics. Not everyone needs to do four-hour marathons like Prince or Peter Frampton, and I know the Festival needs to change over the venues, but by the time Sierra Maestra generated a good dose of momentum in their set, they were offstage.


I was fortunate to catch about half of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's set. Playing mostly music from their upcoming album, The Race Riot Suite, it was my first occasion to hear them with bassist Jeff Harshbarger. Harshbarger's woody sound is more "acoustic" than his predecessors, which frees up pianist Brian Haas and drummer Josh Raymer. Lap steel guitarist Chris Combs is the composer of the suite, whose movements range from semi-New Orleans grooves to late-Romantic or early-20th century sonatas for Haas. Combs' sound, soaked in reverb and delay, adds an otherworldly texture to the band, a collision between Frisellian Americana and indie rock thrust. Raymer reminded me of local drummer Jim Doxas, in his mannerisms around the kit and in his wide swing feel.


Pianist Dan Tepfer is a fan of counterpoint. In evidence from the first tune of his Upstairs set, "Nines," his harmonic sense stems from interweaving lines, and less from traditional chord-scale pedagogy or vertical harmony. His exceeding amount of technique is at the service of his line construction and a solidly intriguing rhythmic sense. Drummer Ted Poor was the embodiment of interactivity without being overbearing. He was even busy at times but still supportive of Tepfer, the former watching the latter like a hawk during endings.

Tepfer, Poor and bassist Massimo Biolcati exhibited great range as well. Midset, they displayed their efficacy with the bebop and post-bop tradition with a contrapuntally fractured "Giant Steps" and another beboppy (in Tepfer's own way) tune. On this latter tune, Poor was on fire with his brushes, and the whole trio generated a lot of heat without exploding in volume. Tepfer's variety of dynamic, within his lines and from song to song, was astounding. The opening B major chords in Jacques Brel's "Le plat pays" were chiming incantations, and his original ballad "The Distance" was almost pastoral and bluesy. These ballads had a vibe reminiscent of when Brad Mehldau plays Radiohead, and allowed Biolcati to display a singing, resonant solo voice on the bass.

As a pianist/composer, Tepfer is also a fan of arpeggiated figures that anchor some of his tunes. Both "Nines" and "Back At Ya" had repetitive figures that served as the foundation of the piece, but also threatened to straitjacket the band members a bit. When Tepfer released his left hand from the shackles of the ostinato, the tunes lifted. The freer endings of the pieces were just as, if not more, compelling, than the tunes they concluded. The closing "All I Heard Was Nothing" was the exception, where the pedal point was a hallmark of the piece but not restrictive. Poor and Tepfer soared over the tune, with Tepfer unleashing some modern bluesiness on the vamp out. The trio returned for an encore of "Body and Soul," featuring another enchanting Biolcati solo and Tepfer muting the piano with paper and his fingers. One of the best sets of music of the Festival so far, and easily the best swing feel I've yet heard this week, courtesy of Ted Poor.

Friday, July 01, 2011

FIJM Day 6 - ¡Sabroso!

When I arrived at Upstairs at 6:30 for the first of three sets by the John Benitez group (supposed to start at 7), there were no cymbals on the kit, no bass on stage, and no musicians in the house. Due to some unexpected transportation problems, the band only arrived at 7:15 and hit around 7:50. Both John and club owner Joel Giberovitch apologized profusely for the delays; it didn't seem to affect the music one bit.

As soon as everything was set up and soundchecked to their liking, the band launched into a set of tunes from their new album, Purpose. The first tune took a happy, major-key riff and used it to modulate through various key centres, on top of Benitez's wide tumbao as its anchor. Manuel Valera was an inspiring pianist - he's got a great handle on the 1960s post-bop language, beautifully soulful chord voicings, and an ear for intriguing, denser polychords, but he really lifted the band to a new level every time he unleashed a montuno, as he did behind saxophonist Yosvany Terry. Many of the tunes in the set were either sectional or longer-forms, filled with unison figures split among different members of the band. Terry picked up his shekere for Tom Guarna's guitar solo, whose clean sound, with a bit of delay, added some breath and atmosphere around the band. Guarna's moment to truly shine came in his solo introduction to the second tune of the set, a beautiful ballad featuring out-of-time statements from Benitez and Valera. Guarna and Valera dovetailed their sounds and lines behind Terry's alto solo, elegantly staying out of each other's way.

Francis Benitez, John's son, is a force to be reckoned with. At his young age, he's got chops galore but also the discipline to sit in the pocket. From traditional cascara patterns to funky backbeats to some of the most convincing swing I've heard at this edition of the festival, the father-son rhythm section drove the band forward. Definitely a drummer to watch out for. In addition to being a fantastic alto player, Terry is also a virtuoso on the shekere, as he displayed on the unaccompanied intro to "Rumba." He and the younger Benitez were greatly responsible for finding new colours in the grooves behind the soloists.

From there, it was over to the mainstage to dive into some salsa dura from NYC's La Excelencia. Getting there an hour early, I watched as Montreal's tight-knit community of salsa dancers congregated towards the front and warmed up with miniature expositions as the crowd clapped the clave. La Excelencia is crafted from the same classic Nuyorican salsa mould as the Fania Records heyday of Willie Colón and Johnny Pacheco - intricate horn arrangements that never lost the groove, a pianist that was a montuno machine, and a propulsive timbalero. The singer indulged in a bit too much crowd animation for my liking (I counted about 5 "Montreaaaaaaaaal" shout-outs in an hour-long set, and he repeated "Do you want to continue?" at escalating volume three times in a row), but the band and the tunes were great. They're the perfect argument for the return of salsa orchestras to clubs - dancers never dance as well to a DJ as they do to a live band.