Saturday, July 02, 2011

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.

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