Saturday, June 30, 2012

FIJM Day 2 - guitars and quartets

Another day full of music and insight. The morning began with producer, archivist and historian Michael Cuscuna being awarded the Festival's Bruce Lundvall Prize, reserved for an industry person or non-musician integral to the development of the music. Cuscuna, a long-time lynchpin of Blue Note's revival and the head of Mosaic, is the perfect recipient. The press conference consisted of Cuscuna being interviewed by WBGO's Michael Bourne, with Cuscuna's recollections of the industry past and present, and lightly skeptical outlook towards the future.

From there, I explored the Guitar Show. I'm not a guitarist by any stretch of the imagination, but the beautiful luthierie on display is a great immersive art exhibit. I've also got a soft spot for Tele-style guitars with humbuckers, and anything to do with slide or steel guitar. Not that I can play any of it.

Becca Stevens, however, has a command of various stringed instruments. In her set at Upstairs, she switched between acoustic guitar, ukulele and Peruvian charango. With her band of Liam Robinson on accordion and piano, Chris Tordini on bass and Jordan Perlson on drums and cajón, she performed a bunch of new tunes as well as songs from her album Weightless. Beginning with the joyful exaltation of "Tillery" - "may we shout and may we sing" - it was an introduction to the three-part vocal harmonies (all except Perlson sang) that permeated the show. The harmony parts are sometimes simple unisons, but are usually far more intricate than that. She has a penchant for melodies that seem hauntingly familiar, delivered with a tender innocence. Stevens' rhythmic complexity is far more subtle than her Tillery counterpart Gretchen Parlato, left to the interlocking guitar and piano parts of "Be Still" or the polyrhythmic claps of "Canyon Dust." Perlson provides the perfect support for this band, easily switching from the deep, thudding backbeat on "Jac" to traditional mastery of the cajón, often playing both kit and cajón simultaneously. I discovered the band through their cover of Seal's "Kiss from a Rose," which they reprised here with more abandon. Their version of Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" was far more rhythmically propulsive than the original.


I ran over to Metropolis for a snippet of Esperanza Spalding and her Radio Music Society. Beginning with an introduction of tuning a radio to the proper frequency, the little big band launched into an almost James Brown-style series of introductory solos. For all the press that's been written about Spalding's pop cultural cachet, the beginning of the show was the jazziest I've ever heard Esperanza be, anchoring her band through a slow burning swing. Her monologues that preceded each tune were rehearsed but allowed room for flowing with the vibe of the room. I left at the end of her great arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help It." All reports were that the rest of the show was equally mesmerizing.

I'm not entirely sure what to write about the Wayne Shorter Quartet that hasn't already been written many times over. The harmonic and rhythmic simpatico between these guys is nearly unparalleled, snippets of tunes coming in and leaving, coming together in a truly powerful way. I couldn't identify the names of any of the tunes they played, and in a sense that didn't matter, because the purpose of what they do lies in each individual moment and doesn't necessarily need the context of what tune they may or may not be playing. The show opened with John Pattitucci's gorgeous arco bass, with Wayne and Danilo Pérez cascading chromatically overtop. Shorter seemed to grow stronger through the course of the show. His tenor sound was surrounded by air and saliva, but his soprano was all core tone. To be in the presence of that sound - that sound! - for the first time was an unforgettable experience. Wayne clearly leads the discussion and the shape of the music, even when he's not playing. Leaving lots of space for Pérez's interludes and cadenzas, it's as if the three of them are an extension of Shorter's unplayed sound. The sheer muscularity with which Brian Blade addresses the drums is pure visceral exuberance. At the end of the first tune, all four of them were rightfully filled with glee over the impossible tightness with which they concluded the piece. Sporting ear-to-ear grins, they crossed the stage to high-five each other. If there were one moment to sum up the beauty of this band, that would be it.

During the show I was struck by the similarities between Wayne's quartet and the trio of Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis that I saw at Victo. Clearly, there are sonic differences between the two - Pérez is a much less angular player than Muhal - but the sense of freedom to pursue the moment  (as evidenced by Shorter tapping his mouthpiece cover inside the piano and whistling into the mics) and the deep, intensely focused listening are identical. The sense that these are bands fostered on long relationships, I think, is also the key to their impressive mastery.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Jazz Fest Day 1 - Frisell & Porter

Bill Frisell has the ability to investigate every nook and cranny of a melody and draw new textures from it. Relying on the repertoire of John Lennon, this gift was in full display at Club Soda tonight. And who better to pay tribute to all sides of Lennon's musicality, from his originally skiffle and R&B influenced rhythm guitar chops to his experiments with tape loops, than Frisell? Alongside steel guitarist Greg Leisz. bassist Tony Scherr. and drummer Kenny Wollesen, the group reframed Lennon's work, sometimes in drastic ways, without ever straying too far from the tunes.

Sporting a Gibson ES-style semi-hollowbody axe - not a guitar I associate with him - Frisell and company came on stage after a kitschy orchestral version of "Yellow Submarine," without any prerecorded announcement. His swirling, delay-laden, celestial voicings led into a lightly deconstructed "Across the Universe," announced by repeating the "jai guru deva" section. This band deals in impossibly gradual crescendos, ratcheting up the energy in painstakingly incremental fashion. Frisell can lay into the simplest of melodies with the utmost conviction, and has the patience to stay there - "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" from East/West is the textbook example of this.

Frisell's relationships with these specific bandmates go back years, if not decades. The blend between Frisell and Leisz was so close, at times I couldn't tell who was creating what. Wollesen was clearly having a blast, laying into the backbeats of "Please Please Me" and gleefully referencing Ringo's tom fills of "Come Together." And if there's any bassist within the jazz realm who clearly understands Paul McCartney's bottom-end aesthetic of being melodic while also being glued to the kick drum, Scherr is it.

Once the melody of "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" appeared out of a nearly Coltrane-ish modal excursion, Leisz and Frisell would coalesce their lines into a poignant, powerful downbeat. Frisell's dissonances never seemed to be tacked onto the songs: they seemed perfectly natural, like they had always been there, lurking under George Martin's production.

The final tune of the set, "In My Life," induced goosebumps and tears from its clarion opening theme. The piano solo became a recurring part of the arrangement, played in perfect tandem between Leisz and Frisell. Towards the end, Wollesen unleashed a train beat that morphed itself into a nearly Sonny Rollins-esque calypso, before detonating a long E-power-chord pedal that resolved itself to end the set. The two encores, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Imagine" were played more or less straight up, which is not to say they lacked innovation or beauty. Not by a long shot.

Gregory Porter is a new name to me. I had heard snippets on Bandcamp before, but my knowledge of his work was much more limited than my experience with Frisell, whom I have seen four times. Porter has a husky, classic soul-man baritone, with a Kurt Elling-like nasal rasp in his upper register. He has clear diction and a very disciplined sense of melisma. His between-song banter reminded me of Bill Withers' monologues from Live at Carnegie Hall. Clearly, he knows his history, with his original songs incorporating the classic Motown grooves (complete with a quote of "It's the Same Old Song") and take-no-prisoners swing.

Porter recounted the travel fiasco he and his bandmates encountered in arriving to Montreal. Perhaps that accounts for the kind of youthful raggedness of their sound. Aaron James' intonation on the bass was iffy in places, which made me think it wasn't his own instrument. Pianist Chip Crawford, in the first set, relied on his hands in unison - either octaves or tenths - spinning impressive, if hyperactive, lines. By the end of the two-and-a-half hours, I felt like he had run out of ideas, resorting to a series of glissandi on "Wisdom." Saxophonist Yosuke Sato had a piercing, poppy alto sound, and lacked Porter's restraint. Drummer Emmanuel Harold (I'll check the spelling of his name tomorrow) was a real revelation for me, anchoring the rhythmic feel of the band, from the gospel-meets-one-drop of "Mother's Song" to the Philly Joe Jones rim-click swing at the end of their version of Mingus' "Moanin'". When Porter was singing, the band gelled behind him admirably.

The sets were evenly split between Porter's originals and a repertoire of standards, notably including a fast version of Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile." This was followed by a gorgeous rendition of "Skylark" that was marred only by Rufus Wainwright's outdoor show leaking into the club. (Someone needs to get on soundproofing L'Astral, stat!) Even after two-and-a-half hours of barnburning soul-jazz, the audience demanded an encore. Running up against his curfew, Porter indulged with a short, sweet, a cappella rendition of "Mona Lisa."

Monday, June 25, 2012

2012 Montreal Jazz Festival - outdoor picks

The 33rd edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival unofficially kicks off in two evenings from now, with "pre-opening" concerts courtesy of Janelle Monáe and James Taylor (not, unfortunately, a double-bill). I profiled the indoor programming here; my picks for the must-see outdoor and free shows are below. There is once again an official jam session at the Hyatt hotel, hosted by pianist John Roney. The unofficial jams include the B3 organ hang over at Brutopia, hosted by Martin K. Petersen and company, and local Afrobeat dons Papagroove hold court at L'Absynthe for a few nights as well. And for all the people who grouse every year that the Festival is less and less jazzy (especially outdoors), keep reading.

June 28
Ivan Garzón Quartet (8 pm, CBC stage): I play with Ivan in Denis Chang's manouche quartet, where he plays rhythm guitar. He's also a fantastic post-bop electric player, and is in the running for the TD Grand Prix.
Marie-Christine (8 pm, Rio Tinto Alcan stage): One of the great rising soul and R&B singers in town, she's a commanding stage presence to match her voice.

June 29
Mike Essoudry's Mash Potato Mashers (4 & 6 pm, Heineken Lounge): Mike and I crossed paths at McGill. The Ottawa drummer's revisionist brass band is part of the daily afternoon brass-heavy madness throughout the festival.
Peripheral Vision (6 pm, TD stage): My buddies from Toronto, guitarist Don Scott and bassist Michael Herring, co-lead this quartet featuring their forward-thinking tunes. They're also nominated for the Prize.
Curumin (10 pm, Bell stage): If you missed his show three years ago on the same stage, prepare to be converted to this dubby, hip-hop-inflected Brazilian pop music. Curumin is undoubtedly the reason why my heart and my ears gravitate to São Paulo's music scene.

June 30
Alexandre Côté Quintet (6 pm, TD stage): Alex is an un(der)sung hero of the Montreal scene, as a saxophonist and as a composer. I'm privileged to play alongside him in Gary Schwartz's LETTINGO, and his writing always opens my eyes to new possibilities.
Maria Farinha Band (8 & 10 pm, Rio Tinto Alcan stage): This singer's list of sidemen include the cream of the crop of Brazilian musicians from Canada, the US and São Paulo. A dose of traditional MPB.
Plaster (10 pm, Bell stage): The original purveyors of local wall-shaking live electro. These guys embodied lots of what I loved about the Montreal scene circa 2004-05, and they're back!

July 1 - the night of too many decisions
Chris Tarry Group (6 pm, TD stage): The ex-Metalwood bassist has been settled in NYC for many years now, cranking out phenomenal original music and short stories. Tarry's sound on electric bass has been one of my favourites for years.
Robi Botos (8 pm, CBC stage): I grew up marvelling at Robi's talent in Toronto, watching him give master classes at The Rex with every solo. Without question one of Canada's best pianists. He's in the running for the Prize as well.
Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto (8 pm, Bell stage): the premier traditional cumbia group, in existence since 1940! An opportunity to not be missed. It'll provide context for...
Boogat (10 pm, Bell stage): Montreal MC turned ambassador for electro-Latin music. He's prepping a new record, and I'm sure all the dancefloor hits will be in his set too. ¡Dios mio, que viva Montreal!
Kneebody (10 pm, CBC stage): I've been a fan of this bi-coastal quintet since their first album on Greenleaf. Their electric, modern jazz packs a wallop, with a killer frontline of multi-reedist Ben Wendel and trumpeter Shane Endsley.
Heavy Soundz (midnight, Savoy, til July 3): alongside Boogat, the leading voice of Latin hip-hop in town. They take up three late-nights of residency at the Savoy.

July 2
Roma Carnivale vs Fanfare Severni (5 pm, place des Festivals): two local Balkan-influenced brass bands march across the place des Festivals for some heatstroke-inducing early partying. My money's on Roma.
Rachel Therrien Quintet (6 pm, TD stage): Like me, Rachel nurtures two great passions: Latin music and contemporary jazz. Fresh off the Banff Centre's jazz workshop, her sound has grown immensely and I can't wait to hear her showcase for the Prize.
Jazz Amnesty Sound System (midnight, L'Astral, til July 4): Selectors Andy Williams (of the Goods) and Luv dig into their impossibly deep jazz crates for a vinyl-only dancefloor section. I've been honoured to guest on a couple of their nights at the Waverly and I always get schooled by their records.

July 3
Sidi Touré (8 pm, Rio Tinto Alcan stage): This Malian singer and guitarist is firmly in line with many of his great countrymen, with a disarming voice and potent fingerwork.
Escort (9:30 pm, TD stage): a live disco big band direct from Brooklyn, featuring members of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society among others, for the mid-festival blowout? Yes, please.

July 4
Karl Jannuska (6 pm, TD stage): A bit of a mythical figure on the Montreal scene, this McGill alumnus moved to Paris before I arrived. Everyone still talks about his drumming and his compositions, for good reason. Featuring vocalist Sienna Dahlen, Jannuska's music is moving and somewhat haunting.
Ernesto Cervini Quartet (8 pm, CBC stage): I'm not really sure how you can be nominated for the TD "Rising Star" prize when you've released a few records on Anzic and your tenor saxophonist is Joel Frahm. Ernesto is a fantastic drummer (and an equally capable pianist and clarinetist) whose compositional voice is constantly growing.
Besh O Drom (8 & 10 pm, Rio Tinto Alcan stage): a group that was at the forefront of the Balkan Beats movement, this band direct from Hungary will show us how it's done.
The Narcicyst (10 pm, Bell stage): MC, author, professor, social critic and fashionista will grace the Jazz Fest stage with an all new show before he leaves our belle ville. Allahdamercy!

July 5
Chet Doxas Quartet (10 pm, CBC stage): The brothers Doxas (Jim's a drummer) are fixtures on the local scene, and the catalysts for some of jazz's biggest names to come to town. Chet will be playing music from his last album, Big Sky, featuring guitarist and Triplettes de Belleville composer Ben Charest.
Coyote Bill (10 pm, Bell stage): horn-heavy funky goodness featuring composer/producer/saxophonist extraordinaire Charles Papasoff, and members of Papagroove.
Kalmunity Vibe Collective (midnight, Savoy, til July 7): full disclosure - I'm playing on this one. Kalmunity has provided nine years of improvised grooves and social commentary in the city, and has been the incubator for some of the city's most promising talent over the past decade. With our three nights at the Savoy, we're indulging three different facets of our collective personality. July 5 is my baby, exploring the roots of all this music at Congo Square, and seeing how and where it grew from there. For those of you who attended our Mardi Gras party, expect some greasy NOLA funk through the Kalmunity kaleidoscope. The following nights are spotlighting J Dilla (July 6) and "the present moment" (July 7).
Canicule Tropicale (midnight, L'Astral, til July 7): My boys Philippe Noël and Kobal are back once again, with an all-tropical, all-vinyl marathon of dancefloor rockin' goodness.

July 6
Samuel Blais Quartet (8 pm, CBC stage): another young saxophonist whose enterprising NYC connections have led to an influx of fantastic shows in this city. He's showcasing his homegrown quartet, one of his many simultaneous projects.
Orgone (TD stage, 9 & 11 pm): I still harbour a love for the "jamband" scene - a remnant from my high school and early university days. These guys are carrying the torch of that community quite well, with an improvisational sense to their funk.
Frank Lozano Montreal Quartet (10 pm, CBC stage): Frank was a teacher of mine at McGill and a big inspiration, with a language that spans all periods and improvisational abilities.

July 7
Chicha Libre (8 pm, Bell stage): Led by Olivier Conan, the co-founder of Brooklyn's renowned club Barbès, this group has led the way for the rediscovery of Peruvian chicha music. They've put out a couple of brilliant records.
Blackmahal (10 pm, Bell stage): Bill Smith of Eye For Talent agency described them to me as "Bollywood hip-hop." An intriguing enough endorsement to warrant closing out the festival with this group. 

Friday, June 01, 2012

The time taken

The impetus of this blog, when I started out, was to document my life as a musician in Montreal. At the time, jazz blogging was in its infancy and centred around New York. I felt that Montreal's scene was equally vibrant and worthy of documentation. As the attention of indie-rock sites focused on the talent coming out of this city (many with links to jazz education programs in town), there wasn't the same mention being given to our jazz talent on the national or international stage. Ironically, as I've been more active as a musician, and therefore have had more things going on to document, my time for blogging has decreased. Yet one recent McGill Master's recital has prompted me to try and revise that.

Trombonist, composer, and arranger Jean-Nicolas Trottier was a few years ahead of me in our undergrad class at McGill. His concert of original big band pieces, held in the smallest recital hall available at McGill, was the catalyst for my own path down writing for large ensembles and cramming them onto tiny stages. Johnny has since become a first-call session player and arranger in town, and rightfully so. In his Master's recital, he led a tentet comprised of three saxes, two trumpets, trombone, and rhythm section. Due to the torrential rainfall of Tuesday, I was half an hour late to the set, and missed the opening tune "Mes Deux Femmes." I walked in on the closing woodwind chords of "Klondike Suite."

Trottier's writing features beautifully tense voicings, without sounding overly dense. The immediate parallel at the beginning of his "Chamber Suite" was Birth of the Cool, for its bouncy rhythmic sense and the roundness of the horn blend. Throughout the set, Trottier proved to be the epitome of straight-ahead jazz in 2012: there's an assimilation of great large ensemble jazz composers before him, from Tadd Dameron to Gil Evans. Anchored by a hard swinging rhythm section featuring guitarist Carlos Jimenez and pianist Jonathan Cayer, the ensemble sections were an outgrowth of Trottier's own trombone sound: not overly brassy or harsh, yet not pastoral in the way many post-Maria Schneider composers can be. Even the more angular tunes, like "Blue Lines" (a feature for trumpeter David Carbonneau and Cayer), and Part 5 of the "Chamber Suite" (seemingly indebted to George Russell's "All About Rosie") had the edginess sanded off. I appreciated that, aside from personal amps for Carlos and bassist Sebastien Pellerin, there was no electricity whatsoever. No microphones, which worked quite well in the new(er) Tanna Schulich Hall of McGill, and showcased Kevin Warren's touch on the drums behind the soloists. Even when Trottier soloed over the band - in cup mute! - he was completely audible in the back row of the hall.

The recital was essentially a dry run for the weekend's recording session. With standout soloists in altoist Samuel Blais and bari player J-F Ouellet, in addition to the aforementioned, Johnny's tentet is poised to take its place in the canon of great Canadian jazz composition.