My first trip to the esteemed Festival International de la Musique Actuelle du Victoriaville (FIMAV, or Victo to its friends) was this past weekend. It was a privilege to perform on the final day with Matana Roberts, with the majority of the Montreal group that recorded Chapter 1: Gens de couleur libres. Sunday at Victo was a bit of a tribute to Constellation Records, with Matana, Silver Mt. Zion and Esmerine on the bill.
We left CST HQ early Sunday morning at the non-musician-friendly hour of 8 am. Luckily, Mile-End staple Cafe Olimpico opens at 7 am, even on a holiday Sunday. We piled in two oversized vans and hit the highway. Making good time (and defying the no stopping rule) we made a bleary-eyed detour for some additional caffeine, before heading to Colisée A, the re-purposed hockey arena where we were playing. We had arrived an hour early, but the stage manager was apologetic that they weren't ready for us and helped us begin our setup before the rest of his crew came. Victo was one of the best festival set-ups I've been witness to: multiple stagehands and techs catering to our needs, and when you're trying to balance four horns with electric saw, guitar synth, and piano, there's a multiplicity of needs! After soundcheck we were given individualized folders with our festival IDs and information about Victoriaville (including a couple of maps that did not prevent us getting highly turned around in trying to locate the hotel). Festival director Michel Levasseur, sporting a red square, introduced Matana (as he did every show) and asked her about details before going on stage. He also gave us the liberty of starting a teeny bit late so we could finish our talk-down of the piece.
Every time I've had the opportunity to play Matana's music, there's both an edginess and a complete surrender that occurs. Her notation and conduction demands that an improviser's attention is devoted to many elements at once, but what happens in the moment reigns supreme. I've played both Chapter 1 and Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile, and the different ways that folkloric music is ingrained into the piece is a real anchor, I find. We had only a limited amount of time to rehearse the piece and integrate some of the new conduction Matana has added, so for my part I tried to watch her like a hawk. (Being on the other side of the stage didn't necessarily make conduction gestures easier to see!) The "calinda" - I guess on the album it goes under the title "How Much Would You Cost?" - gets me every time. As we rose to bow (to a standing ovation), we saw Henry Grimes in the front row. George Lewis came backstage afterwards, as well.
After the show, I went back to the hotel to catch a second wind. We headed out for dinner, and unfortunately time slipped away so we missed our Coin Coin compatriots Thierry Amar (bass) and David Payant (drums) pulling double-duty with Silver Mt. Zion, complete with a cameo from Matana. I headed back to the Colisée to get a seat for the trio of Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis, not before succumbing to the incredibly dangerous record kiosk. I don't know anywhere else in Quebec (or even Canada) where such a deep catalogue of Clean Feed, Tzadik, FMP and other small but highly important labels are available.
Muhal's opening low Db melted me with its tone. The first large segment of their improvisation, with Roscoe on flute, exhibited a mastery of patience. It slowly bloomed into a bigger sound, with Roscoe walking towards the microphones. The trio at times splintered off into duos and solos: Muhal waiting for the right moment to re-enter; Roscoe alternating among flute, soprano and sopranino saxes. George divided his time between trombone (with and without plunger) and his laptop, with which he would reconstruct Muhal's and Roscoe's sound into a swirling, pitch-shifted alternate universe. The electronic palette grew a tad predictable towards the end if no less enthralling. The improvisation ended an hour later as it had begun - Roscoe switching back to flute, the piece bookended by deliberation, causing the entire coliseum to hang on each individual note. The trio returned for a loudly demanded encore, which I unfortunately remember less than the main piece. I do recall it ended humourously, with George's guttural plunger effects ascending into a sudden stop.
The morning after, everyone congregated in the restaurant for breakfast. I was seated with Matana, Henry & Margaret Grimes. Later, fellow musicians, journalists and devotees trickled in before we all hit the road and count the days until next year.