Wednesday, December 04, 2013

If I don't have this all worked out, still I'm getting closer

The announcement that Billy Joel would be the first "music franchise" at Madison Square Garden brought back a flood of childhood musical memories. I clearly remember hearing 52nd Street for the first time when I was three years old, and obsessively listening to it in my formative years. I credit that record with my interest in music and in the piano. What I never realized, until far too recently, is that the trumpet solo on "Zanzibar" was by none other than Freddie Hubbard. (To my embarrassment, I have to admit that for a long while I assumed it was Billy playing trumpet because he was posing on the cover with a horn. After I realized it couldn't possibly be him, I never really investigated the liner notes.)

In hindsight, I'm sure having Freddie Hubbard on loop as a toddler irrevocably rewired my brain. I've long credited Dave Brubeck's Time Out - which I discovered through Joel's mention of the artwork in the Shades of Grey video - as the watershed moment when I realized I wanted to be a jazz pianist. It was - I still remember the visceral reaction to "Strange Meadowlark" when it first came over my speakers: "I don't know what this is, but this is what I want to do."

The third, and most recent, life-changing track was my first real exposure to Brazilian music. Like the Brubeck, the first time Djavan's "Tem boi na linha" entered my headphones, I wondered where this music - whatever it was - had been all my life. It was a synthesis of everything I had ever loved musically - jazz harmonies, intricate arrangement, the directness of a great melody, and that rhythmic mix of swingue with R&B and American pop, unlike anything I had ever heard before.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Historicity and deep songs

I've stayed out of the fray of this Vijay Iyer/Kurt Rosenwinkel/Macarthur brouhaha, but Rosenwinkel's most recent backtracking-of-his-backtracking has got me riled up enough to write about it. If you have no idea to what I am referring to, clearly you do not follow jazz musicians and writers on Twitter - Peter Hum encapsulates it nicely here.

Rosenwinkel just posted this on Facebook:
The fact that everything is relative doesnt mean that everything is arbitrary. There is such a thing as good touch. as a musician improves, their touch and sound improves and one can hear it. When guitarists audition at my school it takes me about 15 seconds to hear where they are at in their development. I have the ABILITY to judge- not just a "right" to judge- because of my experience, knowledge and expertise. An inexperienced person will argue that all music is completely personal and thus impossible to judge, or to think that everyones opinion is just as relevant as anothers.
This appears to be a backhanded revisiting of his original criticism of Iyer, who lacks in Rosenwinkel's estimation "no touch, no tone." Like Peter, I am a fan of both Rosenwinkel and Iyer. I've had the privilege of meeting and interviewing both of them numerous times, and think they are both phenomenal artists in their own rights. Kurt's music is probably more influential on my own work than Vijay's, although I admire the scope of what Vijay is doing as well. Frankly, I'd like to cut through the vitriol and the bottomless can of worms that having opinions and judgements on someone's playing can engender, and lay out some (relatively more) objective statements.

I can understand why Kurt dislikes Vijay's playing, or more politely, why it may not resonate with him. Rosenwinkel's preference for pianists include Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks. whose touch and tone are more rounded, softer, and match Rosenwinkel's guitar sound. Iyer does not play that way - he is clearly out of the Monk/Nichols/Hill/Abrams lineage, and his touch and tone reflect that. Iyer can get to that more romantic sound - I would suggest Kurt check out "Human Nature" from Solo or "Entropy and Time" from Tirtha. To say he has "no touch and no tone" denigrates the subset of the tradition from which Vijay descends.

There's also been reaction from some quarters that Iyer is not a jazz musician or has little to do with the jazz tradition, which is completely and utterly false. His reverence for the Black American Music legacy is not only evident in his repertoire choice (ranging from Duke Ellington to Flying Lotus, Herbie Nichols to Henry Threadgill) but in his freely available discourse on the subject in magazines, blogs, and on Twitter. I count Iyer and Ethan Iverson as the two foremost jazz pianist/scholars active today, and I'm grateful that the Internet allows their scholarship to be published on an extensive and regular basis. The only significant criticism I've read that holds any water is that artists such as Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill have not received similar honours, while their protégés Iyer, Jason Moran, and Dafnis Prieto have all been awarded. (Darcy Argue wrote eloquently about this situation back in 2008, around the time of Miguel Zenón's Macarthur.)

And regardless of whether one likes Iyer's music or not - like Peter Hum, it took me a longer time to wrap my head around Vijay's work and for it to affect me emotionally - I don't think it can be disputed that he is deserving of the grant and even the dubious and overused tag of "genius." His interdisciplinary work, from his dissertations on music cognition to his cogent analysis of multicultural life during wartime with Mike Ladd, his recent work with director Prashant Bhargava and his forthcoming collaboration with Teju Cole this weekend, are significantly broader than a run-of-the-mill "jazz musician." While I love Kurt's playing and writing, I am unaware that he has undertaken any single project of such grandeur, let alone multiple intensive collaborations, commissions, and stagings simultaneously. If anyone can do justice to the "genius" moniker and do fantastic things with the $625,000 Macarthur has given him, it's Iyer. I look forward to what's to come from both men.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Session strutter's ball

Over my time spent in New York, and I guess my life in general, the allure of jam sessions has worn off. For all the great musicians I've met and played with, there seems to be a growing amount of vibe and ego, and a dearth of the willingness to make music (or as Matt Wilson calls it, "allowing"). New York sessions can suffer from this especially, with people sounding like they're auditioning more than communicating with their de facto bandmates or the audience.

Last year, I went to the Evolution session at Zinc Bar, hosted by pianist Orrin Evans. My lasting memories of that session were of Evans' fantastic musicality, and of him hilariously aborting an attempt to play "Inner Urge" in 7. Since Evans is at the Vanguard this week with Steve Wilson, saxophonist Tivon Pennicott was hosting in his stead, with a trio of electric bassist Spencer Murphy and a drummer whose name I didn't properly catch but whose playing I really enjoyed. [Sidebar: it's still rare for me to see a drummer play left-hand lead, and it opened up his figures in a really intriguing way.] All I could think of calling were Dilla beats, given the presence of electric bass. We agreed upon "My Funny Valentine," trying to do it in some kind of pocket, but we couldn't really agree on the harmonic rhythm. The bass amp crapped out just before the piano solo, so I initiated an improvised vamp and called the top of the form when the technical difficulties were sorted. Tivon rushed up and played the head out. Based on this less-than-ideal showcase, pianist Benito Gonzales (who played before me) reminded me to check out Kenny Kirkland.

I had never been to Smalls over all these years, but fellow jazz Tweeter/blogger/musician Kevin Sun told me he was playing the late-night set, so I walked through the Village from Zinc to the renowned basement hang. Lots of young musicians were up front waiting to participate in the round robin. As I got on the piano bench, an elder trumpeter took out his horn and called "Days of Wine and Roses." The bassist, in no uncertain terms, felt it was a corny tune and didn't want to play it, causing the trumpeter to exclaim, "Fuck all y'all!" and leave, along with a bunch of the crowd. The bassist was calling tunes such as "Inner Urge" and "Lazy Bird" (which I should know but don't), and we finally settled on "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise." Mr. Bass Man was fiddling with his amp through the whole tune, turning the majority of the song into a G pedal. I basically laid out the whole tune, as the guitarist took up all the sonic space available for comping. Afterwards, the bassist was still shooting off his mouth, and said, "Man, what does being an elder even mean?"

I grew up at The Rex jam sessions, in Toronto, and it was always made clear that the opportunity to play with older musicians is one to seize, and one to cherish while you can. Apparently, the trumpeter had played with Sun Ra back in the day. If a cat like that calls "Days of Wine and Roses," the only questions should be "Which key?" and "What tempo?" It reminded me, in a way, of the infamous John Patitucci master class at McGill, and reinforced the lack of session etiquette young cats can have. At least, it's a different session etiquette than what I'm used to. In Montreal, there's certain regulars at sessions who are not up to par, but we let them have their piece. At worst, it's a half-hour of our lives we won't get back. Big deal. I've initiated early heads-out at the behest of jam session hosts and for the mercy of the music, but very rarely, and it's never been to the point where the host starts conducting the session. When Pennicott started dictating solo order during "Sophisticated Lady," cutting off the flautist (who sounded good!) to usher in the guitarist, I just sighed. This is why I stopped going to sessions in New York - I'd rather spend my drink minimum money in a more convivial way.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

FIJM 2013: Wrapup and wishlist

Like many others, I wrapped up my Jazz Fest drenched in the rain watching Amadou and Mariam outside. This was the only headline show on the mainstage that I saw this year, and after lukewarm reviews (at best) of the other big outdoor blowouts, these Malian masters proved what those shows need to be: groovy, upbeat, joyous music that unites the whole city.

And as one year ends, programming for the next year begins (especially from armchair quarterbacks like me). 2014 marks the 35th anniversary of the festival, and here's hoping they can book some impressive shows like they did for the 30th anniversary. Some ideas:

- a multimedia series at 6 pm at Gesù or in Cinquième salle: Darcy James Argue's Brooklyn Babylon, Fred Hersch's My Coma Dreams, Miguel Zenón's Identities are Changeable, Zack Lober's Ancestry Project, The Bad Plus' On Sacred Ground or any upcoming work with Mark Morris
- Robert Glasper Black Radio (with whomever he wants to invite - Erykah, Yasiin, Pete Rock, Bilal) on the TD Main Stage
- Gilles Peterson presents Habana Cultura on the TD Main Stage
- Snarky Puppy on the Rio Tinto Alcan stage
- Ruben Blades on the TD Main Stage or with Danilo Peréz and a Montreal big band at Théâtre Maisonneuve
- Mark de Clive-Lowe Church in the Savoy late night or Club Soda
- Kate McGarry in the Savoy
- John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble with Theo Bleckmann & Kate McGarry at Gesù
- Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and whatever he wants to bring at Gesù
- Guillermo Klein at Gesù
- Dan Tepfer & Ben Wendel duo at Gesù or L'Astral
- ERIMAJ at L'Astral
- Jason Lindner's Now vs. Now at L'Astral or Club Soda
- Kneebody Invitation series (in the vein of their residency at Brooklyn's Littlefield)
- Brian Blade Fellowship in Théâtre Jean-Duceppe
- Scott Kettner's Nation Beat & Aline Morales' Maracatu Baque de Bamba on the Bell Tropiques stage
- FELA! at Théâtre Nouveau Monde

(tip of the hat to Peter Hum's Ottawa wish-list and the Lincoln Center Out of Doors program)

Sunday, July 07, 2013

FIJM Day 9: Migrations

As hard as I tried to be on time, I walked into Laurent de Wilde's set about fifteen minutes late, just as he  beginning "New Nuclear Killer" from his recent album, Over the Clouds. He wasted no time on this song demonstrating his killer swing feel, and his mastery of bebop/post-bop language out of the Cedar Walton and Wynton Kelly lineage. Bassist Jerome Regard was rhythmically locked to de Wilde's left hand in the unison passages, although his intonation over the larger intervals was sometimes inaccurate. "Over the Clouds" was a meditation on the primordial instruments that will remain even after a disaster (I'm not sure if de Wilde's poetic introduction was inspired by the explosion in Lac-Megantic) and a tribute to the balafon, which de Wilde evoked by sticking some material inside the piano. A night after Lionel Loueke's seamless synthesis of African traditions and jazz, I was hoping for something less surface and more grounded given de Wilde's description of the piece. Drummer Laurent Robin often sounded stiff and stilted, especially on this tune and the trio's cover of Fela Kuti's "Fefe naa efe." It's clear de Wilde has a profound respect for Fela, and throughout the set he proved to have a deep understanding of Black American music, but Robin's one-bar loop felt less like Tony Allen's hypnotic repetition and more like a pre-programmed beat. I look forward to hearing more from de Wilde, next time with a rhythm section that will poke and prod him more actively.

A more discursive rhythm section, helmed by drummer/composer Antonio Sanchez, was found at Gesu. Surrounded by pianist John Escreet, bassist Matt Brewer, and David Binney on alto, Sanchez's repertoire was formed exclusively from tunes off his album New Life. With the opening "Uprisings and Revolutions" (which also begins the disc), Sanchez was appropriately Elvin-esque, with a rolling triplet feel and a highly melodic drum solo. Sanchez's tunes leave a lot of room for soloing, even in their multi-sectionality. His melodies are relatively straightforward and memorable. When vocalist Thana Alexa joined on "New Life," the fingerprint of Pat Metheny was more evident, especially Metheny's more Brazilian-inspired moments. Sanchez has found ways to up-end the head-solo-head format without necessarily having a through-composed form. Each member of the quartet was given a true solo cadenza, all exhibiting their own improvisational personalities and a close relationship to Sanchez's music. It's always fascinating to hear Binney as a sideman - as a highly distinctive composer, he often gets called by other leaders who are equally indebted to his music. Sanchez cited him as another major influence, and Binney's architectural marvel of an introduction to "The Real McDaddy" was a highlight of the set. Even though, on the penultimate day of the festival, ear fatigue is starting to set in, Sanchez and Migration were clearly a jewel of this year's programming.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

FIJM Day 8: Heritage

The festival press room, after a while, starts to feel like a family reunion. It doesn't feel like Jazz Fest until I've seen Mitch Myers and David Beckett. Beckett, Myers and a couple of new acquaintances, including David Mindich, congregated at Nyk's for some mid-afternoon beverages on a true Montreal summer day - something that was hard to come by during the first half of this festival.

Add pianist Matt Mitchell to the list of new converts to Café Pikolo - other discoverers of this little Third Wave gem during the Festival have been Ethan Iverson and Joshua Redman. Mitchell and I did a brief interview as they were closing. If the audio is usable, I will air it on CKUT. If it's not, I'll transcribe it and throw it up here.

Guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke has wholeheartedly embraced electricity with his new album, Heritage (co-produced by Robert Glasper). While he always had a station full of pedals, he's now playing a Godin semi-hollowbody guitar, instead of his amplified nylon-string. His playing with a new trio of Michael Olatuja on electric bass and drum phenom Mark Giuliana revealed some new characteristics. On "Farafina," the rhythmically disjointed line left more space for Giuliana to fill, and Loueke's solo featured Wayne Shorter-like declamations with a buzzy distortion. The thinner sound of Olatuja's electric (compared to Massimo Biolcati's upright in Loueke's last Astral appearance) makes the music a little more agile and streamlined, which fits Giuliana's drumming style. Like Brian Blade at Theatre Maisonneuve, Giuliana's mind was more active than his limbs, taking phantom strokes and reconsidering his improvisational options at a moment's notice. The set-closing "Ifê" was a return to the Loueke of old. A one-man African music summit, Loueke evoked talking drums and djembes through pitch-bends and ring modulation, percussively smacking his guitar. A harmonizer pedal turned his voice into a South African gospel choir. His guitar lines (and Olatuja's final chordal solo) paid homage to the history of Malian string masters, while Giuliana rode a groove that split the difference between Tony Allen and Zigaboo Modeliste.

The sonic exploration continued in an entirely different context over at Gesu, with Tim Berne's Snakeoil. Berne's long-form pieces, blending composed material and open improvisation, suck you into their unfurling arcs. Mitchell opened with a soliloquy spanning the entire range of the keyboard that sounded almost like Alban Berg. In our interview he said that Berne's music requires the most pianistic maintenance on his part and it's easy to hear why. Mitchell has the book memorized and carries the bulk of the musical weight. I often think of Berne as a composer first, and a trailblazing distributor of his own work second, but he plays some serious amounts of saxophone. In combination with clarinetist Oscar Noriega, they navigated the disjunct lines with precision and hit some clanging intervals that reminded me of Ligeti's work with difference tones. In the acoustic beauty of Gesu, these otherworldly mystery pitches resonated in the room. Many interesting small details emanated from Ches Smith's percussive fortress, surrounded by vibes, glockenspiel, a single conga and drum kit. One particular small detail that was riveting was the use of a shaker that took on a metallic tone when open and a normal shaker sound when muted. In combination with two horns, it was a stunning use of space. The music of Snakeoil, while dense with information, is in no way as alienating as Frank DeBlase would have us believe. Some of the groovier moments - what a hookup Mitchell and Smith share - were reminiscent of David Binney (who was in the house), and one tune came to a conclusion on a beautiful D major chord. Hearing Giuliana and Smith back-to-back, there's a certain drum language that has currency in 2013 that many drummers share across the various micro-scenes of the jazz world. Berne, in his dry sense of humour, semi-incredulously asked the audience if the demanded encore was real - "isn't Law & Order on at midnight up here?" - and graced the Festival's best venue with a soaring rendition of Paul Motian's "Psalm."

Friday, July 05, 2013

FIJM 2013 Day 7: Belleville rendezvous

Last evening was marked by reunions. Just before their 6 pm mainstage show, I ran into pianist Robi Botos and his trio in the press room. As I wrote regarding his appearance last year which won him the TD Prize, I grew up listening to Robi when I was an impressionable young teen being served pints of iced tea at The Rex. I walked over to him, re-introduced myself and talked about the old days. After his fantastic set in the early evening sun, featuring his moving compositions and novel arrangements of standards (including an almost Glasper-esque "Days of Wine and Roses"), the backstage was a real old-school Toronto hang with fellow pianist Dave Restivo and manager/producer Scott Morin.

I caught a snippet of vocalist/percussionist Christine Salem, from Réunion. I'm not familiar with the music of that island but the percussive momentum and her deep, rich alto intoning what sounded like traditional chants was a welcome introduction.

From there, I settled into Theatre Jean-Duceppe for the tenth anniversary of Les Triplettes de Belleville. I make no claim to being objective about this concert - the band was comprised of some of Montreal's best musicians, people I'm honoured to call colleagues and friends. I also spent many, many hours staring at Benoit Charest's score, editing and proofreading the Sibelius files. Let's say I know the music intimately now. What I had forgotten was the power of the film - impeccable silent storytelling, lifted by Charest's score and phenomenal band, at times gut-splittingly funny and at others incredibly dark. Projected over the band, the impromptu gumboot squad of Charest and the brothers Doxas got a roar from the crowd, as did Jimmy's bit with a newspaper (I will not spoil the surprise for the upcoming shows). I had no idea that Dan Thouin was a great accordion player too, in addition to everything else he does. The secret weapon in the band is percussionist Michael Emenau, whose electronic vibes and rack of bells and horns bring the bicycle parts to life.

As I exited Jean-Duceppe after congratulating the band, my Facebook feed exploded with news of the death of renowned Montreal bassist Orson Clarke. I didn't know Orson well at all, having only met him recently. He was very clearly the father figure of Montreal's soul and R&B scene, and a mentor of younger musicians for many generations. He had many nicknames bestowed upon him, but the one that seems to have stuck was "Papa Bear." I wish I had gotten down to Club Peopl in Old Montreal, where vocalist Alan Prater and company hold court every Thursday. Apparently the gig turned into a memorial for Orson. I've had the pleasure of running into one of my old mentors and early inspirations, drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve, over the past couple of days. The opportunities I've had to hang with him and musicians of his calibre are moments I cherish now more than ever. Rest well, Papa Bear.

Club Soda was rammed beyond capacity for West Coast soul-pop crew Fitz and the Tantrums. Leader Michael Fitzpatrick's voice is far stronger than I've heard previously and their tunes just explode with energy live. James King, in addition to his signature baritone sax parts, played some great tenor (and for the "jazz police," with enough brio and complexity to justify their participation here) as well as second keyboards, guitar, and backing vocals. Their cover of the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams" contextualized the '80s influence on their new record, and substituted raw muscular groove for the atmospheric chill of the original.

I ended the night with the dancehall and roots reggae vibes of selectors non-pareil Ghostbeard (aka Jeff Waye of Ninja Tune Records) and bass ambassador Poirier, rattling the mirrors of L'Astral. I needed some low end theory in honour of Orson.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

FIJM 2013 Day 6: Such A Night

(What happened to days 4 & 5? I was playing. More on that later.)

As I approach nearly a decade of covering the Jazz Fest, I've learned that the programmers are good for some behind-the-scenes insight. I've also learned that big tickets are worth buying if you want to be assured of a spot. So when Laurent Saulnier told me a few months ago that the Dr. John/Leon Russell tag team was a true "double feature" - two full-length concerts back-to-back - I immediately ran to the box office. André Menard reminded the audience of this fact just after the house lights went down.

My passion for New Orleans music in particular, and Southern-drenched piano pop more generally, is no secret for anyone who knows me. I do have to admit relative ignorance on Leon Russell's extensive catalogue - I know him as the composer of "A Song For You" and "This Masquerade" and for his participation in the Concert for Bangladesh, but his solo discography remains unknown to me. After last night's canonical performance - in terms of representing an artist's history, not so dissimilar from Allen Toussaint's recital at Gesu a few years back - that will be rectified as soon as possible. Russell, decked out in a white jacket and cowboy hat, walked out with his band on a pre-recorded atmospheric synth pad and sonically exploded into Theatre Maisonneuve. It was a bit incongruous to see a glowing MacBook in front of this paragon of Americana, and the synth brass layer he used insistently wore out its welcome quite quickly. I forced myself to listen beyond the sound (both boxy and harsh) and into his playing, and was rewarded for the effort.

Surrounded by drums, bass, and a guitarist who moved between a Stratocaster and pedal steel (in addition to providing some adequately churchy organ on "Georgia On My Mind"), Russell flew through tunes either in medleys or near-medleys, barely stopping for instrument changes or to talk to the audience. Even at 71, Russell makes no mystery of his influences - he spoke of growing up in Tulsa and his music exposure coming from the only two radio stations he could receive, gospel music and R&B. The medley of the traditional bluegrass tune "Rollin' in my Sweet Baby's Arms" and his own "Stranger in a Strange Land" perfectly reflected how he's incorporated the church and the country, R&B and roots music. Bruce Hornsby's debt to Russell was especially clear in this set. About two-thirds of the way through, he played a poignant solo medley of "Sweet Emily" (whose subject recently passed away), "Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "Magic Mirror," and "A Song For You." The weaknesses of Russell's voice were more obvious here, but witnessing Russell perform one of his signature tunes was a hair-raising experience. The Stones rave-up of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," mashed up with fragments of "Paint it Black," the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and the blues tune "Kansas City," closing with Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," finally got the crowd moving.

I had engaged in a Facebook conversation with Gazette critic Bernie Perusse about Dr. John's uneven performance history in Montreal. The fact that he had recently disbanded his long-time group, the Lower 9-11, was also cause for concern. The new band of Nite Trippers, ably directed by trombonist and vocalist Sarah Morrow, wasted no time in proving they were more than up to the task. The Dr. himself was in fine form from the opening "Iko Iko." His piano skills were in fine display on "St James Infirmary" (done on a groove very similar to "Mo' Scocious"). Mac even switched to guitar on his version of "Let The Good Times Roll," with more grease and grit than most guitar players I've heard on the outdoor blues stage this week. All praise be to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys for getting the gris-gris gumbo back into the sound. The set was balanced between some of the new tunes off of Locked Down, classics like "Right Place Wrong Time," and nods to tradition, be it the closing "Big Chief" where the whole band got showcase solos, or the funkified version of "Love For Sale." Drummer Reggie Jackson and bassist Dwight Bailey were a knockout rhythm section. Unfortunately, some of the solos from Morrow, guitarist Kevin Turner and organist Ben Addelman didn't speak as clearly as they should have - it took a while for their levels to get set in the house sometimes. But the groove reigned supreme and it's always a pleasure when the Doctor is in.

Monday, July 01, 2013

FIJM 2013 Day 3: These are the Good Days

After a rehearsal for tonight's show with Sarah Linhares (her Montreal farewell), I headed down to the FIJM site for saxophonist Chet Doxas and his band Muse Hill. The group was formed a while ago with bassist Morgan Moore, multi-instrumentalist Joe Grass, and the Barr brothers. I had missed their shows in town previously and was really intrigued by the group. I've seen the Barrs in various different settings, from the jamminess of The Slip to their improvisations in the latter days of the Moondata sessions. I was extremely curious what Chet's tunes for this band would be, and how Brad and Andrew would co-exist with Doxas and Moore.

The set opened with a soundscape of processed air, with Brad using his customized string-scraping system to create a beautiful drone over which Morgan soloed. Chet often has this yearning, anthemic quality to his writing and to his tenor sound that was at the forefront of this set. The melody of "Image & Nation" was fairly diatonic in nature, and Doxas launched into a highly contrasting, chromatic solo over the churning brothers Barr. They are both phenomenal colourists, Brad with a full pedalboard of effects and Andrew with various percussive tools. Brad doesn't have the same harmonically complex improvisational language as Doxas, which makes him a novel foil and affects the dynamics of the group in a remarkable way. With Joe Grass' absence from this show, everyone had a little more space that they could occupy. Comparing this group to Brian Blade's Fellowship Band is an obvious one to make, and it's not entirely a complete picture of what Muse Hill represents, but there is a kinship in the soaring aspects of the compositions (something Doxas shares with fellow Montrealer Christine Jensen) and in the pairing of saxophone and guitar.

The middle of the set contained two highlights: a striking duo between Doxas and Brad Barr, with a chiming twang to the sound, resolved itself into a captivating version of "I Loves You Porgy." The band proceeded into the gonzo blues of "Hunter S. Thompson," replete with an interlude of Doxas playing a transcription of Thompson's interview on the Dick Cavett show.

I split from Astral early to get over to Cinquieme Salle for British pianist Gwilym Simcock, and was greeted by a sign notifying me that due to flight delays, the show would start one hour later than planned. I used the time to get caffeinated and fed, and then took my seat directly overlooking the keyboard. A charming, funny Simcock came out and immediately addressed the audience, apologizing for his delay and introducing the first tune, "These Are The Good Days," by saying, "Even after a day like this, being a musician is the best way to spend one's life. After 11 hours of travel, it's a privilege to get to play one's instrument." A rhythmically active left-hand ostinato grounded various suspended chords. Simcock shifted key centres with ease and fluidity, and concluded the piece with strummed chords and internal piano percussion. His lengthy, sometimes tangential explanations of his songs offered truly fascinating context into his life and his music - I would have interpreted his rendition of "On Broadway" in a completely different manner than he described it. If need be, Simcock could pursue a second career as a stand-up comic. His brilliant pan-tonal sensibility - lines that extend outward almost like a harmonic series - can be chalked up to his early love for Russian classical composers. Simcock's meditation on the middle movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto was breathtaking.

From there, I headed out to the lot on Clark and Ste-Catherine, now home to two stages. Saxophonist Becky Noble was performing music from her recently released album with her sextet, with Mike Bjella taking Chet Doxas' place. I know Becky's music really well, having studied with her at McGill, subbed in her rehearsals, and performing with her in Banff eight years ago. She sounded even better than her recent set at L'Astral. Unfortunately, Marie-Fatima Rudolf's piano was far too low in the mix until three minutes before the end of the set, and the pastoral beauty of Noble's tunes had to compete with the blaring blues stage across the street. Like her mentors the Jensen sisters and Maria Schneider, there's a lot of pretty and subtle details in Becky's music that got lost on the outdoor stage. On the other side of the parking lot, Toronto vocalist Maylee Todd took over at 10 pm. She's our new indie-soul "it" girl, and the vast majority of her set didn't grab me at all. I wonder how much of that was due to sound issues - it felt like the right speaker column only kicked in ten minutes into her set, and moments in tunes that should have properly smacked me in the face came off limp and without dynamic. I'd like to see her in a smaller club to get a better sense of what she does and how she sounds.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

FIJM 2013, Day 2: Stargazing

I had to skip the first day of this year's Jazz Festival (not counting the pre-opening events with Patrick Watson and Pink Martini) due to a prior gig commitment, my first full-day absence from the fest in I don't know how long. The press room was abuzz on what I missed chez Charles Lloyd and chez Chucho Valdes. However, the 80th birthday celebration for Wayne Shorter welcomed me into this year's festivities in the best way I could ever imagine.

After a half-hour delay that had the room at the brink of impatience, Trio ACS took the stage. Teri Lyne Carrington, obscured by a large leaf-shaped cymbal, began with a flurry of activity on the kit and then settled into a backbeat. Geri Allen began with a series of Schönberg-esque chords (h/t to Miles Okazaki for the Twitter theory lessons), carving space in Carrington’s drum sound. Carrington integrated some early hip-hop edginess into her time feel, and demonstrated her role as a precursor to drummers like Chris Dave and Jamire Williams. Though the piano was low in the mix until the closing tune, Allen’s ideas were clear. Her improvising seemed to centre around repeated motifs and intervallic relationships, giving her lines a forward motion. It was my first time seeing Esperanza Spalding as a bassist only, and it was a revelation. Her solos were patient, and sounded exactly like the melodies she composes for herself to sing. It was evident how unified an artist she has become. Her tone, too, was remarkable – even in the grandeur of Maisonneuve, it sounded like the sound was just coming from only her bass, round yet focused. ACS’ approach was similar to Wayne’s – Shorter’s indelible melodies would poke out of roiling, at times hypnotically pulsating, improvisation.

If Trio ACS represented Wayne Shorter the improviser, Sound Prints reflected upon Wayne Shorter the composer. This isn’t necessarily new territory for Dave Douglas; indeed, his tune "Ups & Downs" hearkened back to the Stargazer record with his turn-of-the-millennium sextet. That record, like the concert, featured powerhouse drummer Joey Baron. It was a thrill to see that the hook-up between Douglas and Baron in full force after a decade. Douglas was on fire throughout the set, with power and control throughout all registers of the horn. He was fairly quote-happy too, throwing out nods to “Juju,” “Footprints,” and “Epistrophy.” Baron gleefully responded to every nuance, sometimes with sensitivity, at other times with shit-disturbing interruptions à la Han Bennink. Joe Lovano’s tenor sound is still as characteristically gruff and deep as I remember it. His compositions sounded as indebted to Wayne (and Wayne’s partnerships with trumpeters like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard) as it was to the pairing of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.  Bassist Linda Oh used the same instrument and amp as Esperanza and got a totally different sound out of it – far more electrified and almost rubbery. She was a truly captivating soloist and entirely attuned to Baron’s playing. With two highly personal soloists up front and the rhythmic deluge (excuse the pun) from the drums, pianist Lawrence Fields seemed to have difficulty carving out his place in the music. Never mind the fact that he also had the unenviable position of occupying the piano bench between Geri Allen and Danilo Perez! He has tremendous facility on the instrument – the final passage of his solo in Douglas’ “Sprints” ended with some fantastic locked octaves – and he played some truly moving blues, but his comping often got lost.

The notebook got put away during intermission. Wayne’s current quartet, more than a decade into it, is exceedingly difficult to write about in the moment. I wanted to be present in that moment and not scribbling away on a pad, anyway. The Quartet creates an endlessly changing quilt of sound, with responsiveness that borders on telepathy. As the band took the stage, someone in the audience initiated a singalong of the traditional French Québécois birthday song (“mon cher ami, c’est à ton tour de te laisser parler amour”), which the trio of Danilo Perez, Brian Blade and John Patitucci seized upon. It set the mood for the Quartet’s entire set, and in a way let the audience into the process of how the band transforms melodic ideas. Compared to last year, Wayne played way more saxophone. I would say he split time equally between tenor and soprano, and his sound on both was far fuller and consistent than the previous year. He began with short, darting declarations and worked his way to more involved passages. The final climax of the set was so intense – Perez hammering dissonant chords at maximum volume, Blade addressing his kit with such ferocity the bass drum skidded out by two feet – I felt something physically shift inside me, and I was vibrating for nearly an hour after the set ended. Due to Blade’s physicality, the playfully funky encore of “S.S. Golden Mean” was marred a bit by various microphone glitches. No matter – the music spoke far above the technical issues. As he celebrates his 80th birthday, Shorter is still every bit the “weather man,” as Joe Lovano called him. “He lets you know what’s happening and he can predict the future.”

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

2013 Montreal Jazz Festival - indoor programming picks

Yesterday was International Jazz Day, commemorated with a star-studded gala in Istanbul and notable releases from Aaron Parks and Darcy James Argue. The Montreal Jazz Festival took Tuesday morning to announce their full ticketed programming for this year's edition. Many of the big shows had already been announced. I'm truly impressed with the depth of this year's jazz programming. There's maybe less obvious marquee names than usual, but the quality of the music-making is probably among the highest of the past ten years I've been following the festival.

For out-of-towners (and Montrealers who don't really follow the jazz scene), the Jazz d'ici series - 6 pm at L'Astral - is a must. From trumpeter, composer and Oddsound label founder Jacques Kuba Seguin on June 28, to the Jensen family (saxophonist Christine Jensen invites trumpeter Ingrid and organist Gary Versace on July 1; saxophonist Joel Miller, Christine's partner, brings his Latin-tinged Honeycomb band the 3rd), the series is a fantastic overview of the contemporary straightahead community in town, and is worth the discovery. There's some new projects in the lineup this year - saxophonist André Leroux, often heard on Festival stages as a sideman, leads his own band for the first time on June 29; Chet Doxas has re-convened his band Muse Hill (June 30), which unites bassist Morgan Moore with the leading lights of Montreal's indie rock scene including Joe Grass and the Barr Brothers; and pianist Marianne Trudel brings her relatively new project, Trifolia, on July 4.

I was a little late to the press conference, and walked in just as they announced that their Invitation Series would be curated by Charles Lloyd for the first half and Vijay Iyer for the second half. I was stunned. Lloyd is not someone I thought would be on the short list for the Series, though he's more than deserving of the honour. He'll hold court in Théâtre Jean-Duceppe with his quartet (June 28),  with the Sangam trio of Eric Harland & Zakir Hussain (June 29), and in duos with Jason Moran and Bill Frisell (June 30). Iyer's series will be in my favourite room, Salle Gesù, presenting his trio, with Justin Brown on the drum throne (July 4), duo with Craig Taborn (July 5), and solo piano on the 6th.

Now that those two universally strong series are out of the way, let's go chronologically:

June 28
6 pm: Jacques Kuba Seguin's Odd Lot (L'Astral - see above)
6 pm: Charles Lloyd Quartet (Théâtre Jean-Duceppe - see above)
7 pm: Sienna Dahlen (Savoy du Metropolis) - Sienna is a vocalist who wraps around lyrics and is a supreme collaborator. She's been the voice on Paris-based drummer Karl Jannuska's last few discs and also appears on guitarist Mike Rud's forthcoming Notes on Montreal. Her own recent disc, Verglas, is a stark beauty befitting its name.
8 pm: Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers (Théâtre Maisonneuve) - part of the dynasty of Cuban piano, son of the late Bebo and father to Chuchito, Valdes is one of the standard bearers of Afro-Cuban jazz. I've never seen him live.
9 pm: Tia Fuller (L'Astral) - best known as a sax player in Beyoncé's band, I first heard Tia at a jam session at Cleopatra's Needle in NYC, and she laid down that hard-driving alto sound. I haven't, unfortunately, heard her records as a leader, but now is the opportunity.
9:30 pm: Ravi Coltrane (Jean-Duceppe) - I would say that Coltrane's latest album, Spirit Fiction, is among his strongest. This is absolutely the time to hear him.

June 29
6 pm: Charles Lloyd Sangam (Jean-Duceppe) - see above
7 pm: Wayne Shorter 80th Birthday Celebration (Maisonneuve) - there's many other great shows happening this night, which is truly unfortunate, because this triple-bill is unquestionably the place to be. First up is Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas' Sound Prints quintet, indebted to Wayne without directly playing his tunes (and read Dave's insights into Wayne's new record); second is pianist Geri Allen - who I admittedly have not paid enough attention to over the years - with Esperanza Spalding and Teri Lyne Carrington; and the finale is Shorter's quartet. Now re-signed to Blue Note, Without A Net is another compelling live document of this band, who after a decade together are now more telepathic than ever. Go see this concert.
9:30 pm: Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party (Jean-Duceppe) - why is this the same night? Moran's relationship to stride piano (cf. his solo piano album Modernistic) has always been riveting to me, in the vein of his mentor Jaki Byard. The clips of this show - featuring the enigmatic Me'shell Ndegeocello - were fascinating. Another one of those painful Festival conflicts.
10:30 pm: Goldings/Bernstein/Stewart (Gesù) - why is this the same night? This organ trio have been a working band for two decades, I guess, and the rhythmic hookup between Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart is one of the great pleasures of 21st-century jazz.

June 30
6 pm: Muse Hill (L'Astral) - see above
6 pm: Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran & Bill Frisell (Jean-Duceppe) - see above
7 pm: Elizabeth Shepherd (Savoy du Metropolis) - I've known of Elizabeth since her first album, Start to Move. Her original tunes are full of groove and the way she recasts standards is provocative, as heard on her last album Rewind. The intimacy of Savoy is the perfect spot for her.
8:30 pm: Rhye (Metropolis) - the latest project from Danish producer Robin Hannibal (also responsible for Quadron) has been on my to-hear list for a while.
9 pm: Youn Sun Nah (L'Astral) - publicist extraordinaire Matt Merewitz hipped me to this Korean singer, whose repertoire is vast and varied, from standards and Korean folk songs to Metallica and Nine Inch Nails.

July 1
6 pm: Christine Jensen with Ingrid Jensen & Gary Versace (L'Astral) - see above
7 pm: Elizabeth Shepherd (Savoy) - see above
9:30 pm: David Murray Infinity Quartet (Jean-Duceppe) - Murray, the big-sounding saxophonist, has been working with the texts of Ishmael Reed for years, with the instantly recognizable voices of Cassandra Wilson and Bobby Womack, among others. Add the idiosyncratic soul singer Macy Gray - yes, that Macy Gray - to the list. The Conjure records of the late '80s have been a predilection of mine recently so I'm terribly curious to hear this.
10:30 pm: The Bad Plus (Gesù) - it's the Bad Plus. At Gesù.

July 2
8 pm: Thus:Owls (Musée d'art contemporain) - led by guitarist Simon Angell of the Patrick Watsons and vocalist Erika Angell, this ephemeral group has been gaining lots of well-deserved buzz.
9:30 pm: Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet (Jean-Duceppe) - The tandem of Kurt with pianist Aaron Parks is such a beautiful, textured sound. Kurt is one of my favourite improvisers and composers and has indelibly influenced how musicians in my generation, especially guitar players, approach our craft.
10:30 pm: Steve Kuhn Trio (Gesù) - I'm sadly not as familiar with pianist Kuhn as I should be. The trio is rounded out by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer par excellence Joey Baron. Excitement should ensue - Swallow and Baron should make for an incredibly responsive and sensitive rhythm section.

July 3
6 pm: Joel Miller's Honeycomb (L'Astral) - see above.
7 pm: Vieux Farka Touré (Club Soda) - the son of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, this is a night of electrified African music that is firmly "ancient to the future."
8 pm: Dr. John/Leon Russell (Maisonneuve) - my passion for New Orleans piano is no secret. Nor is my love for rootsy piano pop, of which Leon Russell is the forefather. This is a true double-bill with both Mac and Leon performing full length sets. It's gonna be a long night of Southern style piano.

July 4
6 pm: Vijay Iyer Trio (Gesù) - Vijay has not compromised his art at all, but it seems like the rest of the world has caught up to him. His last stretch of records on ACT are, each of them, truly ear-opening gems. I'm curious to hear Justin Brown in place of Marcus Gilmore.
10:30 pm: Charlie Hunter/Scott Amendola (Gesù) - 7-string guitarist Hunter is known for playing bass and guitar at the same time. He's had a longstanding partnership with drummer Amendola, who also plays with sonic wizard Nels Cline. After all my years of admiring Hunter, I've still never seen him live, and in this stripped-down scenario in my favourite room, I can't think of a better way.
11 pm: Fitz and the Tantrums (Club Soda) - "Breaking the Chains of Love" grabbed my attention the first time I heard it. Their forthcoming album, More Than Just a Dream, takes them out of the '60s into the '80s and '90s. This will be a party.

July 5
6 pm: Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn (Gesù) - two polyglot pianists with impeccable technique, rhythmic virtuosity, and wide-ranging musical interests. If memory serves, these two played together with Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory. The mention of this duo's premiere last summer immediately sparked my interest and I'm fascinated by this pairing.
10:30 pm: Tim Berne's Snakeoil (Gesù) - I missed Snakeoil when they played Casa del Popolo last year. Pianist Matt Mitchell is firmly in the lineage of Iyer and Taborn. Frankly, this is the most shocking booking of the festival. I never thought that I would read "Tim Berne" - a highly modernist saxophonist/composer/improviser - and "Montreal Jazz Festival" in the same sentence. As an aside, I think it's imperative that this show be a resounding success in ticket sales, if we want to ensure that this kind of creative programming continues at Jazz Fest. Since the "contemporary" series got axed a few years ago, much of the left-of-centre improvised music has had no space in the programming. Second to the Wayne Shorter celebration, this is my most anticipated show of the festival, without question.

July 6
6 pm: Vijay Iyer solo (Gesù) - see above.
8 pm: Leif Vollebekk (Musée d'art contemporain) - Even though I'm friends with many people who have played with Leif, I haven't really heard him outside his guest turn with Karkwa on CBC a little while ago. He's quickly becoming the face of the Montreal indie community, and from what little I've heard, rightfully so.
10:30 pm: Antonio Sanchez Migration (Gesù) - Sanchez has been here multiple times, playing drums with Pat Metheny (when the robots aren't doing it for him). I'm thrilled to check out his own group, featuring another fantastically influential composer, David Binney, pianist John Escreet, and Matt Brewer on bass.

July 7
8:30 pm: The Specials (Metropolis) - break out the two-toned shoes, these ska legends are in town. Honestly, the ska scene has never been on my radar, but I know Montrealers love their ska so this will be a show to remember.
10:30 pm: John Abercrombie Quartet (Gesù) - in all the times guitarist Abercrombie has performed at the festival, I've still never been able to see him. He is one of the quintessential ECM guitarists, whose output never flags or falters. Joey Baron is once again behind the drums - perhaps this festival is an unspoken Joey Baron invitation series? - with Drew Gress on bass (one of my absolute favourites), and saxophonist Billy Drewes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

From the French Quarter to le Quartier Latin

My trip to New Orleans was inspiring and revelatory. Some of the mystique of that city was stripped away - contrary to popular belief, Bourbon St. is not where it's really at. There were also some very stark lessons to be learned from that city, compared with my hometown of Montreal. One could argue that these are similar lessons to be learned from New York as well; maybe it's the French connection but they hit home a lot harder on this trip.

The most striking thing is that every club I went to in New Orleans was a pleasant listening experience, on multiple levels. Every club had a diligent sound man on hand. I think I heard feedback once at d.b.a, and that was it. Every club also had great sightlines and a layout that directed one's attention to the stage. Even from the very back of Maison, where I couldn't see much, I could hear the band clear as a bell. None of the clubs ever felt cramped or hard to navigate. Only a handful of venues had the stage at the front, in a window (which seems to be the trend in Montreal for some inexplicable reason). Even d.b.a, which has a bar that extends into the show room, didn't feel constrained, and it didn't bottleneck the way Montreal clubs can. There was also an etiquette among most audience members - outside of one late-comer who planted himself in front of everyone else at Jon Cleary's set for maybe two songs at the most, people were very aware of their surroundings.

All the clubs were open, in the sense of being able to sit if you wanted to sit and being able to stand and dance if you should so desire. I didn't go to Snug Harbor or Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, the more conventional jazz clubs in town, so I can't vouch for whether that's universally the case. It's a great feeling as a listener, because it's not dependent on keeping the dancers on their feet, nor does the setting of the club impinge upon people's instinct to dance.

Contrary to the perception of New Orleans running way behind the beat, most shows (the Open Ears set at Blue Nile and the Trio at Maple Leaf excepted) started more or less on time (given a margin of error). Jon Cleary's set was called for 7, and he started at 7:15. Same with "Wolfman" Washington and the two outdoor shows, and the jam at Maison. Even at the Leaf, guitarist June Yamagishi was running late, but since the sound guy had already set everything up (and George Porter Jr. and Terrence Houston were ready to go), he only needed to plug in. Minutes after his arrival (and very close to the 11:00 hit time the bartender told me), they were onstage playing.

The amount of focus and respect that New Orleans and Louisiana place on their local artists is astounding. The French Quarter festival is almost exclusively local acts (with one stage devoted to "locally-inspired international groups"), and Louisiana Music Factory is devoted to their homegrown music, with a dedicated "NEW ORLEANS" vinyl bin or three. There is a New Orleans Jazz Historical National Park - complete with rangers in their hats - that direct you towards all things New Orleans jazz. The Old Mint on Decatur & Frenchmen has been converted into a museum and concert hall. The current exhibit celebrates 50 years of Preservation Hall, including Louis Armstrong's original cornet. This support of local artists is almost too much. The New Orleans Jazz Fest website states: "The Festival respectfully limits applicants to bands living and working in Louisiana," which frankly is a joke, looking at the full programming of the festival (Le Vent du Nord, from Quebec? Eddie Palmieri? Billy Joel? Fleetwood Mac?). While I take issue with that statement because it's patently untrue, the Jazz & Heritage Fest's dedication to local artists is admirable, with artists from Louisiana accounting for the vast majority of the programming.

Some of these are more easy to achieve than others. It's definitely a wake-up call for Montreal. I know musicians have griped about these issues in private for generations. We can do something about it.

Set your tail on fire

I made my first pilgrimage to New Orleans this past week. New Orleans is one of three personal musical beacons, the others being Brazil and Cuba. I felt it important to soak up the traditional music, the brass bands, the piano heritage and the gutbucket New Orleans funk courtesy of the Neville family and their compatriots. I also saw a good amount of music that I didn't expect from New Orleans.

After some of the best airport food ever - in a layover in Houston, eating some good Texas BBQ - we landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. The taxi co-ordinator wasted no time in chiding us that we were a day late for French Quarter Fest, a free weekend of music that takes over the entire French Quarter and rivals, even possibly surpasses, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the amount of great local music they present. I made my way to the hostel in the Garden District, passing massive murals for Zatarain's and various companies using jazz to sell their product. Honestly, after a week, seeing jazz this and jazz that for things that have absolutely nothing to do with the music became a little overbearing and tiresome. It was novel at first, though.

Monday night was round one on Frenchmen Street, the renowned music drag in the city. I have never seen that many live music clubs crammed into such a small space (maybe two or three blocks). I had read about the jam session at Maison, which also had a great menu of traditional Cajun and Creole food, even though it's overpriced. That was our ultimate destination, but some of the clubs on Decatur Street like BMC and Vaso demanded our attention with their great live music too. Another tradition, outside of music, is red beans and rice on Mondays. Maison serves theirs with options of adding fried chicken and/or alligator sausage. I'm still not sure it was worth the $10 as opposed to the $4 other joints on Frenchmen were selling their beans & rice for, but it was still fantastic nonetheless.

The band playing the dinner set at Maison was saxophonist, clarinetist and vocalist Aurora Nealand, leading a group through some great trad tunes, including some Bessie Smith and Louie Prima. It beat the pants off the trad bands that parade through the Montreal Jazz Fest. The sousaphone player was phenomenal, too, possibly the highlight of the group. In general, all the sousaphonists I heard in New Orleans were stronger than the bassists I encountered, with the exception of George Porter Jr. At the jam session, the house sax player and guitarist carried the weight of the band, both with credible singing voices (the saxophonist took a Louie Prima tune and the guitarist covered the Neville's "Yellow Moon"). Bonus points for the guitarist rocking a Hannah Montana purple axe all evening! The drummer was good, and was also competent on the busted baritone horn hanging on the wall of the club. The bassist was coming out of a rock bag and was rather stiff (as was the case for the bassists who sat in after him). The first jammer was a drummer from Fargo, North Dakota, who was charged with playing a second line so the host drummer could solicit tips. He said he could play a second line, but he was either nervous or an outright liar, with a feel that hiccuped more than a drunk tourist on Bourbon Street. Perhaps that made the host gun-shy about inviting up unknown white people to play. It took my travel buddy, bassist Mark Haynes, reminding the host about his sign-up list, for him to call me up. I relieved the house keyboardist - who was a great singer and a good blues player - for a good majority of the night. It was a true thrill to be playing on Frenchmen Street my first night in town.

On Tuesday afternoon, after visiting Loyola campus, Mark and I headed back to the source: Congo Square. The birthplace of all #BAM, the place where free people of color were allowed to congregate on Sundays and play their music. It bleeds into Louis Armstrong Park, decorated with multiple gorgeous statues and cement blocks inscribed with the names of New Orleans music legends. It is truly an inspiring and important place in which to set foot. Tuesday night, I made a point of visiting Twitter friend Jeff Albert's Open Ears music series at Blue Nile. It featured drummer/bandleader Justin Peake at the helm of some of the city's great improvisers, including bassist James Singleton (from Astral Project) and Aurora Nealand again, this time on saxophone and accordion! It seemed like most people that night doubled: the tenor player also had an analog synth, the percussionist spent most of his time on various electronic gadgets, Singleton also sang. Poet Moose Jackson narrated non sequiturs (both improvised and written by Peake) over the music. It was easily one of the most riveting out music shows I've seen in a long time, with immense musicality and deep listening happening. There were moments of Frisell's mix of anthemic, folk melodies that were subverted by various sonic treatments and noises. Clearly, the community around Open Ears is a fertile one, and a subset of New Orleans music that is probably a surprise to most people who don't follow Jeff on Twitter. One girl planted herself in front of the band on a bar stool, and was performing interpretive dance to the improvisation. She appeared to be a regular at Blue Nile.

Wednesday, I went down to Louisiana Music Factory. with the mission of grabbing local records that I could not find back home. I scored a couple of New Orleans funk compilations with the likes of Eddie Bo, Ellis Marsalis' Syndrome, a compilation of James Black tracks, and a CD issue of various live James Booker cuts. I also stumbled across a Venezuelan salsa record and an old-school Brazilian samba compilation that I couldn't turn down. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I got home, my long walk through the French Market with these records in my bag caused them to warp a bit. They're still playable, though! After having some phenomenal gumbo for lunch (the Brit to the table beside mine called the chicken & andouille concoction "the closest thing I've had to a religious experience"), I walked back through the Quarter to Congo Square to sit and write. Heading uptown along Rampart St, I wound up at the Little Gem Saloon, watching pianist Joshua Paxton give a master class in all things New Orleans piano. Paxton has done all the published transcriptions of James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Dr. John, and clearly has mastered that language, with a monster stride left hand that would make Ethan Iverson proud, as Paxton played a mashup of Fats Waller and Scott Joplin.

Some elderly gentleman in the Treme, as well as the staff at the hostel, told me about the free Wednesday concerts in Lafayette Square. By some kind of happenstance, the band was David Shaw and the Revivalists, a group I had just discovered the week before thanks to video of Shaw guesting with Galactic on their last tour. The park was full of food vendors from across town and a stage was set up, emblazoned with the New Orleans Saints logo. It seems the Wednesday concert series is sponsored by the Saints. In addition to their fantastic swamp-rock, complete with pedal steel and yet another multi-instrumentalist playing keys, trumpet and providing backing vocals, it appears Shaw has a tendency to take off his shirt at every show. I was standing beside a massive betting pool of people who had wagered upon how long it would take Shaw to disrobe (official time: 60 minutes). From there, it was back to Frenchmen Street to witness blues legend Walter "Wolfman" Washington. I remember when I discovered Wolfman, thanks to the early web radio stream of Radio Free New Orleans, and later, WWOZ. It was great to be there, up close and personal, at one of his Wednesday night residencies at d.b.a. Added perk: d.b.a. has possibly the largest beer list in the city, including some of my favourite brews such as Brooklyn Lager, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, and Unibroue's Ephemère Pomme. I ordered a St. Ambroise Apricot Ale, with my default Anglo-Montrealer accent, and the bartender took about 15 seconds to register what I had asked for.

Thursday, I headed the furthest downtown in my trip, to the Bywater neighbourhood for Euclid Records. I went in looking for some more New Orleans funk, and wound up getting a William D. Smith record produced by Allen Toussaint with James Booker on organ, as well as another volume of Kip Hanrahan's collaboration with Ishmael Reed, Conjure. I picked up one volume of this on my last trip to NYC, and I was pleasantly surprised to find its companion in New Orleans. Round four of the French Quarter awaited with another open-air festival, this time in Armstrong Park. More fantastic food, and music provided by a young up-and-coming brass band followed by the jam-band nostalgia of Flow Tribe. The event was hosted by percussionist Bill Summers, who has lived in New Orleans for 20-something years. It was an unexpected surprise.

Jon Cleary is probably the most well-known advocate of New Orleans piano history. Every Thursday that he's in town, he does a solo piano set at d.b.a. I got there early to absorb every note of this masterful player, and he dealt some serious history lessons. I had forgotten Earl King wrote "Big Chief" (not Professor Longhair), which he then took through three keys, and I had never heard Smiley Lewis' "One Night of Sin," which was cleaned up into Elvis' "One Night With You." From the Allen Toussaint covers to Cleary's originals, the dude just oozes effortless soul and class, decked out in a white suit with matching wide-brimmed hat.

From there, I hopped in a cab back uptown to the venerable Maple Leaf Bar, where drummer Johnny Vidacovich holds court every Thursday night. Johnny V subbed this one out, so it was Terrence Houston behind the kit with funk legend George Porter Jr (of the Meters) and guitarist June Yamagishi. I was initially disappointed, as I really wanted to hear the deeply swampy, "in-the-cracks" hookup that Johnny has with George, and Houston's youth and considerable chops meant everything turned into an extended drum solo. In the second set, though, Houston brought out the street beats and nailed them. A fitting nightcap to a trip filled with inspirational music.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ten years in

I've been having many discussions with friends and colleagues about the state of the Montreal scene, or at least how I feel about it given the music I currently perform and for which I advocate. Kalmunity's upcoming tenth anniversary has me reflecting on these issues as well.

I moved to Montreal from Toronto in July 2002, and within the first year-and-a-half of my studies at McGill, I discovered many fledgling collectives: Kalmunity Vibe Collective, who took over a tiny Little Italy café every Tuesday night for an entirely improvised evening where musicians of all genres conversed with poets, singers and rappers; Moondata's LABProjects, a monthly event curated by alumni of a turn-of-the-millennium funk group that would unite musicians from different scenes, along with a DJ and visual projections; and the multi-lingual, multicultural hip-hop group Nomadic Massive. There was some overlap between these three communities: Kalmunity's founder, Jahsun, would often participate in the Moondata events; trumpeter and poet Jason "Blackbird" Selman is an integral part of both Nomadic and Kalmunity. The diverging elements were also intriguing: Moondata was more a gathering of guitarist Matt Lederman's friends and fellow artists, and the mash-ups of people were fascinating - mixing the jazz scene with the post-Arcade Fire indie scene. Moondata was my first exposure to artists like Patrick Watson, Lhasa and Land of Talk's Liz Powell, who were often thrust onstage alongside Kid Koala, P-Love and my McGill jazz program buddies. At that time, it felt like people were carving out specific artistic space in town. It lasted for a couple of years - bassists Sage Reynolds and Miles Perkin hosted the Mont-Royal Composer's Collective, spotlighting modern jazz music; trumpeter Ellwood Epps and other young lions of the musique actuelle scene started the Mardi Spaghetti series at Le Cagibi, a precursor to Epps' own space, L'Envers.

Over the last little while, the spaces have changed though the communities remain intact - Kalmunity is now at the much bigger Bobards (still on Tuesdays), Mardi Spaghetti is still going strong (with their annual marathon happening tomorrow), and Moondata has splintered off into the massive indie scene that Montreal is now renowned for, occupying lots of space at POP Montreal, which themselves recently celebrated their tenth birthday. L'Envers is gone, functioning now more as a presenter than a physical space. La Elástica, the space that hosted my MOVIM series dedicated to creative Latin music, is going on hiatus as of March 22. This relative stability is a hallmark of my time in Montreal, and stands in stark contrast to the Toronto I've followed over Facebook the past decade, with more openings and closings than I can keep track of. The recent spate of closings in New York - 92Y Tribeca being the latest casualty - is disheartening to read as well.

I hope that the openings of new spaces - La Elástica, Resonance Café, Le Bleury Bar À Vinyle, Rodos [shameless plug: I'll be playing at Rodos with frequent collaborators Sébastien Pellerin and Mark Nelson, alongside Jazz Amnesty Sound System] - means we're on the cusp of a new generation of artistic communities. One crew I find myself in these days is a young generation of Latino and Latinophile musicians who pursue work that falls outside the normal definition of musique du monde. Without meaning to humblebrag, MOVIM was an ideal place for these groups - not a dance club but a space one could dance in, not a jazz club but a room conducive to listening. The issue is to acclimate the potential audience for this music to these new spaces, and to embrace the audience that might already frequent these venues into our music. It's an eternal question for music and art that lives on the fringe, but hopefully one that Montrealers will be able to answer for another ten years.