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.