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.