Sunday, July 06, 2014

FIJM 2014 Day 6: New dimensions

After a late rehearsal and a brain lapse, I got to Mehliana's long-awaited show half an hour late. I walked into Astral greeted by Brad Mehldau's synth pad. His electric duo with drummer Mark Giuliana was one of my must-hears this year.

Mehldau used a grand piano, Moog Little Phatty (or Sub Phatty), Wurlitzer, and presumably the Prophet 08 which is blinking away in the duo's viral videos. Quickly during the second set I realized that Mehldau's playing in this duo is not drastically different than his brilliant solo piano work, just that it is orchestrated across four different keyboards. While most of the music was drawn (presumably) from Taming the Dragon, there were a couple of times I thought Mehldau would pull from his bag of covers. The only non-original was a version of "My Favourite Things" that emerged out of some broken beat groove. The perpetual ostinatos were now on a growling Moog, and the cascading lines on Wurly. I wasn't always a fan of his sonic choices; each instrument was assigned a role that didn't really change throughout the set. The bass had a long filter decay, almost flatulent, that muddled the complexity and precision of Mehldau's left hand. The Prophet was relegated to these long attack, long release, filtered sawtooth pads which grew to be a tad redundant towards the end of the set. The pads could have been a little more lush and layered for my tastes - more high end, more stereo spread, more ear candy. The biggest difference is Mark Giuliana, whose interactions with Mehldau were highly responsive. Giuliana has an ear for colour, with two snares and a smattering of cymbals, and his allusions to various subgenres of electronica recontextualized Mehldau's improvisations. Mehliana is a meeting of two brilliant improvisers; if Mehldau becomes as adept at synth programming as he is at pianistic virtuosity, this dragon will breathe some real fire.

After Mehliana's conclusion, I entered Gesu to the sound of roots reggae, courtesy of pianist Monty Alexander and the Harlem-Kingston Express. Alexander was joined by two rhythm sections - one representing Harlem, and the other, naturally enough, representing reggae. Of course, when Obed Calvaire is the drummer on the "jazz" side, there's bound to be some crossover. I was stunned by how seamless the transitions from roots and dub to swing were, Alexander cueing the changes from the middle of the band. He's got a real handle on the 60s soul-jazz piano sound when he wants to swing, and sat deep in the cut when it switched to reggae. As I've had to write for double rhythm section thanks to guitarist Gary Schwartz recently, I was very curious on how Alexander utilized the two bassists and drummers - Calvaire and Karl Wright often sounded like one drummer, while double bassist Hassan Shakur played high-register melodies over Courtney Panton's dubby low end. Both Alexander and Shakur are fond of quoting other melodies in their solos, which got to be a bit much by the end. Shakur's final solo turned into a potpourri of various E-minor licks: I counted "The Pink Panther," "Eleanor Rigby," "People Make the World Go Round," and "Good Times" all back-to-back, after which Monty Alexander abruptly ended the set. That many quotes were both his cue - and mine - to leave for the night.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

FIJM 2014 Day 5: People Music

Heralded trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire handed off the Invitation series leadership to pianist Tigran Hamasyan at Gesù, joined by bassist Sam Minaie and Justin Brown on drums. Later in the set, he referred to his three-night stand at my favourite room in town "the most life-changing musical experience of [his] career." Akinmusire welcomed the audience into his dark, almost flugelhorn-like sound with a solo introduction to "As We Fight," joined by Tigran's bell-tone acoustic piano chords. The piece moves into its various sections via metric modulations - Hamasyan was so at ease with these and conducting Minaie and Brown through them, I initially thought it was his composition. I'm not sure if it's a conceit of the piece but Minaie and Brown felt like they were operating in separate universes; the bizarre tonality of Minaie's distortion pedal on electric bass - all high end and no body - didn't necessarily help here.

The highlights of the set were the duos between Akinmusire and Hamasyan. The first, an Armenian folk song, put into relief the control these two have over their respective instruments. Ambrose added a lot of breathiness into his sound, the notes barely whispering out of the bell of the horn. Hamasyan displayed incredible dynamic range, caressing harmonies out of the piano. Akinmusire's technique is impeccable, and yet he doesn't draw attention to it in an obvious way. His solo intro to his own "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child" was remarkable for its intervallic leaps - I was more taken by the line itself, and then realized just how much technique and control he needs to execute those ideas. Seamlessly adding smears, growls and half-valve effects, the easiest comparison is to Dave Douglas in terms of the breadth of trumpet vocabulary (as well as the bouncing at the knees), but Ambrose very clearly has a unique sound.

Tigran, playing Rhodes on this impeccable Ambrose ballad, is possibly more overt about his technique in the rollicking counterpoint, virtuosic speed and repeated notes, but he too has an acute awareness of sonic texture. Running the Rhodes through a row of effects pedals and loopers, he created a spiraling universe of delay that enveloped the tune - not unlike one of Akinmusire's other guests in this series, Bill Frisell. "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child" was possibly the highlight of my Festival so far.

The ballad gave way to two trio moments - Tigran's radically reharmonized version of "Someday My Prince Will Come," and Ambrose's loose rendition of "All the Things You Are." Both tunes found Minaie playing cat-and-mouse with the leaders, Brown supporting them all the way. In the chordless trio, each member was so rhythmically and harmonically abstract that I longed for someone to hold down the centre for the other two to play against. The set ended with one of Tigran's tunes, unannounced, a dense piano figure full of polyrhythms that Brown somehow found a backbeat in. His drumming gave the tune a sense of groove, smoothing out the angularity of it - a musical decision I truly appreciated. After some ferocious applause, the two Invitation Series curators returned for another beautiful duo, on a standard so reharmonized I couldn't place it - possibly "Everything Happens to Me"?

I stuck around Gesù for piano mastery of a different order, from the fingers of Christian Sands with the Christian McBride Trio. On the opening "Day By Day," Sands made his apprenticeship with the masters Dr. Billy Taylor and Hank Jones very clear through his fleet, swinging lines and nimble block chords, with the underlying rhythmic freedom of more contemporary players. Spurred on by Ulysses Owens Jr.'s magnificent brushwork, McBride displayed a clarity of line (in both his walking and his soloing) unparalleled by most bassists. On the 12/8 groove of "Caravan," the trio displayed a sensitivity to silence, colour and texture normally associated with the greatest free improvisers, and often not heard in this more straightahead setting. At one point, Sands' montuno launched Owens into a double-time rumba frenzy.

McBride is a charismatic bandleader and host. He was obviously thrilled to be spending Canada Day in Canada, and made a point of it on the mic, much to the chagrin of many of the Québécois in the audience. (Not going to go there...)  I think all of the audience could celebrate his roll call of Canadian musicians, from OP to Renee Rosnes, off the top of the set. McBride's repertory continued with Jobim's "Triste," with glimmers of Owens' facility with Brazilian grooves, the nonchalant gutbucket swing of Billy Taylor's "Easy Walker," and the "slow sexy thing" of Freddie Hubbard's "Povo."

I skipped out while McBride's trio dove into a blistering tempo with Owens showcasing his brush mastery, and ran down Ste-Catherine street to Club Soda to support the Bay Area hip-hop of Latyrx (Lateef the Truth Speaker & Lyrics Born). I was absolutely stunned to see maybe 30 people in the crowd, and Latyrx performing as though it were a sold-out 2000-capacity club. Both capable singers as well as socially engaged and rhythmically active MCs, the duo - returning after a 16-year hiatus - roared into a bunch of new tunes, joined by a DJ and a live drummer. I'm not sure why Bay Area hip-hop doesn't get more love on this coast, but these guys are worth discovering if you don't know them.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

FIJM 2014 Day 4: Do You Feel

After three days away from the festival, on tour with Vox Sambou, a long day of running around Jazz Fest in the sun and humidity culminated in two fantastic shows. Vocalist and songwriter José James graced the stage of Club Soda in a 7 pm set, his first time in town since he stepped on my feet in the all-too-small setting of Piano Rouge. The first set was dominated by tunes from the new album, While You Were Sleeping. Influenced by the sonic landscapes of dubstep and indie rock, pianist Kris Bowers spent most of his time on his two Nords; bassist Solomon Dorsey alternated between electric and a Moog synth; and guitarist Brad Williams unleashed a fury of fuzz. Live, the new tunes seem like a little less of a radical departure from James’ previous work – the new record struck me as a very stark difference from his past albums. Certainly, James spends more time belting at the top of his register than indulging his velvet baritone. The first set ended with one of James’ vintage showpieces – his re-envisioning of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” mashed up with the original sample, Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” Bowers stretched out on Rhodes and Williams took a star turn on guitar. James made a point of mentioning that Williams hails from Memphis, and certainly the long guitar tradition of Stax and Hi records is imprinted on his musical DNA. The rest of the band was completed by London groove drummer nonpareil Richard Spaven, and Talia Billig on backing vocals. James has long surrounded himself with strong female collaborators, and Billig is a worthy addition to that list. Too bad much of her backing vocals got lost in the mix – she was often low in her register and hard to distinguish from James and Dorsey.

The second set was exactly what people expect from José James, at possibly the strongest that I’ve seen him – most of the tunes were drawn from Blackmagic and No Beginning No End, and reflected that seamless marriage of jazz, R&B and hip-hop that shot him to great acclaim. It’s a little strange to hear “Trouble” without Takuya Kuroda’s trumpet, but impressive solos from Bowers and Williams more than made up for it. After the moody cover of fellow Brooklyn singer-songwriter Becca Stevens’ “Dragon,” someone requested “some Moodymann shit” which James and Bowers heard as “your booty ain’t shit.” “I can’t help you with that, bro,” responded James, as he launched into Kurt Cobain mode with “Anywhere U Go.” The evening closed with the slow gospel groove of “Do You Feel,” with both Bowers and Williams going to church on it and a phenomenal bass and vocal solo from Dorsey.

I capped off the night with Dr. Lonnie Smith and his new octet at Gesu. Packed to capacity, altoist Ian Hendrickson-Smith exhorted us to “scream and clap” along with the Doctor. The rhythm section of Smith, guitarist Ed Cherry and drummer Johnathan Blake was a steady grooving bus. Blake is a powerhouse of a drummer, especially on the shuffle “Keep Her Talking.” The horns included the aforementioned Hendrickson-Smith, John Ellis on tenor, Alan Ferber on trombone and Andy Gravish on trumpet. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall is my discovery of the festival so far. On the boogaloo of “Slow High,” Marshall picked up exactly where Ellis left him, both exhibiting soulful deliberation. Marshall worked his way up to the high F & G above the treble clef with ultimate control – I have never heard a baritonist with that kind of register. Alan Ferber is an equally developed and patient soloist, and Hendrickson-Smith has that edgy and keening alto sound of the late-60s greats. Only Gravish felt a little out of place to me soloistically, with a brash and brassy tone and a more hyper sense of line.

The centerpiece of the set was a tune called “Turning Point.” Opening with a contemporary chamber music introduction performed by Smith on really well-sampled orchestral sounds, it unleashed into a roaring freebop tune that could be described as Mulatu-meets-Mingus. Smith’s soloing is maybe less precise and fluid than it used to be, but as a bandleader and rhythm section staple he was keeping the pocket all night. Sometimes he would reach over and play a percussion pad while kicking bass pedals. Long live the Doctor!

Monday, June 30, 2014

FIJM 2014 Day 1: Cassandra Wilson & Andreas Varady

My personal edition of the 35th annual Jazz Fest kicked off in Theatre Maisonneuve with the long-awaited return of vocalist Cassandra Wilson. I saw her in the same space a few years back, and looked forward to being wrapped in her honeyed contralto once again.

The show opened with Hungarian wunderkind guitarist, Andreas Varady. The 16-year-old was joined by his father on electric bass and his 12-year-old (!) brother on drums, Varady played a set of original compositions. From the outset, his Metheny influence was clear – a very round tone, all sustain and little pick attack, and fluidity around the instrument. Equally adept at straightahead swing or a rocking 5/8 groove, his own tunes have a real clarity of line that I wish extended into his solos. His set closed with a key-changing cover of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” that was ingrained in the soul-jazz guitar tradition of George Benson. Varady (and his little drummer brother) are kids to watch – I certainly hope they deliver on their promise and potential.

After the arpeggios of Varady, Cassandra Wilson and her band of all-stars enveloped us in a different kind of mastery. Led by harmonica player Gregoire Maret, the band – featuring guitarists Brandon Ross and Canadian Kevin Breit, Jon Cowherd (of the Brian Blade Fellowship) on piano, longtime Wilson collaborator Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and John Davis on drums – got loose over a vamp that was a microcosm of the set to come: a swampy groove from the depths of the Delta coloured by the ambiences of the Ross-Breit tandem. Wilson graced the stage, resplendent in green, and opened with a heart-rending version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Wilson has long explored the roots of jazz music and its permutations from West Africa to her native Mississippi. Davis kept the proceedings moving with all kinds of tribal triplets. According to her Twitter, this tour is merging the 20th anniversary of her seminal album Blue Light Til Dawn with her new Billie Holiday tribute, Coming Forth By Day.  The set reflected Wilson’s tendency to draw inspiration from her “sphere of influence,” as she called it, from Son House’s “Come On in My Kitchen” to Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.”

I would say Jon Cowherd is the perfect pianist for Wilson – his profound sense of Americana is a perfect foil for her repertoire, and if there’s any pianist who knows how to navigate the space between two guitarists, it’s him. Ross and Breit were a terrific pairing – the former sounding like Robert Johnson through a kaleidoscope and Breit adding all kinds of shimmer and soundscape on top. The rapport between Wilson and Plaxico was evident on their duo that began Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Throughout the show, Wilson would direct the band dynamically, snapping her fingers to lock in the time and exhorting each member through their solos. The main set ended with a funky version of “Redbone Girl” that became the funkiest version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to have graced Theatre Maisonneuve, with a detour into a Yoruban chant. For her encore, Wilson saluted another Canadian, with a meditative cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” featuring Cowherd on pump organ. It was a truly magical way to end the first evening of Jazz Fest.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Tough kids don't stop trying to kick me to the ground

After twelve years in a city, it's normal to fall in and out of love with it. Every city seems to have a threshold where the magic wears off and its residents are forced to decide whether to forge on through the obstacles or relocate to where the grass is greener. I've had colleagues and friends leave Montreal for other, bigger cities - Toronto, New York, Berlin - but I've always been of the mind that if Montreal is ever going to improve, someone has to stay in town to expand its creative horizons. The early aughts were a bastion of creativity and collectivity - I can't imagine this city without Casa del Popolo and its tentacles, nor the vast net of talent that the Kalmunity Vibe Collective casts over the city. When I was a more active blogger, I was intent on injecting a dose of local content into a very New York-centric jazz blogosphere. Montreal is where I've made the biggest strides in my career, the home to the majority of my intensely prolific colleagues, and it's a scene I've done my best to represent abroad, to promote within and without, and to grow.

However, the past couple of years have made it extremely difficult to continue as a creative artist and musician here in Montreal. From noise complaints and the resulting venue shutdowns to the death of renowned alt-weeklies and other media outlets, artists are competing for ever-dwindling space to perform and promote. It's not entirely doom-and-gloom - CultMTL has risen gracefully out of the ashes of the Mirror (let's remember all of Quebecor's sins on Election Day) and new ventures like Resonance Café, Hip-Hop Café and Bleury continue to develop Montreal's culture, even if it seems foolhardy to do so.

Yesterday brought the news of a huge change to Montreal's media landscape - CISM, the campus/community station tied to Université de Montréal, is "repositioning itself" to be "less alternative and more accessible." Montreal's airwaves are pretty dismal, I must say - the only reliable stations for my tastes are CBC/Radio-Canada, CKUT (but I'm biased), CISM and other campus/community stations. Their jazz programming was adventurous, their hip-hop and groove programming run by true crate-diggers and champions of the scene.

Some are positing that the announcement is an April fool a few days early. I certainly hope that's the case - and if so, it's pretty elaborate, with various hosts on the station announcing that next week will hold their last shows. The fact that the announcement reads as truth more than satire or ridiculous hyperbole is damning evidence of the fickle nature of Montreal's cultural media landscape. If WKCR announced it would cease all of its marathon programming, we'd all understand it to be a farce. The same can't, unfortunately, be said for CISM. Their slogan used to be "la marge" - the margin or the fringe. Where does the fringe go now?