Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 9

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Canada loves guitars, that much is true. In some ways, the general population up here behaves as if it’s still the 20th century and the guitar remains the instrument of choice. A couple of years ago at a Pat Metheny concert, I even saw someone playing air guitar with serious abandon. Recently, in addition to the annual Jazz Festival, the producers have added the Montreal Guitar Show, showcasing a series of concerts (including world-class players like Charlie Hunter and Sylvain Luc) and a convention hall housing more than 130 amazing guitar luthiers—acoustic and electric—and their wares. I attended a press conference honoring none other than George Benson, who was presented with a lovely tribute award, symbolically made of two different types of wood, one from North America and one from Africa.

In any case, watching guitarist John Scofield and his Piety Street Band perform at the Jazz Fest, I was amused/amazed at the heartfelt devotion to guitars displayed by Montreal fans. In keeping with the festival’s never-ending emphasis on the music of New Orleans, Scofield seemed happy playing soulful old gospel tunes and trotting out copious amounts of electrified blues licks for a full house at the Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. Scofield’s Piety project is more than a year old now, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. The band was nice and tight, with singer/keyboardist John Cleary, drummer Terrence Higgins and famed Meters bassist George Porter Jr.. Sounding like a junior-league Jeff Beck disciple, Scofield played a series of blues, ballads, gospel tunes and old rock ‘n’ roll for his audience. They loved it—me, not so much.

I left before the end of Scofield’s show to run around the corner to the massive Salle Wilfred Pelletier hall for a performance by the Keith Jarrett Trio. Last year, the prickly pianist caused quite a stir as he castigated the Montreal crowd for taking pictures with their cellular phones. This was not an isolated incident, as Jarrett also insulted both the crowd and city at the Umbria Jazz Festival, where he is now not welcome to return. The Montreal programmers were more forgiving than those in Umbria, and as a result, we paid the price. The show was really quite remarkable, with Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette playing with telepathic accuracy and spellbinding creativity. The Keith Jarrett Trio is strictly a standards band, and they played beautifully on classic compositions like “Autumn Leaves,” Ornette Coleman’s “When Will The Blues Leave” and “Why Does Everything Happen To Me.” Piano aficionados were oohing and aahing and laughing and cheering as Jarrett dazzled the crowd with his emphatic embellishments and virtuosic displays of pianistic dexterity. Jarrett was clearly feeling it, as he crouched half-standing, head bent low and hands flying across (or gently caressing) the keyboard. One hour flew by like nothing, and after an extended intermission, the band came back and did it again. Then, after the second set and a standing ovation, the band returned to take a bow, and some folks in the audience just had to disregard the emphatic house requests to refrain from taking photos. Jarrett saw camera flashes, got all huffy, reprimanded the crowd once again, took his faithful bandmates and walked off the stage, refusing to return. It’s too bad that this strange recurring confrontation between Jarrett and his audience continues to distract from some truly great performances. But, as they say, that’s showbiz.

As per usual, I went straight to the Gesù Theater for some late-night spiritual healing and some blissed-out shut-eye, this time with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko and his bright young Finnish/Danish band. Stańko is a jazz veteran who began his career playing back in the ’60s. In the course of the following decades, he’s played with a number of jazz greats, lost his teeth and had to completely rework his embouchure. Playing songs off his latest ECM disc, Dark Eyes, Stańko sounded sure and dramatic. It took some time, but he was in total control, thriving on lush ballads as the show progressed. The skilled group showed focus and determination under Stańko’s direction, and the Gesù crowd seemed quite pleased with the results. Later, after the show and back at the hotel, I watched and listened as Stańko entertained his band with stories of his groups in the ’70s, before most of his current band members were even born.

That’s how jazz is, with its elders passing knowledge down to the eager young lions and crusty old journalists telling young readers some of the many things that they should know.

—photo by Michael Jackson

Live Review: She & Him, Philadelphia, PA, July 2, 2010

Zooey Deschanel, the often dippy but always charming indie-film darling, proved once again that she can do no wrong. There is no need for slashes in her title; she is truly all at once two separate entities: a movie star as well as a musician. With singer/songwriter M.Ward, she fronts She & Him, and the duo’s live sound—backed by the Chapin Sisters’ bright harmonies, plus your standard bass, guitar and drums—is full, cheery and buzzing with energy.

The second album from She & Him, Volume 2 (Merge), brings Deschanel’s sunny, retro vocals and chord progressions together with Ward’s raspy voice and driving guitar solos. The set list included tracks from their sophomore album, like “Home” (about Deschanel’s native California) and a sassy cover of Skeeter Davis’ version of “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” To start, there was also the soaring “Sentimental Heart” and their specialty “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” both showcasing Deschanel’s crisp, vocal resonance.

What links all of She & Him’s songs is no matter how somber or heartbreaking the lyrics or melodies, they somehow retain a certain sunniness, a light energy. Even the down-in-the-dumps “Brand New Shoes” can still have you smiling and singing along with Deschanel’s deep-rooted whispers, “We are all made of air/There’s stars in my eyes and sun in my hair/But I’m runnin’ away/It makes me feel better/It’s just like you told me it’d be/It’s nothin’, nothin’.”

On the sad-yet-cheerful “In The Sun,” Deschanel whipped out the ukulele, which only added to her charm, as she hopped around the stage, strumming and smiling. Both Ward and Deschanel swapped instruments from guitar to keys and back again. On “Sweet Darlin’” off Volume 1, Ward began on keys then Deschanel joined him on the bench at the bridge as they plunked on the keys at the same time- Deschanel adding theatrical glissandos.

Both Deschanel and Ward have a bit of a theatrical flair to their performance—not over-the-top, but professional. The mood of the show is more like a well-oiled stage play than the reality of an intimate concert. Even the way duo took the time to bow for each other and then recognized their band behind them before exiting was more community theater than Hollywood, only adding to their charm.

As Deschanel crooned “Why don’t you come and play here?/I’m just sitting on the shelf” on “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” there seemed to be a communal heaving sigh from the audience. In no other setting is it socially acceptable for a six-foot-tall man, pushing 200 pounds, to screech, “I love you!” other than being just a few feet away from the lovely Deschanel. Ward managed to steal the spotlight from his ethereal bandmate as he picked out an incredible ‘70s guitar riff that sliced into the otherwise poppy tune.

After returning for a short encore, She & Him played two unique, crowd-pleasing covers while still tapping into their retro themed set. First was “Fools Rush In” (covered by Sinatra and Elvis, to name a few), which the band recorded as a part of Levi’s web series where artists remake songs that inspired their current sound. Last, Ward broke into the familiar, nostalgia-inducing riffs of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll with “Roll Over Beethoven” as Deschanel let loose on the keyboard. And just as mysteriously as they broke into the music scene two years ago, Ward sauntered offstage trailed by Deschanel, who hopped and skipped behind him.

—Cristina Perachio

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 8

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

How shall I put this? I know: The Montreal Jazz Festival is in full swing! Swing, get it? Jazz swings and the festival is totally swinging. People are getting loose, musicians are hanging out all over the place, and everybody is having a great time. Well, almost everybody. I’m not sure that Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson were so happy last night. Collaborating with Masada madman John Zorn for a performance as an improvising trio, Reed and Anderson rediscovered the folly of fame and public perception. In their press conference earlier that day, the charming old couple from New York City explained to a room full of journalists how their show would be a night of instrumental improvisation, not the traditional Reed or Anderson type show. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the fans who had already bought tickets to the well-publicized event.

Anderson, Reed and Zorn had performed in this free-styled context recently in NYC, and the avant-garde music they made might have fit better as a small segment of Zorn’s Masada Marathon the night previously. Instead, they performed as a headline (high-priced) act at the large Salle Wilfred Pelletier Hall, selling their recognizable names to an unsuspecting fan base that probably expected a little “Sweet Jane” or as least something off of Anderson’s new CD. Unfortunately, many of those Canadian fans were turned off by what they heard, many people walked out of the show after the first number, and there was some booing. One disgruntled non-jazz fan yelled “Play some real music!” To which Zorn angrily replied, “If you don’t think this is real music, then get the fuck out!” Ouch. The threesome’s show clocked in at just under an hour, leaving the paying crowd feeling a little short-changed in more ways than one.

Happily, there was no such dissension at the Gesù Theater when up-and-coming pianist Robert Glasper was joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard for a night of quality improvisation. Glasper is a talented musician who’s made a name working with hip hop and nu-soul artists as well as playing jazz. With the high-profile Blanchard as his special guest, Glasper kept things on the jazz tip, and he showed himself to be a savvy improviser brimming with creative ideas and sly humor. Blanchard, who’d performed an impressive concert with his own group the previous night, was in good spirits, played extremely well and teased Glasper playfully throughout the show. The duo started out with a swinging version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” and touched on some other old standards before bringing out drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Vicente Archer to flesh out their sound. Both Glasper and Blanchard are bold, confident players, and their show was filled with unexpected musical moments. Glasper proved to be the most mischievous, riffing on a Bette Midler tune in mock-earnestness before pulling the rug out beneath Blanchard. Blanchard and Glasper casually jived with the audience and entertained each other with clever quips and great musicianship. Prediction: Glasper is destined to play music for a Spike Lee film—just wait and see.

From the Gesù I ran across the street to the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe to watch drummer Jack DeJohnette with an all-star band that included alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Jerome Harris and scary-good guitar hero Dave Fusinski (known by some as Fuse). Dejohnette is a longtime Montreal favorite, and he is also town playing with the Keith Jarrett Trio. Still, this particular grouping had an ad hoc feel to it, and while the musicians were of the highest caliber and Dejohnette’s compositions were all first rate, there was some implicit lack of direction onstage. Some folks found the problem to be with DeJohnette himself, who seemed slightly distracted and was perhaps saving himself for the much-touted Jarrett show the following night.

Percussionist Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures band played a late night set at the Gesù, and after all the high-flying improvisation and exhibitionistic playing, it was a pleasure to just sit back and let Rudolph’s gentle tribal-world sounds wash over me. It was funny to notice that the band included bassist Jerome Harris, who must have run from playing the DeJohnette show straight over to the Gesù—just like me!

But things weren’t over yet, as I headed over to Club Soda for a late-late night gig with the Anti-Pop Consortium. The APC have been around since 1997 (off and on) and are still one of the most unique hip-hop/rap groups around. Their sound, replete with rock and punk/DIY influences, is still unorthodox for a rap group and hard to pin down. The show itself was totally off the hook, going strong until about two in the morning as the rappers flowed and the music skronked in a non-funk fashion. The young Canadian crowd grooved in a relaxed and celebratory way, and I had to admit it was the perfect way to end a long, swinging evening. Too bad Reed and Anderson couldn’t make it that far.

—photo by Michael Jackson

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 7

JohnZorn

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

OK, it happened. Critical mass was reached and I’m maxed out after a night of watching John Zorn’s aptly titled Masada Marathon at the Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. Two shows, one at 6 p.m. and another at 9:30, totaled almost five hours of music, showcasing a number of magnificent artists in a variety of unique settings, all under the direction of musical iconoclast Zorn. It was a gesture of bold programming for the Montreal Jazz Festival, but one fitting in its drama and lofty ambitions. Zorn served as formal conductor for the festivities and only played alto saxophone for a portion of his time onstage, instead introducing and directing the musicians with a series of emphatic hand signals and gestures. In a revue-styled evening, Zorn and his troops manned the stage in various combinations, showcasing the particular skills of a number of notable players, most of who have been featured on CDs available on Zorn’s illustrious Tzadik label.

The core group of Masada regulars included drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen, percussionist Cyro Baptista and guitarist Mark Ribot, but also featured longtime Zorn associate Dave Douglas on trumpet, keyboardists Jamie Saft, Sylvie Courvoiser and Uri Caine, cellist Eric Frielander, violinist Mark Feldman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, drummer/vibraphonist Kenny Wolleson and bassist Trevor Dunn, to name a few(!). Zorn has been formally performing under the Masada banner since 1993, but many of these relationships go back further than that. Practically a reunion and historical overview of the New York City downtown music scene, the Marathon was chock full of highbrow musical moments. Much of the compositions and programming in the first show contained a strong Spanish tinge, as well as some klezmer, free jazz, classical innuendoes and hardcore thrash. The stage band was constantly changing, with elegant solo bits, dramatic duets, trios and full-on band assaults. Friedlander did a great solo portion, as did Caine, and a quartet featuring Goldberg was remarkable. Four lovely female vocalists (Basya Schechter, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Malika Zarra and Sofia Rei) did a segment a cappella during the first show that required some patience, but when the Electric Masada band took over and pounded things out, all was forgiven.

One grouping of Zorn’s army culled from his Electric Masada collective is called Dreamers (check out their excellent CD), and their portion of the evening might have been the best of them all. The musicians in this dreamy combination were all impressive in their own right, but Ribot, Cyro Baptista, Jamie Saft and Joey Baron deserve special praise. Zorn’s own playing was sharp, and his presence onstage was a mix of deadly serious, loving, attentive, gracious and playful.

The Masada Marathon just went on and on and on, but nobody in the audience seemed to mind. Including me. The sight of all the musicians standing together at the end of both shows was endearing and inspirational, and a true testament to Zorn’s relentless artistic vision. Check them all out, individually and collectively.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 6

RichardBona

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Happy Canada Day! After my brief break in the action yesterday, the jazz fest is moving forward and picking up speed. While I personally frequent indoor gigs and mostly smaller venues, this 12-day event is mammoth in both size and scope, and the free, outdoor concerts could keep most any music lover busy for days. And after all my talk about venerating our jazz elders, I made a particularly foolish move and bet against 80-year-old Sonny Rollins a couple of nights ago, gambling that his performance would be only “good, not great.” I skipped the show, and of course, all of the reports back from my peers claim that it was one of his best concerts in ages and that his saxophone playing was totally inspired and he even sang a blues at the end of the show. Sonny, how could I have doubted you? Forgive this ageist fool.

Sticking with the Invitation Series hosted by French über-drummer Manu Katché, I caught another early evening gig at the Gesù Theater, this one featuring Katché in a trio context with French guitar star Sylvain Luc and magnificent Cameroonian bassist/singer Richard Bona. The buzz portrayed this threesome as a supergroup, and I have to admit they were completely amazing. The question mark was Luc and how the guitarist was going to do alongside such a killer rhythm section. A straightforward jazz player with loads of skills, Luc stepped up his game and held his own, avoiding clichés and improvising fearlessly. Switching back and forth from acoustic to electric, Luc pushed his bandmates into uncertain territory repeatedly. His playing was consistently inspired, allowing Bona and Katché plenty of opportunities to turn up the heat. No doubt, Bona was the real attraction here, and his bass served as both a lead and rhythm instrument, balancing the trio and providing counterpoint from several different angles. Bona’s touch is technically amazing and incredibly fluid, and his bass playing conveyed joy and humor as much as it did provide a funky, burbling bottom when needed. Bona also sang in a beautiful falsetto, very similar in timbre to the great Milton Nacimento. Katché, of course, grooved all night long, smiling at his peers’ inventiveness and soloing with great vigor. From soft ballads to loud, funky jams, these guys played their tails off and had a great time doing it. Encore!

British pianist Neil Cowley and his band dazzled a full house at L’Astral, and I have to say I was impressed. Check out Displaced for a good example of his playing. A solid jazzer with exhibitionistic displays, this guy really knows how to entertain. Maybe it’s from his time playing with funk/soul acts like the Brand New Heavies, but Cowley is certainly not shy behind the keyboard. When speaking to him before the show, Cowley told me that he was classically trained until the age of 14, when he heard a Blues Brothers album; that was it—he never turned back. With any luck, Cowley will catch on in the U.S., as his witty, powerful piano style grabs you quick and hangs on tight.

Wrapping things up at the Gesù with Dave Douglas & Keystone was somewhat challenging but ultimately worthwhile. Douglas is a talented, versatile trumpeter/composer, and his band serves as a vehicle to perform movie music. In the past, Douglas has set music to the silent films of Fatty Arbuckle. More recently, Douglas created a sonic backdrop for Bill Morrison’s new film, Spark Of Being, which is apparently inspired by Frankenstein. Without the benefits of seeing the accompanying film, some of the music from Spark Of Being felt vague and directionless, but the ensemble playing of Douglas and Keystone eventually won out. Saxophonist Marcus Strickland was especially notable, as was drummer Gene Lake. I couldn’t really hear keyboardist Adam Benjamin that well, bassist Brad Jones had trouble with his sound all night long, and the electronic samples created by DJ Olive and manipulated for the show offstage by Countryman did not really add that much. Ending strong with some Fatty Arbuckle music, Keystone is an exciting group that’s perhaps bigger than its original mission. We’ll see where Douglas takes them next.

Coming up, it’s John Zorn’s Masada Marathon. Yikes!

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 4

ManuKatche

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As the Montreal Festival ebbs and flows, so do I. The early part of this jazz week radiated low energy for me, but the musicians I saw perform still did their level best to entertain and inspire. Consider master drummer Manu Katché, here to host a few shows of his own as part of the vaunted Invitation Series after appearing as a guest of trumpeter Paulo Fresu. Leading his modest quartet for an early show at the Gesù Theater, Katché stood out as the obvious focal point in spite of the democratic nature of his group. The French-African Katché is not an overly showy percussionist, but his tasty, understated grooves have made him an in-demand player for the likes of Sting, Jeff Beck and a long, long list of other top-line artists. Along the way, Katché has put out a few CDs as a bandleader on the ECM label, the most recent being Third Round. While the musicians in his touring group are not the same ones that play on the new disc, his quartet sounded well-rehearsed. Essentially, pianist Alfio Origlio, electric bassist Laurent Vernerey and saxophonist Tore Brunborg were little more than adequate, but I kept my eyes on Katché for the whole time and was not disappointed. Over the course of the show, I began to understand what all of these great musicians see in Katché. He’s simply a great timekeeper and an imaginative drummer with a great amount of musicality to his playing. I’ll be interested to see him take up with some of the other talented musicians slated to join him as the week progresses. Odds are the opportunity for more experimental sounds will present itself, and some amazing improvisations are sure to follow.

After a killer feast in Chinatown, I returned to the Gesù (my second home) for a late night gig with the Wallace Roney Sextet. Roney, a trumpeter, is an interesting case. A child prodigy diagnosed with perfect pitch and taught by the likes of Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie before being mentored by Miles Davis, Roney has had his ups and downs. Now, at age 50, Roney is quite well established but working without much traction as younger, hipper jazz artists are attracting the attention (and gigs) he once enjoyed. The Gesù was not exactly filled to capacity for this show either, which I took as a bad sign. The band, which includes Wallace’s brother Antoine on saxophone, was workmanlike but never amazed. As far as Roney himself, it’s wild how much he tends to sound like mid-period Davis. He can’t help it, and he certainly is an inventive, talented soloist. Sadly, as a bandleader, I don’t see him as particularly challenging or all that inspiring. Still, when the rhythm section was cooking and Roney’s fiery trumpet blended in unison lines along with his two saxophonists, a few sparks did fly. It’s almost as if Roney is trapped in modern-jazz jail and doesn’t know what to do to get out. As with many noted musicians of his stature and talent, the responsibilities of keeping a band together and working can be a burden as much as it can be a joy. Like, what else is he supposed to do?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that one.

Live Review: Passion Pit, Tokyo Police Club, Philadelphia, PA, June 27, 2010

PassionPit

On the evening of the Passion Pit/Tokyo Police Club show, the Mann Center for the Performing Art’s outdoor amphitheater was hotter than the backseat of a senior football letterman’s car at the drive-in movies, enough so that about 25 people were crammed into the air-conditioned ATM kiosk at any given time. Standing in the concession line was a feat of endurance. I was pretty certain I’d see a couple tattoo sleeves melting off.

Once the bands’ rhythmic synthesizers and throbbing drums pulsed onstage, however, the sticky Congo-jungle heat didn’t stop the crowd from ignoring their already-smeared eyeliner and start kicking up their heels. Barely legal Canadian post-punk quartet Tokyo Police Club banged out several songs off new album Champ, including “Breakneck Speed,” and maintained its playful energy by electrifying acoustic ballad “Tessellate.” I was impressed with vocalist Dave Monks’ dedication to hipsterdom when he sported a flannel shirt for the entire set in the Mann incinerator.

TPC’s act was a perfect segue into the emotive, chaotic symphony Passion Pit released onto the Urban Outfitted throng. Lead singer Michael Angelakos thanked the audience effusively, mentioning at least four times the fact that the band’s last Philly show took place in a church basement. This night, disco lights illuminated a packed stadium of several thousand fans tossing toys and dollar bills onstage, fans who mouthed the words of songs besides the band’s hit single “Sleepyhead.”

The arena would have swamped most indie acts like a kindergartner playing “house” in her mother’s pearls and pumps, but Passion Pit’s epic electro-synth melodies, robust percussion and spazzy, Björk-like vocals filled out the venue like a Playmate in a double-D brassiere. Similarly, it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Once the strobe lights began flashing and “Little Secrets” came on, even the over-40 gentleman in the tucked LaCoste polo and loafers next to me couldn’t help but flail his arms to the beat.

While the three-year-old group doesn’t have the concert performance experience of road veterans like Green Day or the Pixies, both of whom are touring this summer, those in attendance felt Passion Pit lived up to its name and came away sweaty and satisfied.

—Maureen Coulter

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 3

HerbieHancock

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu’s all-star segment of the festival’s Invitation Series wound to a close, I had to admit that this amazing game of musical chairs had its own worldly charm. For his final night, Fresu hosted Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and French mega-drummer Manu Katché for an evening of dark, swirling improvisation. Both Fresu and Molvaer have an affinity for electronics and often process their horns through a fund of electronic effects. The two began playing without Katché, riffing and darting around one another through an echoing cloud of sonic ambiance. Fresu’s style was more melodic than Molvaer’s, but to a great extent, their dueling horn-play was almost indistinguishable in lieu of the heavy electronic gloss that filled the Gesù Theater. Naturally, things picked up quickly when Katché hit the stage, as his impeccable rhythmic drive forced Fresu and Molvaer back into the moment and the group improvisation truly began. As trumpeters, both Fresu and Molvær owe an artistic debt to Miles Davis, and the processed sound of their respective horns mixed with Katché’s insistent pulse made for a Bitches Brew-type experience: a bubbling, churning cauldron of jazz fusion that pulled the Gesù crowd into rapt engagement. Molvaer was the most experimental, fiddling with a variety of sound backdrops on his laptop and singing into the bell of his horn, which was electronically processed into a ghostly, unintelligible croon. Toward the end of the lengthy set, a lone identifiable melody emerged. It was Molvaer leading a haunting version of “Scarborough Fair.” Katché was as much fun to watch as he was to listen to, and this gig was a harbinger of his own Invitation Series, which is set to begin.

It would be ridiculous to write about jazz this week without noting the recent passing of Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, who died on Thursday. Anderson was supposed to play annual New York City avant-garde summit the Vision Festival that night, but was instead honored with 10 minutes of silence, which seems like more than he will get here in Montreal. In related news, trumpeter Bill Dixon also passed away recently, and the two musicians had their share of artistic similarities. Both men were born in the ’20s, and both played key roles in the development of free jazz in the early ’60s. In Chicago, Anderson was one of founders of the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Along with Muhal Richard Abrams and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anderson helped pioneer the supportive arts community that has inspired generations of musicians since. Dixon followed a similar track in New York, as he helped organize the famed 1964 “October Revolution in Jazz” and also founded the short-lived Jazz Composer’s Guild. Much like Anderson, Dixon was a role model and mentor to many upcoming artists over the years. While not the highest profile, both men were highly respected and came to reach a certain prominence in their golden years, and neither ever stopped playing music. And let us also remember Canadian jazz advocate Len Dobbin, who passed away one year ago during the jazz fest. He died suddenly at a local jazz club surrounded by his friends and family, which was quite shocking at the time. Looking back, Dobbin went out doing what he loved best. Hats off.

Back to the business as hand. In commenting on the presentation of Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project, I have to say, for me, it was more disappointing than anything else. Not that it was bad—with backing musicians like drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and guitarist Lionel Louke, it was way too polished and professional to be bad. It just felt like another mainstream move by the ever-popular Hancock. Jumping from funk-filled fusion to bracing acoustic improvisation to his recent Joni Mitchell venture and then finally on to his inspiration-oriented song choices off of the newly released CD, The Imagine Project, Hancock was clearly going for the lowest common denominator, and in an effort to please everybody, he certainly let me down. I also found the maestro’s efforts and comments somewhat patronizing and egocentric, but that’s just Herbie being Herbie. Hancock’s lovely and talented vocalist Kristina Train wore heels so high she could hardly move to the music onstage, and I was bored stiff during the band’s covers of tunes like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’” (sung by Tal Wilkenfeld!) and the especially ill-chosen version of Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” Auxiliary keyboardist Greg Phillinganes saved the day with his vocals on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “Don’t Give Up,” but when the substitute keyboardist from Toto is the high point of a Herbie Hancock show, you know there’s really something wrong. Even the funky encore of “Chameleon” didn’t move me, and the sight (and sound) of Herbie playing the guitar-like keyboard strapped around his neck made me wince. OK, sorry for the sour grapes.

Tomorrow will be another day.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 2

OmarSosa

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Who are these guys, indeed. On the second night of the fest, trumpeter Paolo Fresu continued his Invitation Series’ explorations in collaboration, this time with veteran guitarist/composer Ralph Towner. Towner has been performing and recording since the late ’60s, most notably with the group Oregon, and has participated in classic duet albums on the ECM label with the likes of vibes player Gary Burton, guitarist John Abercrombie and, now, Fresu on the recent Chiaroscuro. Ensconced in the intimate confines of the Gesù, Fresu and Towner dazzled an enthusiastic crowd with soft, elegant playing. Eschewing the electronic accoutrement he’d embraced the night previously with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, Fresu’s flugelhorn sounded clear, revealing a more traditional/accessible jazz tone and style. And while Fresu’s previous night showcased high improvisation, the duets with Towner were much more straightforward, drawing arrangements from their new recording with delicate precision. Towner played nylon-stringed acoustic guitar brilliantly, revealing his affinity for Brazilian music and displaying some extraordinarily complex chording. The music was actually less interactive than I’d expected, and at times it felt like Fresu and Towner were traveling on parallel lines rather than intersecting. Still, the crowd was rapturous, embracing Fresu as a favorite son and Towner as the wise elder.

More to my tastes was the aforementioned Omar Sosa’s solo performance, which served as an opener for the David Sánchez Group at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe—a night of Latin jazz, if you will. Let it be said that Sosa is a truly evolved artist bursting with creativity. A towering figure resplendent in red with a white skullcap, he cut an imposing figure. Settling down in between two keyboards (one electric, one acoustic), Sosa mixed washes of prerecorded electronic sound with acoustic improvisations of the highest order. Straddling the space between his two keyboards with a stance wider than Larry Craig’s, Sosa won over the crowd with his passionate, evocative style and winning expressiveness. Although he played Montreal as a solo act and in duet with Fresu, Sosa has his own working group that’s more central to his unique style. Check out some of Sosa’s recordings; his latest is called Ceremony, and it’s on the Ota label. The way I see it, every time this guy sits down in front of a keyboard, it’s a ceremony, and I’m sold.

Although I stayed to check out some of the David Sánchez Group’s performance, the music was a little too stiff for this old head, so I hightailed it back to the Gesù for a horse of a different color. Once again, the Fourth World rule was in effect, this time with Nils Petter Molvaer and his powerful young band. Molvaer is a Norwegian trumpeter/composer who willfully embraces technology and all it has to offer, both sonically and visually. Much like Fresu on the opening night, Molvaer played his trumpet through a variety of electronic effects. More than that, he stood center stage, trumpet in hand, with his laptop at his side, manipulating the sonic backdrop. Basically, this show was a multimedia event, with a large visual screen providing digitized-impressionist images and a dedicated sound engineer who managed the extra-dimensionality of the band’s sound. It was psychedelic at times, with Molvaer riffing electronically off of his own trumpet sounds and leaving plenty of space for his drummer and guitarist to fill. There were plenty of soft/loud dynamics, and the sound was powerful, progressive and occasionally overwhelming. I personally was hypnotized by the shifting colors and shapes on the video screen and at one point awoke to the crashing din of the band playing full force. This show was pure 21st century, whether improvised or orchestrated, and must be deemed a success. Obviously not for jazz purists, Molvaer is a player playing a different game. Can you dig?

More to come, including a remembrance of Fred Anderson, Bill Dixon and Canadian jazz devotee, Len Dobbin.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 1

PaoloFresu

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As I found myself in Montreal, once again attending the city’s annual jazz festival, I had just one question, “Who in the hell are these guys?”

Sitting in a wonderfully intimate venue, the Gesù—Center Of Créativité, I embraced the opening night’s festivities with an early-evening show featuring Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. This unique pairing is only the beginning for Fresu, who’ll be hosting other collaborations as part of the festival’s Invitation Series, where the artist embraces a number of musical partners of his choosing. In Sosa, Fresu selected a kindred spirit of equal talent and temperament. Stirring and evocative, their duets showcased an intuitive, empathic dialogue that was organic and spontaneous. Fresu sat perched on his stool, one leg locked behind the other as he faced Sosa, who was somewhat restrained (for him) but still quite expressive in both his body language and musical improvisations. Fresu and Sosa both used electronics to enhance their collective sound, and at times the music reminded me of trumpeter Jon Hassell’s 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. Hassell has described his Fourth World motif as “a style of music employing modern technological treatments and influenced by various cultures and eras,” which certainly applies to the sounds Fresu and Sosa were putting down. The nuanced playing reflected both of the artists’ backgrounds, with Fresu and Sosa tossing ideas back and forth with gentle intensity. Fresu occasionally used phasing or electronic doubling of his trumpet sound, and Sosa added strange samples and worldly rhythm tracks, which only contributed to their strange magic. Some folks might have thought the evening was rehearsed, but these guys were improvising from start to finish, and the emphatic audience seemed to love every minute of it. I know I did.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for the performance of Bitches Brew Revisited, which borrowed the concept and music of Miles Davis’ electric jazz/rock fusion phase but didn’t go the extra mile(s). With an all-star band of Black-Rock Coalition veterans like guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs as well as DJ Logic and trumpeter Graham Haynes, the Bitches Brew Collective vamped on classic Davis riffs without much excitement. Soloing at Haynes’ direction, the band played dutifully for about an hour without an encore, leaving the audience a little short-changed. Admittedly, the amazing Gibbs was at the center here, but the center just could not hold. The other musicians did not step up when they were really needed. It was a great idea on paper, but the funk and rock jazz-fusion trail-blazed by Davis was sadly in short supply.

Good thing I was able to head back to the sweet Gesù, and catch the late night set by the Vijay Iyer Trio. Iyer is certainly one of the most talented pianists on the scene today, and his 2009 CD, Historicity, was acknowledged as one of the year’s best jazz releases. Supported by the amazing rhythm section of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Iyer took some time to heat up but eventually everything fell together as the band played originals in between interpretations of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” songs by jazz legends Julius Hemphill and Andrew Hill, and even a selection from West Side Story. Once the band was in sync, it had a hard time stopping, and the show continued on well after midnight. Iyer, who’s no stranger to critical acclaim, seemed genuinely moved by the audience’s loving enthusiasm. Thanking everyone toward the end of the show, he stated, “We’ve got to come back here soon—that’s all I’ve got to say.”

That goes for me, too. Stay tuned.