The 24th edition of the Festival International du Jazz du Montreal opened with a momentous occasion. In the 15 years of the Invitation Series, it was the first time they had invited a drummer to host it. But it was not just any drummer; it was Jack DeJohnette, best known for his work in Keith Jarrett's longstanding trio. His cohorts for his first of four shows were two other giants: pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Dave Holland. Hancock needs no introduction, making his name as a solo artist and with Miles Davis' 1960's quintet. Holland, as so many bassists are, is an unsung hero outside (and many times, within) the genre. A staple of the early British prog-jazz scene, he played in some of Miles' Bitches Brew-era bands, as well as with Kenny Wheeler. Lately he has been found at the helm of his own outstanding quintet and big band.

At around 7:10 the trio came out onstage to a standing ovation. Jack said, "These are some new cats on the scene. They're really happening." It got a few laughs, but over the course of the evening the three of them played with the intensity of guys less than half their age.

By Daniel Sheehan
DeJohnette fittingly started off the proceedings with a drum solo that started on his pyramid of bell cymbals and then moved to the rest of the kit. For a jazz drummer, DeJohnette has a monstrous set-up: three rack toms, two floor toms, four ride/crash cymbals and seven variously pitched bell cymbals. It's a lot of gear, but he's cognizant of each color he can elicit from them. Hancock joined in some cat-and-mouse play with DeJohnette, and seemingly out of nowhere erupted the melody of "One Finger Snap." From there on in it was virtuosic, intense playing from the entire trio. Hancock is a master of obscuring time and metric modulation, as is DeJohnette, with his concept of "washing machine time." Both were in full evidence in all the up-tempo songs. Yet no matter what experiments with time the other two were doing, Holland was right there. His full, elastic bass tone is the most supportive anchor of a band anyone could ask for.

The pace changed with Holland's waltz "You Are," which opened with a beautiful Herbie solo piano introduction. The control of dynamics Herbie has under his fingers is astounding; on the flip of a dime he can go from percussive madness to the most beautiful quiet introspection. His intro to the tune nearly had me in tears. Holland's solo (and every other solo after it) had this singing quality, the most fluid sound on bass I've ever heard.

It segued into DeJohnette's composition "7th D," the highlight being DeJohnette's drum solo featuring kick drum antics that most drummers require a double pedal to do. His hi-hat foot is never just on 2 and 4, it's everywhere. He uses it as an independent voice. It's quite a sight to behold -- at times it looked like he was having some form of leg spasm.

A bit of somewhat free trio interplay ensued and then out of nowhere came the opening chords of "Eye of the Hurricane," a tune rarely played since its recording on Maiden Voyage. Not for one moment did I miss Freddie Hubbard's pyrotechnics from the original recording -- you would think that this trio created the definitive version. I can't even describe how insane this tune was. It melted my mind. Herbie was playing things I thought were impossible, but sitting right under him in the second row, I could see him execute them. Jack's solo for the most part was confined to the snare drum, but the different sounds he could create provided a truly wonderful solo. DeJohnette's probably one of the most musical drummers around -- for all his chops he never does anything that seems like wankery. The same goes for Holland and Hancock, the only sense of one-upsmanship was playful, and everything was the height of musicianship.

DeJohnette introduced the pieces and the players, and then got back down to business with his terrific ballad "Pastel Rhapsody," again featuring a Hancock introduction. In Herbie's solo piano intros you could hear a pin drop. It was entrancing. So was Holland's solo. I have never heard a bass sing like that, unless it was in his hands.

The last tune was unidentified, but it featured a strong, nasty 12/8 groove provided courtesy of Holland. His solo bass intro had everyone in the house shaking their head in awe. I, for one, was totally transfixed. In this tune, as in "7th D," for all the metric modulation that was happening, when these guys locked into a solid 4, it could rip your head off, it swung so hard. And as forward-looking and modern as the playing was, it was all rooted in tradition. A great way to close a set -- a MONSTER of a tune.

After an uproarious standing ovation, the trio came back out for an encore. After Jack introduced "Dolphin Dance" (the title alone eliciting a whole lot of noise from the crowd), someone behind me said "Rock it!" (hopefully a bad pun rather than a request), to which a guy in front of me quietly said "Dis is da drum!" but Herbie heard it and laughed. His intro to "Dolphin Dance" was a textbook lesson in reharmonization, and you know you're good when you're reharmonizing YOUR OWN TUNE! He turned it into a Chopin-meets-Debussy nocturne. When the rhythm section joined in, it was like seeing these guys play 40 years ago. But they weren't done with that tune. After the head out (possibly as a nod to their days with Miles, and possibly acknowledging the first request), Holland and DeJohnette launched into this DEEP E-minor funk vamp, and Herbie joined in with the bluesiest funkiest playing of the night, including a small snippet of "Chameleon" which had some people laughing. What a way to end it.

The concert was around an hour and a half long, but at the same time it felt like so much music and yet not enough. I could see those guys play for hours and days on end. Herbie's perfected his sound, but not to the point of self-mockery: all the tremolos, the cascading arpeggios, the time obscurity were in perfect form all night. He looks no older than he did in the My Point of View album cover. DeJohnette is the most masterful living drummer of his generation. It was an honor to see these three cats while they're still around at the peak of their form. An evening I won't soon forget.

David Ryshpan
JamBase | Canada
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[Published on: 7/11/03]

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