Montreal Jazz Festival :: 06.30 - 07.10 :: Montreal, PQ
Melody reigned supreme at the 26th edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival. In an idiom that has often been construed as obsessed with complexity, the top improvisers and composers are crafting indelible melodies. Pat Metheny, in his Meet the Artist session at Cinquième Salle of Place des Arts, insisted that "jazz must remain folk music" – people's music. He'd find lots of assent among audiences and musicians alike over the course of the fortnight.
Of course, Metheny was the star of this year's festival, eventually being dubbed the "festival hero." Having been absent for eight years (and notably missing the 25th anniversary bash), the guitarist/composer returned for an astonishing Invitation Series comprising seven concerts in various venues. The third concert of the series (on the second night of his run, just to give an idea of the pacing) was billed as Pat Metheny & Friends. The first set ran more towards the free-bop inclinations of his trio (who had played the night before), comprised of David Sanchez on tenor, Scott Colley on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. I walked in during the fourth tune, "Soul Cowboy," which was in the middle of a three-song mini-set of Ornette Coleman-composed or Ornette-inspired tunes. Having only heard Antonio Sanchez in the context of the Pat Metheny Group, I was pleasantly surprised with his confident, light swing feel. David Sanchez and Metheny are sensitively melodic soloists and were often egging each other on musically. The more fusiony feel of "Every Day (I Thank You)" drew favorable comparisons in my mind between David Sanchez and Weather Report-era Wayne Shorter, in terms of tone and concept. The band left the stage, and Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava came out and played duo with Metheny on "My Funny Valentine" and "How Insensitive." Metheny's shimmering acoustic tones and Rava's floaty yet articulate flugelhorn sound complemented each other sublimely. The first set concluded with the whole quintet playing over an unannounced tune, which sounded compositionally like Sonny Rollins with Tony Williams playing drums.
The second set was Metheny and Me'shell Ndegeocello's Spirit Music group (or a version thereof), with Michael Cain on keyboards, Chris "Daddy" Dave on drums, and Ron Blake on sax. It sounded... well, like Metheny playing over Me'shell's band - not a disparaging observation necessarily, but it took a while for Pat to mesh with the group. The sound of Me'shell's band and Pat's guitar, especially on his hollow-body electric, are both unique sonic entities, and that night they sat on top of one another more than blending both. When they did find common ground though, he added a lushness and richness to the sound. Metheny played a lot of guitar synth and solid-body guitar during that set and seemed to blend more with the band on those instruments. His comping was more textural and effect-based than harmonic, something I had never heard before in his playing. He took one solo towards the end that was this searing, ruthless excursion into almost-noise, with a trebly, distorted, almost Scofield-like tone. This was an aggressive side of Metheny I'd never heard before. Much of the material was drawn from Me'shell's new record Dance of the Infidel, which was toured for a year before its release. This begs the question as to why someone would yell "SING!" in the middle of the set. I digress.
Michael Cain provided the perfect keyboard foil to Metheny – staying mainly on Rhodes and processed Rhodes sounds from a synthesizer. He's assimilated the Rhodes tradition of Hancock and Corea, among others, but has additional elements of modern electronica and pop in his choice of effects and textures. Also of note was drummer Chris Dave, who I'd never heard or seen before. The only other drummer in his league right now is Nate Smith, of the Dave Holland groups. It's rare for a drummer to have lots of chops, groove like mad, and have wide-open ears. Daddy Dave has all these in spades. He can go from holding a nasty hip-hop beat to being nearly free and back again on the stop of a dime.
The highlight of my festival experience was another guitarist/composer: Bill Frisell. The festival was promoting this as the Unspeakable band with Hal Willner on turntables, but there were no turntables onstage at Spectrum. Instead, Frisell brought out the Quintet with Jenny Scheinman on violin, Greg Leisz on steel guitars, Viktor Krauss on bass, and Matt Chamberlain on drums. The strings often spoke as one massive instrument, orchestral in scope if not in style. Down Beat recently described Frisell as a "mad scientist," proving to be rather apt as he stood stage left coaxing otherworldly sounds from his guitar. His periodic fiddling with a stool-top pedal only served to further this image.
Bill Frisell by Michael Wilson
After a brief free improv, the band unleashed a raucous, dark, heavy E-minor exploration. While Frisell wore his country and folk influences on his sleeve (closing the set with a dirge-like "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"), he dispelled the notion of him being "just that Americana guitarist." He flipped the script on "Del Close" from Unspeakable, playing it over this dark, halftime rock/funk feel (Chamberlain's stock in trade, it seems) instead of the light, loungey loop from the record. They played another tune that sounded a lot like "Keep Your Eyes Open" from the Nashville record. Frisell played quite compositionally, with tunes melting into one another, and bringing back thematic material from earlier songs (either by way of live playing or samples). It was sublime playing from all involved, especially violinist Scheinman. Frisell and Leisz often approximated each other's sound so closely I couldn't tell who was playing what. The beauty of Frisell's music lies in its simplicity. The ending of the Dylan cover turned into something resembling an instrumental mantra, this vehicle to a world unique to Frisell.
My third show at the Spectrum was drummer Manu Katché's project, Tendances. Known for his work with Peter Gabriel and Sting, among others, he also has a pedigree as a jazz drummer. This new project featured Franck Avitabile on piano and Rhodes, Alex Tassel on flugelhorn and loops, and Gidas Boclé on bass and laptop. The tunes were supremely melodic, and the band was tight on cues and endings. However, I didn't feel that the band has been together long enough to turn these songs into more than the sum of their parts. The album was recorded with Polish musicians and featured Jan Garbarek, who was not with this group. Also, Katché uses cymbals brighter than I usually like, and the drums often overpowered the rest of the band. Whether that was the fault of the sound system or Manu, I can't say. Avitabile was a great revelation for me, though. He's got quite a handle on the tradition but ultimately sounds like himself.
The final indoor show of my festival was Toronto-based MC k-os. I decided to take off my journalist cap for this show and attend as a regular concert-goer. Definitely one of the best crowds I've been in, with minimal pushing and shoving once the headliner came on stage, lots of energy, and lots of vibe. k-os came onstage and immediately busted out "B-Boy Stance," from 2004's Joyful Rebellion. In a seemingly related move, he brought out two breakdancers (a b-boy and a b-girl) over the course of the show. k-os worked the crowd-control element into his songs themselves, eschewing superfluous "MAKE SOME NOISE" comments. He said he had a "Noisemeter" and had us make as much noise as we could. Playing on the rivalry of cities, he said Toronto kicked our ass. Taking a cue from the march feel of "Commandante," he had the audience going "LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT!" for most of the song, and he also involved the crowd in sing-alongs of his songs and covers.
His band can play, and they all know their history. Quotes and covers included "Yesterday," "Message In a Bottle," "Get Up Stand Up," "Hit The Road Jack" (going into "Crabbuckit"), and "Another Brick In The Wall" (going into "Man I Used to Be"). Russell Klyne, the guitarist, has some heavy flamenco chops, and percussionist Santosh Naibu is no slouch on tabla in addition to more common Latin percussion. Bassist Toby Peter and drummer Ray Garraway have a great hookup (though I could do without Garraway's double-kick pyrotechnics). Repertoire was mainly drawn from Joyful Rebellion, though there was a hefty dose from 2002's Exit and a couple of new tunes thrown in for good measure.
If melody was king, dynamics and texture was queen of the festival. Dynamics in hip-hop? Yes! k-os' flow went from a whisper to an energetic rhyme, yet never into distorted clipped yelling. Canadian hip-hop has never been as bling-oriented as its Southern neighbors, and though this may be some hometown pride showing through, I think Canadian-based MCs such as k-os, K'naan, and Euphrates, to name a few, are the ones to watch to bring new creativity and consciousness to hip-hop.
I was quite impressed with the outdoor music I saw this year as well, mainly from up-and-coming Canadian bands. Montreal-based electro-jazz trio Plaster is a band that really deserve to be more well-known, even though I'd love for them to be a hidden local treasure. They balanced a great mix of esoteric samples and inventive live playing. Though there were loops and laptops a-plenty (which led someone in front of me to question the "jazziness" of it all), improvisation was quite present as well, especially when keyboardist Alex McMahon let loose on a synth sound somewhere in-between a Moog and a broken Farfisa organ that represented the bastard lovechild of Jamie Shields and John Medeski. Jean-Phi Goncalves and Francois Plante (drums and bass) also play in local Afrobeat group Afrodizz and rank among the hardest grooving rhythm sections on the continent.
Plaster by Sebastien Plante
I didn't know what to expect of Toronto-based Autorickshaw and was quite thoroughly pleased. Their music is a mixture of traditional Carnatic music of South India, more modern bhangra and Bollywood-inspired Indian music, and American jazz and pop. Often when ethnic music is fused with Western music, the connection with the tradition is blurred - not so with Autorickshaw. The Carnatic tradition was preserved and commingled with the Western elements, to the point of singer Suba Sankaran clapping the talum over "Bird On A Wire" and using traditional Carnatic rhythmic syllables to interact with tabla player Ed Hanley. No surprise, given that she's the daughter of one of the most renowned practitioners of Indian music in Canada, percussionist Trichy Sankaran. Bassist Rich Brown was stirring as well, using his ample technique to serve the music, sans flash. He turned his fretted six-string bass into something nearly traditionally Indian, almost a deeper electric saranghi. Suba scatted over changes better than many strictly jazz singers I've heard, and the group's reworkings of "A Night In Tunisia" and "Caravan" were thrilling as well, substituting modern Indian beats for the Latin tinge.
Another Torontonian discovery was King Sunshine, a great party band with enough textural and musical changes to keep things interesting. The drummer was very attuned to the texture/excitement relationship, dropping out the kick for a bar to increase the release when the kick came back in. Nice touches of electronic washes, too. The band was very knowledgeable of jazz and funk/disco/groove traditions: the keyboardist quoted a line from Weather Report's "Black Market," and there were a few old-timey swing backgrounds from the horns, complete with James Brown/Tower of Power horn choreography.
The big closing outdoor concert was the Pat Metheny Group, concluding their Way Up Tour, after 100 or so gigs. With a crowd much larger than I anticipated, the PMG proceeded to play their magnum opus, "The Way Up," in its entirety. It's sixty-eight minutes on record and got stretched out to nearly ninety. I saw some people around me fading after the first record, but for me it was some of the best PMG I've ever heard. The level of composition – the use of texture, instrumentation, melody, harmony – was incredible. I still have issues with some of Lyle Mays' keyboard sounds, but they served the music in this piece. The addition of Gregoire Maret's harmonica in tandem with Cuong Vu's processed trumpet enhances the PMG's palette considerably. Then add in the multi-instrumentalism of Maret and Vu, both running around between guitar, percussion, vocals, and their main instruments. Nando Lauria provided the ethereal vocals that have permeated PMG music for years, as well as increasing the guitar count.
After "The Way Up," the group broke into smaller ensembles (including a ferocious Metheny/Sanchez duo reading of "(Go) Get It" and a beautiful duet between Metheny and Vu) and built back into the group, concluding in an encore of "Minuano." It was a wonderful way to close a remarkable series of concerts and to cap off another celebration of music and culture in Montreal.
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