copyright © 2005 James Hale
Everywhere outside New York City the riff is the same: Jazz festivals don't do right by local musicians. At the 2003 IAJE Conference in Toronto, local bandleader Dave McMurdo angrily decried the practice of paying big bucks to US musicians on major labels while Canadians are shunted aside. At a discussion in Ottawa this summer to celebrate that city's festival's 25th anniversary, panelist Brian Browne — next to D.D. Jackson, the best pianist to come out of Canada's capital — turned on festival organizers for what he perceived as ill treatment. Even in Vancouver, where locals like multi-instrumentalist Brad Turner and cellist Peggy Lee are regularly featured with visiting Europeans and Americans, you can hear the refrain. At this year's JJA-sponsored panel discussion, the point was made that the NOW Orchestra can't land a high-profile gig at the festival unless a foreign guest soloist like George Lewis is included.
The mighty Festival International de Jazz de Montréal isn't immune, either. Several years ago, a number of local musicians started the OFF Festival to present an alternative to FIJM's bookings. The alternative fest still runs, but FIJM 2005 gave as good as it got; some of the best shows during the 10-day run featured Montréalers in mainstage venues.
Multi-reedist Jean Derome is one of Canada's most gifted improvisers and composers, and a vastly underrated flutist. Frequent collaborator Pierre Tanguay is a superb, iconoclastic drummer in the mould of Han Bennink. Combining these two bad boys of Quebec musique actuelle with pianist Francois Bourassa — a generally mild-mannered post-bop player — struck sparks, and resulted in a performance that was nothing short of musical magic. Tanguay, whose perpetual look of mischief makes him resemble comedian Will Ferrell's older brother, favors a small kit and a minimalist attack, but his range is enormous. On the opening piece he clattered and stretched time while Derome and Bourassa fluttered. An Ornette Coleman-inspired composition, "Free," allowed the trio to burn and show its fine sense of dynamics. The mood shifted again as the band gently caressed Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan." On musical quality alone this was a top-shelf show; pushing it into the memorable category were the dramatic lighting the festival's crew provided and the good humor shared by the band and its audience.
While Bourassa Tanguay Derome was a rare combination, Les Projectionnistes is one of Montréal's best-rehearsed regular units. The front line of trombone, tenor saxophone and alto saxophone are as tight as James Brown's horn section, and drummer Remi Leclerc is a precision pile driver. Reinforcing tenor player Pierre Labbe's corrosive tone is guitarist Bernard Falaise — a leading electronic innovator who also brings the funk to Les Projectionnistes. The band's material showcases staggered meters and radical shifts in volume and intensity, as well as time well spent in mastering some difficult approaches.
Halifax native Jennifer Bell has been a stalwart on Montréal's music scene for more than two decades (her quintet Streetnix is a FIJM regular). The alto saxophonist and her trumpeter husband Bill Mahar both teach at McGill University's conservatory and blend their interest in mid-size orchestral music in the Altsys Nonet. The nine's take on Miles Davis's Birth Of The Cool formed the centerpiece of a warmly received concert that was clearly a labor of love by Bell and Mahar. The products of Gil Evans's 55th Street salon are favorites of contemporary arrangers, but keeping them from sounding like museum pieces presents a challenge. Even Gerry Mulligan — one of the originators of the music — struggled with this when he revisited the music in 1992. Some of the pieces presented by Altsys, notably "Budo" and "Deception," veered toward imitation, but a version of "Move" that Bell justifiably termed a "barn burner" and Jim Doxas's consistently strong drumming kept things fresh. Bell also wisely chose to mix up the program by opening with Evans's later work, "Jambangle" and a Mahar original called "Crusher's Last Stand."
The 26th edition of FIJM also showcased local talent in one of two of its trademark street-clogging free special shows, just the second time that Montréalers have been granted the honor. Despite a torrential downpour that flooded parts of the city turntablist Champion (aka Maxime Morin) staged a multimedia circus that positioned dancers on rooftops, massed instrumentalists and gospel vocalists onstage and had tens of thousands of revelers dancing on Ste. Catherine Street as giant plastic balls rained down on them.
The second outdoor spectacular presented a free concert by frequent FIJM guest Pat Metheny's band, climaxing a week that saw the guitarist reuniting with Gary Burton, Charlie Haden and Steve Swallow, backing bassist Me'Shell Ndegecello, and doing everything else short of running for mayor. These shows were consistent sellouts, and the buzz among those lucky enough to have caught them.
Sonny Rollins also created buzz — no small feat when a festival routinely features a who's who of the jazz world — but then, Sonny just has to show up these days to do that. The saxophonist did more than just show up, feeding off his audience's warm response to rise above his standard performance, and if Montréalers weren't treated to one of his trademark unaccompanied cadenzas this time around at least they got more than a couple of lengthy solo turns. Unfortunately, his band was no more inspired than it often is, with Steve Jordan sounding somewhat out of place on drums, Bobby Broom disengaged on guitar and regulars Clifton Anderson and Bob Cranshaw as banal as ever on trombone and bass respectively.
Another saxophone giant who is always warmly received in Montréal is Dewey Redman. In 2004, he was a guest of bassist Charlie Haden; this year he returned with his own band: drummer Matt Wilson, pianist Frank Kimbrough and local bassist John Menegon. Like Rollins, Redman's hair is snow white and his gait is labored, and he has learned how to pace himself. In Redman's case, he calls on his Texas R&B roots, drawing the crowd into a call-and-response routine — no problem with the Montréal audience — and working a gutbucket riff almost to death. With lesser sidemen onboard this might have proved problematic, but Wilson lifts every band up a couple of notches, and he's constantly fascinating, even when accompanying the simplest material.
As always, FIJM presents much more than any one — or even five — festival-goers could hope to take in, and creates the illusion for 10 days that jazz and related musics could actually take over a major city, if not the entire world.
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