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Montréal Jazz Festival

25 juin 2010
Montréal, Canada, June 25 to July 6
En V.O.
For its 2009 edition, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal broke out with special celebratory zeal and ambition, it being the milestone 30th anniversary of this, indisputably one of the world’s greatest jazz festivals. A new outdoor stage was christened, along the new Place des Festivals, running alongside the large new multi-story headquarters, the Maison du Festival, across the street from the old, now defunct . Artistically, as well, the programming bumped up a notch or two.
In 2010, perhaps inevitably, there was a sense at the festival of toning things down, watching the bottom line a bit more, and getting back to business as usual. Of course, that business at hand is the upkeep of the high standards of a festival which remains a model operation in the world of jazz festivals. As usual, Montreal’s festival taps into the upper echelon of artists, catching New Yorkers just before deplaning across the Atlantic to the Euro-festival circuit, and hosting European artists who otherwise don’t get enough play time (and airtime) in North America.
All told, Montreal’s program in 2010 was strong, solid and representative of much of what is happening in jazz, circa 2010. But it was also short of much epiphany, and particularly lacking in music from the left end, avant-garde flavored region of jazz (apart from a John Zorn marathon, after I had left). Normally, the festival at least pays token attention to experimental matters, but seems to have left it out in the cold this year (and perhaps left it to other Canadian festivals, such as those in Victoriaville, Guelph, Ontario, and Montreal’s own alternative fringe jazz fest at the Café de Popolo around the same time as the mothership Montreal festival).
Among the big ticket shows, Herbie Hancock presented one of the first shows of his new project before hitting Europe, built around the pop song-centric album Imagine , and drifting further away from his more jazz-minded projects of the past few years. Drummer Vinnie Coliuta continues to play with Hancock, and is exactly the right, flexible drummer for this gig, and was joined by the young Australian electric bass dynamo Tal Wilkenfield, heard here a year earlier as the dexterous right hand woman for Jeff Beck.
Sonny Rollins, another favorite in Montreal (isn’t he a favorite everywhere jazz is beloved?), was toasted by director Andre Menard with the festival’s annual Miles Davis Award before launching into his set. In his fire engine red shirt and startling outburst of white hair, Rollins cut a dazzling image, and played up a storm in a band now featuring guitarist Russell Malone in place of Bobby Broome, and sans trombonist Clifford Anderson. In keeping wth the Rollins tradition, the set featured calypso action, a gleaming yet angular ballad—“Embraceable You”—and the tenor legend’s inside-outside, abstractionist post-bop sense of style when he’s on… and he was.
In other tenor sax news, the formidable David Sanchez—long the sideman of note, now branching out as a leader worth hearing and talking about--brought his band as a headliner for a show, and did not disappoint.
Most of the indoor concert activity at the festival takes place within easy walking distance, in the several block area downtown around Place des Arts. Sporting multiple free outdoor stages (usually with strait-laced or cheery non-jazz fare to appease the masses), the festival zone is closed off to traffic during the festival, making it one of the more user-friendly festivals in the world.
Occasionally, though, a trip to special outlying venues is worth the effort, as was the case with inviting new jazz club Upstairs, on MacKay street, a few metro stops away from jazz festival central. There, the glowing-toned veteran Houston Person held forth, with all his balladic and bluesy persuasiveness intact, as the special guest with the fine Montrealer pianist Julie Lamontagne’s trio.

Also as usual in Montreal, some of the most musical sets of the festival–at least its first half–went down in the small-ish and wonderfully intimate venue, the Gesu–Centre du Creativite. In this room, one point of focus was on singular, forward-thinking (and sideway-thinking) trumpeters of note. Lyrical Italian trumpeter Paulo Fresu, a regular favorite in Montreal, was one of the featured “Invitational” guests this year (along with Manu Katche and Robert Glasper), and Fresu’s concerts included an empathetic encounter with guitarist Ralph Towner, in the wake of their introspectively lovely ECM album together, Chiaroscuro. Among the luminous moments of their duet set was a fresh and dreamworldly take on Bill Evans’ masterpiece “Blue in Green.” If anyone can find new expressive life in this most mystical of ballads, it is players such as Towner and Fresu, and they did.
In other memorable late night sets at the Gesu, we heard the beguiling Norwegian trumpeter and expert electro-acoustic “atmosphericist” Nils Petter Molvaer, in a dim-lit, mood-lit setting with a trio. For unbroken 80 minutes, the trio basked in entrancement as only Molvaer knows how to cook it up, mixing jazz, rock, ambient sounds, trumpet tones both pure and freely morphed, and exotic modes. The material was, in a way, rooted in his latest album Hamada (Thirsty Ear), but actually focused in the intensity of the expanded moment, live in this room on this night (spilling over midnight).
Wallace Roney, a masterful trumpeter who somehow hasn’t gotten his due attention in the last decade, put on a very different kind of trumpet-led charge the following late night in the Gesu. With his sextet, including alto saxist, tenor saxist, bass, drums and keyboardist on both acoustic and electronic, the potent trumpeter–once tapped by Miles as his logical heir–presented a tough, loose and commanding set. Roney himself was clearly the galvanizing force onstage, carving out chromatic-colored phrases, craggy shapes and blasts of wisdom we might not know quite where to place in the stylistic continuum, to the uncompromising player’s credit.
Also in the Gesu, Vijay Iyer presented his fine, thinking-on-its-feet trio (drummer Margus Gilmore and bassist Stephane Crump), and showed why Iyer is one of the more fascinating, cerebral (though not nearly the cool math head some make him out to be) and also visceral jazz pianists of his generation. Apart from his own intriguing originals, Iyer likes to rethink tunes we know–“Nature Boy,” or rethinking Miles Davis’ rethink of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”–and address songs and jazz artists deserving wider recognition, like Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon AD” and Andrew Hill’s “Smokestack.”
For something completely different (this festival is nothing if not grounded in the theory of creating a generous “something complete different” matrix), one could slip into something more comfortable and soothing, via Susanna and her Magical Orchestra, in the pleasing new nightclub venue in the new festival building. The impressionistic Norwegian duo of Susanna Wallumrød (brother of Christian) and keyboardist Morten Qvenild create music to lose yourself by. If not quite jazz, per se (allowing for some jazz harmonies in Qvenild’s ), they have a jazz-flavored attitude of exploration and sophistication, and on this night, nowhere as boldly as when they re-conjured up the most magical version of Montrealer Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” I have ever heard, Cohen’s included.
In short, the 2010 Montreal Jazz Festival got down to business, in the usual ways, and that’s profound thing.
Josef Woodard