Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Off Festival Review

July 10, 2008
Montreal Jazz Fest Roundup
Part one:
Off Festival de Jazz de Montréal
June 13 to 21
by Marc Chénard
According to first indications, Montreal's alternative jazz festival, the Off Festival de jazz de Montreal, was met by unexpected success in its most recent edition. In a post-festival press release, the organizers reported a 20 % increase in attendance from the previous year, a surprise of sorts given a lack of real headliners or guest performers to bolster its lineup of local acts. But this year's ninth edition ran a week earlier so as not to overlap with the city's mega Festival international de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM), thus avoiding the inevitable drain of audience from it in its closing days. 

For those who may not know about this festival, it was founded in 2000 by a collective of musicians as a means of representing their interests in the face of the city's mega-festival that paid but lip service to the local scene, a state of affairs that has only marginally changed since then. From its initial purpose as a means of protest, it has developed an identity of its own, serving as a kind of springboard for local musicians to present their wares for eventual recording and touring purposes. 

The artistic direction of the event, it must be noted, is shared by a dedicated committee of musicians who do so on a voluntary basis. Given this fact, several changes of personnel have occurred over the years, but this turnover has an unattended benefit, which is to circumven the common pitfall of predictability that plagues many long-standing festivals. This ability to renew itself shows not only in its will to incorporate a wide range of jazz and improvisational music styles in its program, but also in its vocation of showcasing promising local talent, which, incidentally, is in no short supply. But like all festivals, this one, too, has to balance the tried and true with a share of newcomers and discoveries. As can be expected, there are always a share of hits, either total or partial, and misses to wit. But since jazz was never meant to be a fail-safe proposition in the first place but a matter of taking chances, the Off festival's program this year was daring in its inclusion of several bands unknown to this writer, thus providing an excellent oppurtunity to check out the field. 

This year's edition bore a slate of 32 concerts spread over 9 nine days, a decrease of three from 2007. The bulk of the action was spread over three locations, including a late afternoon happy-hour series in a bar, two evening series at the event's main concert hall, le Lion d'or (at 8 PM and 9:30 PM respectively, the latter one free of charge), and an overlapping one in another club starting at 10 PM. Also of note were two performances held in conjunction with the third of Montreal's June music fests, the alternative-music dedicated Suoni per il Popolo, the first of which being the return visit of the Sun Ra Arkestra and a following night electro-improv encounter mainly comprised of Montreal players. 

Overall, the vibe was definitely upbeat, but no real highlight emerged, at least for this writer. Instead, the interest lay more in the problems that arose in some of the performances, problems which should not be construed in negative terms, but more as raising some questions. 

One such example was the performance of the trio by-Product accompanied by an ad hoc string quartet. The proposition was intriguing to say the least: tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas was inspired by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's collection of stories entitled "Le mur" to create a series of pieces for his bandmates (his brother Jim on drums and Zach Lober on bass) and an accompanying string quartet. The meeting of strings and jazz, as history has repeatedly proven, is a musical minefield, what with all of the saccharine fiddling behind jazz players aspiring for some of kind of public legitimacy beyond their own sphere. Writing for strings, it must be said, is not a piece of cake, for it requires very specific knowledge of the particularities of those instruments, at least if one wants to make their parts sound more interesting that just sustaining long tones and producing tremolos. More problematic as well is the frequent lack of integration of the two, wherbey jazzers and strings players were content to ride on parallel tracks rather than really shunting from one to the other. As an acquaintance rightfully pointed out after the show, one could almost draw an invisible 'Wall' on stage during the performance, the left part occupied by the strings and a conductor planted in front of them, the right side staked out by the jazz trio. The sax player was front and center, both stagewise and solo-wise, his cohorts chipping in along the way, the drummer offering a pretty impressive gambit towards the end of their not-too long set of five pieces (all of which can be heard on a self-produced recording launched that evening). Regrettably, no solos were granted to the string players, even though lead violinist Stéphane Allard and violist Jean René are capable of doing so, a shortcoming which only underscores a basically schizophrenic relationship stemming from these encounters. On a plus side, the backing avoided much of the maudlin fare, but there was little in terms of development, the strings used more episodically to suggest mood and tone rather than developing some sort of countrapuntal discourse to the jazz trio. Although dealing with a bad flu, Doxas managed to kick up some dust as a soloist; while he was not in peak form, it must be said that he is one of the, if not the most promising modern-mainstream reedman to emerge in our city in the last five years. (Two years ago, he more than eloquently held his own as the opening act for a Wayne Shorter quartet peformance at the big jazz fest, that says something.) 

Such reservations were obviously not shared by the Off's organizers who awarded its annual prize of excellence to Doxas and Co for their performance, a prize which includes an amount for the mastering of a future record. It will be interesting to see what this group's next move will be. 

If the script was the essence of this opening evening act, the second half of the bill was an all improv affair that bore only minimal groundrules. Eight musicians associated with the city's Ambiances Magnétiques collective took to the stage for a series of musical games, spearheaded by reedist Jean Derome, who acted as emcee of sort and let the audience in as to the guidelines they would use. As is so often the case with such music of the moment, it is always hard to describe, let alone remember and give some sort of cogent post facto account. What's more, this approach to music making always raises the question of who derives the most enjoyment from the vagaries of free play: the audience or… the players? 

On the night previous, another double bill brought other elements into play, first and foremost the blending of jazz and other musical traditions and styles. The opening set presented a quartet of piano, bass, percussion and oud, an ensemble called Oktoecho lead by composer Katia Makdissi-Warren. A trained composer in the contemporary musical tradition, her specialty is 'fusing' elements of Western and Middle-Eastern musics, given her own Lebanese background. A non-performer in this instance, although she plays piano and oud, at least when not assuming a conductor role, Warren wrote a series of pieces enabling the musicians to improvise within her set structures. As special guest, the Austro-American bassist Peter Herbert was given a couple of occasions to shine as a soloist, followed next by pianist Marianne Trudel, the latter showing her jazz proclivities in her solos. The sensitive percussion work of Patrick Graham was a nice touch, and the choice of a musician very much in tune with non-Western traditions provided a welcome alternative to the customary jazz drumming heard in this festival. Rounding off the group was a native Turkish oud player who seemed definitely more at home when the music stuck close to the Middle-East, electing to lay out in the 'jazzier' parts. All in all, an interesting rapprochement of musical cultures that could only be more successful in repeated performances (this one being a good step forward since its first presentation in town last February, this reprise enhanced in no small way by the guest bassist). 

If two musical cultures were put to a test in that act, the next group seemed to throw several musical styles all into one pot. Common Thread is the name of a sextet lead by Montreal bassist Miles Perkin, a unit with a most original instrumentation of harp, steel guitar (and dobro), alto sax/flute, tenor sax/clarinet, drums/percussion and the leader/composer. At first, the drums seemed overly loud in the mix and tended to distract the listener from what was going on elsewhere. Throughout the set, one could hear country and folk influences (normal, considering the stringed instruments), some cutting edge pop and one of those churning North-African grooves in the final piece (logically titled 'Gnawa'). In keeping with those influences, this was more of a collective music, with limited solo room (but kudos to altoist Eric Hove for making the most of his two escapades). By and large, this is a music that searches in several directions, but there was a kind of restlesness to it all that prevented it from achieving a satisfying end result, something like a sum failing to exceed its parts. For those interested, this group has issued two CDs, including a self-produced side 'The Guessing Game', issued earlier this year and available through the artist's web. (

The closing night of the festival provided two more acts that, this time around, were unmistakeably in the jazz tradition. The aforementionned pianist Marianne Trudel premiered a new seven piece group with three brass (trumpet, trombone and French Horn), female voice (used purely instrumentally) and rhythn section. A composition project most obviously, this ensemble deftly negotiated a program of fairly elaborate pieces, bookended by a pair of piano trio pieces which, once again, betrayed Trudel's weakness, at least an instrumentalist, for Keith Jarrett. More satisfying to this writer were the full ensemble pieces, the first of which bore the indelible imprint of Kenny Wheeler but that succeeded in drawing away from that obvious influence by breaking the group down into various configurations. Along the way, everybody was granted at least one solo spot, although the French hornist, a non-improviser, was assigned a written part, and a tricky one at that as it demanded the player (Jocelyn Veilleux) to negotiate a number of register leaps (a perilous thing to do on such a unforgiving instrument like that one). Considering the limited rehearsal time, this ensemble delivered its goods convincingly and, like her previous quintet project of a couple years ago, let's hope that this one will take on a life of its own and hopefully hit the road for next year's festival circuit. 

As festival closer, the saxophone quartet of Janis Steprans (supplied by bass and drums on a couple of pieces) was a model of flawless execution. With André Leroux on soprano sax, David Bellemare on alto (surely one of the city's best kept secrets), the excellent Jean Fréchette on baritone and the leader on tenor, this foursome is as solid as one can get in playing abilities. But there is one caveat, namely, the material which was firmly planted in the mainstream jazz tradition and offered no surprises whatsover (although a series of five through composed variations on the Monk tune "Ugly Beauty" was a novel idea, even if it went on for too long). This then is jazz according to the academic credo, spit polished and all, but with both feet stuck in the past rather than surging ahead. 

To round up this review, a few mentions on some of the gigs heard in the afternoon and late evening. Although their take on post-hard bop (with a nod to Dave Holland) may not have been the most original, the quintet of altoist Mario Allard played the style as ably as many a band can do, not just here but anywhere for that matter. Particularly strong was the leader of this pianoless quintet, who incidentally was just awarded the prize for best composition during the FIJM's annual jazz competition.
Altoist Eric Hove displayed his talents at the helm of his unit Sound Clash, one that comprises bass, drums and a turntable player who weaved his filigrees to varying degree of success. In fact, to what degree does the latter's input enhance or detract the overall proceedings? A moot point maybe, but it seems not much would be lost without him. Hove, however, excelled in the quartet of tenor saxophonist Anna Webber, who displays a full sound on her horn and is just as adept, if not a tad more on her first instrument, the flute. With guitar and drums, she displayed some very interestingly crafted compositions that develop and expand in non obvious ways. A player and a group to watch for. 

While Jason Sharp is one of our city's handful of baritone saxophone specialists, he uses two very singular instruments, the Hohner saxophone (an almost toy-looking saxophone with no mouthpiece but reeds inserted under its keys) and the even more exotic fujara (a sheep herding instrument made in the Czech Republic vaguely resembling a didjeredoo, but held vertically rather than diagonally). With drums, bass and steel guitar, his band  is strongly influenced by Eastern European musics, so much so that its repertoire of originals seem all cut from a single cloth, the themes too similar to each other and the pieces developing in predictable ways after a while. An interesting concept and sound for sure, but one where the leader needs to develop and broaden the scope of his compositional chops. 

While these concerts are but a cross section of the total festival, they nevertheless provide a good picture of an event that has courageously held its own for nine years now and is sure not to disappear from the map any time soon. And now on the cusp of its first decade, and with the good fortunes it has had this year, all bodes well for a cheery musical celebration in June 2009. 



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