Friday, July 30, 2010

Trumpet Tempest at the Montreal International Jazz Festival 2010

By Paul Serralheiro

The volatile state of contemporary jazz trumpet was on full display during the 31st edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, as the sound of several accomplished trumpeters rang loud and clear.

Whether it was locals like Ron Di Lauro paying tribute to Miles Davis, Jocelyn Couture tipping his horn to Verdun-born trumpet god Maynard Ferguson, Bill Mahar blowing hot licks with Streetniks, fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen sitting in with her sister’s big band, the throng of Americans on parade (Dave Douglas, Wallace Roney, Roy Hargrove, and Christian Scott) or the visitors from Europe (Nils Petter Molvaer and Tomasz Stanko), the trumpet sounded eclectic and full of contrasts.

In the concert halls of Montreal from June 25-July 6, 2010, a tribute to tradition, on the one hand, and the pushing of boundaries, on the other, were the two palpable dynamic forces in the vortex of ideas generated by the select musicians expressing themselves through that iconic piece of plumbing

Ron Di Lauro, Porgy and Bess suite (June 30, 8:00 PM, Theatre Jean Duceppe)

Understandably, in a tribute to Miles Davis’ performance of “Porgy and Bess,” we got a huge dollop of tradition. The great orchestral suite, a defining work of modern jazz, is the brain child of Davis and arranger Gil Evans meeting in the world of Gershwin’s imaginative American Opera.

The conductor in for the show from New York, Joe Muccioli, a very large man who introduced the suite as a great “orchestral work’’ that deserved to be recreated, did a great job of marshalling the instrumental palette provided by the score which was brought to life by the cream of Montreal’s session players, some of whom slipped in from an earlier gig with the Christine Jensen orchestra.

The Davis/Evans suite was preceded by an orchestrated take on “So What,” featuring soloists Di Lauro, Jean-Pierre Zanella and Frank Lozano as the stand-ins for Miles, Cannonball and Trane. “Porgy and Bess” itself got off to a shaky start, as the opening high register trumpet statement in the section was squeaked, but as Di Lauro got behind the challenge of filling Davis’ shoes, it was onward and upward with consistent polished playing.

A seasoned session player and professor of jazz studies at McGill and the Université de Montreal, Di Lauro proved himself to be a highly credible interpreter of Miles, referencing his style accurately, while playing his own ideas. When he slipped in a trumpet growl at one point—one of many stylistic choices consistent with jazz trumpet but a device Davis eschewed as he did the plunger mute—Di Lauro briefly stopped blowing in mid-stream to say, “Miles never did that.”

The score of the suite itself, rich in themes and colours, was a stroke of big band arranging genius on Evans’ part, if simply for his use of three French horns and a tuba, and for construing the reed section as clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, piccolo, leaving one alto sax from the traditional set up.

The Canadian-born arranger’s score is indisputably sublime, and it was superbly interpreted by the local musicians. After 30 years performing in the festival, Di Lauro seemed, no doubt, to be living a high point in his musical life, performing this masterwork in the Theatre Jean Duceppe for the appreciative audience who heard top notch playing from Di Lauro, along with skilled conducting and coherent ensemble playing

Terence Blanchard Quintet (July 1, 8:00, Theatre Jean Duceppe)

Innovation is not unsynonymous with mainstream jazz, since music in that vein can also be pretty freewheeling, as trumpeter, composer and educator Terence Blanchard proved. It helps that, like his mentor Art Blakey, Blanchard surrounds himself with creative young musicians, notably drummer Kendrick Scott, who found all kinds of nuances of rhythms and colour on the kit. Strong voices also emanated from his 18-year-old bass player and from Fabian Almazan on piano. Pianist Robert Glasper also popped by, guesting on two tunes.

When, in a very self-assured, polished speaking voice, Blanchard took a long aside between two tunes to expound on the merits of his band members, the New Orleans native spoke as a kind of diplomat for the music and the cause of mainstream jazz, when singing hyperbolic praises of his players.

The quality of music performed, however, spoke for itself: a mix of material from Choices, which featured spoken word from Cornwell West (whom we heard over loud speakers), and performances of tunes by each of the band members. Blanchard’s own playing was lyrical, yet very free; he can play at the top of his limits very convincingly and meaningfully.

Roy Hargrove Big Band (June 28, 9:30 PM, Theatre Maisonneuve)

The somewhat younger Roy Hargrove, a frequent participant at the MIJF, also presented music in the mainstream vein. The evening showed off the Texas Trumpeter’s arranging chops, more than his trumpet, although he played some of his signature soulful lines in most numbers.

His playing was not the most inspired I’d heard from him, and there was some trouble with his sound as it got lost in the band mix, but he led the band in a relaxed and engaging manner with a strong element of Dizzy Gillespie’s spirit animating the concept in many obvious ways, from physical gestures to call and response riffs. The ensemble featured several strong solo voices who took the music interesting places, despite the fact that the arrangements were mainly in the safe crowd-pleasing big band tradition.

Wallace Roney Quintet (June 28, 10:30 PM Gesu)

Billed as a quintet, this was actually a sextet. The young drummer, Kush Abadey, was one of the stars of the show, as his rhythms kept things happening, and in tandem with bass player Rashaan Carter’s very funky approach, a deep pocket groove supplied the trampoline for Roney’s inspired, filigreed lines.

There were some technical problems at first, as Roney tried to play some keyboard but no sound came out, which seemed to throw him off a little. But once in stride, his playing was solid, with smooth, long 16th note lines that exhibited great technical command. These lines became a kind of predictable mannerism, especially when the same concept was taken up by his horn mates (a young alto/soprano player, and Antoine Roney on tenor and soprano) who at times imitated their leader’s phrasing in launching explorations of their own.

Touted as a protégé of Miles Davis, Roney’s own sound is more burly than his mentor’s, but highlights of his performance included some very subtle Davis-like ballad playing and Roney’s endurance was impressive, as he played nearly a two hour set, followed by a long encore.

Christian Scott Quintet (June 5, 10:30 PM Gesu)

This young trumpeter from New Orleans is a quickly maturing voice who, not yet 30, has already released three CDs and is being consistently lauded by critics and appreciated by audiences as an authentic new presence in jazz.

A novel band sound and concept was facilitated by the unexpected chords and textures of guitarist Matthew Stevens, whom Scott introduced as a key member of the group and as one of the “best guitarists in America” (he hails from Toronto). “I’ve played with some of the best and he’s better that Metheny and Scofield,” Scott contended.

All quintet members proved to be solid and creative players with a sound of their own: pianist Milton Fletcher, Scott’s old friend from Berklee; drummer Jamire Williams, who met Scott when the two were in Jazz camp as youngsters; and bassist Kris Funn, the newest addition to the band.

The tunes, mostly from Scott’s latest release (see below) are informed by contemporary urban music but also echo jazz tradition, as Scott’s own playing, in particular, seems to resonate with the sounds of several forerunners, including people like Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown and Wynton Marsalis.

A tad affected at times in his introductions to his tunes and the presentation of himself and his art, Scott is, however, self-assured and able to deliver the goods. He has a strong, centered, soulful, beautiful sound and he makes masterful use of space and plays very expressive muted horn, which he knows how to use in contrast to a fuller open sound.

Ingrid Jensen, Christine Jensen Orchestra (June 30, 6 PM, L’Astral)

Although it took her a tune or two to warm up, the British Columbia native Ingrid Jensen played in her usual strong and confident manner, mostly on tunes penned by her sister Christine for “Treelines,” her latest release (see below).

The band, which included some of the best musicians in town, like trumpeters Bill Mahar and Aaron Doyle, provided an inspiring backdrop for Jensen’s soloing, which made use of pedals and other effects and was generally very energetic, in a swirl of imaginative blowing reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler.

Dave Douglas with Keystone (June 30, 10:30 PM, Gesu)

Although he’s American, Douglas is a kind of honorary Canadian who appreciates this country’s politics and who saw some of his first sides as leader released on Vancouver’s Songlines. The New Yorker is also a regular artistic director in Banff’s music programs.

With his adventurous approach and his fertile imagination, Douglas is an interesting bridge between the practices of North American jazz and the European sound.

In the company of a solid band which played with respectful complicity, Douglas delivered a virtuosic, inspired performance. What fuels Douglas as a trumpet player is obviously the composer in him and his ability to think of the music in his own terms (although there was some uncharacteristic quoting, of Monk tunes primarily). Equally attractive is Douglas’ sense of humour, which was especially evident that night, with the plentiful playful banter. Douglas played full tilt, especially toward the end, and he sounded fresh throughout.

In presenting music from the score for the film “Sparks of Being,” a contemporary retelling of the Frankenstein story, the sputter and spark where typical Douglas, always playing at the edge of his limits and sailing along freely and playfully in a good 90 minutes of impressive music.

Paolo Fresu and Ralph Towner (June 26, 6 PM, Gesu)

One of the concerts in Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu’s invitation series paired him with a particularly compatible partner in guitarist Ralph Towner, a musician who shares Fresu’s understated tone and lyrical approach. The pair performed pieces from their duo release, “Chiaroscuro,” as well as three standards: “Blue in Green,” “Beautiful Love” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily.”

There was an easy, relaxed interplay between Towner’s whimsical guitar and Fresu’s breezy trumpet as the two flirted and frolicked. Fresu played equal amounts of Flugelhorn, open and muted trumpet, and made it abundantly clear that he is a master of the lyrical in the Chet Baker school but has ideas of his own that are impressive in their ease of execution and flowing natural sound.

Tomasz Stanko (July 3, 10:30 PM, Gesu)

Looking like a little Charlie Chaplin man or one of the characters from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in his black bowler hat, the veteran Polish trumpeter seemed to deliver his music right from the heart.

Playing in a centered, assured manner, Stanko spun some highly imaginative music. With a sound that can be very breathy at times, clear and ringing at others, dirty, clean and everything in between, Stanko played very meaningful music, with floating melodies that often started from a grainy low register, then soared in fanciful flights.

His band was not always up to his level of eloquence, aside from drummer Olavi Louhivouri, whose playing was alert and spry. Anders Christensen’s electric bass vamps on one note became a kind of annoying static device. Jakob Bro’s solid body electric guitar was tasteful, but not always creative or engaging. Pianist Alexi Tuomarila, although obviously a proficient player, didn’t grab this listener with his rather tepid romantic noodlings.

When the rhythm section tried to cook, either it was not convincing in its cohesion, especially as the bass and piano tried to lock into one another, leaving out the drummer at times. Nonetheless, the concert had an organic flow and it was over before we knew it, even as 80 minutes of music elapsed before the encore. Tunes tended to be monothematic, and concise, but with some substantial solos from all involved, often containing moments where everyone dropped out to create an interesting contrast in textures, which is an engaging aspect of the Stanko style.

Nils Peter Molvaer (June 26, 10:30 PM, Gesu)

It’s hard to categorize the playing of this Norwegian who hypnotized his audience with his trio and lots of effects, both sonic and visual.

While Molvaer’s bag of tricks is rather limited, what he has goes a long way. The most memorable is the haunting scale that he started and ended the evening with…something very ancient sounding and soulful.

Contributing to the aural ambience were drummer Audun Kleive and bassist Audun Erlien. Both bass and trumpet were highly processed through electronics while the drummer provided a cushion of beats for the sonic overlay. The effect amounted to something like the musical equivalent of paint dripping, a kind of moody abstract expressionism which was paralleled by visual projections on a screen, which consisted primarily of running drips, textures, and thermal projections.

The concert amounted to one long piece, although there was a burst of applause at one point when there was a mere rift in the playing, as if the audience wanted to be a part of the event, not just witness to the slowly evolving ambience, mood, shades and textures.

Recommended Listening

Several of the trumpeters mentioned above can be heard on the following recordings:

Christian Scott: Yesterday you said Tomorrow (Concord CJA-31412-02)
Nils Petter Molvaer: Hamada (Sula 602527020419)
Wallace Roney: If Only for one Night (Highnote HCD7202)
Tomasz Stanko Quintet: Dark Eyes ( ECM 2115 B0013957-02)
Christine Jensen: Treelines (Justin Time)
Dave Douglas and Keystone: Spark of Being (Greenleaf )



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