Thursday, June 30, 2011

Suoni per il Popolo (Take 3)


Charles Gayle (June 8)

As has been customary since its inception, the Suoni per il Popolo festival has hosted a strong contingent of American musicians. In that tradition, saxophonist/pianist Charles Gayle performed a solo concert at the Casa del Popolo. The first set featured Gayle on tenor sax. At age 72, Gayle has lost little of his ability to blow and overblow his reeds to produce the fiery brand of free jazz for which he is best known. It was a pleasure to finally hear Gayle's playing in its proper live context in order to fully appreciate the dynamics and multi-phonics of his playing, without the sonic limitations of the recording process (there is no shortage of Gayle recordings; check out his prolific output on the Knitting Factory Works and Silkheart labels.) The searing intensity of his playing was tempered by a well-grounded lyricism, but basically Gayle's approach to solo playing was similar to that in his usual trio configuration. The second set featured Gayle on piano. Gayle has been recording his piano playing more frequently these days, including two solo piano records (Jazz Solo Piano and Time Zones.) Possibly due to the less physically taxing nature of the piano, Gayle's piano set was the longer of the two. Gayle's technical proficiency on the instrument is impressive given that he most likely had no access to the instrument during his almost 20 years of homelessness. While his style is generally based in the church music of his youth, his idiosyncratic language is very much his own. While one may hear snippets of Monk-like knotty melodies or echoes of Jaki Byard, Gayle is an original and authentic voice on the piano. Overall, the concert was a mature and engaging statement by a gracious and humble musician, proving Gayle to be - beyond a doubt - a master musician in this vernacular.

David S. Ware (June 14)

A full house at the Sala Rossa heard reedsman David S. Ware perform a solo set, divided into performances on tenor and sopranino saxophones. The audience was given a performance that was very different from the Ware of his long-running quartet with Matthew Shipp and William Parker (and a long string of drummers.) While the Ware quartet was basically a traditional sax-plus-rhythm section approach, with Ware exploring with well-defined rhythmic boundaries, the solo performance was a different matter altogether. Without the foundation provided by the rhythm section, Ware was free to explore. The solo Ware was an exploration of harmony, phrasing and spiky permutations of notes. Musical cells were juxtaposed to create structures that would not have been possible in the quartet. These sketches provided a novel perspective into Ware's soul and mind. Following the performance was a question and answer session. Ware discussed his health (stable after his kidney transplant), choice of instruments, and general philosophy of musical creativity, one where musicians all dip into a cosmic pool of musical possibilities (a concept often discussed by Matthew Shipp and also associated with Sun Ra.) The discussion proved somewhat interesting, if sometimes ineloquent, but was marred by excursions into conspiracy theories. For those who may have been disappointed by Gayle not preaching as he is known to occasionally do in concert, Ware more than made up for it.

Farmers by Nature (June 21)

Montreal was Farmers by Nature's first stop on their tour promoting their new studio recording, Out of this World's Distortions. The leaderless trio is comprised of Gerald Cleaver (drums), William Parker (bass) and Craig Taborn (piano). While often cited as the modus operandi of musical collaborations in the avant/free scene, less frequently have we heard truly "egalitarian" approaches to improvisation, as opposed to variations on "leader with accompaniment." Farmers by Nature have realized this methodology in a way that is refreshing and captivating. Cleaver would typically set the stage for the proceedings by laying down a complex rhythm that was neither the open-ended percussion of a Tony Oxley nor the backbeat of a Hamid Drake. Instead, Cleaver provided poly-metric rhythms that allowed for Parker and Taborn to choose to propel the music forward or pursue countless other rhythmic possibilities. This is a rhythmic approach that Taborn is certainly comfortable with given his longstanding interest in counterpoint, as anyone who has heard his recordings as leader can attest. Parker was also free to interject and did so in the capacity of co-leader and not just as "the bassist." The ease at which the trio interchanged ideas was clearly the result of these mature musicians understanding each other and how to complement one another. It was interesting to see how this democratic approach also seemed to moderate the tendency to take off on flights of fancy (finding ways to avoid such over-indulgencies never hurts in jazz!) Instead, the group focused on creating a subtly evolving canvas where each musician was free to contribute to the shape and dynamic of the compositions. In the end, the results trump the methodology… And the result was almost two hours of music that was involving, thought-provoking and always interesting.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Suoni per il Popolo (Take 2)

Marc Chénard

Last Seen Headed (June 12)
A trio comprised of three seasoned improvisers going under the name of its second recording (issued on the French label Ayler records) performed at mid-festival point at the larger Sala Rossa. Ex-Montrealer and longtime resident Vancouverite François Houle nimbly played both Bb and A clarinets (sometimes blowing both together), Madame Contrebasse herself, Joëlle Léandre, was true to form while Raymond Strid skittered around his pared down drum kit. While Strid is a Free improviser coming out of the post-free jazz and European free music tradition, his partners are more converts to the cause after earning their first stripes in classical and contemporary music. (Lest we forget that Léandre made her mark early on by being mentored by Morton Feldman, Giancinto Scelsi and John Cage, while Houle has delved in everything from Brahms to Boulez.) These Twentieth Century Music connections are by no means incidental in the bassist's career, nor on Houle's (whose wondrous tone is always a marvel to hear). Both of these formidable musicians have developed a range of techniques (extended and traditional) that plumb the possibilities of their respective instruments. Such was the case of their performance, which from a free music perspective (or 'jazz' if you insist on the word) did not have all of the panache and gusto fans of the genre expect, but evidenced more restraint than anything else: pieces tended to develop very slowly, sometimes too much so, all too often ending at a point when they could have taken off. As mentioned previously, Strid skittered around his kit in nervous gestures, punctuating the dialogues of his partners in unexpected ways. Each musician was given the opportunity of beginning a piece alone, with his/her partners creeping in along the way. Given its basically subdued nature, the aural result of the music was not that far from a lot of small ensemble contemporary chamber music, minus the obligatory music stands and scores spread out over them. All told then, this was a performance that held its own, but could have been a little more gripping with some extra sparkle, or some high point to lift it beyond a basically workmanlike outing.

Many World (June 13)
On the night after, and across the street in the smaller Casa music room, a modest size audience gathered for the passage of another multi-national music unit. With Montreal drummer Michel Lambert providing the local component, pianist and nominal leader Greg Burke and reedman Henry Cook (flute, soprano and alto saxes, ethnic flute) hail from the States but now reside in Rome with the group's bassist Ron Séguin, known locally for his association with Sonny Greenwich, before departing from our shores in 2002. Based on a recording of the same name (appearing last year on 482 Records), the group eschewed the album's content (including a half hour all improv suite giving the the title to it) and elected to play off tunes, mainly composed by the pianist with a couple by the bassist and one by the drummer. While festivals like to present music in keeping with their orientations, this one, of course, dedicates itself to all strands of experimental music (from free improv to rock to noise to electronic and what not), they sometimes include shows that come across as 'odd men out', which was clearly the case here. In fact this group came across as a programming misstep of sorts, somewhat like not being the right band at not the right festival, as there was nothing on the outer limits here, which goes to show you that music appreciation is very much conditioned on context, not just content. In a more conventional type of festival, this band may have well sounded daring, but the truth is that a lot of pieces proceeded on vamps with rather limited harmonic materials to work on, and no one seemed ready to stretch or break through the chosen parameters. Quite interestingly, at the break between sets, a good number of spectators drifted out, leaving a rather thin crowd for the second half, which says something indeed.

Satoko Fujii Ma-Do and with the Cégep Saint-Laurent student orchestra (June 19 and 20)
A week later, it was up to Japanese pianist to show her mettle, first as a performer with her own group of compatriots, the following day as a composer, with her music performed by a spirited ensemble of students. Probably her most current group, one of almost a kizallion she has put together at one time or another in her jam packed career, Ma-do casts her in the company of her life and musical partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and rhythmicists Noikatsu Koreyasu (bass) and Akira Horikoshi (drums), the latter playing their supporting roles impeccably. Together they produce a most stimulating take on contemporary jazz, where compositions act like springboards for free form variations that go beyond customary harmonic variations, even standard playing techniques (as in Tamura's occasional sputterings and half valve effects). Also worth noting is the considerable development of Tamura over the years, his playing moving with confidence between traditional melodic development and more timbral explorations (with little use of mutes). Compositions, for the most part by Fujii, her husband contributing only a couple of his own, served as strong anchor points from which the group roamed at will, but never aimlessly, as they knew when to come back, or when to move on, a nice feature here being the pairings of different compositions in suite-like forms. While the first was quite satisfactory on the whole, the second shined even more as the played a good 40 minutes non-stop, with no dry spots whatsoever.

As for the student workshop, it occurred during the noon hour and was sparsely attended, but information has it that this was originally slated to be the evening concert though prevented through some scheduling miscue. All too often student ensembles are viewed askance or rather dismissively by the cogniscenti because they don't measure up to full blown professional standards, but such a stance is a misguided premise, for the very initiative of enabling young musicians to discover, play and interact with a talented composer of today need not only be applauded but supported by music fans interested in the music's future. The student orchestra's director, Philippe Keyser, must be commended for his commitment to the cause, and he is a rare bird in our educational landscape who has brought his charges to play visionary works by Bob Greattinger, Don Ellis, Sun Ra and Steve Lacy rather than falling back on those typecast big band charts that make so many student bands sound all the same. Keyser's 20-piece group not only succeeded in infusing Fujii's three selected charts with considerable energy, and the pianist herself was visibly surprised by their renditions, but Keyser also reshaped two of them quite radically, in effect re-appropriating them far beyond what any other student ensemble leader would dare do with more standard fare. What's more, attending rehearsals present an added benefit, that of hearing not only music as a product, which the concert unavoidably represents, but as a process, during which music is shaped, reworked and lifted off the paper. Of course, what lacks here are the soloing capacities of the young players, but that comes with time and appropriate encouragement from their teachers and, even more importantly, from an audience willing to support them in spite of their shortcomings. After going through the three pieces in rehearsal-like fashion, they ended this fine three-hour session by playing them as a real-time performance, the results clearly showing how much the players drew on the composer's encouragements to open themselves even more to the music. If the Suoni per il Popolo festival had a hidden gem in its program this year, this one was clearly a very fine diamond in the rough.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Suoni per il Popolo 2011: Full Blast Trio, The Thing + Joe McPhee, Atomic

par Félix-Antoine Hamel

Ouvrant de belle façon sa deuxième décennie d'existence avec un programme aussi généreux que varié (on a pu y voir Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, Joëlle Léandre, Satoko Fujii et William Parker, entre autres), le Suoni per il Popolo confirme encore une fois sa position parmi les événements incontournables pour les amateurs de jazz contemporain. Les soirées du 22 et 23 juin furent certainement parmi les points forts de ce festival qui nous a déjà fait vivre plus d'un moment d'apothéose musicale!

22 juin: Full Blast Trio (Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas, Michael Wertmuller) et The Thing (Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love) avec Joe McPhee

Entassé au premier étage de la Sala Rossa dès avant 19h, le public nombreux dut prendre son mal en patience dans un hall d'entrée surchauffé alors que se terminait un test de son tardif. Le retour au festival du légendaire et radical saxophoniste Peter Brötzmann semble avoir attiré la foule la plus nombreuse de cette édition du festival. Pour cette apparition, Brötzmann était accompagné de son trio baptisé Full Blast (ça donne une bonne idée...), formé du bassiste électrique Marino Pliakas et du batteur Michael Wertmuller. Le set fut divisé en trois longues et intenses improvisations, où Brötzmann joua successivement du ténor, du tarogato et de l'alto. Le saxophoniste n'est pas du genre à s'assagir avec l'âge et ses interventions furent menées à toute vapeur, peu importe l'instrument. Ses deux acolytes ne brillaient certainement pas par leur subtilité (ce qui n'est pas vraiment requis dans ce genre de musique, de toute façon), mais leur façon de lorgner du côté du rock et leur sonorité empruntée aux années 1980 donnaient à cet ensemble une qualité quelque peu unidimensionnelle qui empêche à mon sens de pleinement apprécier le jeu de Brötzmann, qui peut être, selon les contextes, beaucoup plus nuancé qu'on le dit. À preuve la version abrasive du Lonely Woman d'Ornette Coleman qu'il servit en guise de rappel, et où ses accompagnateurs, plus dérangeants qu'autre chose, auraient tout aussi bien pu le laisser jouer en solo. Si mon jugement peut sembler sévère, c'est qu'ayant entendu Brötzmann avec des groupes où son jeu était beaucoup mieux mis en valeur selon moi (avec le Die Like a Dog Trio et le Chicago Tentet, notamment), je ne peux que faire part d'une certaine déception, non du saxophoniste qui me sembla égal à lui-même, mais du contexte.

Après une longue pause où on fit sortir le public pour reconfigurer la scène, le deuxième concert de la soirée put commencer. Tout comme Full Blast, The Thing ne fait pas tout à fait dans la dentelle: le saxophoniste Mats Gustafsson, le contrebassiste Ingebrigt Håker Flaten et le batteur Paal Nilssen-Love forment depuis plus d'une décennie le power trio essentiel du jazz scandinave. Visitant assez régulièrement Montréal, les trois musiciens ont aussi développé une complicité musicale avec le saxophoniste et trompettiste américain Joe McPhee, un autre habitué de nos scènes (on l'a d'ailleurs aperçu avant le concert arborant un T-shirt proclamant I love poutine!). Faisant preuve de son habituelle humilité, ce dernier a su ce soir-là bien doser ses interventions, échangeant avec Gustafsson à l'alto ou à la trompette de poche, instrument sur lequel il fut particulièrement efficace ce soir-là. Mais, quelque peu en retrait, il semblait souvent plutôt écouter, fasciné avec le public par l'interaction exceptionnelle des trois autres musiciens. Car cet ensemble, qui existe depuis 2000, a atteint un point de cohésion assez unique. La vivacité époustouflante de Nilssen-Love garantit un foisonnement rythmique incessant; sa compréhension autant de la polyrythmie du jazz héritée des Elvin Jones et Tony Williams que de la rythmique post-punk permet au groupe de passer d'une performance de free jazz énergique à un riff emprunté aux White Stripes, aux Sonics ou aux Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Mais le trio ne se limite pas seulement à ces explosions rythmiques aussi jouissives qu'inattendues: leur principale qualité est une intensité, une concentration soutenue autant dans le groove que dans les moments d'abstraction hors-tempo. Les trois musiciens ont aussi une implication très physique dans la musique, évidente lorsqu'on regarde Håker Flaten, penché sur sa contrebasse, s'acharner sur ses cordes comme pour en extraire la sève; ou lorsque Gustafsson, son baryton en main comme une arme de destruction massive, fait presque le grand écart, emporté dans un solo cathartique. Même après avoir vu The Thing plusieurs fois en concert, ce chroniqueur s'en ressent chaque fois transporté; nous aurions certainement pu prendre encore une heure de ce régime, mais annonçant le second rappel, un Nilssen-Love épuisé vint mettre fin à cette longue soirée, lançant à la blague au public trop enthousiaste à son goût: "The next one is called 'F**k ya'!".

23 juin: Atomic

De retour le lendemain, batteur et contrebassiste devaient mettre leur talent au service d'un groupe assez différent: le quintette Atomic. Véritable all-star du jazz nordique, ce groupe réunit depuis une décennie le trompettiste Magnus Broo, le saxophoniste Fredrik Ljungkvist et le pianiste Håvard Wiik en plus de Håker Flaten et Nilssen-Love. Comme l'a rappelé le saxophoniste, les musiciens sont tous déjà venus à Montréal, mais il s'agissait du premier concert de la formation complète dans la métropole québécoise. L'approche du groupe est évidemment beaucoup plus enracinée dans la tradition du combo de jazz que The Thing, mais grâce à la complicité du tandem rythmique et à une implication musicale de chaque instant, la formation réussit à offrir une performance moins viscérale, certes, mais non moins intense. Les compositions finement ciselées par Ljungkvist et Wiik savent tirer parti des ressources de l'ensemble. Pouvant atteindre un niveau sonore impressionnant, Broo rappelle par sa puissance et son côté quelquefois déclamatoire les trompettistes hard bop des années 1970 (Hubbard, Shaw, etc.), plutôt dans la manière que dans une quelconque imitation, le trompettiste ayant développé un phrasé très personnel. Wiik semble avoir absorbé les leçons du Paul Bley des années 1960, atteignant une grande liberté mélodique et harmonique sans recourir aux méthodes habituellement prisées par les pianistes de free jazz. Bien que sa sonorité ne soit originale ni au ténor ni à la clarinette, Ljungkvist se distingue par un phrasé singulier, évitant la plupart des pièges dans lesquels tombent trop de souffleurs de sa génération. Bien que chaque membre du groupe ait une capacité technique assez exceptionnelle, les cinq musiciens ne sauraient être accusés de virtuosité gratuite; au contraire, en évitant les clichés (licks) et les lieux communs, en s'engageant pleinement dans leur musique, les protagonistes d'Atomic montrent la voie pour l'avenir du combo de jazz.