Saturday, July 7, 2012

From “Ellingtime” to no time… and a few places in between

Suoni per il Popolo, June 6 to 23, 2012

Marc Chénard

Now firmly established as Montreal's showcase for all forms of non-conventional music making, the Suoni per il Popolo festival cut through a wide swath of genres in its 12th annual edition. From post-free jazz to live electronic improv and an added window to multi-media sound art, the festival has definitely created a niche for itself, a fact underscored by increased media support (as pointed out by one of its organizers), and good attendance (as witnessed by this writer in the shows seen). While it's never an easy proposition for an experimental music festival to secure sufficient funding and maintain audience numbers, the Suoni has ensured a pattern of sustainable growth from its inception in 2000. Not only is the festival well established locally but it also enjoys an enviable reputation elsewhere, as musicians from the rest of the country, Stateside and Europe find their way into the program. One invitee even mentioned that its name is so well known abroad that hosts of foreign artists are more than eager to get invited to it. Artistically this year's edition may well have been even broader in scope than previous ones, with enough acts to attract devotees to one or the other form of avant music. As this particular column is focused on all improvisational musics with a jazz bent, the coverage will therefore delve into that one area.

A pre-festival shot of Snakeoil

On the first day of the month, five days before the actual festival kickoff, Tim Berne whet all appetites with a generous two-set performance. A festival returnee, he was heard twice previously with his bassless trio Hard Cell, a memorable show in 2002, less so seven years later. While his brawny baritone was a definite asset, and is definitely missed, no one should blame him for putting it down in these days of never ending travel hassles. But its absence is made up for in his current band Snakeoil thanks to the presence of reedist Oscar Noriega, both on Bb and bass clarinets. Once again, Berne does away with the bass, relying instead on a rhythm section comprised of the very versatile drummer Ches Smith (who'd switch to vibes on occasion) and Matt Mitchell on both electric piano and an acoustic upright. As in past groups like Hard Cell and Blood Count, Berne's music thrives on extended forms where the lines between composition and improvisation are seamlessly blurred. The first set of over 50 minutes was divided in two long excursions, the second was a continuous flow of over an hour. As expected, his music thrives on a gradual spiral of inner tension, yet it is difficult for the listener to latch on to specifics, like a strong melodic line or an infectious groove, the end result being more an overall auditory experience than of particular highpoints. But then again, the band managed to hit a peak during the second half of the final set. For one, the quartet hit a groove and Berne's writing bore a stronger melodic contour than usual, all of which brought listeners to edge of their seats. In his wry New York manner, Berne confessed at the beginning of the set they were still hardly able play the piece, which was premiered that night. Given the results, this observer could only imagine how much greater it would have sounded had they been really on top of it (surely you jest…) Interestingly, none of the music they did that night was to be found on their ECM recording, which you could guess, would be markedly different in tone than this free-wheeling performance. A good omen for the weeks to come.

William Parker Orchestra: The Essence of Ellington (June 8)

Who could have imagined but a few years ago to have one of New York's leading figures of post-free jazz energy music tackling the work of the greatest of all African-American composers? But considering Parker's recent revisitation of Curtis Mayfield, it might not be that much of a quantum leap to take on Duke Ellington. The bassist honored the festival by presenting a North-American exclusive performance from his 15-piece orchestra, an event not even included in this year's Vision Festival. First premiered in Bologna last February, that concert is now packaged in a two-disc set, produced on Parker's own label and launched the evening of the Montreal concert. It goes without saying that the prospect of having some of Duke's beloved melodies fall into the hands of such forceful players like Sabir Mateen, Steve Swell, Rob Brown, Dave Sewelson, Lewis Barnes was sufficiently tantalizing (or hard to imagine) to warrant attendance. After the leader's long introduction of all band members, extolling all the virtues and what not, he launched his troops into a long original piece dedicated to our fair city. The relatively simple structure of alternating A and B sections was actually quite satisfying, the
ensemble writing definitely Ellingtonian in style, more reminiscent of his final period than his earlier ones. Small ensemble interludes were inserted between extended solos, sometimes by pairs, the horns often laying out for long stretches. Over two sets, the orchestra played relatively few numbers, choosing such staples as "Take the A Train", "Sophisticated Lady" (with a remarkably lyrical solo by Brown, more known to wail than cajole), "Jump for Joy" (sung by spirited vocalist Fay Victor) and, as pièce de résistance, the innocuous Cotton Tail, taken for a long-winded half-hour ride featuring a merry-go-round of soloists. This piece, like all others, were just jumping-off points for the musicians to follow their own whims, turning Ellingtonia more into an excuse than a focus of real attention. As pointed out by a fellow reviewer, this project may have flown better in, say, an octet than a full big band, all the more so considering the long periods of inactivity by the ensemble as a whole; and when there were backgrounds, they were pretty rudimentary at that. Given the leader and his charges, it would have been naïve to see them dealing with extensively written charts. Within those parameters, one set of this seemed to be enough, by the second one the group had pretty well worn out its welcome.

Darius Jones Quartet (Sun. 10)

Passing up on the sextet/quartet evening of Parker, I was eager to hear newcomer Darius Jones (apparently in his first performance out of the country). Having heard in months previous the final disc of his three set trilogy on Aum Fidelity Records (a label celebrated by the festival for its 15 years), this reviewer felt a bit short changed by the album, so the chance was there to find out what more he could offer live. Given his imposing build, the man can certainly pass a lot of air in his tube, and can certainly wail with the best of him. Indebted in no small way to early Ornette and to a greater degree to Jackie McLean, there's no doubting his New York school allegiance for his tone is edgy and acidic, even raw at times, and he can sure pack a few punches in his solos. A talk he gave the previous day during one the festival's meet the musician/workshop sessions was useful, in that he not only talked about his own development but also emphasized the importance of sound and his obsession on working with each and every one of them on his horn. While his tone may not be to everyone's liking (this writer among them), the man is still a commanding presence in his ability to project a very personal vision. Far more engaging than the record, Jones was ably supported by the same twin sidemen of Tim Berne (see above) plus the acoustic bass of Trevor Dunn, a personal standout for his solid accompaniments and nimble solos alike.

Ellery Eskelin New York Trio (June 17)

Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin is clearly one of the most individualistic players on his chosen instrument. Not only has he developed a personal sound and vocabulary to match, but his choice of partners has also enabled him to find his way within a select club of American post-free jazz trailblazers. His lengthy association with Jim Black and Andrea Parkins (a trio dormant at this time) has contributed decisively to his musical identity, but even before that (most notably in the coop quartet Joint Venture), his voice was already there. By virtue of his dedication to a single horn, Eskelin has asserted his individuality, steering clear from the trappings of multi-instrumentalism (the 'jack of all horns, master of none' syndrome). For his first ever Montreal appearance (his closest visit being an invite to the Victoriaville festival in 2003), Eskelin is now embarked on a new trio venture, this time with B-3 player Gary Versace and the seemingly ubiquitous drummer Gerald Cleaver. The organ trio, of course, is one of the most typecast sounds in jazz, molded forever by the likes of Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, pursued nowadays by such keyboard wizards ranging from Joey de Francesco to Barbara Dennerlein. Never a fan of this instrument, this writer was still hopeful to get something more than the tried and true, based on Eskelin's musical path. While the opening set held promise, with a good balance struck between inside and outside playing, the trio nevertheless retreated to more conventional stylings as the night wore on. Even more so as the group contented itself to retread old standards like "After You've Gone", "How Deep is the Ocean", "Just one of Those Things", "Flamingo" and the like. Accordingly, the playing stuck close to the changes in the second set, hence a feeling of déja vu (or 'entendu' in this case). For those who may not know, Eskelin's mother
was a B-3 player, so having grown up with that sound surely explains his inclination towards it, but this excursion may well have been a nod to that (hopefully a passing one), though it comes across as a step

Trio3 (June 19)

After a week devoted to other forms of musical experimentalism, the festival rounded itself off with a final stretch of jazz-improv evenings. And what an opener for that week than the well-heeled triumvirate of Oliver Lake (69), Andrew Cyrille (72) and Reggie Workman (a week shy of his 76th birthday). Veterans they are, but time has not caught up with them at all, for they still have the burning fire of their early days, burnished with experience and wisdom that enable them to build their musical program with intelligence and flair. In the opening set, comprised of pieces from the altoist and the drummer, they played what we know they can do; after the intermission, however, they came back and proceeded to play us what they can really do, to effectively go for it, and not hold back, getting the pot to boil over, as in the Workman piece "Summit Conference", the show stopper, followed by a graceful free form ballad that served as a perfect counterweight to the previous number. Another treat was Cyrille's tribute to Art Blakey, a staple in his repertoire. Not a mere exercise in style, but an authentic homage, this number only served to remind listeners of Cyrille's greatness, truly one the living masters of his instrument on the planet. Of all shows witnessed at this year's festival, this was a real standout, not for this listener alone but the couple of hundred on hand that cheered them to a short encore (a blues, what else?).

Bennink-Ex-Brodie: Let's Go! (June 20)

Another night, another drummer, but a whole other kettle of fish (or drums shall we say). Like the Americans, this unit was also a trio, comprised here of another crazy Dutchman, punk guitarist Terrie Ex, and an alto saxophonist, Torontonian Brodie West. The star attraction, of course, was Bennink, totally in his element in this all free improvised affair, whacking his cymbals at will, pummeling his skins with little respite, pushing one to twang his strings a little more and the other to squeal some more on that horn. Anyone familiar with the drummer would expect these shenanigans, and it differed little in intent from the recording issued on LP two years previously, now made available in a limited CD edition. This kind of music making is surely more fun to see than hear on an audio document. Paradoxically, though, this totally unpremeditated way of playing sounds strangely predictable, or simply invariable in terms of overall effect. Interestingly, in early July, during the Copenhagen jazz festival, Bennink will perform with the trio that actually goes under his own name (a first for him his long career). Not only will he perform with two musicians young enough to be his sons, but cut a second album for the independent indie of that city, Ilk records. Based on video clips, this trio plays much more tune oriented, with nods to the tradition, an area Bennink can handle just as deftly, when he puts his mind to it. (Somehow, I would have preferred catching that group than the one that stormed the
Suoni stage. Maybe for another day.) Having turned 70, and celebrated for a whole week in the jazz Mecca last April, Bennink is showing no signs of slowing down, and boy can he still beat the s*** out of those traps! As opening act, the Montreal trio Subtle Lip Can (Jessie Zubot, violin, Bernard Falaise, guitar/effects and Isaiah Ceccarelli, drums, bows, etc) played a sonically exploratory set, albeit definitely more subdued than the crash and splash main act. In passing too, Bennink that afternoon was
invited to a kind a workshop session, which however turned into a long monologue on his life's work, with no invitation to any of the aspiring musicians on hand to take out the horns from their cases and play along. Come to think of it, any non-professional may well be intimidated by such a prospect. Chutzpah definitely required.

Ig Henneman Sextet (June 21)

Haling also from the Netherlands, violist Ig Henneman and her sextet was the final act seen by this reviewer (a solo guitar show by Marc Ribot and a free jazz threesome with Chris Corsano were the festival's closers). Earlier the same day, both the leader and her bassist Wilbert de Joode gave their separate workshops, each of them allowing the attendees to play along. Particularly striking were the mindsets of these two musicians: for her part, Henneman clearly showed her classical bent by insisting on the importance of listening to the surroundings and being respectful of others; the bassist, in contrast, is more of a feisty individualist, like all jazzmen, and wasn't shy to encourage more initiatives for the participants, to step out more, even to provoke things. For the show, Henneman and consorts (Axel Dörner, trpt., Lori Freedman, clarinets, AbBaars, tenor sax, clarinet, shakuhachi and Marilyn Lerner, pno.) split the evening with budding local alto player Brahja Waldman and his quartet, the last few numbers augmented by his regular pianist, just back from a lengthy stay abroad. A melodicist first and foremost, Waldman and his tenor buddy Adam Kinner played a pleasant albeit uneventful set of jazz originals, a sort of 21st Century take on West Coast Cool, with vague echoes of early Ornette. Even cooler was Henneman's set, in part due to her astringent compositions (with a nudge to Monk's Raise Four in the set opener), and the lack of a drummer, which automatically lowers the dynamic level. While a lot of Dutch creative music has its whimsy if not a witty side to it, it can also have a certain amount to dryness to it, depending on the composers. Henneman clearly belongs on this side of the ledger, and save from Freedman and Baars occasional outbreaks, it was easy to make the connection between her own music and her attitude at the workshop that day. Of the musicians that night, pianist Lerner was definitely underused, in fact she was afforded only one solo spot in the last ten minutes of the hour plus set (but then again, the less than optimal sounding baby grand is not the best instrument for a pianist to shine on).

As is the case for all festivals that pride themselves on sticking their necks out for the music, the Suoni per il Popolo acquits itself admirably by letting the music do the talking rather than engaging in the numbers game for self-aggrandizement. And we, as committed music fans, can be more than thankful for that.



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