Stanley Clarke Among the Many Highlights at Montreal Jazz Fest
A free outdoor performance by pop artist Rufus Wainwright and two indoor concerts by veteran singer-songwriter James Taylor helped kick off the 33rd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal late last week, boosting attendance figures and raising enthusiasm to predictably high levels. But it was a series of shows revolving around acoustic/electric bass master Stanley Clarke that delivered the goods to jazz devotees who showed up en masse to this year’s edition of the world’s largest jazz festival.
One of this year’s two Invitation Series artists at Montreal, Clarke started his four-concert run on June 28 in a duo performance with the young piano sensation Hiromi, with whom he shares a deep rapport. Friday night, Clarke teamed up with the Harlem String Quartet, a cutting-edge modern classical group that not only proved itself capable of nailing Clarke’s complex charts but also demonstrated great capacity for content-rich improvisation. This wasn’t the kind of string section that pads and sweetens; first violinist Ilmar Gavilan, second violinist Melissa White, violist Juan Miguel Hernandez and cellist Paul Wiancko collaborated with Clarke as an artistic entity that displayed top-notch chops, sensitive ears and surprising guts. It was their first time performing with Clarke, who solicited his regular pianist Ruslan Sirota and drummer Roland Bruner to serve as the rhythm section for the evening.
Clarke joined fellow bassists Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten on June 30 for one of the most seismic and exciting concerts ever presented at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Billed as SMV and performing material from their 2008 CD Thunder (Heads Up) and subsequent tour, this three-bass reunion easily scored above 5.0 on the funk Richter Scale, shaking Montreal’s elegant Théâtre Maisonneuve to its very foundation. Their chops alone were enough to blow minds, not to mention the fact that they managed to play through meaningful, intricate arrangements without getting in each other’s way or muddying up the mix. Amid countless jaw-dropping solos, these three heroes executed actual “parts” for two straight hours without relying on cheat-sheets, and audience members threw decorum to the wind as they screamed and whistled their approval throughout the set. It all added up to a great big birthday party for Clarke, who turned 61 that day.
Clarke’s final performance, on July 1, featured his regular quartet of Sirota, Bruner and guitarist Charles Altura—each about 30 years his junior—playing songs from the 2010 CD The Stanley Clarke Band (Heads Up) as well as new material that showcased the ensemble’s wide dynamic range and highlighted each member’s dazzling solo chops.
Like an aftershock to SMV’s Saturday-night spectacle, bass and alto saxophonist Colin Stetson roared with hurricane force during his solo set at the intimate Salle de Gesù. A native of Montreal, Stetson took his hometown by storm, treating listeners to his unbelievably original compositions, which initially came across as free-jazz improvisations but eventually revealed themselves as actual tunes that have a slight resemblance to whale songs. Employing extended saxophone techniques such as circular breathing, multiphonics, rhythmic key-pad thumps and simple vocalizations, Stetson sustained riveting, tempestuous spheres of theme-and-variation that seemed to emanate from some otherworldly orchestra.
Compelling performances were in abundance during the first weekend of the festival. Ninety Miles—featuring vibraphonist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Nicholas Payton (in place of original member Christian Scott), tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez, percussionist Mauricio Herrera and drummer Henry Cole—conducted a syncopated cultural exchange that brought together Afro-Caribbean and straightahead jazz genres in Montreal’s Club Soda. Pianist/vocalist Eliane Elias achieved similar results in the same room with guitarist Rubens de la Corte, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Rafael Barata the following night, placing particular emphasis on bossa nova grooves. Guitarist/vocalist Kelly Joe Phelps brought his regular steel-string and his National slide guitar to the Guitarissimo stage for a soul-searching solo set of deep-rooted, bluesy spirituals and highly personal gospel reflections.
The festival’s artistic director, André Ménard, expressed optimism for this year’s event based on solid programming, the completion of several construction projects on the festival grounds and the quieting-down of student protesters who had recently taken to the streets of downtown Montreal in response to tuition hikes. “The feeling is great here, and the festival vibe is out of this world,” said Ménard. “Stanley Clarke has played with lots of people, and he’s about all sorts of music—acoustic, electric. But mainly I wanted SMV. I was very jealous when they did their [original] tour because they could not stop in Montreal; they went straight to Europe. For this year’s Invitation Series, I told Stanley, ‘We have to do SMV.’ He said, ‘You talk to the two other guys, I don’t mind.’”
Artist and industry awards are always an important part of the Montreal extravaganza. This year’s recipient of the Bruce Lundvall Award, which originated in 2009 to honor an individual who has contributed to the development of jazz through the media or the record industry, went to producer and archivist Michael Cuscuna. The festival’s Spirit Award, which since 2006 has been given to a musician in the pop realm for contributions to the music world at large, went to Taylor—whose studio and touring bands frequently include sidemen who are much admired in jazz circles, like keyboardist Larry Goldings, saxophonist Lou Marini, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Luis Conte.
The Montreal Jazz Festival continues through Saturday, July 7. The Invitation Series artist for the festival’s second half, beginning July 4, is Norwegian pianist/composer Tord Gustavsen. For more information, visit the fest’s website.