The Montreal Jazz Festival has earned a reputation for presenting some of the finer emerging acts in improvised music each year. This year’s festival appearance by the collective known simply as “Hudson” indicates that tradition is alive and well.
A recently formed jazz supergroup consisting of drummer (and elder statesman) Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier, Hudson puts a funk-and-fusion spin on Woodstock-era rock and folk repertoire of the late 1960s and invents its own compositions in that same spirit. In addition to sharing numerous artistic connections, some of which were established decades ago, all four musicians reside in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York, a region long known for its natural beauty and thriving indie arts scene.
As one of the early headliners of the Montreal Jazz Festival’s 38th edition, currently underway and continuing through July 8, Hudson contributed to event’s long history of recognizing and tapping into ambitious new projects in jazz. The group performed June 30 at the Maison Symphonique de Montreal on a double bill with saxophonist/flutist Charles Lloyd’s quartet.
Hudson hit the ground running, opening its show with a gnarly interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” that featured each performer doing what he does best: DeJohnette setting an authoritative groove with a hard-hitting solo intro, Scofield bending notes in a distinctly bluesy manner and making outside-the-harmony declarations, Medeski straddling B-3 organ and overdriven Rhodes piano, and Grenadier digging deep to establish the bedrock that held it all together. DeJohnette provided an appropriately Hendrix-like vocal, a subtle mixture of singing and speaking that serves a storytelling purpose without trying to hard too impress.
From there, the group shifted into the slow, funky pulse of “Hudson,” a collectively composed tune that serves as the title track on its debut album, released June 9 on Motéma Music. A steadily developing ostinato pulse generated by Grenadier and DeJohnette marked the start of the number, which gradually opened up into a playground populated by Scofield’s electrified skronk and Medeski’s outer-space-conjuring effects and filters.
Scofield’s original “El Swing” began with an extended, free-form solo by DeJohnette, whose quiet bass drum pattering connected creative bursts of full-kit frenzy before setting up the easy swinging groove that supports the song’s melodic guitar line. Here, Grenadier took his first solo of the night, breaking out of the pocket to make a commanding statement, his articulation snappy and pronounced, his time impeccable. Medeski’s solo turn was equally powerful and provided hints of the excitement he would provide later in the evening.
“Castles Made Of Sand” came as a surprise not only because it was the second Hendrix tune of the night, but also because it doesn’t appear on the new album. DeJohnette provided much of the instrumental fireworks on this one, and though he clearly enjoyed reprising his role as vocalist, it didn’t serve the song as successfully as on “Wait Until Tomorrow.” Medeski brought the song to a roaring B-3 climax.
Scofield took to the microphone to introduce Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (which was also a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), understatedly describing it as “an anthem of some stuff that happened a few years back and changed all our lives.” Scofield then proceeded to make the most of his ability to make the guitar sing like a human voice. Between simple melodic statements, he interjected flowing, eloquent improvised runs that ingeniously and delightfully walked the line between “inside” consonance and “outside” madness. Medeski played along with the adventurous mood set by Scofield’s solo, making the piano ring with pleasant dissonance. Toward the end of a group-improv section, Grenadier led a segue into “Dirty Ground,” a song with a downhome vibe and clever rhythmic sidestep cowritten by DeJohnette and rock pianist/vocalist Bruce Hornsby.
Hudson’s final tune of the night was the Scofield original “Tony Then Jack,” whose title refers to DeJohnette and his place in the lineage of jazz-rock drumming that began in the late 1960s with the late Tony Williams. The group was synched up and locked in on the 12-bar tune, which, like many compositions now considered jazz standards, serves as a convenient vehicle for improvisation. It effectively gave each member free rein to go wild in their own distinctly personal way, but not without consideration for logic or taste. Medeski’s contribution to this last number was exhilarating and mind-blowing in speed and scope.
Hudson’s Montreal show was the epitome of cohesiveness, which can be a rare quality in supergroups one encounters on the festival circuit. Organic to the core, the group’s performance clearly hit home with the audience, whose enthusiasm contributed to an atmosphere of fun, excitement and high expectations that were ultimately met and exceeded.
Hudson’s current North American tour continues with a performance Aug. 6 at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, as well as a string of October shows starting in Poughkeepsie, New York and continuing through New York City; Boston; St. Louis; Overland Park, Kansas; Calgary, Alberta; Vancouver, BC; Seattle; Davis, California; Rohnert Park, California; Portland, Oregon; Mesa, Arizona; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. DB