Mellow Moods, Deep Grooves Collide in Montreal

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The progressive rock band King Crimson concludes its concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 3.

(Photo: ©Frédérique Ménard-Aubin/FIJM )

Of all the venues that present concerts during the Montreal Jazz Festival, none is more intimate than the 425-seat Gesù. Located in the basement of a landmark Montreal church, Gesù brings audiences and performers within whispering distance of each other. It’s the kind of close proximity that minimizes personal inhibitions and fosters feelings of connectedness between artists and their admirers.

The room lends itself perfectly to the cool ambiance of late-night sets like the one delivered by the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet on July 1. The all-acoustic group established a distinctly mellow mood from the opening number, with tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby playing the simple melodic lines of bassist Chris Morrissey’s composition “Our Lady” in a hushed subtone that drew in the audience and directed focus on the quartet’s subtly nuanced dynamics. Rhythmic drive was in no short supply as Morrissey, drummer Guiliana and pianist Fabian Almazan established the first of the evening’s many ostinato grooves.

Intensity mounted as the set progressed into “Jersey,” the title track of the group’s forthcoming album, and ventured into the frantic odd-meter terrain of “One Month.” Guiliana sat out for the meditative, arco-laden “September” before establishing a swinging, walking groove with Morrissey under the angular sax-and-piano melody of “ABED.” After an impressionistic piano solo and restatement of the head, the quartet kicked into high gear on a double-time passage that led into a tight, time-suspended Guiliana solo, the drummer reintroducing the tune’s swinging head as he concluded the improvisation.

Almazan dug deep to bring out the colors of the house grand piano on David Bowie’s 2013 ballad “Where Are We Now.” The piece was treated with a dramatic arc that climaxed with Rigby taking the theme up an octave and Morrissey plowing hard. Morrissey made creative use of the many melodic devices at his disposal during his extended solo intro to “Goodrich,” which gave way to a ringing dialog with Guiliana punctuated by Almazan’s percussive inside-the-piano plucks and strums. After Almazan dazzled once again with burning virtuoso chops on the set closer (another tune from the group’s forthcoming album), the quartet delivered a solid encore that ended much as the set began, with a whisper.

In addition to leading his own acoustic and electric projects, Guiliana is also known as the drummer in saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet, which took a louder, electrified and more extroverted approach at Gesù the previous night. The group’s extended encore proved to be the most thrilling moment at this year’s Montreal festival, which, in its 38th edition, ran June 28 to July 8 and featured some 150 indoor concerts at 14 different venues (in addition to numerous free outdoor shows). Supported by Guiliana, keyboardist/synthesist Jason Lindner and Nate Wood on electric bass, McCaslin was a fountain of ambitious ideas and inspired blowing. He came across as an artist who, since his involvement in Bowie’s final project, Blackstar, has confidently shed any creative restraints he might have once imposed on himself.

Another highlight at Gesù was the duo team of guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, who on the night of July 2 performed material from their new live album Small Town (ECM) as well as radical-yet-gentle deconstructions of a Thelonious Monk tune, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What The World Needs Now.”

Frisell played to his strengths, which include a keyboard-like way of voicing chords on the fretboard and his clever “looping” creations that constitute a sonic playground of sorts. Morgan, attuned to Frisell’s every move, showed tremendous conversational skill in the duo passages and impressed with his dexterity in the upper registers of the upright bass during his solo spots. Frisell spoke only toward the end of the set, when he chastised himself on the mic for accidentally pulling out his guitar cable at a critical moment; he later apologized to the audience for swearing, in a manner quite consistent with his soft-spoken personality and understated sense of humor.

In contrast to the intimate scene at Gesù, the iconic progressive rock band King Crimson put on an arena-style performance July 3 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, one of the large theaters within Montreal’s Place des Arts. Saxophonist/multi-reedist Mel Collins came roaring out of the gate on bari during the show opener, “Neurotica,” and proceeded to switch instruments seemingly every couple of minutes, playing essential parts with precision and blowing solos with abandon. The eight-piece outfit, led by guitarist/visionary Robert Fripp and featuring three drummers positioned in front of the band, executed its classic repertoire with brainy precision and thunderous amplification while clad like gentlemen in ties, jackets and vests.

One room over, in the Théâtre Maisonneuve, bassist Stanley Clarke and the latest incarnation of his quartet sparked plenty of musical fireworks on July 3. Starting the set on electric bass and quickly moving to acoustic upright for the rest of night, Clarke coaxed a world of timbres and effects from the instrument in service of moving the groove forward.

The group, which featured ace keyboardists Beka Gochiashvili and Caleb McCampbell (aka Caleb Sean) and drummer Cedric Moore, gave a funky rock-show treatment to Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and George Duke’s “Brazilian Love Affair”; other tunes came from Clarke’s early recordings, as well as his 2014 album Up and Return to Forever repertoire.

Clarke’s live performances snap and pop with vitality, and his Montreal performance was no exception. He once again proved himself to be the master of the repeated, displaced bass line. And, when he plays triple-stop chords on the upright bass, he ventures beyond the standard root-fifth-third approach and discovers ways to use open strings and harmonics to create more open and interesting voicings.

When Clarke’s quartet performs live, it’s always a gas. The same could be said of the Montreal Jazz Festival itself—a consistently adventurous, fan-accessible experience, year after year since 1980. DB



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