Piano Trios, Searing Vocals Complete Eclectic Montreal Lineup
Posted 7/23/2012

Neil Cowley and Cedar Walton, two exceptional pianists of differing persuasions, brought trios to L’Astral and Gèsu on July 6, the penultimate night of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

“This was [Cowley’s] second show in Montreal, if not the third,” said festival Artistic Director Andre Ménard. “To put it simply, I believe London’s jazz scene is the most vibrant right now, and NCT [Neil Cowley Trio] is its most brilliant incarnation—stage presence and musicality in equal parts.”

Cowley bumbled onto the stage with a fuzzy face and dangling suspenders, plonking a plastic dimetrodon on the piano. He confessed that he, bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins had just woken up. Anyone napping at L’Astral that evening, however, was slapped upside the head as the trio’s percolating lyrical vamps alternated with thumping backbeats à la The Bad Plus. Cowley’s more histrionic playing was apologia for his evident sensitivity, revealed in such titles as “Sirens Last Look Back” from this year’sThe Face Of Mount Molehill (Naim).

Cowley and Jenkins proved their telepathy as they threw down staccato breaks and tried to get the last word in. “Never deny an Englishman his ending,” Cowley joked during the set.

More hilarity ensued as Cowley dedicated “Hungry Greyhound” to a friend whose “ribcage was too high.” The episodic narrative, along with the simple offbeats of “Slims,” was a memorable cut from a lively yet lyrical first set.

After years of leading top-shelf bands, Walton was strictly business in contrast to Cowley’s romantic eccentricities. Walton’s late set was a surprising compilation of older tunes, none of which are present on his 2011 release The Bouncer (HighNote). Signature Walton staples such as “Ojos De Rojos, ” the challenging waltz “Clockwise” and “Firm Roots” were all included in this performance. During “Rojos,” Walton dallied with “Manteca” and “Flight Of The Bumblebee,” mining the resources of his cleverly constructed pieces, which were often colored with ostinatos, tumbaos and pedal points. Drummer Willie Jones III was granted ample elbow room for urbane polyrhythmic beats, but it was David Williams’ superb bass attack on Sam Jones’ “Seven Minds” that stood out. Williams’ hip, decisive placement of the beat clearly evidenced his Caribbean roots.

Walton signed off with a lovely cadenza to “Dear Ruth,” a tribute to his mother, after a Billy Strayhorn medley that began with with an up-tempo take on “Lush Life.”

That Strayhorn classic had come up in conversation with guitarist Pat Martino at the Hyatt Regency bar the night before. Martino’s trio with organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre Jr. had finished their late set at Gèsu. In a discussion about the relentless forward motion of his guitar lines, Martino insisted that he’d picked up his lithe, connected phraseology from horn players such as Stanley Turrentine, Curtis Fuller and Sonny Stitt, who was voted by critics into the DownBeat Hall of Fame this year. “One time, Sonny called ‘Lush Life’ in an unfamiliar key,” Martino recalled. “As soon as I made a mistake, he’d move to another key! I learned to practice harder after that.”

New venues at Montreal this year included the loftily named “Société Des Arts Technologiques,” a glorified warehouse that hosted hip late shows, including high-energy Dutch DJ triumvirate Nobody Beats The Drum, who pounded beats in synch with edgy visuals.

The most impressive addition to the amazing quartier des spectacles was the jaw-dropping Maison Symphonique De Montreal. The stunning 2,000-seat hall, with its beechwood interior, offers incredible acoustics. The balcony gallery level offered a grand view of the stage during Canadian bluesman Harry Manx’s World Affairs concert. Multinstrumentalist Manx—who plays lap steel, harmonica, banjo and mohan veena (a 20 string guitar-sitar)—parlayed laid-back acoustic blues and folk spiced with Hindustani classical music. Indian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia emphasized these influences as n’goni player Yeshe took the group in the direction of Mali.

Guitarist John Pizzarelli’s two-night stand at the intimate Club Soda was highly touted for its surprising eclecticism, following Juno Award-winning, up-and-coming vocalist Sophie Milman. Her crack quintet breezed through “I Concentrate On You” and lighter fare. But despite her fresh charm and indubitable talent, Milman could certainly take notes from another singer, Toronto-based Molly Johnson. The inimitable vocalist’s croaky, Billie Holiday-meets-Janis Joplin delivery was tethered to her completely unpredictable stage presence. She captivated the crowd at L’Astral with raunchy versions of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” and “Let’s Waste Some Time.”

All the roadwork on Ste. Catherine-West was mercifully clear this year, and crowds packed tight around the Place Des Festivals for a fun-filled finale from hometown electrofunk lotharios Chromeo. Regrettably, Québécois pianist Lorraine Desmarais’ set at Gèsu got lost in the shuffle. One thing’s for sure: If Desmarais’ concert was good, then she’ll be back. The festival is loyal to its favorites.

—Michael Jackson


Neil Cowley (Photo: Michael Jackson)

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