Local Musicians Inspire Montreal Audiences Through Winter Season
Each summer, Montreal hosts the largest jazz festival in the world, booking big-ticket artists from across the globe. But the city boasts a lively, diverse jazz scene that’s active all year round; even frigid winters do little to cool the creative juices of its inspired performers.
This winter season, numerous intriguing concerts exemplified the city’s cultural diversity and the stimulating music it fosters. Cuban-born, Montreal-based pianist Rafael Zaldivar opened for John Scofield on Feb. 13 with his masterful amalgamation of cultures, rhythms and forms (check his recordings on the Effendi label). On Jan. 17, saxophonist Joel Miller celebrated the release of his new Latin-flavored CD Honeycomb at the Upstairs jazz club. A New Brunswick native, Miller has called Montreal home since 1988. Illustrating the cross-pollination emblematic of the Montreal jazz community, this groove-heavy project features the stellar percussion unit of Cuban-born Kiko Osorio (drums and percussion) and Peruvian Kullak Viger Rojas (cajón and congas), with Rémi-Jean Leblanc on electric bass and John Roney on keyboards.
“This Is That,” a swinger on Miller’s Juno-nominated CD Swim, was delivered as a reggae-tinged cumbia. On the adventurous “Salsa Coltrane,” Miller stated the catchy theme before launching into a signature solo: passionate and creative, melodic yet exploratory. The Afro-Peruvian “Zumbar” employed the festejo rhythm, while “Don’t Forget Me,” featuring Kullak on cajón, explored the slower, sensual Afro-Peruvian lando, summoning some bluesy playing by Miller. Following the New Brunswick bossa nova “Smash Smash” and the cha-cha “Big Ideas,” Miller & co. delved into “Do It!”—a Jaco-inspired number highlighting Leblanc’s bass and featuring a stunning congas solo. Miller’s infectious melodies captivated the audience, who danced in their seats.
Jan. 28 marked the launch of LETTINGO Live, Montreal guitarist and educator Gary Schwartz’s tribute to Ornette Coleman. The 11-piece band of seasoned Montreal musicians reconvened at Sala Rosa, where the recording was made, to interpret Coleman classics and present original pieces inspired by him. A leader concerned with collective dynamic, Schwartz resonates with Coleman's Harmolodics approach and with the freedom of individual expression within a symbiotic group, offering the players plenty of space. The evening featured Coleman classics such as “Law Years, “Broadway Blues” and “Lonely Woman” (beautifully arranged by Alex Côté). Keyboardist David Ryshpan’s deft arrangements of “Latin Genetics,” “Check Up” and “School Work” were also featured, along with his Ornette-inspired “Hivemind,” which explored different interactions among the musicians. The leader’s own “Between The Lines” was offered as an encore, a tender invocation of what Schwartz referred to as Coleman’s “softer side.”
Back at Upstairs, on Feb. 8–9 Montreal-based saxophonist Christine Jensen (married to the aforementioned Miller), together with trumpeter and sister Ingrid, featured New York guitarist Ben Monder, with Jon Wikan on drums and Montreal mainstay Fraser Hollins on bass. Both sisters have received Juno Awards for their respective recordings, and have toured with their own groups worldwide, along with their co-led Nordic Connect. Both are gifted players and compelling composers (compositions by both, as well as Monder were presented). Christine’s lush, beautifully arranged “Blue Yonder” featured a scorching trumpet solo and Monder’s fluid lines; “Swirl-a-round”—her sweeping new rock ballad—featured Ingrid with mute and a soulful solo by Christine, Monder’s solo inducing some audience head-banging; Christine’s driving “Cowboy” (from the Nordic Connect recording Flurry) highlighted Wikan’s dexterous drumming. Theo Bleckmann’s vocals on Monder’s enchanting “Echolalia” were recreated by the two horns. Ingrid’s memorable new “Dot And Braid” (dedicated to her sister and to pianist David Braid) opened with Ingrid’s looping, expanding trumpet before Christine et al. joined in to create a haunting soundscape with gorgeous unison lines.
On Feb. 21, Montreal-born, New York-based bassist Zack Lober held the Montreal premier of “The Ancestry Project,” a nine-part homage to his maternal grandfather, Hyman Herman. Born into a Polish-Jewish musical family, Herman held down a day job while leading commercial bands with up-and-coming players such as Oscar Peterson and Maynard Ferguson. Lober’s engaging original compositions were brought to life through the stellar lineup of David Binney (alto saxophone), Damion Reid (drums), John Escreet (piano) and Montreal tenor Chet Doxas. The performance integrated recorded interviews Lober conducted with his grandfather, projected visuals and recorded samples; Herman’s speaking voice figured into the music either as melody, narrative, or inspiration for improvisation, in one section its pitch and cadence doubled by Lober’s bass.
Opening with the family’s immigration to Canada, the grandfather’s recorded voice explained the meaning of the word “pogrom” as Reid generated a sense of urgency, Doxas delivering a somber, aching solo. Subsequent sections depicted Herman’s early musical beginnings, as well as his interaction with the young Paul Bley and with Tito Puente, sampling “Lull-a-Bye” and “Si Te Contara.” A dexterous turntablist, Lober employed a MIDI sequencer as well, his upright and electric bass grounding the music.