Montreal Jazz Fest 2018: A Generational Jazz Convergence

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is in the twilight of its third decade. The annual celebration of jazz music will turn 40 next year, and that’s an important milestone, attesting to the festival’s longstanding cultural significance and organizational efficacy. But just as significant is this year’s 39th edition — which ran from June 28 to July 7 in the city’s downtown core — because it represents a transition between life stages.

The beauty of threshold years is that they offer an opportunity to look forward and back, to reminisce and prophesize. And as the Montreal Jazz Festival bid adieu to its 30s, it did so with a bold and eclectic lineup that paid respect to its storied past, while at the same time gesturing ambitiously toward its own future, and to the future of jazz.

Kamasi Washington (Photo: Victor Diaz Lamich)

A case in point: Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, an acknowledged jazz icon and a contemporary of John Coltrane, performed a set on June 30 that came 20 years after his previous performance at the festival. But also performing that night was ascending saxist Kamasi Washington, whose magnetic stage presence and cosmic vision of jazz have become beacons for a new generation of young listeners.

Saxophonist and composer Benny Golson, who will turn 90 next year, performed at the festival as well, and his appearance served as a reminder of his outsize contribution to the jazz canon (he was the composer of such songbook standards as “Killer Joe” and “Whisper Not”). His performance came alongside rising-star pianist Emmet Cohen, and on stage they re-created the kind of intergenerational jazz exchange that used to be the lifeblood of jazz music. Their set, full of melodic elegance and loping swing, proved that while this kind of jazz mentorship may have lost its ubiquity, it can still create magic on the bandstand.

And when keyboard legend Herbie Hancock took the stage on July 2, his opening act was bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, whose own protean mash-ups of hip-hop, jazz and post-rock experimentalism are generating the ripples that will lead to a new wave of fusion.

The festival was in that respect a meeting point for all vectors of jazz, coming from different angles and origins, and resulting in a wonderful type of synergy and unity of purpose. Below are highlights from JAZZIZ’s visit to the Montreal Jazz Festival. Our stay spanned from June 30 through July 3 (and included Canada Day on July 1).

John Medeski’s Mad Skillet, Gesu, June 30

John Medeski, foreground, Julian Addison, Will Bernard and Kirk Joseph of Mad Skillet (Photo: Victor Diaz Lamich)

The music of John Medeski is many things. One thing it is not is easily categorizable. Take his latest venture, Mad Skillet, a scathing avant-funk quartet whose aesthetic unites the swampy, New Orleans grooves of The Meters with the streetwise pulse of brass band music and the probing weirdness of psychedelic rock. For their performance at the indoor venue Gesu, the group featured Medeski on organ and Mellotron alongside Dirty Dozens Brass Band founding sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and art-rock guitarist Will Bernard. (The group’s usual drummer, Terence Higgins, was replaced by the explosively agile New Orleans percussionist Julian Addison). As the group shifted through humid funk grooves, crackling second-line rhythms and even a cover of Sun Ra’s space-calypso “Golden Lady,” they found electricity in the circuitry between their respective styles. The musical momentum was at times cyclonic, and the band’s gnashing energy on tunes like “Invisible Bubble” and “Piri-Piri” whipped together elements of R&B, soul, Afro-Cuban music and warped Hendrixian rock with head-spinning force.

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington, left, Ryan Porter and Brandon Coleman. (Photo: Victor Diaz Lamich)

Within the chirpy Rodgers and Hammerstein theater piece “My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane found a musical wormhole into pure jazz energy. Who’s to say Kamasi Washington can’t wring a similar lifeforce from the Street Fighter theme song? That’s something he strived for during his performance at the nightclub MTELUS on June 30, opening his set with a questing version of “Street Fighter Mas” from his new album Heaven and Earth. His performance of that song was ecstatic and sonically purgative, yet still managed to move with a mechanical smoothness, its grooves locking in flush, its pace well regulated. That could be partially due to the relatively paired down (for Washington) core ensemble, which here featured Ryan Porter on trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Miles Mosley on bass and Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. on drums. (Early in the set, the group was joined by Washington’s saxophonist father, Ricky). Battling against the room’s stuffy acoustics, the band pumped cooly through songs like Washington’s “Rhythm Changes” and Coleman’s “Giant Feelings,” building fleeting sonic monuments to tangential styles — R&B, G-funk, Afrobeat, swing — and dissolving them back into the greater groove.

Marc Ribot, Gesù, June 30

“We are soldiers in the army/We have to fight/although we have to cry,” sang guitarist Marc Ribot during his Saturday night set of traditional resistance music. Ribot, never one to shy away from the divisive issues of his time, dedicated the song to protesters across the United States who were marching that day against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to immigration. The song — sung with equal measures of solemnity and frustration, anger and salvation — set the thematic tone for the program of music ahead. With a quartet featuring Jay Rodriguez on woodwinds, Bradley Jones on electric standup bass and Reinaldo de Jesus on percussion, Ribot held forth with songs like “Fuck La Migra” and “Donnie’s No Good” that lobbed earnest and clear-eyed criticisms against President Trump’s policies. Despite the weight and ferocity of the lyrical content, the music of this set was upbeat and agile. Ribot, whose voice could draw parallels to Lou Reed’s, is known for shuffling disparate styles into infectious new constructs, and the music here — which will be released on CD sometime in the future — featured Afro-Cuban funk numbers alongside psychedelic avant-blues and heavy-metal R&B, yet somehow felt entirely cohesive and of a piece. The set closed with an aching and tenderhearted reading of the spiritual “We’ll Never Turn Back” that Ribot intoned with fragility and yearning.

René Lussier Quintette, L’Astral, July 1

Guitarist René Lussier is among the most ambitious of Quebec’s experimental jazz artists, as well as one of the most prolific. He’s an engaging performer with a restless vision of jazz, and throughout his long career as a composer and bandleader, his work has taken the form of various guises, from film scores to electro-acoustic noise rock. Though he is often associated with the French New Music movement, his discography — which includes recordings with Fred Frith, Jean Derome, Robert M. Lepage and others — defies easy classification, ranging from minimalist art music to gnashing punk. For his set on July 1 at L’Astral, he appeared with his latest project, the René Lussier Quintette, which featured Julie Houle on tuba, Luzio Altobelli on accordion and Robbie Kuster and Marton Maderspach on drums. There was a quality of unconventionality to the proceedings, and not just because of the unusual instrumentation. The performance also found the guitarist pivoting toward an earthier, more groove-oriented style that incorporated larger doses of rock and funk. Moments of free-flowing funk experimentalism provided contrast to the set’s more through-composed pieces, creating a kind of clean, calculated weirdness. The ear searched for signifiers within the sound — allusions to contemporary classical, ambient music or psychedelic rock — but in the end, it was better to stop translating and appreciate Lussier’s music as its own new language.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Theatre Maisonneuve – Place des Arts, July 1

Howard Levy, left, Victor Wooten, Bela Fleck and Roy “Futureman” Wooten of the Flecktones. (Photo: Benoit Rousseau)

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 1 was exceptional on several fronts. First and foremost, it featured the quartet in its original 1989 iteration, with Fleck on banjo, Howard Levy on harmonica and piano, Victor Wooten on bass guitar and Roy “Futureman” Wooten on Drumitar and drum set. Their appearance was also one of only seven reunion shows the group would play this year. More importantly, the performance was a cause for celebration, as the band was presented with the Miles Davis Award in recognition of its outstanding efforts to “regenerate the jazz idiom.” (It was the first time the award was given to a group rather than an individual artist.) After an opening set by the irrepressibly soulful Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, the Flecktones took the stage for a two-hour concert that had the feel of both a musical summit and family gathering. These four musicians are acknowledged masters of their respective instruments — arguably the best in the world — and their technical expertise empowers them with an almost unlimited means of expression. What they say through their music is both technically dazzling and staggeringly beautiful.

Their performance bore that point out in full, featuring songs from across the Flecktones’ canon — spanning from “Mars Needs More Women,” from the group’s 1989 self-titled debut, all the way to “Juno,” which Fleck wrote five years ago to commemorate the birth of his son. The music provided all the necessary fireworks: Levy’s remarkable “split-mouth” harmonica chord voicings, Wooten’s rapid-fire slap base triplets, Futureman’s technologically marvelous drum patterns and Fleck’s impossibly fast banjo rolls. But it also included moments of levity and nostalgia, such as when Wooten and Levy reminisced about the CoolWhip topping on a particularly tasty dessert at a venue in North Carolina (which, incidentally, gave name to the Flecktones song “Sex in a Pan”). Another endearing moment came after an impassioned duet between Levy and Fleck on “Hurricane Camille,” when the two musicians met at stage center to enjoy a heartfelt fistbump.

The group closed with what is perhaps their most famous song, “Sinister Minister,” also from their debut album. It left the audience wanting much more, and the musicians returned for two encores that once again bookended their astounding discography: “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” from their Grammy-nominated sophomore album, and a brand new tune, “Vertigo,” that has yet to be recorded.

Thundercat and Herbie Hancock, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts, July 2

Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner (Photo: Benoit Rousseau)

Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s performance before Herbie Hancock’s concert on July 2 was in many was a harbinger of jazz to come. The bassist — together with musicians like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and Flying Lotus – is a progenitor of a new style of jazz emerging from the West Coast that fuses styles from pop music’s past and present. His set on Monday night was as raw and explosive as one might expect from an artist who has recorded with rapper Kendrick Lamar, the hardcore band Suicidal Tendencies and neo-soul luminary Erykah Badu. Playing tunes from across his three-disc discography, Thundercat unleashed torrents of sizzling, saw-toothed bass lines and silky vocals as his band (keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Dustin Brown) surrounded him with luxurious synths and rhythmic ballasts.

More than other artists at this fest, Thundercat seems a vessel of pure jazz energy. There were moments – such as on the group’s covers of “MmmHmm” by Flying Lotus and “Complexion” by Kendrick Lamar – when the vibe would approach a frenzy, and Thundercat’s incantatory solos would come across as primal screams. Yet it was all in the service of self-expression through sound, so it never felt imposing. His music may have many antecedents, but what Thundercat and his West Coast compatriots are doing will require its own chapter in the jazz history books.

Hancock, meanwhile, has made his own fair share of jazz history. He’s been at the vanguard of this music from his early stint with Miles Davis to the electro-funk experimentations of his Future Shock days. Even his current work seems determined to break ground. The proof: He’s enlisted L.A. beatmakers Terrace Martin and Flying Lotus for a new album due out in the fall.

Herbie Hancock, left, and Lionel Loueke. (Photo: Benoit Rousseau)

His set at Montreal served as a retrospective of his storied career, though enacted in a jagged, prismatic order. It began with a new(ish) tune, “Overture,” which explored a haunting theme shot through with trippy synths and creaky horror-movie sound effects. But the eerie landscape soon gave way to intense, atom-rattling funk, and before long, Hancock and his band — with Lionel Loueke on guitar, James Genus on bass and Trevor Lawrence — had generated its own sort of perpetual motion. The set continued with minimal interruption between songs, and the music swelled to epic proportions, an ocean of rhythm that never stopped churning. From time to time, one of Hancock’s megahits — “Chameleon,” “Actual Proof,” “Cantaloupe Island” — would bob to the surface, only to be met with another crosscurrent of groove. The energy at a near high, Hancock, at one point, retrieved his keytar from a stand for a solo showdown with Loueke, trading slippery yet searing funk lines and setting the audience into a frenzy. He returned to the instrument for his encore, a deeper exploration of “Chameleon” that pulsed with crackling power.

More than a generational convergence between like-minded artists, more than a throwback to Hancock’s heyday, this set was a potent reminder of the keyboardist’s living legacy. He’s still the foremost fusioneer in jazz.

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