James Farm: a silly name for a supergroup, but a serious band.
James Farm: a silly name for a supergroup, but a serious band. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR
Last weekend, I took a vacation. Well, sort of.
I took advantage of the long weekend to visit friends, new friends and a few of the real people behind the Jazz Internet at the Ottawa Jazz Festival and the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. (Somehow, the Jazz Internet is disproportionately Canadian.) I made time for some tourism, and also, a fair amount of music.
I didn't actually keep a running diary of what happened. But if I had, this is about what it would have looked like.
Friday, 11:46 a.m.: Arrival in Ottawa. There's free wireless Internet access in the airport, and the oversize baggage counter guys are watching the second half of Brazil-Netherlands World Cup soccer. (It's a pretty quiet airport.) Naturally, I gravitate by. One of the burly attendants uses the adverb "frickin'" in the most Canadian way possible, and I feel immediately at ease.
3:25 p.m.: I'm taking a few hours to be a tourist and walk about the city on a beautiful, sunny, 85-degree day, and I run into a CBC merchandise booth in the middle of the Sparks Street pedestrian walkway. Yo, NPR Shop, where are you on this one?
5:45 p.m.: Ladies and gentlemen, I can now confirm that Peter Hum is a real human being. A generous and wise one too, it turns out.
8:10 p.m.: At the National Arts Centre — British spellings, cause it's Canada — Peter and I have made it to see Javon Jackson and his young quartet perform with Les McCann, who Jackson calls "my financial consultant and my spiritual advisor." I can only stay for a few tunes, but it's enough to see McCann emerge in a wheelchair, a sequined shirt and a huge smile. Check.
9:28 p.m.: A short walk away in Confederation Park, the collective supergroup James Farm — that would be Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland, JAME if you combine their first names — is playing the night's headline act. Except E is actually another A, drummer Ari Hoenig, a slightly puzzling but definitely effective substitute. Anyway, if you ever see him perform, you'll note that he wears this contorted, grimaced look of total commitment on his face. I had forgotten this, since the last time I saw him play he was wearing a skeleton mask.
Ari Hoenig, rocking out as only he can.
9:40 p.m.: Is there anyone in his peer group who has a compositional voice as elegant and well-defined as Aaron Parks? The episodic structures, the rhapsodically unfolding melodies, the chord movements ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Kid A-era Radiohead, the piano ostinatos and repeating patterns ... Halfway through what I later learned was "Chronos," I made the note, "This has to be an Aaron tune." It was, as was "Unravel," which followed, and "Harvesting Dance," which eventually ended the set. Cat can write.
10:15 p.m.: Everyone's tunes are quite good, but they're so ... long! It seems like every song was workshopped into a miniature symphony, with slow sections, fast sections, sudden shifts in tempo, bass solo segues, meditative modal sections which become driving rock beats and marches. I wonder what their record will do to make this live grandeur into more digestible nuggets.
Saturday, 1:30 a.m.: James Hale is back from Montreal with this amusing news of an audience revolt at the John Zorn, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson show. It is the buzz of the weekend thereafter.
2:00 a.m.: At the official Ottawa Jazz Festival jam session at the Crowne Plaza Hotel — where, smartly, the festival appears to be putting up all the artists — the big names throw down. We've been through some talented high school students, and a few Canadians in town from Toronto and Montreal, but we were all sort of waiting for some headliners to show up. After some sideline watching, Aaron Parks decides to have a go, and Ameen Saleem (bass) and McLenty Hunter (drums) from Javon Jackson's band step on stage too. And then Joshua Redman came on too ... I'll let Peter Hum's recap take care of the rest, though I should note that the house rhythm section of Nancy Walker (piano), John Geggie (bass) and Nick Fraser (drums) can really play a lot of music.
8:15 a.m.: Ugh.
3:20 p.m.: I take my first glimpse inside the Montreal International Jazz Festival complex. The grounds are enormous: several indoor theaters, five massive (free) outdoor stages, and just about four blocks of food and merchandise vendors. Most astounding part: they have free beer for journalists in the press office. Holy mother of—
3:50 p.m.: I've been most graciously invited into the apartment of Justin Wee, co-founder of Nextbop. He, co-founder Sebastien Helary, and a number of friends and contributors are about, hanging out with the young Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan before his solo show that night. Big Tig had been noodling about on some perpetual motion, two-hands stuff on Justin's piano. But the really astounding thing was when Sebastien started playing his advance copy of Vijay Iyer's forthcoming Solo record for him, and Tigran started beatboxing in some sort of complex meter to it. The man just thinks in prog-rock time, like, as a default rhythmic outlook. Ridiculous.
4:55 p.m.: The Montreal version of a New Orleans second-line passes through the festival grounds, with a brass band, costumed dancers, a gigantic outsized bass and people in tow. Close enough for jazz, eh?
6:45 p.m.: The first two tunes of the Robert Glasper quartet's set lasted 40 minutes — some awfully long solos in there. And then Bilal finally came on stage as billed, and sang this silky, heartbreakingly well-phrased contrefact on "In A Sentimental Mood." The man is truly a jazz singer who just happens to be heard most on R&B and rap hooks. "My favorite jazz singer," Glasper said — now, one of mine too.
7:36 p.m.: As an encore, everybody improvises over a recreation of a J. Dilla beat (Slum Village, "Fall In Love") including Bilal. It then strikes me what exactly to call Robert Glasper's ensemble: like The Roots, but more on a jazz tip, they're a 21st century black music jam band. Am I right?
10:52 p.m.: Olavi Louhivuori of the Tomasz Stanko quintet appears to be the quietest virtuoso drummer I've ever seen.
11:24 p.m.: Watching trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his fantastic young quintet is a slightly frustrating experience. Everything was so polite and structured — including the dead-silent audience. The musicians played with such incredible discipline: just about every point you thought a solo could have mutated in another direction, or exploded into a fiery climax, everyone eased off the throttle. (Really, they're the antithesis of the jam-happy Robert Glasper band, who were ready to solo over a two-chord vamp indefinitely.) But just when the simmer of brushes over single pedal points was becoming tiresome, Stanko called a slow, eminently melodic dirge of a tune. That's all: just the melody, short and sweet, led by Stanko's gritty trumpet. It was like a scoop of sorbet before a dessert: a tidy, just-so palette cleanser for the quiet storms ahead.
Sunday, 2:10 a.m.: The official festival jam session draws to its last legs with two songs from vocalist Gretchen Parlato and members of her quartet: Taylor Eigsti and Alan Hampton. (Kendrick Scott, who was playing with Glasper earlier, was plenty of drummer for the occasion.) Parlato has a soft singing voice, and the audience was fairly chatty, so not everybody seemed to realize the talent on stage, and the delicacy with which they went about doing their thing. The pianist who hosted the jam session had to step on stage afterward and inform people that "in case you didn't hear that, that was Gretchen Parlato." Ah well. Baby steps.
Gretchen Parlato at the Montreal jam session: (L-R) Taylor Eigsti, Alan Hampton, Parlato, Kendrick Scott.
11:10 a.m.: The line at Fairmount Bagels (ahem) is down the block. People! It's not that hard. Ain't but two things to do there — order and leave! Harrumph.
2:50 p.m.: The Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts is the current host of the We Want Miles exhibition, a retrospective of the trumpeter's entire career. Moody, colored listening rooms are interspersed with photos, instruments, letters, sheet music, artwork and other artifacts. Well worth your time if you're in Montreal. Here's my list of the five coolest things there:
- Tie: The Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings inspired by Miles, and the Mati Klarwein cover art paintings for Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, etc.
- The memo to Clive Davis at Columbia Records where Miles initiates a contract negotiation, requesting $75,000 per year as a general advance for recording. Also, its ultimate line, where Miles notes that "the Blacks" are beginning to buy his records again.
- Two green trumpets.
- The scores and lead sheets from throughout Miles' career. (If you're wondering, the 9th and 10th bars of the turnaround on "Footprints" are F#-7b5 F13 / E+11 A+9.)
- The costumes Davis wore during the You're Under Arrest photo shoot. SMH.
4:45 p.m.: Eating a strawberry-nutella crepe, and due to the Francophone climate/French colonial heritage, I only feel slightly snooty-bourgeois for doing so.
6:00-7:15 p.m.: The Allen Toussaint solo concert. Easily among my top five most memorable concert experiences of my life. Holy ___. A natural raconteur, a virtuoso pianist, a songwriter who made #1 songs which are actually interesting: all these things were on display at once, together, simultaneously. He went through his hits, of course ("Mother-In-Law," "Workin' In The Coal Mine," "Brickyard Blues," "Everything I Do Is Gonna Be Funky," "Fortune Teller," "What Do You Want The Girl To Do" ...) and threw in an extended instrumental performance that spliced Professor Longhair tunes like "Big Chief" and "Tipitina" with Chopin, "Roll Out The Barrel," blues and showtunes. And for his last trick, he pulled out his "Southern Nights," and told a vivid, ten-minute remembrance of visiting his country relatives as a child — all while filling on the piano, no easy task — before wrapping it all up. (David Ryshpan was there too — his take.) He had everyone in the palm of his hand, spellbound. We didn't want it to end.
7:20 p.m.: It didn't end. We got three tunes for an encore — "On Your Way Down" being one of them — and Toussaint got another rousing standing ovation. Was that his fifth of the evening? I lost count.
9:50 p.m.: It's hard for a jazz writer not to think about Canadian artist Brandi Disterheft without inviting comparisons to that other young, photogenic, singing bassist with scads of talent: Esperanza Spalding. It doesn't look bad on Disterheft, who has this monster, Mingus-like pluck to her instrument, a penchant for interesting sounds (Northern Soul beats, Mariachi horns, kalimba, mallets on a piccolo snare, sleigh bells, etc.) and a soothing voice in both French and English. And at times, she showed signs that she could be a serious, world-beating force, particularly on her arrangement of "Concierto de Aranjuez." It had rubato cues, strong arco playing, clapping passages, keen harmonic movement — the kind of imagination that illustrated there was much more to this piece than Miles Davis and Gil Evans' take on it. I sense many of Canada's jazz fans are waiting to see if she will take that next step, whatever it is.
11:15 p.m.: Exhaustion. Overpriced Heineken, a grassy knoll, a cool evening and a jazz manouche band playing cheesy covers of '80s rock hits were never a better idea.
Monday, 12:30 a.m.: I realize I have to be at the airport in eight hours, which is about how much I'd slept in the last three days in total. I make a mental note to take an actual vacation some day. Yea, right.