Posted by: russdavis | July 1, 2016

Angels And Other Celestial Beings Visit The 2016 Montreal Jazz Fest!

Montreal_logo_2011According to the mythology I was taught as a young lad, angels had wings that allowed them to fly anywhere and their instrument of choice was the harp. It seems a couple of them flew into Quebec for the 37th edition of this grand Festival International de Jazz de Montreal and were accompanied by some of their fellow celestial musicians who created some heavenly sounds on my first day at the 2016 Montreal Jazz Fest. Let me explain.

On June 30th I arrived in Montreal to cover what I believe is my 11th festival in a row. Time does indeed fly when one is having fun, and it’s all a delightful blur at this point. After checking in and making my way to the city’s cultural center, the Place des Arts, where all the indoor and outdoor events for the festival happen, I was greeted by the sound of the dreamy blending of trumpet and harp coming from the largest of the many outdoor stages for free performances, The Scene TD, where the audience was being mesmerized by the Manchester, England based trumpeter Matthew Halsall & his Gondwana Orchestra, featuring the otherworldly harp work of Rachel Gladwin. This group of inventive improvisers blended horns, reeds and woodwinds, with keyboards and the harp for an inviting mix that just wouldn’t let me go. I imagined Alice Coltrane turning her ears to listen and nodding with deep approval. I was on my way to the next show and venue but the magic of this groups sound was most enticing. I will certainly investigate them some more in the future, to be sure.

Wynton & Russ 2011My next stop was the beautiful Maison Symphonique, the newest of the venues in the Place des Arts, where Wynton Marsalis and his legendary Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra would hold court in front of a packed house. As I took my seat I noticed that the audience was decidedly on the “older” side, shall we say. I thought of the statement one hears quite often that jazz has seen its best days and that it may have become a museum piece if the music does not move forward in some way. There are many ways to look at that and knowing how, as even Wynton himself would explain from the stage, that the Orchestra was established to celebrate and carry on the tradition of Duke Ellington, one might think you’d be hearing a nostalgic performance. Well, yes, and no.

Wynton, who “leads” the band from the back row of the orchestra and shines a large light on each and every one of the members of his incredible group of players as they take their leads or offer their own compositions and/or arrangements to the set, most certainly loves the traditions he exhibits, but obviously loves the music far to much to let it be stale. He and the band most certainly played Ellington as well as Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea compositions but also new work from members of the orchestra and each piece was played with supreme virtuosity and emotion. Everything seemed fresh and new, as if it was music being played for the first time. No museum piece on exhibition in this show!

I was off to the next venue after hearing the first set by Wynton and company. That’s the joy and the problem with great festivals like Montreal…the embarrassment of riches that is the fully packed lineup of overlapping shows. I made my way to the Theatre Maisonneuve via the underground passageway that links most of the venues. You may know how wicked the winters are in this lovely city and there are miles of underground walkways to help on cold nights. This was a warm summer evening but it’s still a welcome and quick passageway from place to place. I settled in to hear the brilliant pianist from Japan, Hiromi Uehara, and her great trio featuring bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. But first, the audience was to be treated to an opening set by another of the musical angels of the harp, the wonder that is the man from Bogota, Colombia, Edmar Castaneda.

220px-Edmar_Castañeda_at_Marcus_plus_2011Mr. Castaneda was born in Bogota and is the son of a Colombian harp player so he grew up with the perfect teacher. He soaked up the influence of this traditional instrument and the styles of Colombian, Venezuelan and other South American music as well as that of Africa. He moved to New York City in 1994 and began to make friends and musical associates in high places and made his name in the NYC scene, working with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, Joe Locke and many more. During his astounding set he seemed to be making more music than one person with two hands and a single instrument can produce. He played everything from music with those original influences to songs dedicated to Jaco Pastorius and Jesus of Nazareth, the latter displaying his deeply religious side, which came out in his music as well as his on stage comments. He understood his place as a lead-on act and put in his 45 minutes with great style. The standing ovation and roar of approval he received brought on an encore and a satisfied audience settled in for Hiromi and company.

Hiromi Uehara is a wonder of nature. This kind of talent doesn’t come along that often in history. There are a number of wonderfully talented keyboardists in jazz today but, in my humble opinion, none with talent, virtuosity, spirit, uniqueness and creativity greater than hers. Every fiber of her being is engaged when she plays be it during a gentle interlude that might lead to a rousing, roof-blowing passage. She is engaged with her instrument, her fellow musicians and the audience in equal measure. As the work of brain-mapping develops I would certainly like to witness what goes on inside this young woman’s mind while she creates. It might be like existing inside a tornado. She attacks the piano like a tiger, sometimes standing while she plays but always moving. She sounds like two or three players at once as she manipulates the left and right hands to play bass, chords and single notes at seemingly the same time in such a rapid pace. Luckily she has two veterans like Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips who can keep up and enhance what she does. She certainly shows her appreciation for their support and talent each chance she gets and one knows how much they must appreciate working with such a rare, unique and enormous talent like Hiromi.

HiromiThe set is all her original material and the output has been prodigious over the years of her career that began when she was a teenager. She was in a way “discovered” in Tokyo by Chick Corea, who invited her to join him in a concert that became a kind of “coming out party” for Hiromi. She made her way to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, studied with Ahmad Jamal then struck out on her own as a solo recording artist in 2003. Her set included every form of jazz you might expect from a brilliant talent with such a deep and powerful mind as Hiromi possesses. At times you might hear a taste of the blues followed by a hint of pure swing, then jazz-rock-fusion that would make Chick Corea or Joe Zawinul applaud. There might be a modern, repeating pattern established and embellished with electric keys that would morph into some good, old Harlem stride style followed by nouveau-classical a la Beethoven…and all in one piece. After being treated to over an hour of this breathtaking music including a rousing encore the buzzing crowd made its way into the warm Montreal night. What a beginning to my four days at the 37th Festival International de Jazz de Montreal!

Russ Davis

<I>Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting <A HREF=>MOJA Radio’s website</a>.</I>

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