Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 1-3 July 1-3, 2009
Now on the far side of his eighth decade on the planet and sixth as a performing artist, Japanese saxophonist/flautist Sadao Watanabe has led a near-double life. He's worked, throughout his career, in mainstream contexts with artists including Gabor Szabo, Chico Hamilton, Hank Jones, the recently deceased Charlie Marianoof whom he made specific mention at his FIJM showand Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose recent performance was a highlight of the 2009 Ottawa Jazz Festival. He's also spent considerable time mining more contemporary, groove-laden material, both as a leader who continues to mentor generations of young Japanese musicians, and with artists including Lee Ritenour. For his performance at the 30th edition of FIJM, he leaned more to the contemporary side of the equation, with an impressive group of young Japanese musicians that also included an expat Senegalese percussionist.
Dancing around the stage like a man a few decades younger, his set did briefly reference more straight-ahead concerns, but for the most part it was fiery, funky grooves that provided grist for solos by his pianist, guitarist and bassistnot to mention Watanabe himself, who played soprano and tenor saxophones, as well as flute on a handful of tunes that were amongst the show's best. His sextet was accomplished, if not a little generic, which made introducing them as some of Japan's finest musicians somewhat questionable. There was no shortage of prodigious chops and clear references, with Watanabe's bassist clearly channeling Marcus Miller, especially during his impressive but somewhat predictable solo. But Watanabe's use of both a drummer and percussionistsomething that can work but also has an inherent potential for train wrecks if the two don't stay out of each other's wayresulted in an often overly busy rhythm section filled with youthful exuberance but oftentimes in great need of breathing space.
Watanabe was a charming front man, with a pleasant demeanor and solid connection with the three-quarters full house in Place des Arts' Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, but at the end of the day while his group wasn't lacking in talent, there was little to distinguish them from the plethora of groove-based jazz musicians on the international scene. Watanabe may be an icon in his native country and rightfully so, but in a global context he'll more than likely go down in the history books as a solid, if not particularly distinctive, musician, best known for his associations rather than his own work.
Every year FIJM runs a highly successful late night jam session, and for the past few years it's been hosted by pianist John Roney, with bassist Zack Lober and drummer Jim Doxasone of Canada's most impressive (if not the most impressive) drummers. Roney is extremely busy this summer touring his Silverbirch Project, which gave an outstanding performance in Ottawa on June 29, as well as squeezing in some dates with bassist Alain Caron and saxophonist Jean-Christoph Beney}, so while he will appear on some nights as part of the core trio hosting FIJM's jam session, this year it's Doxas leading the trio.
With the new festival home, across the street from Place des Arts, not quite complete but largely functional with a new 350 seat venue and massively expanded press room, the jam sessions have moved from their old home at the Hyatt Regency to the Bistro de la Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, a much more intimate and comfortable locale. Once the crowds and musicians begin to arrive it turns into the place to be once the evening performances at the indoor venues and outdoor stages have finished.
With Lober off in New York, Doxas' trio is completely revamped but equally impressive, featuring up-and-coming bassist Remi-Jean LeBlanc and more established pianist Jeff Johnston, who has recorded and performed with a number of outstanding artists over the years including Kenny Wheeler and, more recently, Dave Liebman, with whom he's recorded a duet disc pending release. He's also playing in Montreal's Upstairs Club with vocal legend Sheila Jordan as part of the festival's Les Soirées Jazz Upstairs series on July 3, so he does get around.
l:r: Jeff Johnston, Remi-Jean LeBlanc, Jim Doxas
The jam sessions run each night from 11:00 PM through to 3:00 AM the following morning, and have been the place to see musicians congregate from their own performances to let loose and have a little fun. The core trio opens each night with a short set of standards, with their July 2 set including a bright take of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" that, in addition to fine solos from Johnston and LeBlanc, demonstrated Doxas' increasing significance as a drummera particularly empathic accompanist whose eyes and ears are always on his band mates regardless of context, and a loose, interpretive soloist whose drum sound is as distinctive as his melodic and polyrhythmic ideas.
In past years guests have included Esperanza Spalding, who was touring with Joe Lovano at the time and was already creating a stir that's only been increasing as her own career has taken off. As for who will appear each night? There's no way of knowing, but the one thing that is predictable is Doxas' world class trio, hosting the jam sessions with the prerequisite knowledge of a broad jazz repertoire so that it can support anyone who comes their way.