Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 7-9, July 7-9, 2009
At an early afternoon press conference, where Ornette Coleman was awarded FIJM's prestigious Miles Davis Award, the elliptical free jazz progenitor sidestepped numerous questions about music, and instead focused on larger matters of life and death.
"I've lived long enough to appreciate what we as humans try to do and that's raise the quality of life to another level," Coleman said shortly after being presented with the awarda bronze statue of the late Miles Davis, another legend and stylistic forward thinker who, like Coleman, was truly changing the shape of jazz in the seminal year of 1959, when albums including the trumpeter's Kind of Blue (Columbia), Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um (Columbia), Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia and Coleman's own The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic) were either recorded or released.
Despite the efforts of the media to talk about Coleman's music, his performance taking place that evening or the concept of risk in his music, he was simply not interested in going there. When asked about improvisation, he alluded briefly to the concept of making mistakes but then added, "I don't really know what a mistake is." But on the subject of life and higher aspirations he had plenty to say. "The concept of life has more to do with words than anything else," he said, closing the brief conference with words that bore special significance to many of the members of the press: "I would like everybody on earth to be happy and not to die."
Sadly, a fine sentiment but one brought home with the sudden passing of Len Dobbin the previous evening, while attending a performance at Montreal's Upstairs Club. Dobbin was more than just a fixture on the Montreal scene for longer than most people can remember; he was, quite possibly, one of the biggest jazz fans in the world, certainly the most passionate advocate of the music to anyone that knew him
Dobbin wore a number of hats to provide exposure to the music that consumed him from an early age, in his mid-teens. A photographer, writer for Coda, voter in the annual Down Beat Critics Poll, host of the radio show "Dobbins Den," advisor for The Upstairs Club and the reference for Pepper Adams' "Dobbin,'" Nick Ayoub's "Dobbin's Nest" and Oliver Jones' "Len's Den," Dobbin became friends with the many jazz luminaries who came through Montreal, many of them performing at FIJM. He was the recipient of a Masterworks award from the Audio Visual Presentation Trust in 2005, the only jazz broadcaster to win the award to date.
But more important than his many accomplishments was the single passion that dominated his life. His unexpected passing was tragic, of course, but in many ways the circumstances were as appropriate as could be for someone whose passion for jazz was an all-consuming and lifelong love affair: listening to jazz in a club, surrounded by his friends. He will truly be missed.
With the number of groups reforming after as many as four decades of inactivity, it's a treat to find one that not only is putting out new materialand that, in itself, is rare enoughbut one whose current work is every bit as good as anything released back in the day. Britain's Van Der Graaf Generator reemerged in 2005 with a new studio album, Present (Charisma/Virgin, 2005) and a remarkable follow-up, documenting the group's supporting tour, Real Time (Fie!, 2007). Songs like "Every Bloody Emperor" were ever bit as classic as "Man-Erg," from 1971's Pawn Hearts (Charisma/Virgin), proving that VDGG in the 21st Century not only still had it, but was capable of being completely relevant. No throwback this, no releasing a new album, playing one perfunctory tune and then going back to the "golden years" for VDGG; singer/pianist/guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Hammill remains capable of writing the kind of definitive material that possessed all the characteristics of classic VDGG: the raw power; sheer melodrama, grand majesty...and jagged terror.
l:r: Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton
VDGG was always capable of creating sonic nightmares, largely due to the interaction between organist Hugh Banton and saxophonist/flautist David Jackson. When Jackson left the group after the 2005 tour and the group decided to continue on as a trio, longtime fans were skeptical. Jackson's woodwinds were an absolutely fundamental part of VDGG's dense, turbulent sound; how could the group possibly continue? Well, not only did the group continue as a trio, also featuring drummer Guy Evans, but it released Trisector (Fie, 2008), proving yet again, that it was capable of creating music of this century that fits absolutely within the group's larger body of work.
But could VDGG perform its classic repertoire without Jackson? That was the question when VDGG began touring in support of Trisector last year, and the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, something that Montreal learned when the group came to Théâtre Maisonneuve for a somewhat shortened but absolutely outstanding 6:00 PM set (Ornette Coleman was to follow at 9:30 PM).
FIJM is known for its attentive and appreciative crowds, but the sold-out audience of die-hard VDGG generator fans surpassed even FIJM's high standards. Giving the trio a standing ovationthe first of manywhen Hammill, Banton and Evans took to the sparse stage, was one of the loudest heard at the festival. Making it clear that, as Hammill later said, "we are a modern group and a group with a certain amount of history," the trio launched into the complex "Interference Pattern," with Hammill on piano playing staggering contrapuntal lines across Banton. It was one of three songs from Trisector that occupied the six-song, 70-minute set (plus a 10-minute encore of "The Sleepwalkers," from Godbluff (Charisma/Virgin, 1975)), and possessed everything than defines VDGG.
Evans was always a loose and responsive drummer, but with a bigger sound and even greater fluidity, he's never played better. Banton, with two keyboards and a bass pedal rig that looked like a mad scientist's nightmare, was nothing short of remarkable. Matching Hammill's overdriven and up-tempo guitar riff on "All That Before," his bass pedal work was especially stunning. His feet moving with almost unparalleled speed while, at the same time, moving his right foot seamlessly on occasion to his volume pedal to control the overall level of the keys would have been enough. But he rarely, if ever, even looked at the pedals, all the while delivering a dense wall of sound with his two hands and making it abundantly clear that there are few keyboardistsand that includes more iconic progressive rock players like Yes' Rick Wakeman and ELP's Keith Emersonwho have this kind of command of their instruments. Banton's virtuosity is less overtVDGG is, after all, not about lengthy solos of virtuosic excessbut he's a virtuoso nevertheless. Neither does he need a vast array of keyboards to fill a group sound and compensate for Jackson's absenceespecially on Trisector's epic "Over the Hill," where Hammill began at the mike without guitar or piano, leaving the instrumental work to Evans and Banton alone.
With so many voices aging badlyPeter Gabriel's range slowly narrowing and Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson almost unable to sing at allHammill's voice has actually improved with age. Delivering another episodic classic, "(In the) Black Room," originally released on Hammill's solo album Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (Charisma/Virgin, 1973) (recorded during VDGG's hiatus between Pawn Hearts and its triumphant 1975 return with Godbluff, but really intended as a VDGG song), Hammill's voice has developed a depth and grit that allows him to deliver the material with but one voice, sounding every bit as powerful and large as on record, where he often uses multitracking to create a rich choir of voices.
The set may have been short, but every song was a highlight, with "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End," from Still Life (Charisma/Virgin, 1976), a special high point amongst many, and the set-closer, the boldly majestic but also turbulent and dissonant "Man-Erg," from Pawn Heartsstill arguably the group's finest houreven stronger. With Jackson's role so dominant on the original "Man-Erg," it was hard to imagine that VDGG as a trio could pull it off, but with Banton layering additional processed organ sounds during the song's harsh, dissonant and nightmarish middle section that alternates between bars of 5/4 and 6/4, Jackson's absence wasn't felt in the least. And the encore, "The Sleepwalkers," was equally impressive; the group managing to tread the line between tightly performed arrangements and a raw, unbridled power that isn't about the sheer volume upon which many groups rely; it's about unfettered passion and Hammill's near reckless abandon, mirrored by the more reserved-looking but equally over-the-edge Banton and fiercely fervent Evans.
After the encore, the audience rose to its feet, demanding a second encore that never came. But at a festival where audience appreciation is truly unmatched, this crowd was as appreciative as it getsstanding, clapping and screaming for almost 10 minutes, as the lights in the theater came up and the roadies began tearing down the stage for the next performance. And dozens of fans remained outside the theater for nearly an hour, enthusing about a show that may not have been jazz (not that it matters, though Hammill has said, in the past, that the group was listening to a lot of '70s electric Miles Davis while recording Present), and may not have been as long as they'd have liked, but will go down as perhaps the most exciting show of FIJM 2009.