Live review

REVIEW: Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal – Hommage à Carla Bley at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival

The entire cast receiving applause at the end of Hommage à Carla Bley

Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal – Hommage à Carla Bley
(Monument National. 2 July 2018. Montreal Int. Jazz Festival. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

What great stories piano stools would tell – if only they could. On Monday night, the one on the stage at the Monument National in Montreal was receiving the attentions of a rotating crew of no fewer than six pianists – five women and one man. Each, in turn, would rapidly and energetically height-adjust and customize it afresh before taking her or his turn for the next piece.

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And yet how different things were supposed to have been. That piano stool was originally intended to have a much more serene evening. In the original plan for this concert, it would have been graced by just one occupant, a uniquely delicate and subtle player, a universally revered and unique presence in world jazz – Carla Bley.

However, when she was obliged to cancel through ill-health, the concert by the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal was transformed into a celebration of Bley’s music for jazz orchestra; Bley would still be honored, her works for big band would still be played (that is not a frequent occurrence), but with Bley sadly in absentiaChristine Jensen had masterminded the transformation, and directed the band vigorously, sympathetically and flawlessly throughout the evening. Jensen also found exactly the right words to express the sprit of the occasion after one of the pieces: “we all feel like we’re in the sanctuary of Carla Bley.”

Those six pianists brought a fascinating range of contrasting styles. Two younger players from the Montreal scene, Gentiane MG and Maria Fatima Rudolf, proved their mettle in navigating through some of the more intricate and complex charts, and Gentiane caught the imagination of the audience as she found a mood of total stillness in quoting My Foolish Heart, her head held Bill-Evansishly just a few inches above the keys. Helen Sung, often to be heard with the Mingus Big Band, had arrived from New York to rehearse earlier in the day, and she brought energy and panache to seize the moment in the Rhythm changes-based Awful Coffee. A complete change of mood came in a thoughtful, hushed, polytonal solo item from Francois Bourassa, who has a new album out which includes a double tribute (sic!) to Carla (Bley) and Karlheinz (Stockhausen). Marianne Trudel brought a poetic feel and a sense of story-telling to Greasy Gravy. And it was a treat to hear one of the all-too-hidden treasures and original voices of the Montreal scene, Lorraine Desmarais, whose extended solo introduction to Fresh Impression was completely captivating, and a definite highlight.

L-R: Helen Sung, Ingrid Jensen, Remy Jean Leblanc (bass)
Kevin Warren, Christine Jensen

Carla Bley’s big band writing is intricate and one has the sense of a subtlety that is only going to be revealed on repeated hearings. An exception to that is the delightfully quirky On The Stage in Cages, which has a wonderful section where each of the brass players seemed to give the briefest of statements of their individuality. It had solo features for trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and tenor saxophonist David Bellemare, both the kind of players who are at the level that would grace any professional big band in the world. Yes, as Jamie Cullum found out at this festival a couple of years ago, the instrumental quality among the big band players at the top of the Montreal scene is jaw-dropping.

And yet it was not just about soloists. This concert was an opportunity for the Orchestre National to be put through its paces, to show the talents and abilities of its members and as keen and supportive collaborators, to etch out the contrasts in the writing from the antiphonal spendour (and full band vocals) of Awful Coffee to the poise and poetry of the ending of Greasy Gravy, and the sheer joy of Fresh Impression, which also brought to the fore the trumpet wizardry of Ingrid Jensen.

Proceedings were brought to a close with a beautifully poised performance of Christine Jensen’s chart, Lawns featuring the fine craft of Hammond player Daniel Thouin.

Carla Bley has deep links into the Montreal scene (further listening on that topic here). May her recovery, and also her return to this magical city of saints, bell-towers and festivals be rapid.

Categories: Live review

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