The festival press room, after a while, starts to feel like a family reunion. It doesn't feel like Jazz Fest until I've seen Mitch Myers and David Beckett. Beckett, Myers and a couple of new acquaintances, including David Mindich, congregated at Nyk's for some mid-afternoon beverages on a true Montreal summer day - something that was hard to come by during the first half of this festival.
Add pianist Matt Mitchell to the list of new converts to Café Pikolo - other discoverers of this little Third Wave gem during the Festival have been Ethan Iverson and Joshua Redman. Mitchell and I did a brief interview as they were closing. If the audio is usable, I will air it on CKUT. If it's not, I'll transcribe it and throw it up here.
Guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke has wholeheartedly embraced electricity with his new album, Heritage (co-produced by Robert Glasper). While he always had a station full of pedals, he's now playing a Godin semi-hollowbody guitar, instead of his amplified nylon-string. His playing with a new trio of Michael Olatuja on electric bass and drum phenom Mark Giuliana revealed some new characteristics. On "Farafina," the rhythmically disjointed line left more space for Giuliana to fill, and Loueke's solo featured Wayne Shorter-like declamations with a buzzy distortion. The thinner sound of Olatuja's electric (compared to Massimo Biolcati's upright in Loueke's last Astral appearance) makes the music a little more agile and streamlined, which fits Giuliana's drumming style. Like Brian Blade at Theatre Maisonneuve, Giuliana's mind was more active than his limbs, taking phantom strokes and reconsidering his improvisational options at a moment's notice. The set-closing "Ifê" was a return to the Loueke of old. A one-man African music summit, Loueke evoked talking drums and djembes through pitch-bends and ring modulation, percussively smacking his guitar. A harmonizer pedal turned his voice into a South African gospel choir. His guitar lines (and Olatuja's final chordal solo) paid homage to the history of Malian string masters, while Giuliana rode a groove that split the difference between Tony Allen and Zigaboo Modeliste.
The sonic exploration continued in an entirely different context over at Gesu, with Tim Berne's Snakeoil. Berne's long-form pieces, blending composed material and open improvisation, suck you into their unfurling arcs. Mitchell opened with a soliloquy spanning the entire range of the keyboard that sounded almost like Alban Berg. In our interview he said that Berne's music requires the most pianistic maintenance on his part and it's easy to hear why. Mitchell has the book memorized and carries the bulk of the musical weight. I often think of Berne as a composer first, and a trailblazing distributor of his own work second, but he plays some serious amounts of saxophone. In combination with clarinetist Oscar Noriega, they navigated the disjunct lines with precision and hit some clanging intervals that reminded me of Ligeti's work with difference tones. In the acoustic beauty of Gesu, these otherworldly mystery pitches resonated in the room. Many interesting small details emanated from Ches Smith's percussive fortress, surrounded by vibes, glockenspiel, a single conga and drum kit. One particular small detail that was riveting was the use of a shaker that took on a metallic tone when open and a normal shaker sound when muted. In combination with two horns, it was a stunning use of space. The music of Snakeoil, while dense with information, is in no way as alienating as Frank DeBlase would have us believe. Some of the groovier moments - what a hookup Mitchell and Smith share - were reminiscent of David Binney (who was in the house), and one tune came to a conclusion on a beautiful D major chord. Hearing Giuliana and Smith back-to-back, there's a certain drum language that has currency in 2013 that many drummers share across the various micro-scenes of the jazz world. Berne, in his dry sense of humour, semi-incredulously asked the audience if the demanded encore was real - "isn't Law & Order on at midnight up here?" - and graced the Festival's best venue with a soaring rendition of Paul Motian's "Psalm."