My personal edition of the 35th annual Jazz Fest kicked off in Theatre Maisonneuve with the long-awaited return of vocalist Cassandra Wilson. I saw her in the same space a few years back, and looked forward to being wrapped in her honeyed contralto once again.
The show opened with Hungarian wunderkind guitarist, Andreas Varady. The 16-year-old was joined by his father on electric bass and his 12-year-old (!) brother on drums, Varady played a set of original compositions. From the outset, his Metheny influence was clear – a very round tone, all sustain and little pick attack, and fluidity around the instrument. Equally adept at straightahead swing or a rocking 5/8 groove, his own tunes have a real clarity of line that I wish extended into his solos. His set closed with a key-changing cover of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” that was ingrained in the soul-jazz guitar tradition of George Benson. Varady (and his little drummer brother) are kids to watch – I certainly hope they deliver on their promise and potential.
After the arpeggios of Varady, Cassandra Wilson and her band of all-stars enveloped us in a different kind of mastery. Led by harmonica player Gregoire Maret, the band – featuring guitarists Brandon Ross and Canadian Kevin Breit, Jon Cowherd (of the Brian Blade Fellowship) on piano, longtime Wilson collaborator Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and John Davis on drums – got loose over a vamp that was a microcosm of the set to come: a swampy groove from the depths of the Delta coloured by the ambiences of the Ross-Breit tandem. Wilson graced the stage, resplendent in green, and opened with a heart-rending version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Wilson has long explored the roots of jazz music and its permutations from West Africa to her native Mississippi. Davis kept the proceedings moving with all kinds of tribal triplets. According to her Twitter, this tour is merging the 20th anniversary of her seminal album Blue Light Til Dawn with her new Billie Holiday tribute, Coming Forth By Day. The set reflected Wilson’s tendency to draw inspiration from her “sphere of influence,” as she called it, from Son House’s “Come On in My Kitchen” to Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.”
I would say Jon Cowherd is the perfect pianist for Wilson – his profound sense of Americana is a perfect foil for her repertoire, and if there’s any pianist who knows how to navigate the space between two guitarists, it’s him. Ross and Breit were a terrific pairing – the former sounding like Robert Johnson through a kaleidoscope and Breit adding all kinds of shimmer and soundscape on top. The rapport between Wilson and Plaxico was evident on their duo that began Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Throughout the show, Wilson would direct the band dynamically, snapping her fingers to lock in the time and exhorting each member through their solos. The main set ended with a funky version of “Redbone Girl” that became the funkiest version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to have graced Theatre Maisonneuve, with a detour into a Yoruban chant. For her encore, Wilson saluted another Canadian, with a meditative cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” featuring Cowherd on pump organ. It was a truly magical way to end the first evening of Jazz Fest.