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Guitar Night at the Montreal International Jazz Festival

Jason Stillman
Contributing Writer
jasonstillman@gmail.com / @jasonstillman

On Monday, June 29, 2015 at the 36th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, I went to hear two quartets led by two of the most influential guitarists of our time: the Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet featuring Aaron Parks (piano and Fender Rhodes), Eric Revis (upright bass), and Allan Mednard (drums) and the John Scofield / Joe Lovano Quartet with Larry Grenadier (upright bass) and Bill Stewart (drums).

Rosenwinkel brought his New Quartet to the Gesu theater, one of the more intimate indoor concert venues the festival has to offer. The group played a few selections from their 2012 release, Star of Jupiter (Wommusic), as well as old favourites (including "The Polish Song") and new music from both Rosenwinkel and Parks. The majority of the pieces tended to be on the harmonically dense side, however, extended open vamp sections helped to provide balance (as in the coda section of "Deja Vu" where the band found a decidedly deepset groove). Rosenwinkel utilized a number of guitar sounds in addition to his signature guitar sound with voice. At times, he incorporated guitar synth sounds using a Harmonic Octave Generator (HOG) in order to get a high, digital flute-like sound somewhat reminiscent of some of Pat Metheny's recordings. As always, Rosenwinkel was in fine form and I got a kick from watching some local guitar players who were seated around me take turns shaking their heads in disbelief on seeing him perform line after line of the most fluid musical gestures with apparent ease.

Aaron Parks was given plenty of opportunity to shine with solo introductions and duos with Rosenwinkel. His versatility was quite amazing, referencing Romantic classical piano repertoire at times and electrified 1960s jazz fusion at others. The straight-ahead pieces reminded me of collaborative work between Bill Evans and Jim Hall from the late 1960s. Mednard and Revis were flawless throughout.

Afterwards, I ran over to the jam-packed Théâtre Maisonneuve to catch another quartet co-led by Scofield and tenor saxophonist and longtime Sco-associate, Joe Lovano, the premier concert of a number of shows scheduled for this year. The frontline was joined by Stewart and Grenadier, who also play on the forthcoming studio recording Past and Present, due October 2015.

The set was close to what you might expect to hear if you are at all familiar with Scofield's albums that feature Lovano and Stewart from the early 1990s, including What We Do, Time on My Hands (with Jack DeJohnette), and Meant to Be. Personally, these are albums I fell in love as a young musician that eventually played a large role in shaping my concept of "contemporary jazz". Similar to these albums, the set included a rhythm changes, a couple of 12-bar blues tunes, and groove-based originals with singable melody lines. More or less unchanged was Scofield's guitar sound, one of the most recognizable in jazz, and his heavy reliance on the blues and rhythm and blues genres.

Although Sco and Lo are now sporting long(er) white beards, they are still performing their brand of jazz (albeit with a contemporary slant) with loads of enthusiasm and boundless energy. Lovano still does a little backwards dance step whenever he plays a flurry of notes. Another enjoyable and inspiring aspect of the performance was hearing all of the band members play so much language from the history of recorded jazz. Each of them were finding ways of using existing vocabulary in ways I haven't heard used before, most notably on the encore tune - a blues from the pen of Lovano entitled "Big Ben". At one point in the evening, Lovano said "the [jazz] spirits are flying high" and maybe that’s what the musicians were feeling as they played at such an historic venue and festival.

The rest of the repertoire came from Past and Present, clearly new material for the musicians, who approached the material with a certain amount of looseness in the true spirit of jazz. The musicians more than made up for any slight inconsistencies in terms of tightness with several spirited and exciting improvisations. They also appeared to be having fun (imagine that) checking each other out and feeding off each other's musical lines. To top matters off, the sound was incredible. Kudos to Patrick Murray for getting the best sound from a group I have ever heard at the festival!

Scofield said "it feels so right" to be playing again with Lovano and I'd have to say that the audience agreed wholeheartedly.

Jason Stillman is a Montreal jazz saxophonist and a Doctoral student in Jazz Performance at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.