July 2nd was a busy albeit fulfilling evening at the 2019 Montreal International Jazz Festival, beginning with a BIGYUKI and Nate Smith + KINFOLK double-bill at the Monument National and extending to the Gesù for Butcher Brown’s late-night set without the slightest opportunity for us to catch our breath in between. But this is exactly the kind of nights we’ve come to expect from this amazing festival, making up for an unforgettable musical adventure.
Japanese keyboardist and producer BIGYUKI (real name Masayuki Hirano), dubbed “NYC’s musical secret weapon,” is in a league of his own when it comes to the coupling of skillful keyboard improvisations alongside live production and juxtaposition of beats, breaks, hooks, loops, drops, and samples. Classically trained at the Berklee College of Music, the young phenom has recently attracted the attention of several mainstream fixtures including Q-Tip, Bilal, Talib Kweli, and Me’Shell Ndegeocello, with notable features on J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.
July 2nd brought BIGYUKI to the stage of the Monument National, as part of the 2019 Montreal International Jazz Festival, to share a double bill with drummer Nate Smith’s KINFOLK (more on that later). Unimpeded by a noticeable amount of empty seats, the Japanese maestro, draped in a leopard print shirt and fashionable drop pants, did his very best to rile up the audience, unleashing waves of shifting and chameleonic soundscapes while navigating indiscriminately between funky West Coast instrumentals and classical piano riffs, by way of heavy trap and even wicked video game dungeon music. Joining the sensei were Randy Runyon on guitar and Tim “Smithsoneon” Smith on drums, each equipped with their own set of sampling pads, continually adding riveting textures and hypnotizing layers to the exhilarating raucous. The music was supremely dope, but unfortunately, the Monument National just isn’t the right venue for this type of act, the audience constrained by the formality of their comfortable seating, which prevented them from grooving and vibing freely to the music. BIGYUKI, for whom it was a dream come true to play the festival following his appearance last year alongside Mark Guiliana, noted that the “sit down kind of thing” was “very classy” and urged the attendance to “stand up and to feel free to express themselves.” The truth is that he would have killed it at a different venue or even at a free outdoor show, but overall, we give him major props for playing along. Shit was fire!
Nate Smith + KINFOLK
Drummer Nate Smith is jazz royalty. An established member of both Dave Holland and Chris Potter’s bands without overlooking a plethora of prestigious collaborations with the likes of Randy Brecker, Scott Colley, Robin Eubanks, José James, and Nir Felder, Smith boasts a staggering 159,000 Facebook fans and 139,000 Instagram followers. Heck, the man’s even recorded with Paul Simon and co-wrote and produced the Michael Jackson song “Heaven Can Wait”! His long-awaited debut album, Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere, released in 2017 on Ropeadope, garnered not one, but two Grammy nominations in the “Best Instrumental Composition” and “Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella” categories. It simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Following a brief intermission, it was Smith’s turn to take the stage of the Monument National accompanied by KINFOLK, his exceptional band comprised of pianist Jon Cowherd, notable co-founder of the Brian Blade Fellowship, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, vocalist Amma Whatt, guitarist Brad Allen Williams and electric bassist Fima Ephron. The group performed a selection of songs from the drummer’s aforementioned debut album, including the dreamy ballad “Retold”, featuring an emotional and heartfelt piano solo by Cowherd, as well as the soulful “Morning and Allison” showcasing the sultry vocals of Whatt. Also on the program were new compositions, recorded by the band but still awaiting official release, notably Smith’s funky spinoff of The Roots’ “Dynamite”, originally produced by J DiIla, which the drummer has christened “Not Quite Dynamite”, as well as the mercurial “Square Wheel”, highlighted by the brilliant musicianship of Shaw whose breezy solo emanated vivid textures and luminous colors, as lines flowed effortlessly rising and receding from his horn. Throughout the set, Smith and Shaw shone brightest of all, but unfortunately, the group suffered from the BIGYUKI changeover, with the acoustics sounding muted and hollow, and generally under miked. KINFOLK delivered a solid performance, but just like the opening act before them, were hampered by disappointing ticket sales, making the large venue of the Monument National feeling somewhat desolate, with its austere audience leaning on the reserved side. Perhaps a more intimate venue would have been more appropriate. Nonetheless, Smith and company gave a noteworthy showing, making up for a memorable experience overall. We will be on the lookout for their upcoming release.
The evening of July 2nd trotted along with a number of discerning music fans making the 8-minute trek from the Monument National to the Gesù for a late-night set by Richmond, Virginia’s very own Butcher Brown. The leaderless collective made up of DJ Harrison (aka Devonne Harris) on keys, multi-instrumentalist Marcus Tenney doubling on both saxophone and trumpet (and also adding sparse vocals to the mix), Morgan Burrs on guitar, Andrew Randazzo on electric bass, and Corey Fonville on drums, have been on a meteoric rise since their 2013 debut EPs A-Sides and B-Sides ranked #4 on Nextbop’s Favorite Albums of the Year, amassing in the process a devoted cult following through both label-backed studio recordings and more underground self-releases.
The band radiated pure swag, from Tenney’s hipster Ray-Bans to Burrs’ nonchalant sipping of a Heineken bottle, by way of DJ Harrison’s Jedi-like equanimity and Fonville’s exuberant self-assuredness, making for impressive stage presence by a young group exuding maturity beyond their years and a tremendous amount of confidence. Butcher Brown’s novel sound, sometimes designated “Hip Hop Mahavishnu”, can only be described as refreshingly unique, a fusion of sorts making up a universe of its own, drawing equally from jazz, funk, soul, rock, and hip hop, without ever fully committing to any of the genres. The fun-filled performance skimmed through the young band’s imposing discography, including renditions of their self-described hit single “Sticky July” from 2014’s All Purpose Music, the Porsche-inspired “918” off last year’s Camden Session, “Benin City” from the 2018 EP AfroKuti: A Tribute to Fela, and the unreleased “Gum in my Mouth” slated for next year’s new record. Throughout the show, Butcher Brown demonstrated genuine synergy and an incline towards playfulness, clearly enjoying the opportunity to jam together in a showcase of generous and earnest solos, oftentimes exchanging smiles and laughs as a unit, with Tenney gleefully dancing around the stage at every possible occasion. The crowd-pleasing exhibit even elicited the more courageous among the audience to get up and dance in a display of profound enjoyment and utter satisfaction. Let’s just say the concert was quite a success!
Photo by Alexanne Brisson courtesy of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.