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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 7 April 2012


by Marc Chénard / April 1, 2012

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Katie Malloch: Bright Moments on the Jazz Beat
by Marc Chénard

KatThis past March 29, she signed off for the last time from the airwaves. From coast to coast, her name was virtually synonymous with jazz at the CBC (Canada’s national English-language broadcaster). For close to a quarter of a century, her soothingly resonant alto voice drew in listeners to Jazz Beat on a weekly basis until 2007, then on to Tonic a weeknight program with a more broader music format than its predecessor.

Yet Katie Malloch’s career stretches back to the early 1970s, when she first volunteered at McGill University’s campus radio (in its pre-CKUT days). As for her interest in music, it was already there by then. As she points out during a recent conversation with La Scena Musicale, she grew up listening to jazz thanks to her music-loving parents, both of whom were especially into the swing era style; Lester Young and Sarah Vaughan were some of their favourites. From there she acquainted herself with the more “modern” players (Coltrane, Miles etc.) by combing through the radio’s music library.

Her first real break occurred in 1972, when she made her way into the old CBC building. “They needed a local stringer for a weekly native affairs program and I lucked into it, so to speak, because they were looking for people who had some native blood in them, which is my case.” After a three year run, she managed to get hired full-time, first to co-host a local arts and entertainment program, then taking over the Montreal edition of That Midnight Jazz, a weeknight jazz program broadcast from a different city each night. “They worked in a few hours in my schedule so I could go and check out the record library. It was organized by genre and labels, so I went through everything from Atlantic Records to Zephyr Jazz. I was like a kid in the cookie store! And nobody ever told me I had to play this or that music. Frankly, I could never have done what I did elsewhere than here, at the CBC.”

In 1983 she was picked to host a new show, Jazz Beat, the brainchild of its producer Alain de Grosbois, a person with “very demanding and meticulous standards for recording,” as Malloch points out. Over its long run, it became a vital outlet for homegrown jazz talent (both newcomers and established artists), and a platform for live festival concert broadcasts featuring Canadian and American headliners alike. When asked about her own take on the show’s passing due to programming changes, she contends it was especially hard for the jazz community. On a more personal level, she opines: “I had to remind myself that it was not the jazz community that was my employer but the CBC. If you get too married to one kind of thing, you lack flexibility and risk becoming bitter. I’ve seen that happen with people: they begin to take on the personality of their show, but once it’s taken away from them, they wonder who they are. I was always careful not to go too far down that road.”

New times, New Realities

Beyond the confines of her own work, and looking more broadly at the current state of affairs in the music world, Malloch is a tad pessimistic. “I think economics have a lot to do with it now. In the seventies, there were a series of jazz clubs bringing in major names for six days at a time every week. I saw Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Pharaoh Sanders, Rhasaan Roland Kirk at the Esquire Show bar. And there were smaller places for the local scene to work steadily.” During the early jazz festival days, she remembers how easy it was to meet up with musicians and ask them for an interview. “But with the rise of the big labels [by the early 1990s] you had record reps and agency people acting as screens. But I wasn’t too affected by this because the musicians knew me by then, so it was easy for me to approach them.”

Asked about her views on jazz education, Malloch bemoans the fact that today’s young musicians don’t have the chance to learn the trade on the job with more seasoned players. “They now play for each other in the classroom, or their teachers, and many professionals now have a second job there. Mind you, I’m glad it’s available, but today’s musicians are not as exposed to the public as they once were. But once again, you can’t get bitter and say if only it were the way it was. It’s not the way it was, it’s just the way it is.”

As for the future, Malloch admits candidly wanting to step away from jazz, though she plans to go out a little more and check out who the young players are today. More concretely she wants to volunteer to help children with reading skills, doing some announcing or narrations on a freelance basis, even take up a new challenge: working with dogs in search and rescue training. We wish her Godspeed, of course, but there’s no doubt her presence from the airwaves will be sorely missed by many devoted listeners across the land.

Katie Malloch will be guest of honour of the 14th annual Vanier College Big Band Concert on April 16, a benefit for the school’s scholarship fund.

A Quiet Latin Spring
by Alain Londes

With the annual welcome of a new season, two very different Latin projects ease the listener into a sense of seasonal renewal. While Toronto saxophonist Jane Bunnett is paired with pianist Hilario Durán in an intimate performance setting, fellow Cuban Gonzalo Rubalcaba spins his keyboard magic all by himself. In both cases, the pianists draw on their native roots. These nostalgic connections are inherent to their musical identities.

Jane Bunnett & Hilario Durán: Cuban Rhapsody
Alma Records: 2011

Cuban Rhapsody represents a rediscovery of snippets from Durán’s chilhood and early years as a musician. It starts off with relatively sad lyrics on “Lagrimas Negras”(Black Tears) by Miguel Matamoros, leader of an influential trio in Cuba during the forties, best known for its boleros and son. The opening piece picks up the rhythm in the final quarter, lending it a sense of greater movement. Bunnett switches from the soprano to the flute for “Son de la Loma” by the same composer. “Almendra” (Almonds) is a Cuban dance by Aberlardon Valdés that includes a brief reference to Cachao’s “Chanchullo.”A definite classical music touch by Durán is offered as a lead in to “Sherezada,” which has a definitely catchy melody. The heart of the album contains a series of short pieces designated as “Contradanzas,” all of which refer directly to genuine Cuban classical music heard in schools and are superbly rendered by the duo. Bunnett returns then to the deep and sweet sound of soprano sax to provide the voice to one of Lecuona’s favourite zarzuelas, “Maria la O.” Bunnett and Durán are in perfect sync and they render the pieces with nuanced sensitivity.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Fe...Faith
5Passion Records: 2011

Gonzalo Rubalcaba is at a point in his career where he can be relaxed yet focused. After years of training, listening, and playing, he can juxtapose Cuban, classical, and jazz idioms in a personal way. The solo project Fe...Faith is a contemplative one with a defined structure. “Derivado,” the opener, is just three long dissonant chords suspended in the air and sets the quiet context for what the ear is about to witness as a kind of antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern life. “Maferefun lya Lodde Me” is a very lyrical meditation set against the backdrop of alternating voicings played at mostly the same frequency. The first improvisational piece, based on Coltrane, is in fact a take on “Giant Steps,” which reappears later on in a slightly different variation before the closer, “Derivado.” Rubalcaba plays with lyricism and dexterity, his lines flickering from one to the other, holding his notes elsewhere as if in a spiritual pause for reflection. Two familiar jazz classics, Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and Bill Evans’ “Blue and Green,” are played twice, the first versions being a bit more sombre and with more left-handed emphasis. Carefully nestled in these other selections are three pieces providing a musical description of each of Rubalcaba’s kids: Joan, Joao, and Yolanda. To be best appreciated, this record must be kept for a quiet time and place.

Musical Journeys
by Annie Landreville

Julie Lamontagne: Opus jazz
Justin Time JTR 8570-2

Jazz pianist Julie Lamontagne has been very much involved in pop music these last few years, accompanying among others Québécois singer Isabelle Boulay. Opus jazz sees her return to her first love: pieces from the classical repertoire that left a mark on her during childhood and her years of piano studies. On this solo recording, she revisits and arranges this fertile repertoire to her fancy. To those who enjoyed the classically-influenced projects of Brad Meldau or Dan Tepfer—who brilliantly took on the Goldberg Variations last year—Lamontagne’s recording may seem a little demure, but it nevertheless shows uncommon sensitivity and elegance. The timeless melody of Fauré’s Pavane serves as introduction and sets the tone. Next come arrangements of Brahms, Bach (“Prélude du lac d’Argent”, her take of his “Prelude No. 1” from the Well-Tempered Clavier, albeit arranged in a minor key) and Chopin tunes. With Chopin, she allows herself greater improvisational freedom, just as she does with André Mathieu’s “Prélude romantique”, admirably adapted here. A rich, colourful suite dedicated to Debussy and riddled with reminiscences of Gershwin follows, and the CD ends as it began, with a “Pavane”, this time Ravel’s. The disc, created with a sense of enjoyment, respect and the breaking down of stylistic barriers, is also infused with the influence of Fred Hersch—to whom Julie Lamontagne owes much—without corrupting either the jazz or the classical side of the music. The only quibble here is the disc’s jacket cover, which oddly looks like a Christmas CD.

Cordâme: Lieux imaginés
Malasartes musiques MAM 015

Madrid, Buenos Aires, Madagascar, Riga and Brest—these are all real places of real inspiration to bass player Jean-Félix Mailloux. They are also imagined places, in that he has never set foot there; this does not, however, prevent him from immersing himself in these places in order to better imagine them. With its third disc, Cordâme returns to its roots—the string trio formula (violin, cello, and double bass). We travel along with a composer skilled in melody and arrangement. “Vancouver” conjures up a tango, and the inevitable flamenco of “Madrid” manages to avoid easy clichés with its rhythm and melody, both rendered expressively by the strings. What’s more these portraits of imaginary places do not fall prey to the obligatory reference to regional folklore; their inspiration and portraiture are more elaborate than a compositional approach based on mere pastiche or simple exercises in style. Still, a note here recalls a flute, a pizzicato sequence there resembles percussion and, a little later, a melody would seem to emanate from an erhu (a two-string Chinese violin). The acoustics of the Gesù Church suit the trio very well with its full, rich, warm sound. There are many emotions in this musical travelogue that lifts off effortlessly and touches down ever so sweetly. Enchanting.
• In concert Friday, April 27

Translation: Ariadne Lih

Out of the Cool and into the Hot
by Marc Chénard

Of all the ways to classify jazz, the temperature metaphor (cool versus hot) is commonly used by critics and music-lovers alike. It may well be inadequate, subjective as it is, but at the very least it distinguishes between musical processes, separating those more contained in their dynamics and others more resolutely energetic and intense. Here are two groups at opposite ends of this thermometric scale, both of which will be appearing on local stages early this month. Given the nature of these two extreme examples, it is hard to imagine a listener who would enjoy both equally, but then again it way well be that some who like it hot may well dig it cool, too.

Vincent Gagnon: Himalaya
Effendi FND117
Quebec pianist Vincent Gagnon presents, in his sophomore effort on Montreal’s stalwart jazz label, a ten-track, 46-and-a-bit-minute program. Of the pieces, two are by the leader, another pair is credited to alto sax player Alain Boies, one cut is penned by the other sax player Michel Côté, and a final one is by percussionist Michel Lambert; the remaining tracks are concise group improvisations for trio (“Débâcle,” 1:16) and quintet (“Perdide,”4:09). An advertisement included with the disc describes its contents as “inspired and melodic jazz.” These few words are enough to give the astute listener a good idea of the product. Lyrical and free of excess, this disc altogether is totally in keeping with the jazz aesthetic prevailing in the province’s capital. Even when it falls into a firmer swing, for instance in the bluesy “Anitaville” with its Monk-like strains, the dissonances so typical of the Master are toned down, while the soloists play well within their capabilities. But when the performers allow themselves a little more daring, as they do in the two group pieces, they do so furtively and far too shyly to leave a mark on the listener. Metaphorically speaking, this music is somewhat like a nicely groomed hairdo where any stray locks are hardly visible or deftly hidden beneath a collar. No doubt the pianist is fond of the ECM aesthetic—and this record bears its imprint, for better and for worse.
• In concert on April 4, 27 and 28.

Ballister: Mechanisms
Clean Feed CF245CD
If Gagnon’s music flows as peacefully as a quiet brook, Dave Rempis’s will knock you over with the force of a flash flood from the very first notes of “Release Levers”, one of three long-winded, cutting-edge group improvs of 20, 16 and 28 minutes respectively. If the previous disc’s music was clean cut all the way, this one really shears it off. Let there be no doubt here that this tenor and alto sax player draws inspiration from the dense, vibrant urban environment of Chicago, known for its gritty blues and experimental post free-jazz scenes. Some will recognize Rempis from his supporting role in the Vandermark Five—likewise for the cellist heard here, Fred Lonberg-Holm— the pugnacious Norwegian drum wizard Paal Nilsson-Love stoking the fires. This trio pulls out a lot of stops, and their recording is very much in the lineage of a now “classic” free-jazz style, with long, explosive passages that cool down just long enough for listeners to catch their breath before the next eruption. The titles of the other pieces (“Clapstock” and “Roller Nuts’) link to the album title, Mechanisms. While listening to these gentlemen go all out, one can only think of the grinding gears of heavy machinery. Seen in this light, the music also bears similarity to styles as ear-shattering as metal or punk rock. While it takes a lot of stamina to sustain full throttle assaults like these, a certain (if not unavoidable) degree of aimlessness ensues when playing hell-bent for leather at all times, and no onslaught of rapid-fire gestures can ever make up for a lack of conceptual design and artistic purpose stemming from it.
• In concert on April 7.

Translation: Ariadne Lih

Book Notes and Blue Notes
by Félix-Antoine Hamel

Guillaume Belhomme: Way Ahead - Jazz en 100 autres figures
Le mot et le reste, 2011, 435 pages
ISBN: 9782360540174

In 2009, Le Mot et le reste, a Paris-basedpublisher, issued a book by Guillaume Belhomme, an attuned contemporary jazz and improvised music critic for Jazz Hot and Les Inrockuptibles magazines and the Le son du grisli blog. The book, entitled Giant Steps—Jazz en 100 figures, is a practical guide to jazz consisting of 100 portraits of jazz’s most famous musicians, organized according to year of birth, an original touch—ranging from King Oliver to Ken Vandermark. This formula of short biographical notes followed by a selection of five important albums (complemented by additional recommended listenings), was taken up again last year with Way Ahead—Jazz en 100 autres figures. While its predecessor was first and foremost a guide to the basics, this sequel turns out to be a fascinating effort not by virtue of form or style (Belhomme’s syntax is frequently irritating), but by the choice of featured musicians. While a good third of it is devoted to musicians who could have appeared in the first volume (i.e. Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson and Zoot Sims), the rest of it is devoted to iconoclasts, originals, musicians confined to the margins of jazz history, the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Herbie Nichols Anthony Ortega among others. Belhomme is surely a devotee of free improvisation and his choices among younger musicians certainly reveal his preferences, but this editorial decision has the virtue of giving an added angle to the book, namely, to present a good introduction to some musicians about whom little French-language literature exists. In fact, an English translation of this book would be also very welcome for its updated focus on the music.

Translation: Ariadne Lih

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