Day Four in Montreal: Darcy James Argue, Dave Holland and Apex

Radio programmer and host Russ Davis reports on performances by Darcy James Argue, Dave Holland and Apex during the 2011 Montreal International Jazz Festival

Following another satisfying walk up the mountain to get the day started, I was invited by Andre Menard, the director and co-founder of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, to join in on a tour of the soon-to-be-completed addition to the impressive group of venues that are the performance halls of the Place des Arts in the city center. This is the complex where most of the indoor events of the festival occur. The hall is so new they haven’t even given it a name though it’s primarily designed for the world famous Montreal Symphony Orchestra, so they were calling it Symphony Hall. I have no doubt it will be appropriately named. They offered to name if after me if I had $50 million to contribute, but I was just a bit short.

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Bunky Green
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Dave Holland
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Darcy James Argue and Rudresh Mahanthappa at JJA awards in NYC
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Darcy James Argue
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The hall is a living, breathing structure with moveable facets that can transform the space into most any configuration they need according to the performance and it appears far from ready though it’s really down to the finishing touches according to our hosts. The first show is set for September 7th and I have no doubt it WILL be ready then as these folks take their art very seriously. If there is a more culturally vibrant city than Montreal I want to go there. They should be very proud if this new place that will host performances at next year’s Jazz Fest. And speaking of pride and the Jazz Fest, the first performance I enjoyed on this, my 4th day at the 32nd FIJM, featured the music of a young man who I believe is one of the finest composers and leaders this great land has produced in its grand cultural history.

When I think of Darcy James Argue and his 18-piece ensemble’s take on modern jazz big-band I think “Roll Over Glenn Miller and tell Tommy Dorsey the news!” This ain’t your 20th century big band. Darcy exhibits a casual and folksy demeanor while creating serious orchestrated jazz that is high art in every sense of the term. I think he should be considered a national treasure even at this point with only a couple of official releases to date including the latest from the group he calls his Secret Society, the brilliant collection Infernal Machines. Secret Society is a collection of top-notch players including a number of solo artists in their own right such as highly acclaimed trumpeter and leader Ingrid Jensen.

The performance of music from Infernal Machines as well as what was most certainly the peak of the night for me, the first song in sequence from the forth-coming project titled Brooklyn Babylon, had the audience seemingly stunned for most of the concert. I was afraid they weren’t as into it as I thought they should have been, but after seeing and hearing their response at the end I know now that they were simply taking it all in, savoring every creative note and nuance until they had the chance to truly show their appreciation, and show it they did! Darcy is indeed a Canadian hero. He’s now based in New York City but hails from Vancouver and lived and worked in Montreal for years before making his way to the USA. Darcy’s introduction for each piece, filled with intelligent and witty bits of history and his personal reflections and opinions, were a large part of the total performance. I thought that he might consider performing for another of the dozen or so major festivals this city produces, the comedy festival Just For Laughs, but I think this national treasure instead needs to go mining for more musical gold!

After having seen one of Canada’s finest, it was time to take in some of the foreigners who have invaded this beautiful city to share their talents with the audiences. Englishman Dave Holland, the bass-playing, composing, band-leading legend, loves playing this festival and they obviously love him here too. I’ve seen him at this festival a few times in various settings and this time he was featured in three consecutive nights at the Theatre Jean-Duceppe. For the first night he played with fellow legend, NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, in a piano-bass duo. His third show will feature a truly international trio of Dave, his fellow Englishman John Surman on sax and clarinet, and Tunisian master of the oud, Anouar Brahem. This is one of those shows that helps define how diverse the lineup at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is every year.

For the second night Dave fronted his quintet here in Montreal for the 5th time since 2000. When you have a group of all-stars in your band as Dave does, and we’re talking saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibes & marimba master Steve Nelson and drummer Nate Smith, and they stay with you over the years you know there are some great things going on. Dave can be sure that they like the music they’re making, have plenty of space and encouragement to express themselves individually, and simply enjoy working and traveling with one another, and that they like working with him as the leader. All of this shows so much when these guys are on stage!

I ended the day once again in the wonderful environment of the Gesu Theatre for a night of two alto saxophonists from two generations making music that blended two worlds, jazz with Indian overtones and jazz of an “inside-outside” nature. The show under the title of Apex, featured alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green leading a quintet that included drummer Damion Reed, bassist Francois Moutin and the man that Rudresh called “a piano force from New York to be reckoned with,” Matt Mitchell. There was lots of virtuoso playing and a wonderful, warm vibe from start to finish. Rudresh is an award-winning leader and composer who graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston to the school of hard knocks in the New York jazz scene. Bunky Green is a Midwesterner and from his place in the Chicago scene established himself as one of the fine players and composers in the post-bop era. The two of them together make for an interesting pair on paper seeing as though they come from different worlds in many ways.

If you’ve heard Apex, their brilliant 2010 release, then you know they have more in common than one might expect and their musical union, on display for almost two hours at the Gesu, was a wonder to behold. There were moments of individual brilliance as each took turns leading the band alone but each band member had plenty of the spotlight. And the music went from moments of full-blown jam, to sweet balladry, from wild segments of what I call “structured free jazz” to intense passages of harmony created by the two altoists that brought things to a place of rarefied air that only musicians in perfect sync can achieve. I suppose this could be a one-off project for both of these fine players, and Rudresh mentioned that he was already working on a new electric project featuring guitarist David Gilmore, but if these guys decide to continue with this set up please sign me up!

Russ Davis is host of MOJA radio.

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