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The Jazz Series at Montréal en Lumière

A grand cultural event brings Toots Thielemans, Al Di Meola, Robert Glasper and more to Quebec

If you can survive Montreal winters, you get your rewards-not only in the summer, which is jam-packed with festivals, but during the winter months, too. This February, and for the 13th year, the city hosted Montréal en Lumière, an 11-day festival of gastronomy, dance, theatre, circus arts and music, including a Jazz Series.

Running Feb. 16-26, this year’s edition highlighted Wallonia-Brussels, a.k.a. francophone Belgium, presenting cultural and culinary treats from the region. Two Belgian artists were named honorary co-presidents: legendary harmonica master Toots Thielemans, who has played the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal several times, and Luc De Larochellière, one of the most respected singer-songwriters in Quebec, who headlined the festival’s closing concert, Ne me quitte pas: a Tribute to Jacques Brel.

Thielemans delivered the grand-opening concert at Place des Arts’ Théâtre Maisonneuve, accompanied by longtime collaborator Kenny Werner on piano. Highly spirited though a bit on the frail side, the 90-year-old (!) Thielemans walked onstage arm in arm with Werner, welcomed with rousing applause and a standing ovation. The duo proceeded to play a crowd-pleasing program including “The Days of Wine and Roses,” a heartfelt and melancholy “Ne me quitte pas,” “Autumn Leaves” and Thielemans’ own “For My Lady.” The two exhibited their well-established rapport, exchanging knowing looks and blowing one another kisses; Toots, animated as ever, his legs dangling playfully off the stool, was clearly enjoying the moment. Following a second standing ovation at the end of the concert, they returned to the stage, Thielemans explaining how he was first “infected” with the jazz bug through a Louis Armstrong record he heard during the German occupation of Belgium, and offering “What a Wonderful World” as an encore.

Next, I caught Montreal’s own Jireh Gospel Choir at Le Balcon, in the city’s quaint old port quarter. Musical director Carol Bernard led the choir through beautifully harmonized traditional gospel tunes such as “O Happy Day” and Kirk Franklin’s “He Will Supply,” in addition to several original songs, performed in both French and English. The choir and its brawny rhythm section enthralled the audience, inspiring clapping, swaying, stomping and dancing.

French guitar master Sylvan Luc (Steve Gadd, Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater) played the cozy Gesù with his Organic Trio of Thierry Éliez on keys and André Ceccarelli on drums. The band performed mostly tunes from its 2011 recording Organic (Dreyfus Jazz), transcending musical genre as they fused jazz and rock with undeniable synergy. Luc, who last played in Montreal with Manu Katché and Richard Bona during the 2010 jazz festival, seemed to make a conscious effort to circumvent virtuosic displays, focusing on seamless interaction with his attentive bandmates. He and Éliez shared the role of bass player, the pianist employing his Fender Rhodes and synth and Luc using an octave pedal. The poignant melody of the breezy “Maité” was juxtaposed with the Zawinul-esque “Organic” and its captivating guitar riff, Caccarelli roaring on his drum solo. “D’ici d’en bas” by French composer Bernard Lubat and “Deux quatre a cinq,” another jazz-rock vehicle, provided further explorations of harmonics, tones and textures balancing skill and musicality.

I left early to catch Al Di Meola perform with Italian guitarist Peo Alfonsi at L’Astral. The two played tunes from last year’s Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, as well as a wide range of other material, from Astor Piazzolla to a Lady Gaga cover. “Mawazine, Part I” opened, a tune inspired by the festival of the same name in Rabat, Morocco, and the audience was transfixed by the remarkable display of technique, timing, melodicism and rhythmic intensity. “Full Frontal Contrapuntal” was reduced to “only” two counterpoints, leaving out the other five on the original recording. “Two is enough, trust me!” Meola reassured the audience; the symbiosis between the two guitarists was astounding. Piazzolla’s “Double Concerto,” performed by Meola in different formats in the past, worked well as a duet, perfectly blending the wonder of their technique with a wide range of emotions.

Robert Glasper’s Experiment ended the Jazz Series at the Gesù. Whether it was the hype in the local press or the anticipation for Black Radio (Blue Note), Glasper’s new genre-bending recording, the room was packed mostly with people in their 20s and 30s, a demographic rarely this prevalent at jazz concerts in general, and in this hall in particular. Glasper and his cohorts-Casey Benjamin on vocoder, synth and saxophones, Derrick Hodge on bass and Mark Colenburg on drums (to the disappointment of some, who were expecting the inimitable Chris “Daddy” Dave)-didn’t offer much material from the new album, an exception being their rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Virtually unrecognizable at first, the tune began in a somber tone, picking up in the second verse; Hodge delivered some inspiring runs and Colenburg’s energetic, imaginative drumming had me, and many others, head-banging in our seats as the tune continued to build in intensity. Benjamin delivered a tender rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Trust Me” on vocoder, the emotive, pleading quality of his voice shining through the electronics. Switching to sax, he went on to play a scorching soprano solo. Next, Glasper asked the rhetorical “Are there any J Dilla fans here?” before he and the band played Common’s Dilla-produced “The Light.” Bilal’s “All Matter” ended the set, Benjamin taking over vocal duties once again and offering another passionate soprano sax solo.

Originally Published