Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Nelson Symonds remembered

While rock guitar seems often to be about loud, egomaniacal posturing, the jazz guitarist is a much more subtle beast. The epitome of the understated, modest yet enormously talented jazz guitarist is Montreal’s own Nelson Symonds, whose passing on October 11 gives us reason to re-evaluate his work. Symonds was a sophisticated, though under-exposed artist whose music was deep and heartfelt.

Tributes are being written across the country. Many are speaking about Symond’s playing, including Ottawa-based guitarist Roddy Elias who was recently quoted as saying that upon his first hearing Symonds’ guitar, “on an emotional, expressive, spiritual, soul level I knew I was in the presence of someone truly extraordinary.” From what I gathered about the man, this greatness was the result of a humble approach to his art and the strong work ethic that governed his life, aspects that are documented in the 1984 film by Mary Ellen Davis, Nelson Symonds, Guitarist.

Born in Halifax in 1933, Symonds left home in 1951 to work as a musician in Sudbury, then toured the States with vaudeville and carnival troupes before heading to la Belle Province in the mid-50s. In an interview I had with him in 1983, he told me that his first jazz gig “was in 1958 in Montreal, at the Vieux Moulin on Sherbrooke Street near Bleury. That was my first legitimate jazz gig, although I’d improvised before in the Black vaudeville shows.”

Once settled in the Montreal area, Symonds mainly stayed put: “I only played in the States once, jazz wise. My only jazz gig in the US was in Milwaukee in 1960. I was there at a club for nine months.” Symonds was a tireless club performer until he was slowed down by heart trouble in his later years. “I’m supposed to be starting a job tonight at Mingus on Bishop for a couple of weeks,” he told me that spring afternoon in 1983. He also told me about how he had spent “three years at Rockhead’s Paradise [on Saint Antoine]. Before that I was up north with Charlie Biddle for six years, from ’71 until ’77,” he said.

Although he played at most of Montreal’s Jazz clubs in his time, and performed with many top name jazz artists (people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Coltrane and Blue Mitchell to name a few) he didn’t record until late in his career, and made only two CDs as leader and as many as a sideman on saxophonist Dave Turner’s dates. “I really never thought about it cause I always got a chance to play here in Montreal,” he said by way of explanation. “I was at the Black Bottom for five years from ’63 till about ’68 and La Boheme from ’68 till ’71 and then we were up North.”

Neither was studio work his bag. “I’m not into that. I’m self-taught. I’m not a sight reader,” he said. He also preferred the intimacy and the flexibility of the club. “Usually I’ve been in a place for a long time. So I really didn’t care about recording if I had a chance to play. A lot of people ask me the same thing, but, I don’t know, it’s not something I really thought about ’cause I always got a chance to play.”

The change in the jazz scene in Montreal in the 1980s that saw the fall of the jazz club in favour of the festival format meant sporadic engagements. But it also meant a chance to play with international celebrities for a large audience, like Symond’s opening set for a Ray Charles concert in the St. Denis Theatre at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. “We’re not used to that,” he said. “It’s not like playing at a night club. Doing concerts like that. You know you’ve only got an hour shot. You have to be ready for that. The main players are geared to do that, and they do a lot of it. We’re used to playing in clubs. You try to get yourself up for that. A lot of times you’re playing at a new club and you open up the first night and you really feel great the first set, but you don’t plan on that. If you don’t feel great that first set you know you’ve still got a couple more shows to play. So sometimes I have a tendency to be a little bit uptight, but I tried to be as loose as possible on that concert with Ray Charles. I never really played in front of that many people, that’s another thing. So I was pretty tense. Everybody that knows us knows that. Under those circumstances it was adequate. Most of the time was for Ray Charles. But anyway, it wasn’t too bad.”

Most of his fans would say, rather, that the music of Nelson Symonds was some of the finest jazz you could hear in this city and anywhere else, for that matter.

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Local folk will love these vocals

The summer festival season may be long gone, but there’s no reason to hibernate just yet, since there is lots of good music to be heard around town both familiar and exotic.

In the first week of November, the Festival du Monde Arabe happens at three main venues: Place des Arts, Sala Rossa and Kola Note. Over 20 shows present the richness and variety of music with roots in North African and the Middle East, from Iranian music steeped in ancient Sufism to bluesy Gnawan music to more modern fusions. This is music that knows no borders of religion or nationality. A delight for the ears.

Also in the first week (November 4), the three-decades-old Willelm Breuker Kollectief swings by for a visit at Sala Rossa. This unusual Dutch free-jazz-meets-cabaret big band is entertaining and virtuosic, featuring skilled instrumentalists with a strong dose of humour.

Fans of vocal music are blessed this month with a wide palette of choices. Jazz singer Ranee Lee takes up the mic for some mainstream jazz balladeering the weekend of November 7-8 at Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill on MacKay Street. Lee’s voice is unique: unlike so many Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald imitators, she has her own sound. The less original but nonetheless pleasant Susie Arioli and her band appear at the Theatre Outremont November 27 as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s off-season programming.

Classical vocal music is also plentiful, with, among many others, the Opera de Montreal’s presentation at Place des Arts of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, which contains many well-loved arias (November 1-13). International and local artists take the stage at the intimate Chapelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur at 100 Sherbrooke E to present Czech and Slovakian lyrical gems November 13. Featured artists are baritones Adam Plachetka, Mikulas Scneifer and Pavol Kuban.

Three concerts of note at the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall are those of jazz trumpeter and music professor Charles Ellison, which takes place November 13 at 8pm ($5 seniors), the Klezmatics November 29 at 8:30pm with proceeds from the show going to support the KlezKanada Youth Scholarship Fund, and finally, on November 23 at 8pm you can help support the I Medici Di McGill Orchestra by attending their 20th anniversary concert.

This group is made up in part of members of the faculty of medicine at McGill. They will be joined by guest piano soloist Seth Durst from New York City to perform works mostly by Mozart.

Admission by donation is $10.

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A smorgasbord of summer festivals

Festival de Lanaudière - Bernard Labadie and Violon du Roy players

Whether you plan to go out to the country or stay in town, there are plenty of musical events to celebrate the summer season. Choices abound, from festivals in bucolic settings that give “country music” a totally different meaning to urban festivals a metro ride away.

Running July 5 to August 3 just a short distance from Montreal, the 31st year of the Lanaudière Festival has a rich offering of first-rate classical musicians, both local and international, from medieval to contemporary, throughout July and early August. Featuring Kent Nagano and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, pianists Alain Lefèvre and Valentina Lisitsa and the Baroque Orchestra of Freiburg, the festival offers a healthy fare of music with dinner, encounters with musicians and cruises on Lac St-Pierre. There is also a special sound installation of bird songs taking its cue from the works of Olivier Messiaen.

Francofolie crowd

Music of a different ilk can be heard north in the hills of the Laurentians, with the Mont Tremblant Blues Festival running from July 4-13 and featuring Johnny Winter, Paul James, Keb’ Mo’ and a tribute to the recently deceased Jeff Healey.

Along the breathtaking views of the lower St. Lawrence just south of Rimouski, the Parc du Bic presents its Concerts aux Îles du Bic chamber music festival from August 1-10. Yuli Turovsky and I Musici of Montreal perform intimate classics. The varied chamber music formations deliver the calming repertoire of Mozart, Debussy and Poulenc.

Festival international du blues de Tremblant

If your summer promises to be an inner-city affair, there are scores of festivals to choose from. Besides the well-known Montreal International Jazz Festival, there’s Nuits d’Afrique, which runs from July 8-20, and features African musicians with both free shows, at the Place Émilie-Gamelin, and ticketed shows. There’s also Francofolies, from July 24 to August 3, which serves a wide range of music by francophone artists, in the same setting as the Jazz Fest, this year featuring homage to the great Félix Leclerc.

Urban and bucolic at the same time are the events known as Les Weekends du Monde held at the Parc Jean-Drapeau throughout July. The program features daylong activities with music from the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as Classical Thursdays.

The Celtic Music Festival, held on the beautiful grounds of the Douglas Hospital in Verdun ran until a couple of years ago. It featured wonderful music from North America, Ireland and Britain, Celtic France and Spain. Hopefully this festival will see the light of day once more, although not likely this summer. Perhaps in 2009?

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Fifty years in the band still isn’t enough

Marshall Allen (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Montreal will be awash with jazz in the next few weeks, with a total of four festivals going on. There’s not only the International Jazz Festival that everyone around the planet knows about, but also two equally appealing festivals (if not more so, for hard-core jazz fans) following in short order, plus the festival Bryan Highbloom has been offering at the Jewish General Hospital. That spells a lot of music.

As usual, veteran musicians are a big part of the draw, whether they are jazzers, like pianist Hank Jones, or jazz-related like the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who is still belting it out. Locals like drummer Guy Nadon and pianists Oliver Jones and Vic Vogel are also in on the fun. All of these performers are appearing at the high-profile Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. The two other festivals, the Suoni Per Il Popolo (run by the Casa del Popolo) and the Off Festival (run by and featuring Montreal musicians), have an equally interesting lineup, and this year they are teaming up to present a couple of events, the most prominent being the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Led by Marshall Allen after Sun Ra’s passing in 1993, the Arkestra follows the big band tradition but with an avant-garde twist, as likely to play When You Wish Upon a Star or There Will Never Be Another You as they are to revisit Sun Ra’s quirky themes like We Travel the Spaceways or one of the many tunes Allen has penned. Formed in the 1950s, the Arkestra is still thriving. I spoke to Marshall Allen, who still lives in the Sun Ra house in Philadelphia, a couple of days before his 84th birthday as he was preparing for a celebration in New York at Sullivan Hall.

I asked him about his long association with the band and about his long life in music. “It contributes to my well-being and in my 80s, that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “When you’re younger, you’ve got adventure, you’ve got a strong drive to move forward and get something down. Now I’m not that youthful, but there are still things I want to do, and I don’t have to go through a lot of that stuff like when I was younger. Now I have more time to stay with the music and more time to concentrate.”

He went on to tell me about life before Sun Ra, playing in Paris, Germany, and England, and spending time in the Army until he met Sun Ra in Chicago. “He lived a few blocks away from me and he rehearsed his band, and I went to rehearsals and listened and his other band in New York was breaking up and I got into the new band.”

That was 1958, and Allen waxed enthusiastic when he realized that this year marks the 50th anniversary of his joining Sun Ra. “Back in those days I didn’t think I’d still be playing in the band in 50 years,” he said in his endearing Kentucky drawl.

He has a simple answer to what keeps him committed to the band: “It’s the music! Sun Ra was a good teacher and that was like a gold mine. All I had to do was put in the time.” The time, in this case, has meant a whole career devoted to the Arkestra, which has required a lot of study, given the founder’s unique vision.

But there are also more practical issues: “Through the years, music gets displaced, songs are there with no names on them. It’s quite a thing to try to get the parts back together. It’s like a puzzle.”

He also still studies the challenging music: “Sometimes there’s time against time, or different times together. He always had a large band and a lot of stuff going on. So I just do the main thing and sometimes rework some of the music. He has about a thousand pieces, some of which haven’t been played yet. He would write for different people, change things, chords, melodies, depending on the person who would be playing… tailor made. So I still got some challenges, interpreting the music.”

The audiences are still coming to the concerts and include lots of young people. “We make a little story with the band going way back and coming right on up, so it’s like a music lesson for those who weren’t born. We show them what they were doing in the 30s and early 40s and what they’re doing now.”

The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen will perform at the Sala Rossa Sunday, June 14 at 8:30 pm.

Info: casadelpopolo.com

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Older musicians bring depth to festival

With spring urging people out onto the streets, the festival season begins, and for music lovers, it starts with The Montreal Chamber Music Festival, which runs from May 1 to May 24. “In putting the festival together, I find the best comparison is haute cuisine,” says artistic director Denis Brott. “It’s like putting together a fine meal. A festival isn't just another concert — it has to be an event. There has to be something unusual about it, something special.”

One notable aspect of this 13th edition is the artistic depth of the senior musicians on the program, the most seasoned of whom are pianists Gary Graffman, 80, Anton Kuerti, 70, and Oliver Jones, 74. “People get older, but not their careers,” says Brott. “When Oliver Jones retired, I said to him, ‘What are you doing, man?’ — and he’s continued playing and playing his best. Music has a renewal quality to it, it has a life force. Look at the program and you’ll see that several artists are past 60, yet listening to them has a rejuvenating quality.”

While the program’s choices are eclectic, with music from classical to contemporary performed by artists at all stages of their careers, Brott points to the quality that experience brings: “As we get older, we get more tolerant, more accepting of our ignorance. We know that we don’t know. There’s also more security in terms of ego. We’re more willing to share our knowledge and are more concerned about the search for the truth and what represents spirituality... A musician is a servant… like an actor whose duty it is to serve the playwright. A musician is at the service of the composer. We try to get across what the composer wants. And we’re better able to do this as we get older.”

The reasons for this ultimately have to do with experience. “Who do you think will have the deeper knowledge, the young musician who’s only played a few pieces by Beethoven, or the older musician who’s already performed all of Beethoven’s work? It’s about depth of understanding. And music keeps us young... like a fountain, and even if you’ve played the piece before and know it very well, there’s always that element of surprise.”

Montreal concert halls are active all through the year, providing fine music-making, but there is a significant difference between the Montreal Chamber Music Festival and other festivals or concerts. Brott maintains that this festival is “like having an affair. There’s that blush of newness, since musicians haven’t played together before. Unlike the usual concert where musicians come for one night, then are gone, it’s not a one-night stand. Our artists come here and get together for about 3 to 4 rehearsals to create a very exciting, intoxicating mix.” Brott himself, a well-respected cellist, will be performing in 4 concerts, and during the Festival’s run will also be making side trips to Quebec City and New York, the second stop with Claude Frank, an 82-year-old Artur Schnabel disciple. How does he find this double-duty of musician and manager? “I don’t think of it as difficult. I think of it as exciting.”

Along with the chamber music that forms the core of the program, jazz has found a place. “For me,” Brott explains, “jazz is chamber music and chamber music has an element of jazz. Jazz is very structured, which allows you to improvise on a note basis. In chamber music a performer is improvising on an emotional and interpretational level. Although in chamber music the whole is greater than the sum of the parts a performer has the ability to impact the whole in the realm of timing, colour, and articulation. The brush is broader in jazz, whereas in chamber music the brush works more on detail. Also, when you look at it, the best jazz musicians are often classically trained.”

For its first 10 years, the Festival was presented at the Chalet on Mount Royal. It has been held at the St. James United Church on St. Catherine Street for the last three years. “Accessibility was a big factor,” Brott explains, “although the mountain was a great locale and I still hope to go back there. But there aren’t the buses, and it was inconvenient if you wanted to go out for dinner before, etc.” The downtown location is not a compromise on acoustics, though — in fact, says Brott, quite the contrary: “All the critics have raved about it. The issue really has been accessibility and I’m hopeful that our audiences will continue to grow.”

The issue of accessibility is also addressed by Brott’s approach to the way the music is presented to the audience: “I give live program notes on stage. We have to think of future audiences. It’s our mission. There’s been an increase of 25% in our under-30 crowd due to cheaper tickets. Young people have come from as far as New York state, Aylmer, Ontario, and Jonquière to attend the festival. This means the festival will be better able to serve its purpose.”

For more details and program information, visit festivalmontreal.org.

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After the flood, sound the trumpet

Tales of destruction by flood are retold in nearly every culture, wherein the event is endowed with mythical qualities, an act of God that forces reflection on its victims. The devastating storm that flooded New Orleans is no longer news, but its aftereffects are still real to the survivors who are trying to pull their lives back together. Musical stories of that flood are told by two jazz musicians from the Crescent City — trumpeters and composers both — in their most recent CD releases.

For his Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina (Blue Note Records), Terence Blanchard, the elder of the two trumpeters, was awarded a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. With Blanchard, the rhythms are recognizably New Orleans, starting with the march-like drum beat that opens the suite of pieces, announcing the requiem that this project presents. The title of the disc asks listeners to consider the storm as part of God’s plan — how else to explain the destruction and loss of life and home for so many? This must have been the reasoning behind the music, much as it is in the Old Testament story. Blanchard’s trumpet voice is compelling in its nuance as it dominates the varied textures of the compositions, some of which originally appeared in Spike Lee’s documentary film “When the Levees Broke.” Blanchard, one of the young lions from Wynton Marsalis’ generation, has scored many a film in recent years and knows how to create mood and meaning with sounds. Here his sextet (trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, drums and percussion) is augmented in several pieces by the lush, yet subtle strings of The Northwest Sinfonia.

The tunes urge the acceptance of God’s will, as in “Ghost of Congo Square,” “Mantra Intro” and “Mantra,” mixed with clearly programmatic pieces like “Wading Through,” “In Time of Need” and “The Water,” and references to past storms in “Ghost of Betsy” and “Ghost of 1927.” Inevitably, there is also grief expressed in the blues laments of “Levees” and “Funeral Dirge.”

The younger trumpeter, Christian Scott, a couple of decades Blanchard’s junior, leads a smaller group, with sonorities that are more contemporary. However, the mood in Anthem (Concord Jazz) is equally reflective. The twelve pieces featured have titles that directly reference the flood, like “Katrina’s Eyes,” and the title cut appearing in two versions, “Anthem (Antediluvian Adaptation)” and “Anthem (Post Diluvial Adaptation)” — the first having a kind of ominous foreboding vamp that launches the quiet storm of melody and rhythm, and the latter featuring a lyrical commentary by rapper Brother J of X-Clan on the human struggle that was brought into relief by the storm and its aftermath. Through it all, Scott’s keening horn (he plays trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn and slide trumpet) is a lyrical, compelling voice addressing the drama that is both social and cosmic. He and his quartet (horn, drums, bass, and guitar) offer jazz with a contemporary urban beat, but with lyrical content that maintains a thread with tradition.

It is fitting that the trumpet is featured in these almost religious musical mediations. Considered by ancient people as the sound of the voice of God and used as a heraldic instrument to announce divine interventions, it is strikes a deep, resonating chord in the human soul.

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