Carla Bley_Femmes3.jpg

Review by JOHN KELMAN All About Jazz

When Carla Bley was forced, at the eleventh hour, to withdraw from her planned FIJM performance with life partner and equally acclaimed electric bassist Steve Swallow in collaboration with Montréal's Orchestre National de Jazz, beyond concerns for the renowned pianist and composer's health, the question arose: what to do?

Well, fortunately the ONJ, formed in 2012 of some of the absolutely best musicians from the Montréal area and giving its first performance the following year, had been collaborating with Canada's crown jewel of jazz composers and arrangers, Christine Jensen. And so, following the old adage of "when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade" (though neither Jensen nor the ONJ could hardly be called "lemons"), Jensen was recruited to turn Bley and Swallow's visit to FIJM into Hommage à Carla Bley, featuring seven guest performers, women all (with one exception), in these times of increase awareness for women's rights, and recognition that Bley was truly a trailblazer—a groundbreaking artist for women in jazz, emerging at a time when few women could be found beyond singers and the occasional pianist.

It's hard to know Bley's feelings on the subject, beyond her simply doing what she did so well from the very start, and transcending the "boy's club" that defined too much of the jazz scene in the mid-to-late '50s, when she first emerged as a pianist but, soon after, as a composer and bandleader who, beyond her sizeable discography, has paved the way for women like Jensen, Myriam Alter and Maria Schneider, amongst many others.

And so, as everyone hopes for Bley's recovery (she may be 82, but the world is simply not ready for her to be gone), Jensen led the Orchestre National de Jazz Montréal in a program that drew upon three of Bley's large ensemble recordings on her own WATT imprint: 1991's The Very Big Carla Bley Band; 1993's Big Band Theory; and 2008's Appearing Nightly.

With six different pianists including, alongside local stars Gentiane MG, Marie-Fatima Rudolf, Marianne Trudel, Francois Bourassa (the sole male guest) and Lorraine Desmarais, two New York-based musicians also made the long drive to Montréal: Jensen's increasingly—and appropriately—critically/popularly recognized sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen; and Texas-born pianist Helen Sung. With the exception of Rudolf and Ingrid Jensen, the rest of the guests contributed to one piece each, though given the length of Christine Jensen's choice for a set-opener, Appearing Nightly's nearly 30-minute, multi-movement suite, "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid," with its liberal quotes from standards including "My Foolish Heart" and "As Time Goes By," it could easily be suggested that Gentiane MG also contributed to more than just one piece.

Bley's writing is filled with a broad range of emotion, ranging from darker-hued lyricism and bright, joyous optimism to wry wit. All that and more was encapsulated in the show's opening piece that, in addition to providing specific solo spots for tenor saxophonist David Bellemare, trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier, soprano saxophonist (tripling on alto and flute) Jean Pierre Zanella and trumpeter Aron Doyle, also went, round robin style, around the entire Orchestre at one point, providing everyone in the 17-piece ensemble a moment in the spotlight, an approach that was repeated again, later in the set. MG's approach to piano was not unlike Bley's: spare, with as much space as there were notes played, and a considered approach to voicings that applied, for that matter, to her playing throughout the piece.

Jensen's conducting, seen, of course, from behind, was firm yet relaxed, as she brought the Orchestre from moments as close to a whisper as a group this large and horn-infused can be, to more dynamic passages filled with burnished (sometimes brash) brass and a potent rhythm section, feat tie game double bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Kevin Warren. If there was any issue with the performance, it was in the mix coming out into the house. Some soloists stood, others did not; some had clip-on microphones on their horns, others did not. And while the mix was largely fine during much of the set, from a relatively central position in the hall, when things kicked into high gear the drums often tended to overshadow everything else (despite Warren being clearly a superb drummer), as did passages where a soloist was being supported by the full band, with five saxophonists/flautists, four trombonists and four trumpeters. That organist Daniel Thouin, who had the capacity for being loud and overbearing was the precise opposite spoke to his ensemble-oriented approach.

Thouin rarely soloed, in fact, though his contributions to the Orchestre's overall complexion was not to be underestimated. And when he finally did get to solo, on the wonderfully balladic, set-closing "Lawns" (the only non-Bley composition of the set, written by Christine Jensen as a tribute to the pianist/composer), his considered approach to soloing with clear compositional focus was well worth the wait.

Ingrid Jensen also performed on "Lawns," as well as two Bley pieces: Appearing Nightly's buoyantly swinging "Awful Coffee," next to Sung, and Big Band Theory's more relaxed and, at times' atmospheric "Fresh Impression," with Lorraine Desmarais on piano. As always, Jensen's tone was a thing of beauty, with a particular strength in the instrument's lower register that few explore, in addition to being able to hit, Kenny Wheeler-like, some truly stratospheric high notes. Any performance with Ingrid Jensen in it (and sister Christine, too) is bound to be worth seeing, and this was no exception.

Both "Awful Coffee" and, from the same album, the appropriately titled "Greasy Gravy" (featuring Marianne Trudel), with its slow and, yes, greasy groove, made references to other songs dealing with food, including Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," Dizzy Gillespie's evergreen, "Salt Peanuts" and Ray Henderson's "You're the Cream in My Coffee." The Orchestre even shouted out another Gillespie reference in the midst of Jensen's solo during "Awful Coffee": "Hey Pete, Let's Eat Mo' Meat." Suffice to say that, while these are all part of the script' the Orchestre nevertheless imbued them with the appropriate dry, understated sense of humor so endemic to Bley's writing.

Every pianist invited to perform was suitably impressive. Bourassa, whose solo piece, "Pièce solo dédiée a Carla Bley" was a relentless stream of invention and virtuosity, was particularly notable, as was the especially intense Sung and equally masterful Desmarais. But as undeniably masterful as every invited pianist was, only a couple, specifically Gentiane MG and Marie-Fatima Rudolf, captured the spare, restrained and considered essence of Bley the pianist, whose playing, in particular on her two recent ECM trio releases with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard (2013's Trios and 2016's Andando el Tiempo), is especially revelatory.

Instead, Trudel, Sung, Bourassa and Desmarais delivered extraordinary performances, to be sure; but beyond Bourassa's self-penned solo tribute, it's hard to say if the others did the music full justice. Of course, a tribute need not be one that specifically references its subject, and there's little doubt that the restrained yet nevertheless freewheeling Bley would (as did Christine Jensen) encourage anyone and everyone performing her music to be exactly who they are.

And that dictum was, most definitely, the modus operandi for Christine Jensen and Orchestre National de Jazz Montréal's Hommage à Carla Bley. As frantic as it must have been to put this performance together on such short notice, it most certainly didn't appear so once the lights went down and the two-hour set began. Instead, whether reverential, referential or personally interpretive, Hommage à Carla Bley was as captivating as would be expected from this group of A-list, largely Canadian (and, even more so, predominantly Montréal) musicians, many of whom came together on very short notice to deliver a performance that would, no doubt, have made Bley proud.

Review by SEBASTIAN SCOTNEY London Jazz News

What great stories piano stools would tell - if only they could. On Monday night, the one on the stage at the Monument National in Montreal was receiving the attentions of a rotating crew of no fewer than six pianists – five women and one man. Each, in turn, would rapidly and energetically height-adjust and customize it afresh before taking her or his turn for the next piece.

And yet how different things were supposed to have been. That piano stool was originally intended to have a much more serene evening. In the original plan for this concert, it would have been graced by just one occupant, a uniquely delicate and subtle player, a universally revered and unique presence in world jazz - Carla Bley.

However, when she was obliged to cancel through ill-health, the concert by the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal was transformed into a celebration of Bley's music for jazz orchestra; Bley would still be honored, her works for big band would still be played (that is not a frequent occurrence), but with Bley sadly in absentia. Christine Jensen had masterminded the transformation, and directed the band vigorously, sympathetically and flawlessly throughout the evening. Jensen also found exactly the right words to express the sprit of the occasion after one of the pieces: “we all feel like we’re in the sanctuary of Carla Bley.”

Those six pianists brought a fascinating range of contrasting styles. Two younger players from the Montreal scene, Gentiane MG and Maria Fatima Rudolf, proved their mettle in navigating through some of the more intricate and complex charts, and Gentiane caught the imagination of the audience as she found a mood of total stillness in quoting My Foolish Heart, her head held Bill-Evansishly just a few inches above the keys. Helen Sung, often to be heard with the Mingus Big Band, had arrived from New York to rehearse earlier in the day, and she brought energy and panache to seize the moment in the Rhythm changes-based Awful Coffee. A complete change of mood came in a thoughtful, hushed, polytonal solo item from Francois Bourassa, who has a new album out which includes a double tribute (sic!) to Carla (Bley) and Karlheinz (Stockhausen). Marianne Trudel brought a poetic feel and a sense of story-telling to Greasy Gravy. And it was a treat to hear one of the all-too-hidden treasures and original voices of the Montreal scene, Lorraine Desmarais, whose extended solo introduction to Fresh Impression was completely captivating, and a definite highlight. Carla Bley’s big band writing is intricate and one has the sense of a subtlety that is only going to be revealed on repeated hearings. An exception to that is the delightfully quirky On The Stage in Cages, which has a wonderful section where each of the brass players seemed to give the briefest of statements of their individuality. It had solo features for trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and tenor saxophonist David Bellemare, both the kind of players who are at the level that would grace any professional big band in the world. Yes, as Jamie Cullum found out at this festival a couple of years ago, the instrumental quality among the big band players at the top of the Montreal scene is jaw-dropping.

And yet it was not just about soloists. This concert was an opportunity for the Orchestre National to be put through its paces, to show the talents and abilities of its members and as keen and supportive collaborators, to etch out the contrasts in the writing from the antiphonal spendour (and full band vocals) of Awful Coffee to the poise and poetry of the ending of Greasy Gravy, and the sheer joy of Fresh Impression, which also brought to the fore the trumpet wizardry of Ingrid Jensen.

Proceedings were brought to a close with a beautifully poised performance of Christine Jensen’s chart, Lawns featuring the fine craft of Hammond player Daniel Thouin.

Carla Bley has deep links into the Montreal scene (further listening on that topic here). May her recovery, and also her return to this magical city of saints, bell-towers and festivals be rapid.