MONTREAL — Wednesday night was a night for jazz legends — and the spirits of legends — at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Events got under way at the Theatre Maisonneuve when drummer Max Roach and pianist Mal Waldron got together for a meeting of minds, hands and musical styles. Each artist played a brief solo statement before they joined for a 90-minute set. Opening their duet with pianist John Lewis' "Django" and closing with Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners," the two men enjoyed what Waldron later called "a musical conversation."
"Since I live in Brussels and Max is in New York, we have voice, or phone, conversations all the time," the 73-year-old pianist said. "So, even though we haven't played together for almost two years, our musical conversation just picks up right where we left it."
Roach, 76, may be best known as the first jazz drummer to create melodic lines on his kit. "Who else but Max can make a drum solo as lyrical as a poem?" Waldron said after their show.
Roach did it again last night with his patented solo known as "The Drum Also Waltzes," in which he played 3/4 time with his bass drum while varying the tempo and pitch as he roamed over his surprisingly simple drum kit. There's only one ride and one crash cymbal, two toms, a bass and snare. He caressed rather than attacked, making his drums sing.
Roach and Waldron took turns setting up a melodic or rhythmic motif for the other to respond to. The dimly lit stage presented a mysterious tableau, Waldron's cigarette sending streams of smoke toward the ceiling as he played.
The jazz history represented by these men is substantial.
Roach was a regular at Minton's Playhouse in New York in the 1940s and helped create the bebop revolution. He has played with an endless list of jazz icons, including saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, bassist Charles Mingus and pianists Monk, Bud Powell and Duke Ellington. Roach also co-led the classic '50s quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown.
Waldron was Billie Holiday's accompanist from 1957 until her death in 1959. Waldron and Roach have recorded together many times. Speak Brother Speak!, from the late '60s, features the two addressing the social issues of that revolutionary era.
In a conversation after the show, Roach remembered those years of musical activism. "I've been lucky," he said, "because my associates have always made the social issues part of their lives. It's been that way since I worked with Charlie Parker — although Charlie Parker would send signals, like his composition 'Now's the Time,' rather than more direct statements like my 'Freedom Now Suite.'
"We played a benefit for [black activist-singer] Paul Robeson when Charlie had the group with strings," Roach continued. "Robeson was having visa problems at the time, and when he was introduced he said, 'I can't speak, so I'll just sing.' He did an entire set, and I'll never forget Charlie bringing Paul Robeson a glass of water onstage when Robeson was finished."
Reflecting on his performance with Waldron at the Theatre Maisonneuve, Roach said that he had no idea beforehand what pieces would be played.
"It's a spontaneous event," he said. "This music called jazz frees musicians to be themselves."
Strikers Confront Rollins Fans
Over at the Wilfrid-Pelletier hall, fans had to wait an extra half-hour to enter the venue where saxophonist Sonny Rollins, 69, and his band held court. Strikers were blocking the front doors to the hall. The International Alliance of Theater Stage Employees has been picketing this theater since last year.
Tensions ran high, but no violence occurred.
"I am so happy to see this action take place," said a union member who did not give his name. "We have been battling since last year. I hope this show gets canceled."
"This is wrong," said Ellen Barris, a Rollins fan who drove up from Boston just to see his gig. "I sympathize with the strikers, but I really want to see Sonny."
Fronting a group that featured Stephen Scott on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Clifton Anderson on trombone, Percy Wilson on drums and Victor Sel-Yven on percussion, Rollins dug into his vast repertoire. He had no problem filling the largest indoor venue of the festival with his full, melodic, bombastic sound.
He led the band through a number of Calypso-tinged romps, including the classic "St. Thomas" (RealAudio excerpt). To close out the set, Rollins went back in time and dusted off a scorching rendition of "Tenor Madness" (RealAudio excerpt), aided by a fine solo from Scott.
Not everyone was completely satisfied, though.
"I love Sonny, but why doesn't he get a good band and more of a vision?" said Guylaine Maroist, a 30ish television producer from Montreal. "Sonny is so great that he should be able to get any sidemen he wants."
Rounding out the night over at the Spectrum was a sublime performance by the group Sphere. Assuming Thelonious Monk's middle name and mostly dedicated to his music, Sphere recently added a new member, saxophonist Gary Bartz. He joins pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Ben Riley. Riley played with Monk during the pianist's later years and is currently writing a book about those experiences.
The club was spacious and featured a light show, providing a number of visual effects for the musicians. Rare in jazz, this was quite pleasant. A stellar solo from Barron punctuated a fresh arrangement of "Well You Needn't," and Bartz stole the show with aggressive blowing over "We See" and "Ask Me Now."
Barron spoke about the group's newest member, who replaced the late Charlie Rouse. Before playing with Sphere, Rouse had been the saxophonist with the longest tenure in Monk's bands.
"Gary plays with more of an edge. And also, he brings the alto into the mix, which adds a different color," Barron said. "We couldn't find anyone like Rouse, and we all agreed on Gary from the start. We talked about bringing Sphere back to life after a long break about three years ago. It took a while to happen, but it has been great."
Barron was also happy with that evening's gig. "The sound in the Spectrum was great, and the crowd was really attentive — I wish every crowd was like that one."
A tired Andrew Wells, a schoolteacher from Toronto, just smiled when leaving the Spectrum. "Life is good. See you tomorrow. ..."