Montreal Jazz Fest: Stanley Clarke Band/ S.M.V./ Victor Wooten Band (concert review)

Great bassists were in abundance at the recently concluded 33rd annual Montreal Jazz Festival. I reviewed several of the bassist-led shows (and concerts by others) for Relix. Read the review online at Relix.com, or check out the full text below:

S.M.V. Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten – Theatre Maisonneuve – June 30

Victor Wooten – Club Soda – June 30

Stanley Clarke Band – Theatre Jean-Duceppe – July 1

Montreal Jazz Fest, Montreal Canada

If there’s such a thing as bass player heaven, then one wing of the place must have relocated to the Montreal Jazz Fest during the first half of the sprawling 10-day event: Esperanza Spalding, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Jack Bruce, Darryl Jones, Meshell NdegeOcello, Steve Bailey, and John Patitucci were among the notable low-hertz dwellers who turned out in force.

Clarke, unofficial dean of the brigade of bottom-end denizens, celebrated his birthday in high style at the event’s 33rd annual edition: the Return to Forever star, recipient of last year’s Miles Davis Award at the fest, headlined a four-evening “Invitation” series residency. Opening night, upright in tow, he played a well-received duet with Japanese-born piano phenom Hiromi; the two have recorded a pair of albums together. Day Two brought an even more unusual pairing, with Clarke joined by the Harlem String Quartet, the young musicians who recently made a big noise playing at the White House.

Clarke devotees, though, saved their greatest enthusiasm for the bassist’s final two shows at the fest. June 30 brought a flashy bass guitar smackdown at Theatre Maisonneuve with S.M.V., the superbass trio featuring Marcus Miller, best known for his Miles Davis collaborations, and Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

“If you don’t like bass, you’re going to have a little bit of a problem,” Clarke said near the start of the show, which included a sing-along “Happy Birthday” in his honor. “I’m 61 years old,” he said. “I still have it.” And, on his role as a champion of his chosen instrument: “I’ve been trying to unapologetically forward the bass.” Said Miller: “He (Clarke) made such a mark at such a young age.”

Bass as a lead instrument? But of course: Clarke, bearing Alembics and his upright, Miller, with a souped-up version of his signature ’70s Fender Jazz, and Wooten, with his Foderas, joined by a drummer and keyboardist, turned in a series of jaw-dropping solos and tight, fleet-fingered unison and harmony lines on material from the trio’s 2008 Thunder album.

Funk was the musical flavor du jour, although a few walking bass lines and swing beats slipped into the mix. At various points, Miller quoted “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Clarke threw in a Return to Forever reference. The three co-leaders — all of whom played four-string instruments for the set — drew from a wide range of techniques, popping and slapping, strumming, chording, tapping, and bringing the fingerfunk. It all added up to a display that was long on virtuosity if, well, short on high contrast.

The next night at Theatre Jean-Duceppe meant a more nuanced, if similarly high-intensity performance by Clarke, leading a quartet of musicians — pianist Ruslan Sirota, guitarist Charles Altura, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. — heard on 2010’s The Stanley Clarke Band.

The band, easily one of the most agile Clarke has led in recent years, opened with fan favorite “No Mystery,” from the 1975 RTF album of the same name, one of several pieces featuring the bassist’s pyrotechnics-loaded, slamming, whole-bass approach to soloing. Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus,” written by one of Clarke’s earliest employers, had him quoting “Summertime.” Then it was on to Paradigm Shift,” which began with what sounded like the riff from “A Love Supreme,” and “3 Wrong Notes,” based on a Charlie Parker progression, and featuring a trading fours section; earlier in the fest, Clarke played both, taken from his Jazz in the Garden CD (2009), with Hiromi. For the encore, the four offered a stunning take on “Song to John,” complete with its familiar leaping unison lines, from Clarke’s beloved third solo album, 1975’s Journey to Love.

Also on June 30, Wooten led his own band through a too brief 75-minute set at Club Soda. Joined by a band with multiple bassists, including fretless six-string monster Steve Bailey, he successfully mixed various strains of funk, fusion, rock and pop. Wooten himself sang the comical “It’s My Life” (“Gonna make me a record/fill it all up with bass”), while impressive singer-keyboardist-drummer Crystal Peterson was out front for Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good,” and “Overjoyed,” and Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy.” Wooten, variously playing bass guitars, an upright and an electric upright throughout the show, went it alone for a typically astonishing solo medley, linking the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.”

Lesson learned from all the bass-heavy shows: You can never have too much bass, particularly when delivered by the right hands.

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