For a long time Big Band stood as the highest compositional challenge in jazz music. Artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Thad Jones drove the evolution of jazz from a small scale New Orleans operation to the more grandiose genre of swing. The idea of expanding the size of the ensemble gave the composer a much wider pallet of sound. Lead trumpets played notes louder and higher than ever before while super-sax sections played in perfect unison at blazing tempos. This compositional medium continues today with the likes of Maria Schneider and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra incorporating more modern tonal structures into the big band idiom. The Orchestre National de Jazz Montréal seeks to continue the long legacy of big band with their interpretation of classic Ellington suites as well as more modern works. On tap for this weekend was an album release show for Montreal’s own Philippe Côté featuring New York sax player David Binney. Côté’s new album Lungta was influenced heavily by Binney who produced the work and has also spent time mentoring Côté. The epic event spanned roughly two and a half hours with Côté’s lavish compositions never letting up, continuously seeking the bigger and grander.
Philippe Côté’s compositional abilities were the main focus of the evening. Each piece was truly massive with quiet melodies building up into walls of sound through a slew of different sonic varieties. His meticulous way of combining styles kept the entire ensemble busy. Horn players were constantly altering their mutes and switching back and forth between trumpet and flugal horn. The saxophone players complimented Binney’s playing quite well and also engaged in bright lines that filled L’Astral to the brim. The concert did feel a bit long. Although each song played out slightly differently, a good amount of them ended up in the same place: really loud melodies culminating in a really loud chord. This format worked for the first hour, but a second hour could have used more contrasting song forms. I also felt like Côté didn’t expose the full potential of vocalist Mireille Boily, mostly using her to double one of the instrumental melodies. The night could have used more subtle songs to contrast the heavy handed songwriting approach. Also, Côté could have done more to provide an intimate aesthetic to the evening. Perhaps a portion of the night should have been dedicated to the feature artists accompanied by rhythm section, which would have made for more variety when contrasted by the explosive power of the full ensemble.
The night would have been incomplete without David Binney who stunned crowds with his high intensity solos. A prolific pillar of the New York jazz scene, Binney has epitomized the contemporary sax sound. The night began with a quite sax trio. Binney’s beautiful sound sat gloriously atop the background built by two of the band’s sax players. His quite improvised moments matched the clarity of the beginning of the concert before building into bigger moments. Whenever Binney’s playing sped up to more crowded lines, it almost felt like he was playing something previously composed. Every note was perfectly selected and executed in a way indicative of his dedication to the art form. As Binney built up into the climactic moment of each song, each second felt like the highest possible level of energy until it was overtaken by the next and whenever he finally reached his climactic points, the effect on the crowd was always sheer amazement.
Despite the showcase of a high level of talent, I couldn’t help but thinking that the night did not seek to truly push the envelope. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the mentality of The Plant and FONT Music Canada, but the overall feeling evoked at L’Astral was comparable to that of a night at the Symphony Orchestra. The band was clad in suits and the explosive ending of each song felt more or less expected. Obviously the sounds of the night are not as concretely composed as typical classical repertoire, however, the Big Band idiom proves to be very much bound to its past. The audience has come to expect a powerful trumpet player and a couple saxophone players who can play a bunch of really fast melodic lines. A feature soloist is more or less comparable to a feature violinist. Also, the compositions didn’t take a whole lot of risk placing higher value on bright, digestible contemporary sounds than on individuality and expression.
The night was impressive. Every musician gave it their all and the music was played at an extremely high intensity level. My issue is that this concert could have easily happened 20 years ago and it seems like the jazz community now mirrors the classical community where music that can be classified as a tribute to the past receives the most patronage and the contemporary artists struggle to get their pieces heard. Then again this might be more of a reflection of society. Music does not necessarily have to be as groundbreaking as possible all the time and an audience is not always conditioned to hear forward-thinking sounds, however, a musician has no business insulting the “old-fashioned” mentality of the classical music idiom when big band concerts can be just as predictable.
-Review by Donovan Burtan