Jazz gems found in intimate venues

by Irwin Block
Published July 1st 2011 in The Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL – The most memorable and meaningful jazz experiences can often be found not at the main and much bigger jazz festival venues, but below-ground, in the intimacy of Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill on Mackay St.

On Wednesday, we heard the keyboard poetry of Kenny Werner. He is wise and lyrical, whether transforming standards (Sound of Music, What is this Thing Called Love) into something unique and personal, or roaming the piano in free improv, expressing a positive, but never schmaltzy worldwiew.

Alto sax master Rémi Bolduc sat in for a couple of tunes, including a gorgeous You, and the Night and the Music, and stayed on to take part in the late-night jam with Jeff Johnston at the piano. There is nothing like a jam session in an intimate setting, ‘round about midnight’, to stimulate musicians and enthrall a core audience.

We heard the inventive trombonist Mike Fahey (Darcy James Argue Secret Society), up and coming vocalist May Cheung and Israeli expat Tevet Sela blow challenging lines on his tough alto sax. The session was so strong that Upstairs boss Joel Giberovitch extended the jam session to include Friday July 1 and Saturday July 2.

On Thursday night, we discovered the John Benitez Group, featuring Cuban-born alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry. In a two-hour set, the group – led by bassist Benitez, with his son Francis Benitez Martinez (drums), Manuel Valera (piano), Tom Guarna (guitar), Manuel Valera (piano) – performed with passion and Latin verve a program of originals in multi-genre styles.

We hear montuno and rock rhythmic patterns, bebop and post-bop lines, modal development and extended solos that were virtual compositions. Most impressive was pianist Valera, who roams the keyboard with apparently effortless ease, weaving captivating melodies and textures. Guitarist Guarna is a marvelous soloist who plays everything from bebop to fusion with confidence and breathtaking skill. This group deserves the highest profile in contemporary jazz, and at future festivals.

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