Updated August 27, 2013
Orchestre national de jazz Montréal
Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, Place des Arts
Montreal Jazz Festival
Saturday, July 6, 2013 – 9:30 p.m.

Montreal has a wealth of big bands, and an abundance of musicians accustomed to performing in big bands. Vic Vogel, Christine Jensen, Joe Sullivan, and Lorraine Desmarais: all those prominent musicians lead big bands. Plus there's the Montreal All-City Big Band, and many university and high school jazz bands. More than in most cities, there's a culture of enjoying large-scale jazz music.

And now there's another: the Orchestre national de jazz Montréal, which had its debut performance at the 2013 Montreal Jazz Festival, and which is scheduled to play monthly concerts at L'Astral starting in September.

The 16-piece orchestra is led by Christine Jensen, and includes a fine selection of Montreal jazz musicians, all but three of whom I recognized. It aims to provide “jazz creators with a permanent place where they can fully express their talent and creativity”, as well as to present the wide range of orchestral jazz music being written around the world.

Its inaugural concert started with three pieces by Quebec jazz composers – Jensen, Jean-Nicolas Trottier, and Marianne Trudel – each about 15 minutes long. Each was rearranged to take advantage of the greater number of voices in this band; there was much interplay in the arrangements, particularly in Trottier's piece. Frank Lozano's hard-edged saxophone started it off, but then a wide variety of instruments (notably André Leroux's flute) added considerable texture and layering to the thoughtful piece.

I had heard the other two pieces earlier in the week, played by their composers in much smaller groups. These versions allowed their themes to be explored more deeply, and I enjoyed hearing Samuel Blais give his intense version of the alto sax part that Jensen would normally play in her piece. However, I felt both pieces lost some immediacy and emotional impact in the longer, expanded versions.

And, more unfortunately, all three pieces sounded far too alike: too similar in tone, tempo, and length, and each complex enough to be difficult to absorb all together. If they had been separated by shorter, more up-tempo pieces, they might have captured the audience's interest more.

At the intermission, a noticeable number of audience members left – which was a great pity, because the second half of the concert was much more crowd-pleasing.

The John Coltrane piece which opened the second set, “Africa/Brass Sessions”, was designed to allow André Leroux to shine on tenor sax – and he certainly did. The arrangement, by trumpeter Bill Mahar, had Leroux moving from deep bass notes to intense high notes and strongly propelling the whole piece forward. But he was supported by the entire orchestra, and Trudel also shone with a taut, accented piano solo. Near the end, the orchestra was in full flight, and then quietened to let Leroux take one last exploratory solo, ending with a few notes popped out.

Next came four Joni Mitchell songs, sung by Quebec vocalist Karen Young, which were the highlight of the evening. Young has a superbly expressive voice, warm and clear, and coordinated well with the orchestra.

They started with “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, the Charles Mingus tune for which Mitchell wrote knife-edge-beautiful and unsentimental lyrics. Young sang them simply, caressing the beautiful melody. Alexandre Côté provided a fine, grumbly solo on baritone sax, and the song ended with the full orchestra playing a single note and letting it die out.

That song was an obvious choice: the other three weren't, but they ended up working well together. Jensen explained how she had once been landed with writing an arrangement for “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” (also from the Mingus album) for a concert when Mitchell was in the audience. Mitchell hated her arrangement; this concert was her chance to redo it, Jensen said. It started with a full fanfare, and then Young delivered the absurd lyrics in full syncopated style. It was a brassy, high-energy piece, with Young's scatting contrasting with soprano and tenor sax solos, and sounded great.

Next came “Tin Angel”, from Mitchell's second album, Clouds. I have always thought of this song as such a classic folk-guitar-and-voice piece, that it was initially difficult to imagine it in a jazz context. Marianne Trudel's arrangement muted the brass and woodwinds, using them mostly as texture and background. Instead, Rémi-Jean Leblanc started the piece with slow, echoing notes on double bass, with Trudel's piano picking up the melody and adding bright accents. Young sang slowly and sadly, with exact diction, and the result was something far darker and more dramatic than Mitchell's recorded version. It was greeted with strong, and well-deserved, applause.

Last was “Black Crow”, from Hejira, arranged by Leblanc. (Oddly enough, I had never seen Leblanc before this festival, but he and his electric and double bass seemed to be practically omni-present, playing in at least four ensembles I heard and acquitting himself well in all. I was impressed with his range, from Latin to straight-ahead to big band, and I hope to hear more of him.)

This was much more up-tempo piece, starting with a bright fanfare and hard drumming, then tenor saxophone and trumpets, before Young entered with fluid, swinging vocals. It was a dramatic arrangement, featuring flowing saxophone solos and strong ensemble playing from trumpets and trombones, while still allowing space for Young to deliver the lyrics and add some scatting. The sound built to a large fanfare before ending – and the audience responded with a standing ovation.

There was a lot to praise in this concert: good ensemble playing, some fine arrangements, excellent solos which didn't over-dominate the ensemble, and superb vocals. It simply wasn't paced well: too much was shoved in (the concert lasted 2 1/4 hours in total) and, except in the Joni Mitchell section, the adjoining pieces didn't complement each other. I would have liked to hear any one of the first three pieces, plus the Coltrane, plus several more Mitchell songs.

But these are teething problems, and I expect that this winter's concerts will allow this new orchestra to learn how it can best meet its mandate, and present challenging and audience-pleasing concerts.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list

Set 1:

  1. Blue Yonder – Christine Jensen
  2. Evolution Suite – Jean-Nicolas Trottier
  3. Possibilités et Limitations – Marianne Trudel

Set 2:

  1. Africa/Brass Sessions (excerpts) – John Coltrane
  2. Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat – Charles Mingus (music), Joni Mitchell (lyrics)
  3. The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines – Joni Mitchell
  4. Tin Angel – Joni Mitchell
  5. Black Crow – Joni Mitchell

Update August 27: The Orchestre announced its first monthly concert today: Thursday, September 19, at L'Astral, featuring the music of Thad Jones and of Jean-Nicolas Trottier, who will also be the guest musical director.

See also: