For its 2018 edition, the Off Festival has reduced the number of foreign performers in its program to a bare minimum. Yet this does not compromise its will to include ambitious undertakings in its slate of 22 concerts running from Oct. 4 to 13.
The festival opens at the Lion d’Or with the 20-strong Ratchet Orchestra of composer and bassist Nicolas Caloia. This performance will top off a week of intense work for the band, with several rehearsals followed by a three-day recording session for its next recording, scheduled for a late-winter release. Among the dozen pieces in its repertoire, half are recent additions, two of which will feature a vocalist, Kim Zombik. To hear the cream of Montreal’s creative musicians live, the Ratchet Orchestra is second to none in that department. Both the singer and bassist form a duo called Silverest, which will perform the next evening (Oct. 5) at Dièse Onze.
Right after that duo, drummer John Hollenbeck, featured in last month’s section, will make his second festival appearance in a special carte blanche performance. Early this year, the musician proposed a series of projects the organizers, who seized immediately on one of them: creating a band of local players. For this occasion he has put together a rather unusual lineup consisting of alto saxophonist Erik Hove and trumpeter Simon Millerd, to which he has added Terri Hiron (on live electronics and sound processing) and Pierre Hébert, a filmmaker who generates visual imagery live on screen. At this writing the leader had yet to establish the framework of the performance but promises two very contrasting sets.
Eight days later (Oct. 13), Hollenbeck will take part in the festival’s closing act, this time under the leadership of saxophonist Samuel Blais. This will be an atypical group as well, as it will be rounded out by the prominent guitarist Ben Monder and, as second drummer, Dan Weiss. These are the only New York guests this year.
Of all concerts on the bill, the one under the nominal leadership of saxophonist Jean-Pierre Zanella may well be the most ambitious this year. Entitled Feliciano’s Dilemma, this is a large-scale work of some 75 minutes composed by Mike Ryan, a native Australian trumpeter and resident of Brazil for more than 30 years. Zanella states that he first met this musician in Rio six years ago, and played with him subsequently, including a performance of this very work in the fall of 2017. The score is quite complex, with references to jazz, free improvisation, contemporary classical, even nods to the musical traditions of that land.
The cast for this show, held on Oct. 12, comprises jazz players, a string quartet and the composer, on hand to conduct the rehearsals and perform with the group. Finally, there will be images projected on a wide screen that night and pre-recorded spoken word (in Portuguese) by the dedicatee of the piece, who recollects his mixed feelings of being away from his country for a long period.
End of an Era
Now a year shy of its 20th anniversary, Montreal’s Off Jazz Festival has reached an important juncture. Since its inception in Y2K, it has overcome several hurdles, some of which could have led to its demise. True, it has made a few sacrifices, but never at the expense of its mission to showcase the most creative artists on our scene.
While the festival can thank its lucky stars to be still around, it has sallied forth thanks to some good management. Credit here must go to its administrative coordinator Jean-Jules Pilote. In spite of countless turnovers in the programming committee, Pilote has been its lynchpin for the last 17 years, seeing it through from its second edition to the current one. However, time has now come for him bow out and pass the torch to a successor.
By the time of his move to Montreal in 2000, Pilote had worked in a similar capacity in the city of Jonquière, taking care of business at a local festival of creative music. During his tenure, he got to know several invited performers from Montreal, among them members of the newly created Off Festival, who brought him into their fold. Over the years, he saw the event through all of its growing pains, including early runs overlapping the big jazz fest, its first move preceding that event in 2006 and finally its rescheduling four years later to its current fall spot, this brought on by the staging of the Francofolies in its previous slot.
This was by far the most difficult hardship for the festival, its future cast in doubt after a drop of ticket sales by half from the previous year. Not only did it pull through, it found a way to prop up its future. In 2013, it started a crowdfunding initiative that netted $8,000. This sum was invested in the Placement Culture fund created by the provincial government, which matched it with twice the amount for a total of $24,000. After having cashed in some of the monies accrued two years ago, the balance is now tucked away until the next payout in five years.
With respect to his job, Pilote notes in passing that the position is a seasonal one that has kept him on the task for six months per annum. A year ago, he made up his mind to leave but stayed till now, working more in a consultant capacity and assisting an interim coordinator, Raphaël Delahaye, previously an assistant. When looking at years past and asked about personal highlights, he found the 2016 festival particularly strong from a programming point of view.
As for memorable concerts, he hesitates at first, stating there have been simply too many, only to mention one in particular that vividly impressed him, the trio performance of Marianne Trudel with the heavy-duty American rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake. As for future plans, Pilote says he is not ready to let the cat out of the bag. Whatever his plans may be, we only wish him well, and the festival, too, in its coming search for a worthy successor.