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Ace of Bass (part one): the song cycle 

A number of years ago, living in Toronto, I bought a ticket for a Miles Davis concert at Roy Thomson Hall. Miles's career at that time had spanned more than three decades and the audience filing in the hall reflected that span. Old men leaning on their canes hoping to hear Miles from the big band era (no chance) mingled with the somewhat younger Miles crowd from the 52nd Street bebop era, the even younger Kind Of Blue cult, the still younger Bitches Brewsters to the funk-jazz rock teens and guys like me, a few years older, into anything Miles tried and played.

You could just tell by the set-up on-stage that thepre-jazz funk audience members were going to be in for a massive shock to their nervous systems. Amps galore. More little red lights than a Who concert. Banks of percussion. Yessir. A real shock to the system. I couldn't wait.

The band took the stage. Plugged in. The drummer counted them in and suddenly a wall of polyrhythmic funk displaced the room's oxygen.Miles took his time coming out. When he did, I had been already in heaven, trying not to air-piano along with the grooves. Miles, tricked out in a cherry-red leather jacket, shark-skin shiny black and gold harem pants, Cuban-heeled red boots, a curved expanse of purple shades beneath a fall of wavy hair (a wig) that sparkled like sequins, curved forward into his classic bent waist pose and blew a cascade of sharp clear notes into the maelstrom of sound the band was creating.

Two numbers in and the hall had been cleared ofeveryone not into Miles' latest incarnation. Their loss. I moved forward into the prime seats area and had an upscaled blast.

Why I bring this up is that the same thing happened when Pierre Cartier presented in the jazz tent late Wednesday afternoon, a riveting cycle of six love (in its many manifestations) songs called: Chansons de la Esperance. Lyrics were taken from poems written by celebrated Quebec poets which Cartier had set to music. Into the second song, much of the audience had up and left, leaving a corporal's guard to enjoy the rest of the music. Their loss.

The band was made up of some of the most extraordinary Montreal musicians you're ever likely to hear. And they masterfully performed musical magic to give full-value to Cartier's moving, inventively challenging and dramatic compositions. Players included cheeky penguin-shaped funster, reed player Jean Derome, tall, muscular, hip jokester, trombonist Tom Walsh, drummer (and acerbic folksinger Louden Wainright - Rufus's father - look-alike) Pierre Tanguay, wiry viola player Jean Rene whose thatch of brushed-back iron gray hair and heavy black-framed glasses made him look more like a professor of Chaucerian studies than a jazzer, and young, boyishly handsome guitar whiz Bernard Falaise. What a stellar support for the brilliant Cartier, who himself bears a passing resemblance to that of a young Ed Harris - the American film actor.

Cartier set the tone (bitter-sweet) at the start with a sensitive solo bass interpretation of Autumn Leaves before letting it morph into the first song - La Belle Esperance. Cartier sang in an affectless baritone over arrangements that echoed the moodily haunting soundtracks of film noir classics. Soaring solos, often contrasting moments of carefree hopeful bravura with lowdown growling ruminations on love's misadventures were startlingly punctuated by drum shots and pawp, pawp pawp sounds from Derome's alto. Pistol fire? I wondered.

Every piece was structured like a complete story. Beginning, middle and ends; compleat with nifty twists and unexpected turns. Cartier sang in French (spoken explanatory intros in English) and fleshed out the narratives with evocative ensemble writing and character soloing. By way of example of how skillful this was, here is a briefdescription of the last song. The setting? The Louvre. In a room of Egyptian artifacts, a young couple, holding hands, stops to look at a small wooden statue half eaten away by worms. Thisobject offers, in their minds, a metaphor on the nature of love. Is love something that can endure despite being beset by pests or ravaged by time? Or by both?

The music began in unison stating an oriental theme. Then the guitar changed up things by injecting a chilling ostinato (repeated figure of notes) over a bed of chattering drum riffs. Cartier then sang a wrenchingly beautiful love melody which also brought in the full band. Later, a Debussy-esque flute and bass duet turned into a reiteration of the original theme, only this time as a fugue. This expanded into a mid-tempo almost rollicking full band workout having a good time with the song's melody when suddenly, an abrupt change of mood. The guitar, heavily suited-up in distortion effects, screamed into a Hendrix-like stinging solo crescendo, rising to a full dischordant sonic roar, pixilated by fireworks explosions on the cymbals. It was all I could do to hang on. And, just as abruptly, the music stopped: the song cycle concluded. But the song's catchy love theme continued to echo in my ears. Clever. And absolutely stunning.

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