Miles Davis once famously referred to a great gig as the most fun he'd had with his clothes on. I'm not sure if any of my live musical experiences reached that level this year, with the possible exception of the second half of a show I saw Sonny Rollins give, but there were more than a few moments of delight at various venues and in various genres.
Myra Melford's Be Bread Quintet – Portland Jazz Festival: I dropped into this show after it had started and was immediately transported. I love Myra Melford's compositions and have heard them in several settings – including a smaller version of this group – but this show was definitely on another level. I've long been a fan of trumpeter Cuong Vu, but seldom have I heard him this focused and creative. It's a cliche that critics often gather in a bar after a show and try to top each other with their observations, but this show slayed everyone. Given that another band of Myra's – Trio M – also topped my 'best of' list of 2007 tells you all you need to know about how good her songbook is and what kind of level she's playing on. If you are not a convert, do yourself a favour and check her out in 2009.
Maria Schneider Orchestra – Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival: I ran into members of the band at lunch and outside the venue before the show began and heard about the grueling tour schedule they were following as they criss-crossed the European festival circuit. Add that kind of background to a venue that is normally a small-town basketball arena and you could be excused if you lowered your expectations a notch or two. But this is Maria Schneider, one of the most-determined musicians on the contemporary scene, and a set of material that I gave top marks to in a DownBeat review. Given those factors, it's probably no surprise that this was a captivating performance, gorgeously nuanced, with numerous highlights, including stunning work by Ingrid Jensen on one of my favourite Schneider compositions, "The 'Pretty' Road."
Kathleen Edwards – Ottawa Bluesfest: It must be so hard to be a star from here – from anyplace, probably. You can never be as big, as exciting, as 'foreign', as you seem anywhere else but in your hometown. I'd seen Ottawa native Kathleen Edwards once before on a large stage – on a cold, rainy night when she was just starting to get noticed by David Letterman and Saturday Night Live – and was decidedly underwhelmed. I blame myself, because I think I had bought into the hype surrounding Edwards as someone who had been influenced by Lucinda Williams. So here she was back in her hometown, on an even bigger stage, just a couple of nights after a performance by Williams herself. Edwards killed. Playing a superb set of songs from her album Asking For Flowers, she was disarmingly self-deprecating yet so obviously at home on the big stage that it was immediately clear what people around the world see when she comes to their town.
Charles Lloyd Quartet – Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival: Although his new live album with his current quartet ended up on my 'top 10' list for 2008, there were parts of it that left me a bit cold. Not so with this late-afternoon set in Vitoria's beautiful Art Deco theatre. Maybe it was because Lloyd avoided a lot of the 'Coltrane-lite' playing that tends to undercut his more creative playing, or just because his stellar band – pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland – sounded so much better live. Whatever the reason, this was one of those shows you wish was twice as long as it was. Harland did some stuff on his hi-hat that I'm still trying to figure out, and Moran's splay-fingered playing was so funky that Lloyd started dancing in place. Yes, sure, everything sounds better on a sunny afternoon in the Basque Region; but this set would rank if you'd heard it anywhere.
Daniel Lanois – Centrepointe Theatre, Ottawa: I'm such a sucker for rootsy music played by a four-piece band with two electric guitars. Unlike Edwards, local boy Lanois has little to prove when he comes home; after all, he made his name first in Hamilton and then in Dublin, New Orleans and Silver Lake, California with artists including Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and U2. He doesn't need to play the homeboy card, and yet there is an added poignancy to shows played in the area where he grew up and continues to have numerous relatives. This was a low-intensity show, yet it seemed to glow like a hot coal with tremendous songwriting, stage presence and band communication on display. In addition, I hate to sound like a 50-something suck, but damn I love to hear a great show in a small, soft-seat venue.
The Bad Plus – Portland Jazz Festival: Like Myra Melford, The Bad Plus makes the list for the second consecutive year. Almost the same set, but a completely different venue. Where the 2007 show I caught was a sonically perfect one in a large, soft-seat venue, this one was an all-ages gig in a funky, old ballroom with a spring-loaded dancefloor. I'm completely compromised on this show since I was on some panel discussions with the band members and hung out with them in Portland – so be it, but my critical faculties were still in place, and this show rocked the joint.
Other notable shows from 2008...
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Montreal
Andy Milne playing solo in Ottawa
Cecil Taylor in Portland
Wayne Shorter in Vitoria-Gasteiz
Ornette Coleman in Portland
Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project in Ottawa