2005, I’ve been lending an ear to the career of Montreal
jazz pianist Julie Lamontagne, but until quite recently had not
been able to reconcile recording and performance with the significant
praise and reputation she has won. Far too often, her playing
reminded me of a race driver driving the flawless race, who suddenly
looses concentration and ends up in the wall – or worse.
At other times, as a soloist or with her long-established trio,
she seemed preoccupied with damage control or a technical challenge,
too concentrated on getting through a landscape instead of revealing
its contours and beauty. I also found her right hand a bit heavy.
In short, there were simply too many occasions were I couldn’t
find Lamontagne in her music which was reason enough to leave
her time to find herself.
forward to the 2012 Montreal
International Jazz Festival
, and the city’s celebrated Upstairs
jazz club, where Lamontagne performed selections from her
latest CD, Opusjazz (Justin
Time), which represents a return to her classical
roots. Not only has she emphatically found herself, she has entered
-- if only inadvertently -- into the public domain a new way of
thinking about music.
her earliest years, Lamontagne was immersed in classical music,
but after attending a concert by the great Oliver Jones she switched
to jazz in her mid to late teens. However, her musical mother
tongue and first love remain classical, to which she returns to
after a long hiatus, but with a new angle: she wants to integrate
classical music with the more open-ended structure of jazz, leaving
herself room to improvise. The result is Opusjazz, a
music that is at once daring and unique, and of considerable merit,
notwithstanding that it will probably generate considerable discussion
for example, a Chopin Ballad (“Chopinerie”) and uses
the music’s melodies and emotional underpinnings as a springboard
for her own expression, at which point she seamlessly and sympathetically
launches into an extended improvisation, which might resemble
a cadenza (the set part in a concerto that allows for ‘unstructured’
improvisation), or the kind of improv that proceeds from a fixed
motif within the music. Opusjazz will satisfy those for
whom improvisation and composition are equal partners deserving
of equal attention.
listeners will first discover in Lamontagne’s thoughtful
and wholly convincing arrangements is the performer herself, totally
secure and serene in the new territory she has staked out. They
will also discover a die-hard romantic for whom the music she
has chosen is the flesh and blood extension of feelings and passions
she lays bare with uncanny honesty and delicacy. The technical
control that she now exhibits is the logical outcome of having
something to say and perforce, having to say it: control begins
in the mind.
as I know she is more or less alone in what she’s doing,
in part because so few musicians are equally at home in both the
classical and jazz idioms. To even consider such a project presupposes
not only belief in one’s creative faculties, but that the
rewrite is strong enough to stand comparison with the original.
For what takes place from one selection to the next is that Lamontagne
stops playing the composer and plays herself, which leaves her
open to the accusation of hubris, since she is making the case
that her improvisations and arrangements deserve to be on the
same page as the original. In this same vein, it should be mentioned
that another notable Canadian jazz pianist, François
Bourassa, also uses classical music as a point
of departure for his improvisations, but his is an original music
and it can only be compared to itself, which makes it a near or
no risk affair.
such a bold project there will be unintended effects. Even though
Lamontagne does not repeat her improvisations or inventions from
one performance to the next, the recorded version plays the exact
same notes every time and will come to be regarded as pure composition.
Invariably, comparisons will be made between the original and
the rewrite. The project will be judged successful or not according
to the listener’s stated preference, unless both are regarded
as equally valid, just as on certain occasions I might prefer
Louis and Ella doing “April in Paris,” and on other
occasions Mel Torme’s version.
not predict how I’ll feel about Opusjazz in six
months from now, but right now, after many listenings, I prefer
Lamontagne’s version of the third Debussy “Pour le
piano” (track #10 on the CD). I think it is brilliantly
inventive and more than worthy of repetition, which makes me both
sad and mad that she will never play it again, for reasons that
bear directly on the tyrannical protocol that consigns to oblivion
some of jazz's greatest moments. Most jazz musicians consider
it infra dig (beneath their dignity) to repeat even a
sequence of a solo (à la Diana Krall) from one performance
to the next. I can only suggest that jazz has regrettably prejudiced
Lamontagne against composition, a point I insist she address in
our interview (next
unintended effect is the possibility that listeners will not only
embrace the Lamontagne paradigm, but will stimulate a more general
demand to creatively tinker with if not rewrite the classics,
which up until now have been stored and scored in stone.
audiences who aren’t familiar with classical music, they
will listen to and evaluate Lamontagne’s compositions as
complete works unto themselves, with no objective reference.
discovering from one listening to the next that I’m quickly
coming to accept the music on its own terms, that the melodies
and emotions they flatter are no longer exclusive to either the
original composer or Lamontagne. For this reason, I judge Lamontagne’s
novel approach to the classics to be an undisputed success. She
has shown herself capable of compelling invention without compromising
what is eternal in the original.
already very much looking forward to her next set of -- not variations
on a theme -- improvisations on a theme, which represents a fresh
new way of looking at and listening to classical music.
concerned that my enthusiasm for Lamontagne’s classically
inspired improvisations will wane when she returns to pure jazz?
The short answer is yes. I’m now persuaded that Julie Lamontagne
is a romantic at heart, and the jazz idiom cannot adequately accommodate
her romanticism. For sure, she is also an adventurer, which explains
her attraction to jazz, the fact of which predicts she’ll
be making her home in both worlds for the indeterminate future.