REVIEW: George Cables at Upstairs (2017 Montreal Jazz Festival)

The afternoon sound check at Upstairs
L-R: George Cables, Essiet Essiet, Andre White


George Cables Trio 
(Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill. 5 July 2017. Montreal Jazz Festival. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

There are very good reasons why a club such as Upstairs in MacKay Street in Montreal chooses to have a piano quite as good as the new Steinway that they acquired in late 2015. Because, when a musician with the sheer inventiveness, subtlety of touch and glorious pianism of George Cables comes to town, he can be heard to best advantage. This was my last night at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival, and having interviewed both Cables and bassist Essiet Essiet earlier in the day (podcasts of both will follow), it was pure pleasure to hear them playing in this ideal and intimate situation.

A standard like Just Friends, the opener,  might seem over-familiar, but the way Cables propels it is extraordinary. He sets a bright tempo, introduces a repeated ostinato figure working within the tune. And then the miracles begin. A cascade, a readily flowing sequence of ideas from a bottomless well of inspiration and memory just pours forth. Cables guides the listener by starting each sentence, each paragraph, with something new: a shape, a rhythmic figure, a scalar pattern. The magic is that nothing ever comes across as a cliché, everything is fresh and full of life. Cables has a predilection for figures and patterns which are shorter or longer than the bar, which develop their own cross-rhythmic momentum but are eventually, smoothly, brought back to the basic pulse. In McCoy Tyner's You Taught My Heart to Sing in particular, Cables had a special way of finding the beauty in all that asymmetry.

The most remarkable episode in the set was Cables' solo exploration and unknotting of Monk's Round Midnight. It was a masterclass in counterpoint. And then there is a delightful routine where Cables sometimes keeps playing between the tunes while the trio partners find their sheet music and momentarily take a back seat. That is not to devalue their contribution. Essiet Essiet has been Cables' preferred bassist for a long time, and his artistry and humanity come across strongly. Essiet told me in the interview that Ron Carter, with that sense of coming from deep, had inspired him. But when he steps forward as soloist he has astonishing facility. It was particularly the case in All the Things You Are. Essiet is one of those players whose shifts up and down the fingerboard are so fast and accurate the hand is moving too fast for the eye to catch. (Linda Oh is another player who does that).

Cables' regular drummer, Victor Lewis, had gone down with flu the previous day, so drummer André White from the Montreal scene(*) had stepped in, and proved a strong foil for the others, a subtle and resourceful accompanist who also made the most of his solo moments. In Cables' trio setting, the repeat-ostinato requires the drummer to surface and to emerge only gradually, almost imperceptibly as soloist, and White had a deft way of doing what was needed, and asserting himself progressively and gradually.

There are special, unforgettable five-star nights to be had in small jazz clubs. And this was quite definitely one of those.

(*) This review originally stated that André White was from Ottawa, thanks to Peter Hum for putting us right.

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