Festival International de Jazz de Montréal Montréal, Canada June 28-July 7, 2012 From the time of the airplane's descent to the airport in Montréal, I knew something was different and perhaps special about this place. Instead of a square or rectangular grid style of suburban housing plots, from my window I saw circular formations of housing, many with swimming pools in the back yards.
That's a cool design for a neighborhood, I thought. Similar ideas would come to mind often during my sojourn at the Montréal Jazz Festival, celebrating its 33rd year over ten days, June 28 through July 7, 2012.
After exchanging U.S. greenbacks for Canadian currency at the airport, and getting adjusted to being greeted with "Bonjour!" I saw the young people assigned to round up musicians and others attending the festival in an official capacity. They directed me to a van that would take us downtown to our lodgings near the festival grounds.
I had the pleasure of riding with a group of musicians from Paris, the band of singer Nina Attal, a young lady making waves on the European funk scene. This was their third time playing in Montréal for the Festival International De Jazz De Montréal, the largest such event in the world. I sat next to Bruno Pimienta, a thin cat with a laidback manner sporting a beard. We struck up a conversation, and after revealing my secret identity as a jazz journalist he said to feel free to call him "Spicy." He regaled me with the names of jazz musicians he admired: saxophonist Steve Coleman
from 1963, or thereabouts. He says it then "clicked" for him, and he began to investigate jazz.
My first impression of Montréal and the people here is that, just as I've heard and read, it's very clean and the people nice, at least on the surface. As a New Yorker used to the hustle and bustle and the often brusque manner of my native New York countrymen and women, this was as pleasant a surprise as moving to Westchester and discovering that motorists will stop and let you go by, even if they have the right of way.
But the kind of "nice" is different than the Southern hospitality of my kinfolk in Georgia and Florida. The vibe I'm talking about I sensed from the festival staff, at the hotel, in stores, and the like: very, very cordial. And in the case of the media relations team, incredibly accommodating and willing to go the extra mile. The air of the patrons of the festival and those just walking the streets was quite relaxed, good for an urban guy like me needing relief from stress. The cultural vibe is French, what with most people speaking that Romance language and crêpes joints as frequent as churches and liquor stores are in Harlem.
I knew something had been missing in my life. Turns out it was crêpes with strawberries and Nutella.
I found the setup for the festival in downtown Montréal a wonder to behold, with numerous outdoor stages (Scéne TD being the largest), and smaller tents with vendors well-spaced, and jazz fest info booths close by. I overheard the Artistic Director of the festival, André Ménard, say that on this particular day (the third of the ten-day festival) 50,000 people were present, yet it didn't seem overcrowded. Vendors were not on top of each other as I've found oftentimes at festivals in New York Cityespecially street festivals.
In New York, it's as if some festival organizers view vendors as grocery merchandisers do, with a mind toward optimal usage of space for profit. Hence, pack 'em in. In Montréal, the vendors and the performance spaces breathe, as they should for an event where sophisticated, family friendly music such as jazz is the central form.
But, yes, there were all sorts of groups present throughout the festival. Quite a few, in fact, performed music not primarily jazz. But you'd either have to be very young or have one's head under a rock to not know that jazz festivals have, since at least the 1950s, included acts from other genresespecially more popular genresto draw larger crowds. No shock there.
Yet, shockingly beautiful was the Place des Arts, the major performing arts center of Montréal, Quebec. The inside design is breathtaking in its elegance, its particular combination of form and function. As I walked to witness a duo performance by singer/pianist Patricia Barber
, on the left I saw a male bassist and female pianist-singer in the Place Deschamps; on the right was an art gallery, the Galerie Lounge TD, featuring works inspired by music, jazz in particular. Artists such as Richard Séguin, Yves Archambault, Diane Dufresene, Marcel Barbeau had featured works, as did Anthony Benedetto (Tony Bennett
As I kept walking, I saw an installation of video art that transfixed my attention. I came to discover that the various hallsfrom the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to the Théâtre Maisonneuverival the best in the States, including Carnegie and Lincoln Center.
Patricia Barber and Kenny Werner
The acoustics of each hall differs. The best, perhaps, is the Maison Symphonique de Montréal, completed last year as the home of the Montréal Symphony. That's where Barber and Werner performed together, both playing piano, with Barber singing witty and sensitive melodies with gentility. She wore no shoes. After hearing her originals, it became clear that she was barefoot and intellectually pregnant.
The two artists took pleasure in sharing their simpatico with the hushed audience. Both engaged in percussive play occasionally, reaching into the keyboard strings with one hand to create a thudding sound effect with the other. Werner would, at times, rock back and forth in bliss, before unleashing a torrent of notes. At others, he leaned forward in Hampton Hawes
-like fashion, attuned to a muse he and Barber created on the spot.
Barber's sensitivity to the call-and-response interplay with Werner was so acute that she would verbally say "haa" and "ahh" sounds. Her original, "For Company," had lyrics that might excite students of post-modernism:
"for company I like French philosophy
Deconstructive obscurity formalized, canonized and dignified by the university."
I appreciated Barber signifying on the absurd aspects of that important and crucial perspective. Yet without a way to integrate with earlier value systems in a comprehensive manner, post-modernism is ultimately a dead-end point-of-view. That it's been all the rage in the American academy in recent decades is undeniable. Of course, this paragraph may ultimately be meaningless since it's all a matter of interpretation . . .
A piece Barber was commissioned to write, "Til' You Call" ("I got a letter and a check in the mail," out of the blue, she said), was touching in its tale of love expected, and (hopefully) not unrequited. Her update of Cole Porter
's "You're the Top" in the second chorus, with political references to President Obama and Democrats, was an example of her wit.
The varied intellectual references found in her lyrics were also evident in "Missing," in which the phrase "post-enlightenment free" was bandied about. These are lyrics for the well-educated. That song is featured on Barber's upcoming Concord date, set for release in early 2013.
The audience was very quiet, and you could feel the intensity of the listening. When the two artists finished, the people in the hall rose up in applause, continuing until the two came back. Barber was still without shoes. They played a meditative encore.
Later that evening, I attended a late-night solo saxophone concert at the GésuCenter De Creativite, an intimate spacewhere, from the outside, you see the remnants of a beautifully designed church. The Gésu Theater would bring me much pleasure during the festival. Not so much this evening. The soloist was the American-born Colin Stetson
, who now lives in Montréal. On alto and bass saxophones, Stetson would establish a groove, and then repeat it constantly through circular breathing. I wondered what electronic recording, if any, he had up there with him, because it didn't seem possible for all of those sounds to come from the horn by itself. (Multiple microphones on the saxophone, I later discovered, is the basis.)
One song sounded like a rock number with Stetson playing various parts. Another repeated phrases á la late-Coltrane, and interpolated variations. I wondered: is this an innovation or a gimmick? (Michael Bourne of WBGO suggested it could be both.) For me, if Stetson found a way to intersperse some bebop, and sound like multiple horns in the manner of, say, Supersax or the World Saxophone Quartet
, while improvising his own lines, I'd likely be more impressed. But I was tired, so only stayed for three songs. (I heard later that he did a touching song about a whale who wanders through the ocean alone because his song call frequencies are abnormal.)
For me, the jury's still out on Stetson's approach. As a solo saxophone demonstration, however, I didn't think it elaborated or refined the profound lessons of Coleman Hawkins
, who have set a standard of solo sax performance yet to be reached.
I began the following morning by interviewing Michael Bourne, whose deep voice has been part of the identity of WBGO, 88.3 FM in Newark, New Jersey for over a quarter century. It was great chatting with someone I've been listening to on the radio since the early 1980s. But what some who recognize his voice on radio may not know is that he's a print journalist of longstanding, too. He's been writing for Downbeat since the late 1960s.
Our discussion took place in the media room on the second floor at the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, located on the corner of Saint Catherine St. and Places des Festivals. In honor of his 20-year relationship with the festival, the press room now bears Bourne's name.
I asked him what makes the Montréal Jazz Festival so special:
"This festival is the best because of the quantity and the quality. All festivals have a character, but everything is here. The people who put this on really understand the interplay of all the musics.
"When people complain about not enough jazz, I say just open your ears, it's there, there, and there," he says pointing left, right and center. "George Wein presented Chuck Berry at Newport in the 1950s, when he was just getting started. These prejudices about the different styles of music are ridiculous."
He continues: "It's the integrity of the people who put this together, the imagination. It's year-round now. They've transformed this city and this street. This is a main artery, and a full-time performance space. . .
"They've done all this with great business sense. But first and foremost, they're people who all love the music. This is the paradigm for all jazz business; there's no jazz business more successful in the world than the Montréal Jazz Festival. And it's non-profit. All the money they make from merchandising goes toward paying the people you see playing in the street for free."
Sixty percent of the concerts are free. It's also the first festival in the world officially recognized as carbon neutral.
"The infrastructure, economically and otherwise, is amazing. They could run a country," Bourne declares without a trace of doubt. "At the end of the night there's so much trash in the street, and the next day it's all gone. A hundred thousand people will be in the streets for these events and I've never seen a fight or trouble at all."
He noted how certain musicians, for instance, Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck
, seem to perform their best in Montréal, in part because of the enthusiasm of the festival's audience. The international flavor of Montréal may even exceed New York's, he added. The stellar press relations team keeps him coming back.
"There's no press corps in the world that comes close to these people. They are so professional, and they get done everything that you need to get done. And they'll make the effort, and if it can't get done, it's not for lack of trying."
I can attest to the truth of this statement. My contact, Vincent Lefebvre, was a model of courtesy, humor, and laidback Montréal charm. He insisted that my wife and I check out the Star Wars exhibit at the Montréal Science Centre in the King Edward Pier in Old Montréal. He gave us comp tickets to seal the deal. By recounting the story and fictional locales of the Star Wars saga, and the main and secondary characters, the exhibit uncovers mysteries and facts about identity in ways both fun and educational.
Considering that 400 or so media from 25 countries report on the festival, the press teams' professionalism deserves mention.
However, the music, of course, remains the biggest magnet for Bourne. "They bring African musicians and Cuban musicians that we don't get to hear in the U.S. And they have all these great Canadian musicians that we never get to hear in the U.S. because it's almost impossible for them to get a worker's permit.
"It's the hallmark of this festival that you end up missing more great music than you hear because there's so much. You'll be walking down the street and all of a sudden something will just grab you. Yesterday it was a kid, a trombone player, all of 17 or so, at the main outdoor stage, playing 'Over The Rainbow.' He was playing the verse with a sound that was so dark and beautiful. You couldn't believe he was a kid with that sound; it was so masterful.
"I'll never forget turning a corner and hearing a group I thought was a bluegrass group, and there was a guy playing a kora. Of course the banjo comes from the kora. Another night I heard some cats, a power rock group like Cream, with a guy playing like Lee Morgan
on 'Sidewinder.' And that was in the street. That happens all day long."
SMV: Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten
On Saturday evening, three titans of the bass guitar took the stage of the Théâtre Maisonneuve after a dramatic light show signaled their entrance. They launched into a funk beat that had the house rockin' from the very start.
, an electric bass innovator, was given the Miles Davis Award. This year he was one of two artists featured in the festival's Invitation series, where a musician performs in various configurations, displaying range of artistic reach. He had performed on opening night with the Japanese piano marvel Hiromi
; he was to play with the Harlem String Quartet on yet another evening.
Tonight, June 30th (which happened to be his 61st birthday,) he played both electric and acoustic bass. His facility on both was a marvel to hear. Yet he seemed to derive as much enjoyment from watching his fellow bassists do their thing as playing himself.
. His sweet and buttery tone projected a technique so virtuosic that you might have thought your ears were deceiving you especially on his feature, "Classical Thump"when in fact it was a high-level demonstration of his famed "double thump" method.
They also performed ballads, with a gentleness usually reserved for behind closed doors. Most of the cuts came from the group's debut funk/fusion recording from 2008, Thunder. (Heads Up)
I happened to run into Miller at the Hyatt hotel in the Quartier Des Spectacles before the concert. Here's his take on the festival: "Usually you've got to travel a long way to experience something on this level. But it's an hour from the States [by plane]. Here you're in the middle of a truly international experience. All festivals reflect the festival director's tastes. Here you get a full picture, not all straight-ahead, or smooth jazz or all funk. It's beautiful."
Dr. Lonnie Smith
The Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill isn't in the Quartier Des Spectacles, where the Place de Arts edifice and most of the other indoor and outdoor venues for the Montréal Jazz Festival are located. Yet as Montréal's most renowned jazz club, running 364 days a year, Upstairs is a comrade-in-arms to the annual event, and is listed in the festival's large program guide.
When I finally arrived at 1254 Rue Mackay, walking downstairs to enter Upstairs, the spirit of the 65-seat club reminded me of the Village Vanguard, Smoke, Small's or that old favorite of musicians, Bradley's. Once you step in, there's a long bar diagonally to the left, small tables with linen cloths, and people eating fine food and drinking refreshments. Pictures of greats local to global adorn the walls, and classic album covers set a standard for which the live musicians can aspire.
Of special note is a section of articles and testimonials devoted to the late Len Dobbin, a much beloved broadcaster and supporter of the music in the Canadian jazz community.
on drums. The turban-wearing organist led by gestures, glances that blossomed into smiles, and a sense of adventure and exploration on a journey through genres that were merely way stations for groove and feeling tones of expression. He supplemented his Hammond B3 organ with a Korg electronic keyboard that produced sounds ranging from the conga to what seemed to me to be a sample of Miles Davis's trumpet.
Kreisberg played with fierce passion when called for, lessening the intensity on the appropriate numbers. For instance, "The World Weeps" was like a New Orleans dirge; Kreisberg alluded to The Godfather theme in passing. Blake's drive and power excited Smith, who scatted while riffing and sometimes sang in falsetto voice. Blake kept the time accurately; his pulse was precisely attuned to the guitar and keyboards, whether they played a slow or medium blues, a shuffle or Bossa groove, a rock style akin to the group Journey, Mahavishnu Orchestra
A thoroughly enjoyable set was enriched further by Smith's dramatic flair and sleight-of-hand expressions. When a group such as Smith's organ trio glides from humor and irony to tragedy and peaceful acceptance, and feelings in between, you know you're in the hands of a great musician and band leader.
Smith gave himself the title "Dr.," and became a Sikh in the 1970s. He announced that his new CD, The Healer (2012), was being sold for the very first time then and there, on his own Pilgrimage label.
I dashed to Club Soda, which seats 540 (950 standing) to see singer- songwriter-bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello
with today's dance grooves, at Harlem Stage last year. So I wanted to see and hear her with her own group.
She doesn't move around much in performanceshe just stands there and brings the funk. Some folk, rock, soul and fusion too, since, as a genre-bender from back in the day (early '90s), she's not confined by categories. In fact, her chosen last name reportedly means "free as a bird" in Swahili. She started in a James Brown
groove, with "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Ndegeocello soon sang a song from her album Weather (Naïve, 2011): "Oysters," a duet with her pianist, softly telling a story rich in imagery. Drawing on the American folk song tradition, as filtered through Nina Simone
, Ndegeocello belted out "Sea Lion Woman." "Chance," also from Weather, was in a pop mode. Since she has jazz chops on bass, I wish she had done something more in that vein, but going by the audience reaction, she did just fine by them.
Andre Menard, Artistic Director
The following afternoon I interviewed the festival's Artistic Director in the Salle Stevie Wonder (adjacent to the press room), where earlier the festival founder and president Alain Simard interviewed bassist Ron Carter
, recipient of the 2012 Miles Davis Award. Since the issue of the integrity of calling the event a "jazz" festival, given the wide range of musical styles represented, is a common point of contention by critics, I asked Menard: What is your programming philosophy?
"If the festival had some roots it would be the European festivals, where the jazz festivals have a more diversified ground that they're covering than just strictly jazz. In New York City, a jazz festival is supposed to be about jazz.
"In our case, it's about jazz and music that are cousins or neighbors of jazz. Especially in these days and times where music circulates so easily on the net, and guys who work together send tracks. So the penetration of all the musical genres is as great as it's ever been. What I hear is jazz percolating in much of pop music right now, be it electronica, and there's lots of it that's totally improvised or greatly improvised. Or singers like Janelle Monáe or Gregory Porter
and Ron Carter. Then there's the other music that's a part of our mix.
"As for our philosophy, as much as this festival is inclusive socially, people from every walk of life can attend the festival, we try to make it as inclusive as possible musically. We try to represent what's current, what's interesting in music and in jazz, and what's historical as well. It's pretty large.
"When you have a festival this size it's almost like an anthology every year. Everything that moves in music seems to be represented at the festival. Generally speaking, we get good feedback from the crowds and the musicians love to play here. And they like the diversity of it."
The Life and Blues Of Bessie Smith: The Devil's Music
One example of diversity in programming is the inclusion of a theater piece based on the music and life of Bessie Smith
, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, was known as the Empress of the Blues. I hadn't seen the production in New York at the St. Luke's Theater so I was glad to have the chance in Montréal, at the Cinquiéme Salle in the Place des Arts.
Smith was played by Miche Braden, who performed blues classics such as "St. Louis Blues," "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," and "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" with the requisite sass and sauciness. She was joined on stage by saxophonist Keith Loftis, pianist Aaron Graves
, who throughout served as the main character's foil.
The play provides the bare outlines of her life story: the rise to stardom and wealth, her good-for-little, philandering husband, her taste for women as sexual partners, her love of her son and difficulty raising him, and her untimely, tragic death. From a strictly musical perspective, it was interesting to hear Braden speak the words of playwright Angelo Parra regarding the impending rise of "Swing" music and Billie Holiday
Had Smith lived, it would have been marvelous to have captured, on record and film, her adaptation to the Big Band era as she fought to maintain her throne. As regards the set design and direction, both seemed fine to me. I'm not a drama critic so that's my opinion as a layman. But I'd urge you to see this play if it ever comes to your area. It's a cautionary tale about the traps and temptations of fame and fortune in the context of gender, sexuality and race that has resonance even today.
And speaking of today, thank goodness the blues is recognized and respected as the ground for most American music, including jazz and gospel. In 2012, it's very clear that the blues, as a force of culture, is here to stay. The blues and jazz are much greater than the myopic judgmentbased on narrow religiositythat deemed it, in Bessie Smith's time, "the devil's music."
's facility on woodwind instrumentshe plays all saxophones, from soprano to baritone, and flute as wellis awe-inspiring. In the context of his organ trio, together for a little over a decade, his virtuosity serves to excite and entertain. He keeps the styling of the sui generis saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
alive via a gruff manner on tenor with humor underneath the growl. His style is Type A, extroverted, and he's not shy about playing the entire history of jazz saxophone in one set, from the wide-vibrato of early years through to the free experiments of Ornette Coleman
on Hammond B3 and Leonard King Jr. on drums, Carter began the performance at Club Soda by announcing the set list, mostly derived from their 2011 recording At The Crossroads (EmArcy). Rarely is an entire set list outlined before a performance, so this was a refreshing change. Mark Whitfield
Miche Braden, before going to play Bessie Smith again in the play discussed just above, joined the band to reprise her role on the album. In the play, she's limited to the styling of the 1920s and '30s; here she took on blues and full-fledged swing with a tigress- like intensity, even wailing a few scat choruses in a style only heard in jazz from the 1940s.
The group veered from the sacred reverence of Duke Ellington
's "Come Sunday" to the pop anthem "Saving All My Love For You" (in honor of Whitney Houston) and the up-tempo stomp, "The Walking Blues."
I spoke with Carter about the recording the following day:
James Carter: The album was originally entitled It's All Good News To Me. I was looking to have more spiritual content in it but between "Come Sunday" and "The Old Ship of Zion," we felt that the secular, or other side of the tracks, if you will, was heavier.
So I felt that we could save that title for another recording that could be more gospel-related. At the Crossroads was in lieu of the original title because of the sacred content that shows the fine line between sacred and secular, if you will. Not taking anything away from either one of themI feel like they're one and the same. I think there are some people who use sacred and secular because of whatever content they feel is necessary to differentiate, like 'We're not talking hokum here, like hot dog for your rolls.' Meanwhile, on the other side we're talking about "Balm in Gilead." In a lot of instances, it depends on what the music is doing for the public at large.
It heals, because it gives you something to think about, not only from a neurological standpoint, but dealing with the other chakras, the other energy centers as well, that words and syntax, a lot of times, can't touch.
So it's all healing, which goes back to the term, "It's All Good News to Me," depending upon what you're looking at.
All About Jazz: So, another way of saying it would be that the sacred and secular is part of the same continuum.
JC: Yeah. For most people, it depends upon which edifice it's being delivered in. If it's in a church, it's sacred; if it's in a club, then it's the other.
For me, one of the most iconic scenes portraying that dichotomy is in [the film] The Color Purple. When you think about the juke joint, but at the same time there's this rockin' church down the road. "God's trying to tell you somethin.'' And here's Shug Avery at the juke joint, but it's hitting her deep. She's got to come back home. And she brings the band with her. And her, the band and everybody came into that church, and they were all playingthat's the beauty of it. That the door is always open was portrayed musically and cinematically. That's the lesson I got from that: [the church] is where it all comes from. They continue to exist and they continue to inspire. It's all healing."
I'd amend Carter's claim by saying that music has the potential to heal. The lessons of the recent murders in Wisconsin, in which a sociopathic white supremacist killed Sikhs before worship, are instructive. He was in a white power music group that used heavy metal/thrash/punk-styled music to recruit and spread hate.
Staying within the discourse of sacred and secular, I wonder about Carter's performance style. He strikes me as similar to the rhythm and blues saxophonists who would walk the bar and blow crazy hard for the sake of local audiences. Although this practice was part of the Detroit tradition he was reared in, considering Carter's extraordinary saxophone skills, such an approach would be somewhat like a Harvard- educated theologian deciding to preach in a storefront church, whooping and hollering hysterically rather than teaching the Bible with profound hermeneutical insight.
I only thought of the metaphors above after speaking with Carter and reflecting later on the possible dichotomy between his talent and ability, and his performance style. I look forward to speaking with him about these matters on another occasion.
I jetted from my interview with James Carter over to the Hyatt Hotel to speak with Tord Gustavsen
Gustavsen, who like Stanley Clarke, was a focus of the festival's Invitation series, was featured in quartet, trio, duo and solo settings. I heard his solo performance, which was a beautiful realization of the ideals he discusses below.
I especially looked forward to our chat because I wanted to get a feel of the musical roots of one of the top reputed European jazz pianists. In the course of my time as a jazz journalist, I've found that some American jazz artists and critics think that the music is becoming too cerebral, too European, lacking the grounding and tradition of American blues and swing.
The conversation broached not only those matters; it turned out to be a continuation of the theme of the healing and sacred side of music. But first I ventured his opinion on the festival itself, where he's played for four years.