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Live Reviews

Our Man in Montreal: The 23rd Montreal International Jazz Festival (Part 1-2)

By Published: March 12, 2004
Oh, sweet, hot, humid July—if Frank Constanza were a jazzhead he would have dubbed it the real month of "Festivus" the month of the International Jazz Fest. Mind-boggling possibilities abound for running up the credit card bill in such far-flung locales as Bracknell, Northsea, Paris, Nice, Viennes, Marseille, Toulon, Umbria and Montreaux. Let's see, which one can I get to by hastily packing up the Subaru and strapping my daughter into her car seat? Ahhhh, Mesdames at Messieurs... give me Montreal!

Interesting how context can change policy. See, my gripe with Montreal had always been, "Yeah, it's a great festival with loads of free shows, but the higher echelon talent-let's make that more well known, anyway- comes in the form of multiple shows with separate individual tickets, which can run up your "billet de charger plus vite" (that's "put a dent in your pocketbook mighty fast"), eh." But put it in the context of what I found out it truly is- one of the (if not just plain the ) top legitimate international festivals offering, certainly for the American traveler anyway, a legitimate international experience- and it quickly becomes an attractive option. Couple it with the current exchange rate [a 30 dollar "funny money" (hey, they have pictures of people-presumably Canadians- playing hockey on the paper bills, ok?) ticket is really 20 bucks mes amis!] and it's a downright bargain!

Certainly, the setting is as cosmopolitan as you're going to get, with ten outdoor stages and seven indoor venues devoted to the fest, all within an area of three city blocks on either axis, with the beautiful Place des Artes as its centerpiece. Perspective? Imagine and equivalent area in New York City around Lincoln Center, closed to traffic from Amsterdam Ave east to Central Park and from West 60th north to West 67th, with venues similar to Irving Plaza, BB King's and the Bottom Line all within that patch of real estate. One of the cross streets is of course, Montreal's famous Ste Catherine's, where the tables on the sidewalk cafes are at peak demand and not-so-premium prices. So begins the journal (mine and yours) of one man's Montreal l'experience.

Upon unpacking my car on the second of July, we (me, the wife and 3 and ½ year old girl) hopped the Metro, landing quite nicely at a sidewalk table at Le Café du Nouveau Monde . Somehow, within the chaotic, sardine-packed, thoroughly humidified (at times the weather was stifling, with temperatures over 90 for the next three days) throng of a 150,000 or so festival fans, there came a chill and a wave of relaxation within saxophonical earshot of the Yves Nadeau group on the Club du Maurier stage Perhaps this had to do with the superb locally brewed Boreale Rousse , or more likely, the relief I felt at observing my daughter's fascination with everything going on around her, including the sounds-but at precisely that moment, we were all good.

Swinging by Ryo Kawasaki's ( ) free performance, turned in just as the heat began to back off, further enhanced the slightly cooling breezes of the Bahia-in-Montreal climate. With expert accompaniment and the occasional flourish from co-Japanese guitarist Shinobu Itoh, Ryo dazzled on acoustic nylon-stringed guitar, with a repertoire drawing on Jobim, Duke Ellington, and Wonder, as well as some of his own stuff. Surprising to hear Ryo, an early pioneer of fusion and "smoother" electric hybrids, in this context, but it's a reflection of his newest studio release, which is a solo recording, simply called "E". Let me describe Ryo's playing in this milieu succinctly- very clean -impressively so.

Alas, my daughter was way more interested in how the festival's official mascot, the Saint Cat, was playing all this stuff. BTW, how many jazz fests have an official mascot? It's just one way of reaching out to kids and parents to make this a family friendly event. Here's a cooler one. It's nice to know someone at the top of the organizational food chain is thinking about how to make your kid happy while perhaps stimulating them to think a little bit about the music along the way.

Anyway, a quick 3 stop shuttle to and fro on the Metro brought me back to the main stage at night for the festival's Main Event, generally looked upon as the annual "big" free event. This year, a curveball indeed. I had never heard of this band. "King Chango", New York's Latin alternative ambassadors from David Byrne's Luaka Bop talent stable, comprised of Venezuelan, Asian, Dominican and Puerto Rican members, was the headliner for quite the crowd. Here's what the main stage looks like from afar:

Clearly, a lot of people check out the festival, even in the heat. 1.65 million, to be exact, were counted over the duration, which is pretty amazing considering attendance for those three super hot days, out of the five I happened to be there, was lower than the norm.

While the music of King Chango falls far from the Jazz tree, they incorporate some elements of it (as well as any other style you can name) into their music, which is indeed a melting pot. "Melting Pot" is also the title of their most well-known tune, which, like the rest of their set, flew by with such wild stylistic variety and rapidity, I was on my heels, judgmentally speaking, for hours afterward, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure I enjoyed them. Kind of Manu Chao (who played last year)/Mano Negra-ish, if you know those artists. I'll say this- if you're into punkish ska, straight up punk, Latin rhythms, roots reggae, trip-hop dub, Venezuelan roots music or Latin drum 'n' bass, there's something in there for ya.

On day two of my stay (July 3rd), I made sure to check out my fellow countryman (by ethnicity, anyway), Italy's Peppino D'Agostino , who, while pigeonholed as a "New Age Guy", has managed throughout his recorded career to stay away from the genre's more obvious musical pitfalls. As it turns out, he provided my first taste of true Montreal inspiration, and believe me, it was musical "inspiration through perspiration" as Peppino's athletic moves and multiple alternate tunings produced not only a very enthusiastic response from the audience, but a noticeable puddle of liquid on the stage floor.

Like Kawasaki the previous afternoon, Peppino performed on the aptly named "Contact" stage, which is indeed the most intimate of the festival's free stages, giving the audience full opportunity to closely observe the intense concentration and subtlety of the coordination of the (sweaty) right and left hand techniques needed to pull off his percussive brand of guitaristic wizardry. As Peppino pandered to what turned out to be a partisan crowd ( Montreal is heavily populated with Italians, and has one of North America's busiest and most genuine Little Italies), by playing his version of "O Solo Mio", a pleasant melancholia ensued on my part. I found my thoughts drifting to the early departure of a Peppino's former contemporary, Michael Hedges, whose spirit is carried on between the hearts, hands, wood and steel of standard-bearers like D'Agostino. While he remains somewhat underrecognized, Peppino is easily that good.

After Peppino, the Lousiana stage, fittingly enough, hosted "Los Hombres Calientes" from New Orleans, featuring percussionist Bill Summers, formerly of the Headhunters, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and drummer Jason Marsalis of the flying Marsalises. Irvin and Jason are just over the US drinking age, yet front a sophisticated African, Latin funk band featuring an acknowledged African, Latin funk master (Summers). I can't say it better than our own review of the record, which says, "Los Hombres Calientes mixes cha chas, congas, sambas, African call and response, Cuban vocal chants, bop, and Latin percussion in a savory multicultural stew." In addition, they are one of indie jazz's greatest success stories, breaking the Billboard charts without benefit of major label clout. Mayfield and saxophonist Victor Atkins, the featured soloists over this bountiful, fragrant stew, were very impressive and succeeded in being "Caliente", although the audience was already "tres tres chaud". Their non-cover version of "Chameleon", sacrilegiously overplayed by less able units, was not only crowd pleasing, but tremendously, overpoweringly, afforded maximum groove power in the able hands of one of its original performers, Bill Summers, whose presence throughout was regally funky.

Here's the spot for me to underscore a major point. This story just relates what I did while I was there. The official website of the Festival has a handy feature called "My Festival" which allows you to prioritize events according to your particular time constraints and print out an itinerary without benefit of a Palm Pilot. Entire sub-aesthetics, or mini genre-specific festivals, are available within bigger festival, to the savvy festival-goer. According to the festival publicists, Equipe-Spectra, over 400 journalists attended the event and are anticipated to eventually weigh in on different stuff.

For instance, given different circumstances, I would have preferred to attend the previous week, when the festival hosted some very high profile Norwegians near and dear to these ears, including the scintillating Nils Petter Molvaer, who for some unknown reason didn't combine his trip to North America with any US dates. Molvaer couples jazz with his own brand of electronica, which at times is somewhat dark. In my opinion his latest disc, this year's NP3, issued on Emarcy/Universal is not only his best, but more importantly his most groundbreaking. It currently has no US distribution, but is available in Montreal stores for less than it will ever cost stateside!

His guitarist, Elvind Aarset, also performed the following day with his own group, the aptly named "Electronique Noire" (if anything, his own stuff is a bit darker than Molvaer's), as well as the day after that, with a third unit called "Grace". The performance by Aarset's trio even made Festival senior-president, co-founder and artistic director André Ménard's very short list of his fave performers of the fortnight. As it turns out, another Bostonian luckily turned in a fine report on this particular underlying current of the festival here .

So, back to my festival, and Avishai Cohen's amazingly tight International Vamp Band (the IVB) at the festival's best venue, the incredible Salles de Gesu , a 400 seat capacity room in a converted church with perfect acoustics and sightlines. Avishai's played just about every major jazz festival in the world, and he thinks Montreal is the best. Soon, you can read our short post-gig interview (on the interviews page) to find out why. You probably all know this by now, but I'll restate it here for the record. Avishai plays piano, rather than bass, when leading his IVP, which sports a three man horn section consisting of trumpeter Diego Urcola of Argentina, trombonist/flutist Avi Lebovich of Israel, and saxophonist Yosvany Terry from Cuba. The music sounds as if Cohen (also from Israel) writes his Middle Eastern and Latin tinged portraits, emphasizing all the colors of his small group, with the frontline specifically in mind. All the tunes indeed feature vamps, either as underlying chord progressions or as cyclical elements woven into the underlying progression. All the while the horn charts by Lebovich and Urcola float incredibly tightly, yet velvety/buttery over the top, inducing and enhancing the mood of the pieces. Drummer Eric McPherson, from New York, has his hands full with all the rhythmic possibilities, but is helped considerably by Terry, who is simply one of the best chekere players I've ever seen, and who functions as the band's de facto percussionist.

All three horn men are able soloists, as is Cohen (on three instruments) and the band's other Israeli bassist Yagil Baras. You'll notice I said three instruments for Avishai, who will often get up and strap on his vintage Fender electric, sporting the black rectangular fret markers, to solo in the upper registers in front of the band. He also upped the excitement level when he used the Fender to set up a counter funk groove to Baras on a tune, but it's when he grabs the acoustic bass that the fireworks, from a chops perspective, start to explode. I mean, Mr. Cohen asserts himself over the physical difficulties and intricacies of the instrument like few who have come before him. Mystically enough, one of those few happened to poetically leave us all in his sleep earlier on that day. And so it was that I came to be present when Avishai dedicated his solo version of "Bass Suite #1" to the inimitable Mr. Ray Brown on Montreal on July 3, 2002, the day, it could be argued, in terms of acoustic bass, that the music died. Cohen dropped a spot nothing short of transcendent - bowing, plucking, funking, bopping, and elasticizing the bass, and the audience along with him, into a state of musical bliss. Cohen appeared as though he could shatter the instrument on a whim, but preferred to render it to his will, which included transitioning out of the piece by playing the doghouse's exterior, and then engaging in a series of handoffs to Baras, who admirably emphasized the signature elements of his own proficient style. As they continued to pass it back and forth, all those previous statements that I've read by guitarists and bassists that point out that tone is in the hands, not the instrument (or the gear), were at once proven. Indeed, the tone variants suggested Avishai and Yagil were playing two different axes instead of sharing one. While artistically pleasing on one level, the exchange hit deep, reminding us all of jazz' credo, that there is always a place for the individual in the music and the individual, or the signature sound, in jazz. The fact that Cohen is such an amazing upright player, yet elects not to play it, for the most part, with his own band, should indicate the leader's incredible commitment to his vision for the music and his ensemble, as well as his wise prioritization of musical aesthetic over chops. Another show highlight was the tune "Float", which Avishai dedicated, simply, "to all the ladies in the house". What a truly sensuous, feminine, seductive tune! Jazz men take note- if you know any curious potential female fans, I strongly suggest playing them a song like this as enticement.

Watch for Avishai, who spoke at some length between tunes, with an extremely nice audience rapport, to remain a favorite of "Festival Fans" and requested at Montreal for years to come. This was confirmed by the attendance of their reigning president, known by his pseudonym "Alto" ( ), who sat next to me for the show. Other "semi-celebrity" sightings? Montreal's incredible electric bassman, Alain Caron , who, among other things, informed me that Montreal fixture "L'Air du Temps", my favorite jazz hang in North America, where I had first seen Alain perform in the eighties, had closed its doors. I also spotted the beautiful Rosario Dawson (before Avishai told us what her name was), of Men in Black II and Josie and the Pussycats, who, evidently, has extremely good taste in music.

Next up on my hit list came DePhazz, at the electronic series, or "Les Nuits" at Club Soda. DePhazz's international hit, "Death by Chocolate" established them as laid back purveyors of lounge electronica, or martini music for the international drum'n'bass crowd, and in fact is a great little piece of pop culture in this style. Unfortunately, their live act was pretty tough to swallow, especially rhythmically, where subtle electronic elements were lost in a wash of the same-sounding huge backbeat. It didn't help that they overloaded the cheese factor with an onstage dancer reminiscent of SNLer Chris Kattan's "Antonio Banderas, How do you say... Show" ( ). How do you say, "C'mon can do better than that." Let's just say their live show wasn't going to make staying past the Metro's closing time of 1 am justifiable.

On the way home, I realized it was the 4th of July and I wasn't in the USA for the first 4th of July following September 11, 2001. I then realized I'd better forget about that or it was going to really complicate my day.

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