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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.

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