Our Man in Montreal: The 23rd Montreal International Jazz Festival (Part 2-2)
Now, rare is it that the wife and I get to spend time together without child, but tonight was the night. The usual activity when such opportunity arises is restaurants. The rarer "date night" choice is live music. Never before have we combined the two in the last three and one half years, so it was a big night. Restaurant choices get pretty tough without benefit of reviews-preferably detailed reviews which are as lacking in the restaurant biz as the music biz. Although I greatly appreciate improvisation as a musical tool, it’s no fun trying to wing it when it comes to the right place to eat. Luckily, Canada’s venerable free weekly, The Hour, has quite the online archive over at www.hour.ca . If you read French extremely well, there is another fine resource at Montreal’s French-speaking weekly, Voir (point your browser here ). There are no English translations to be found in Voir, so even though I can read French more than a "petit peu", the Hour’s site was still the way to go for me. Luckily, we like fish, so the review for "Le Poisson Rouge" at their food archive caught my attention. Did I mention detailed reviews were hard to find, and that accurate ones were even more incredibly hard to find? This review was supremely accurate and wound up understating just how good and just what a value this place was. I had the skate with hazelnut butter and my date had the tilapia with a red wine sauce. Formidable! Oh, yeah...bring your own wine! This town is too good to be true! Just for the record, (and maybe my first link to uncorked ) we paired a Chateau St. Jean chardonnay with our dishes, which nicely stood up and provided a fruity yang to the yin of the not overtly rich sauces. The French have this thing called "Table d’Hote", which is kid of like Prix Fixe here in the states. So we got appetizers (which is entrée in French..tres confusing), soup, main course and dessert for- get this- 32 Canadian each (like 20 bucks)...now that’s just plain ridiculous, especially since I haven’t had a meal that good at more than twice the cost in Massachusetts in the past five years or so.
After that, it was over to jam-masters MMW shack (in this case, Montreal’s primo rave-up palace, Metropolis) for their third annual Montreal party with special guests. This year’s were a special treat - first-time collaborationist/colorist Trilok Gurtu and frequent co-conspirator and Jammy perennial Charlie Hunter. Gurtu was an inspired choice, and I’ll bet Billy Martin, who would also be an anointed master percussionist if we in the west had such a system, played no small part in coordinating MMW’s slot at the Fest with Indian Jedi Gurtu’s appearance the next day.
Hunter played the entire second set, and Gurtu played only his tablas and other incidental percussion for most of it, but it was the numbers they both jammed on, including "Open", "Jelly Belly", "Start/Stop" and "Toy Dancing", that provided the evening’s high points. Was Gurtu enhancing MMW’s trippy vibe or they his? How were Martin and Gurtu so completely avoiding stepping on each other’s toes? How can a human being move his hands that fast? These and other questions were answered in the music. Hunter had to do an enormous head change for this gig after getting off his 6 to 8pm rare solo slot (BTW, Charlie has got to do another pressing of his web-available only solo guitar record) at Salles du Gesu . He went from playing all of his seven-excuse me-it’s actually eight, now- strings and playing all the parts, especially his trademark, mind-boggling, carpal syndrome inducing bass lines, to playing only the top four, for the most part, with MMW - sort of a Joe Pass to Pat Martino mental switcheroo for which Sir Charles rose to the challenge. Chris Wood way more than ably filled up the low end of the sonic territory, much of the time on his relatively new, natural wood-toned Fender electric. Medeski certainly seemed like the de facto bandleader that night, switching from B-3 to acoustic to clavinet with aplomb and executing some very accentuated, authority-filled, slick moves with the right hand/right wrist. But it was Martin who, for the last tune, stepped to the mic and announced from the stage that while he wanted to do the encore tune with these extremely special guests, it was the, "last time he wanted to hear this song". The boys haven’t played "Bubblehouse" since, even at their sets at the annual High Sierra Music Fest in California, at which they played both days, July 5th and 6th, following their appearance in Montreal (tough commute), so it appears we witnessed a rare bit of jamband history during the last hour of the 4th. All indications are that "Bubblehouse" will follow "Dark Star" into the stuff of jam legend.
On the 5th, I caught Trilok with his own band at the Spectrum. Change is about in Trilok’s world. He’s certainly changed up his concept of late, mixing Indian and African concepts, with vocals, for his "African Fantasy" and "Beat of Love" projects. He’s stripped down his touring unit to a vocalist, Sabine Kabongo, and a keyboarist/sequencist/ samplist, Jerry Lipkins. This streamlines things musically, as well as practically (for Trilok’s words regarding these developments, and more, check for the coming interview ). He’s made profound changes his drum array, a subject that could make up an article in and of itself. He’s pretty much tossed the former western/Indian hybrid kit that we were all just getting used to (that setup is depicted well here ). He no longer sits on the floor, opting for a standard drum throne. Gone is the trademark vertical bass drum, replaced by a conventional bass drum pedal put to a pad triggering a sampled bass drum sound. Gone is the array of standard toms, replaced by flattened out, saucer-like, amoeba-shaped, huge-sounding, tom inventions of his own design. The tablas are elevated such that he can slide over to them from the kit and play them while still on the throne. The water songs, bird calls, and the remainder of the ancillary noisemakers are there, but their use has been changed by yet another device from the brain of Gurtu, a transmogrifier of sorts, operated not unlike a theremin, through which, it appears, a percussion device may be passed so its sounds may be morphed and amplified.
Kabongo is a lithe, athletic, physical, animated, dancer of a singer, like her musical sisters from Zap Mama, the project for which she is most well known. The African ( by way of Belgium) vocalist, immediately establishes a connection with the audience that Gurtu and Lipkins chip in to maintain for the rest of the show. Among its many facets, this project is about connection to the audience for Gurtu, and in that regard, it’s a resounding success. People cheer, they sing along, and best of all, they are goaded into three part audience participation with Trilok’s amazing, on the spot explanations of complex time signature and his trademark "TaKaDin"-style vocalese. Human beatbox.? Trilok preceded all of hiphop’s and continues to improve and invent with this stuff. He now steps out in front of the kit with no other percussive adornments than his voice and the information inside his amazing head, dizzily divvying up the time and cuttin’ up beats and flayva like a fugitive Bisuteki chef at one of those all you can eat Punjabi restaurants on Ste Catherine’s Boulevard. As a longtime fan, I have to say I miss some of the mental and physical push and pull of a full rhythm section that was there for Trilok’s "Glimpse" and "Crazy Saints" periods. But that’s subtle, sometimes complicated stuff, however thrilling, and right now, Trilok is out for the people, and not so much in terms of expanding his audience (which hopefully will be a side effect), but in terms of reaching them. The response in Montreal was the most fervent I have heard for Gurtu in the many contexts in which I have seen him perform (including MMW the night before), so he seems to have certainly achieved that goal.
On the way to Trilok’s show I was reminded of a fact to keep in mind when venturing to Montreal-the dreaded schedule conflict. I caught the Moutin Brothers reunion quartet soundchecking material from their superb Dreyfus release in front of about 50,000 people.
I also a misunderstood the nature of the bill for another show with the same start time. The 6pm show at Theatre Maissoneuve, another gorgeous venue that I did not set foot in this trip, was not, as thought, a duo show between the virtuoso oud players, the Lebanese Rabih Abou-Khalil and Palestinian Simon Shaheen. It was in fact a double bill featuring both leaders and their units. Now, the unit for Shaheen includes the incredible New York guitarist Adam Rogers and a young master frame drummer from Pittsburgh named Matt Kilmer, who I know will continue to be a name-checked in the percussion world for years to come, and who also happens to be currently reside in my neighborhood in Boston. I didn’t know about this until I very unexpectedly bumped into Adam Rogers in the lobby outside the jam session at the Wyndham, located in heart of the Festival. By all accounts, the "Blue Flame" (that’s Shaheen’s band name) show was incredible, so in retrospect, it probably turns out I went to the underreported of the two shows. Still, it’s probably going to be a real long time before Gurtu and Shaheen play in the same town, at the same time, again. BTW, Jim Hall was also playing a solo guitar set at Gesu at 6pm!
While we’re on the subject, the very next show I was scheduled to see, the astounding Jean- Michel Pilc, again at Gesu, conflicted with one of the Fest’s most intriguing and popular bookings (and a free show), Austria’s human accapaella ProTools, the ultra-modern, freakishly talented Bauchklang ( www.auchlang.at ). Their performance attracted quite the crowd and an overwhelmingly positive response similar to the one reported by the Quebec City free paper "Le Soleil" who, in a concert review, four days later, said "the crowd...leapt from their seats after they realized that they could believe their eyes and ears..." I encourage you to check them out - not just modern, they’re absolutely futuristic.
Speaking of futuristic, is there a more technically adept pianist today than Pilc? Again, I have to note I probably will not see him at such a perfect venue again. Quite simply, no contemporary pianist on the scene today asserts more swagger, bravado and confidence on the jazz stage than Jean-Michel Pilc. "Commanding"? an understatement-with a trio to match. Ari Hoenig has to be the most unorthodox jazz drummer I’ve ever seen arms and legs akimbo in an disentangled dance somehow bringing pure melodicism from the kit. In fact, Ari used his elbow on a couple of occasions to play the melody of the tunes on his slackened snare drum. Musicians like Ari make jazz viewing the pleasure it is. The motions and the sounds produced, enjoyably, simply don’t match up. Francois Moutin rounds out the trio on "contrabasse", a great French word you’ll hear often in Montreal (and Europe), meaning "bass". Coming off the aforementioned Moutin Bros. show at 6, Francois looked pretty fresh at 11. That all changed within ten minutes, as he dropped his suit jacket to the floor in a ball of sweat. At 6 feet plus, he’s the third physically and technically dominating member of the trio, and it’s most maniacal, flying up and down the neck of the contrabasse as if it’s a nylon stringed guitar. Soloing at length on every tune and contributing an arrangement or two (the arrangement of "Stella.." was a standout), it’s a trio bassist’s dream gig, and Moutin proved more than up to the task. While reviews of Pilc’s new one, "Welcome Home", have been extremely positive, the "rap" has been its supposed lack of original compositions, implying a lack of them on Pilc’s part. Yeah, right! Jean-Michel introduced one tune by saying it was only a piece of Part I of one movement of a four movement suite he’s composed (didya follow that?). As suspected, a player of this magnitude has all kinds of things up his sleeve the conundrum is what to put out there and how.
Regarding the leader, when the astounded journalist (that’s me) is confronted with such grand technique, it’s sometimes hard to keep the ear pointed to the musical prize. I’ll forego my take on it and let the leader sum up in his own words, as told in a previous interview (with Nate Chinen of Philly’s City Paper). Pilc simultaneously gives his audience perspective while proving his own, to wit: "The great French pianist Martial Solal said something that’s very true: ‘Technique allows you to express your ideas instantly.’ Which means, you know, when a musician is playing his instrument; you can feel when there is an obstacle between his thought and the realization of the thought." Well said- and well done in a city so full of the culture of his homeland (Pilc’s between-song banter, which was received enthusiastically and warmly, was all in French). Some fresh quotes from Jean-Michel, from our post-gig interview, will be posted here soon.
This concluded jazz viewings for my excursion northward and my sampling of a fraction of Montreal annual summer jazz feast. I saw maybe 5 percent of the acts that played the festival, but enjoyed myself 100 percent of the time. Complaints? Hardly any. How about some characteristic Canadian frostiness in the air- would have been nice. The massive forest fires on the way home provided an unseasonable haze as well. And remember that piece of the article on the "festivals within the festival"? While most sub-genres are well-represented, including mainstream, world music, Latin, electronica, blues, Zydeco, and this year, even Norwegian jazz, there was a noticeable lack of any avant/Knitting Factory /Vision Festival type acts. Perhaps it was just a glitch in this year’s bookings or perhaps conscious substitution of a different jazz "stream", but bookings like Frank London’s Hasidic New Wave ( covered locally here ), who were one of last acts to play the festival, were few and far between. Look on the bright side-no "smooth" jazz was to be found.
Back to what makes the festival great. More than the great and not-just-French food and wine, the value in the favorable exchange rate, the kid-friendly activity areas, the stealthily surprising free events, the plethora of reasonably priced accommodations and the quality and breadth of performers, the sheer organizational skill is just off the hook. The governments of Quebec and Montreal obviously make this event a priority on every level, and it translates to each musician and fan. Credit is also due to the events publicity/public relations team, L’Equipe Spectra ( www.equipespectra.ca ) who offer the media every available tool and courtesy at their disposal. I would especially like to thank Antoine Ducharme from L’Equipe who not only helped me out immensely, but was virtually everywhere during week two (which evidently is part and parcel of a good publicist’s job description). More than all that though, it just seems like the attitude of the indigenous Montrealers, whether it be the non-jazz-loving pedestrian or the young "security" or "event" staff, becomes more tolerant, flexible and helpful for the Festival weeks. I mean, where else on the continent will perceptive populace offer you tips on everything from street directions to menu choices without even being asked (or do I always look that perplexed?) . So here’s to Montreal. We had a ball.
Visit the Montreal International Jazz Festival website at http://www.montrealjazzfest.com .