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Live Reviews

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 6-8

By Published: July 5, 2008
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July 1: Bran Van 3000

The festival's Grand Évenément was labeled "Le Spectaculaire Retour de Bran Van 3000 (or BV3K). BV3K was the late '90s brainchild of aspiring filmmaker Jamie "Bran Man" Di Salvio, who collected a group of close to twenty unknowns and released two albums—Glee (Capitol, 1999) and Discosis (Virgin, 2001)—that were well-received on the Canadian charts before disappearing from the scene. With a new album, Rose (Emstar, 2007), Di Salvio's strong mix of classic R&B material with trip hop, electro-ambience and near-heavy metal attitude was the perfect show for the festival.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / BRan Van 3000

This was music meant to be experienced on a grand scale, and the huge crowd that gathered on St. Catherine Street and beyond rivaled those of Pat Metheny's closing show in 2005 and Seun Kuti's in 2007. By the time the group hit the stage, it was clear that the crowd—somewhere around the 100,000 mark—was ready for an evening of powerful dance grooves, delivered with the festival's usual meticulous and imaginative attention to sound and light. Images swirled around the buildings surrounding the main Scène General Motors stage, and the stage was a curious mix of high tech and chandeliers that were scattered throughout.

By the time "Bran Man" took to the stage for the band's second song—featuring a core group of players that included two keyboardists, two percussionists (one doubling on trombone), powerhouse drummer Ian Frye, two guitarists and bassist Gary McKenzie, who took an early solo rivaling electric bass phenom Marcus Miller—the crowd was already dancing, pumping arms and screaming on demand. Ear-shatteringly loud and gut-wrenching with low-end rumbles, it was precisely what they had gathered for.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Bran Van 3000 Bran Van 3000

With what seemed like an endless array of vocalists coming and going onstage, and with "Bran Man" a constant throughout, the show culled familiar material but transformed it into spectacle with a stage so busy it was often difficult to track the sequence of events. Thankfully there were some solo spots, along with shifts in groove—from the more pulsing trip-hop to a lighter (but no less powerful or loud) reggae.

Not in any way a jazz performance, but the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has long since evolved from being a "purer" event to one that's all-encompassing. There's plenty for those who favor the mainstream, but for those whose tastes run farther afield, Montréal's festival manages to provide a musical cross-section to cover the demands of the most broad-minded music fan.

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July 2: Catherine Russell

Steely Dan's Think Fast tour selling out two nights at Place des Arts' Salle 3000-seat Wilfrid-Pelletier theater, combined with the festival's broad international audience, makes getting the opening act slot a very high visibility gig. Singer Catherine Russell's thirty-minute set was high on quality and more than a little retro on material but, all-in-all, a fine, relaxed opener that set the mood for an audience clearly pumped to be there to see The Dan.

 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Catherine RussellRussell's father was the late pianist/bandleader Luis Russell, a contemporary of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, and if there was any quarrel to be had with the singer's set, it was her persistent calling on her father's name. Luis Russell may well have been an important figure, especially in early 20th Century New Orleans where, along with others, he was a part of the emergence of jazz, but invoking his name on introductions to half of the set's tunes began to feel like name-dropping, as if to suggest being the daughter of a great musician would mean the progeny were inherently no less talented.

Fortunately, intros or not, she was a fine singer, exhibiting a strong voice and solid interpretive skills on a set that included material ranging from classic Hoagy Charmichael songs to early Grateful Dead material by Robert Hunter and Jerry. With a backing trio of pianist Mark Shane, bassist Lee Hudson and, guitarist Matt Munisteri, who doubled on banjo, Russell kept songs short and sweet, but gave everyone a chance to solo. Munisteri was the strongest player, a chameleon-like player equally capable of clear, Charlie Christian-like pre-bop phrases and visceral blues bends.

Russell's delivery was emotive without going over the top, and she engaged the audience with a playful presence that didn't prevent her from digging deep into Sam Cooke's "Put Me Down Easy," from her 2006 World Village debut, Cat.

With the world filled with female jazz singers, Catherine Russell's song choices were what separated her from the crowd. Whether she'll be able to filter to the top is anybody's guess, but her opening performance for Steely Dan was enjoyable, and should garner her some new fans along the way.

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July 2: Steely Dan

Like the audience at Return to Forever's show at the 2008 Ottawa International Jazz Festival a week earlier, the crowd waiting for Steely Dan to hit the stage was undeniably dominated by gray-hairs and no-hairs. Most have been following the band since its inception in the early 1970s and, based on their response to the opening series of segued tunes, had The Dan repertoire down cold. Steely Dan are, of course, pianist/vocalist Donald Fagen and guitarist/occasional vocalist Walter Becker, but for the 2008 tour the group was fleshed out to a 12-piece that featured a number of heavy-hitters, including guitarist/musical director Jon Herrington, saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, drummer Keith Carlock and trombonist Jim Pugh.

After an opening instrumental that gave the group a chance to stretch, The Dan moved into an instrumental take on "The Fez," from The Royal Scam (MCA, 1976), the group segued into the pulsing groove of the title track from the same album, and when Becker and Fagen entered the entire audience rose to its feet for the first of many standing ovations in the group's two hour set.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Steely Dan / Walter Becker / Donald Fagen Walter Becker (background left) and Donald Fagen: Steely Dan

In the day, Steely Dan only toured once, and it was largely a disaster due to Fagen's inexperience and shaky nerves in front of an audience; The Dan, after all, was largely conceived as a vehicle for the Becker/Fagen songwriting team and, by the time of its fourth disc, Katy Lied (MCA, 1975), the group had reduced to just the two, who would call upon a cast of thousands to create masterpieces like Aja (MCA, 1977), which featured high-end jazzers like Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd and Larry Carlton.

But since his early '90s New York Rock and Soul Review—which released Live at the Beacon (Giant, 1991)—Fagen's been playing live with increasing frequency, and it's been possible to follow his gradual move into a comfort zone. The Dan's Alive in America (Giant, 1995) documented the group's return to activity and touring in 1993-'94 but, as fine as it was to have them back after a break of thirteen years, both Fagen and Becker felt a little stiff. But by the time of the tour in support of The Dan's Grammy Award-winning return to studio recording, Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000) and the accompanying 2002 live DVD from Image Entertainment, it was clear that both Fagen and Becker were beginning to loosen up.

Decked with sunglasses and swaying back and forth like Ray Charles—no surprise, given his love of the late singer/pianist made clear on "What I Do," from his solo album Morph the Cat (Reprise, 2006)—Fagen was in fantastic form, his voice sounding better than ever. Relaxed enough to be able to ad-lib a bit when the opportunity presented itself, as it did during "Hey Nineteen," where "That's 'retha Franklin" turned into a reference to the "Queen of Soul"'s scheduled performance in the same room the next night, Fagen took enough liberty with his delivery, while never losing sight of the signatures that defined a twenty-song set list that covered every Dan release from its second, Countdown to Ecstasy (MCA, 1973) to its most recent, Everything Must Go (Reprise, 2003).

While The Dan didn't perform all its iconic songs—they'd have needed at least another hour to do that— there was representation of almost all the key ones, including a hot take of Aja's up-tempo "I Got the News," the equally fiery title track from Two Against Nature, greasier funk of "FM," discofied "Glamour Profession" and haunting "Third World Man," the latter two from Gaucho (MCA, 1980), The Dan's initial swan song. The Royal Scam's "Everything You Did" was reinvented with a reggae groove—a nod, perhaps, to Becker's recent interest in the form on his new solo disc, Circus Money (Mailboat, 2008)—while "Aja" was a show-stopping powerhouse that featured an impressive trade-off between Herrington and Becker, followed by intense solos from Weiskopf and Carlock, who may not be Shorter and Gadd but were surely within spitting distance.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Steely Dan l:r: Jon Herrington, Roger Rosenberg, Walt Wesikopf, Michael Leonart, Walter Becker, Jim Pugh, Donald Fagen, Keith Carlock, Freddie Washington

Along with familiar hits including "Josie," "Peg" and "Gaucho," Becker and Fagen pulled out a couple of surprises—a cooking and radically rearranged "Show Biz Kids" from Countdown to Ecstasy and a short, absolutely perfect take on "Parker's Band" from Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974), complete with images of Charlie Parker on the lit backdrop that was unveiled five songs into the show. Steely Dan appeals to pop audiences for its ability to craft near-perfect songs that are filled with attractive hooks, unbeatable grooves and memorable playing, but to jazz audiences as well for its broader harmonic vernacular, a quality that began to surface in a big way on The Royal Scam. Thirty years later its language is even more sophisticated, with the songs creating not just fine opportunities for soloing, but true challenges, even for the most advanced players.

Since turning from studio-only duo to exciting live act, Becker and Fagen have attracted a wealth of innovative jazz players, including Shorter, Gadd, Chris Potter, Dennis Chambers, Peter Erskine, Bob Sheppard and Warren Bernhardt. Steely Dan 2008 was no less impressive, with Herrington delivering some of the show's instrumental highlights. A nearby fan said, when the group launched into "Third World Man," that "they have to get the guitar right, it's so important," and she was right. Larry Carlton's solo on the original has long been considered one of the most perfect solos in pop—brief, but constructed with precision while remaining evocative thirty years after the fact. Herrington played the solo close to note-to-note, which was absolutely the right choice. On the other hand, rather than recreating another signature Carlton solo on "Kid Charlemagne," the first of two encores, he played it his way, and proved himself equally adept at navigating Becker and Fagen's easy on the ears but seriously challenging changes.

Becker's guitar work, while achingly tasteful in tone and always resonant in a laidback kind of way, was less impressive, as was his vocal turn on "Gaucho," originally sung by Fagen. Dan shows always feature Becker as lead vocalist on one song, and it's a nod to his undeniable importance as one-half of the Becker/Fagen songwriting team; but while Fagen has evolved into a clear leader and charismatic front man, Becker is better placed in the background. Fagen soloed rarely, but when he did—and when he contributed Fender Rhodes intros to songs including "Josie" and another track from Aja, the mid-tempo "Home at Last"— it became clear where much of Steely Dan's harmonic sophistication comes from although, based on Fagen's solo career and The Dan's take on his "New Frontier," from The Nightfly (Reprise, 1982), Becker's part in shaping The Dan sound cannot be undervalued.

For a group that never intended to hit the road, Steely Dan has become one of the hottest touring groups in adult-oriented pop music, and its two-night stay in Montréal for the 2008 festival, part of a 33-date North American tour, was conclusive proof that it's possible to mix pop song mentality with the rich language of jazz to create music that's appealing on many levels.

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