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Live Reviews

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 9-11

By Published: July 8, 2008
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July 6: Mory Kanté

While the numbers aren't yet in, looking out at the crowd gathered for the 29th edition of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal's closing party featuring Guinean griot and kora master Mory Kanté, there may well have been more people in attendance than at the July 1 outdoor show by Bran Van 3000. That means in excess of 100,000 people, who began gathering in the afternoon and, by the time opening act The Lost Fingers hit the stage at 9:00PM, were just as pumped and ready to party.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Mory Kante

That the festival regularly draws these kinds of numbers to its opening, middle and closing Grand Évenéments without any kind of visible trouble is a testament to its remarkable security and crowd control...and, of course, the crowd itself. Beer flows freely at these events, and yet it's extremely rare to find anyone misbehaving, or acting inebriated, period. Festival security has, over the past two decades, learned a secret to transparent crowd control that should be a model for other festivals with smaller attendance but greater challenges. But it's all part of the special vibe of Montreal, where there's a pervasive positive feeling that seems to put everyone in a good mood.

Quebec City's The Lost Fingers delivered a brief opening set of jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz, but with a difference. While the two acoustic guitar/double-bass line-up of Byron "Maiden" Mikaloff, Alex Morissette and Christian Roberge—singers all—felt like a descendent of the music of Django Reinhardt, the material the group chose was as far removed from classic jazz of Le Quintet Du Hot Club de France as one could get. Hard though it is to imagine, the trio delivered swinging acoustic versions of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and an even more unexpected choice of D.O.N.S.' "Pump Up the Jam," complete with rap.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / The Lost Fingers The Lost Fingers

The crowd seemed to enjoy the trio's 25-minute set, but with music veering well into the realm of shtick, any more than a small dose would likely have lost its entertainment value and become tedious. The members of the group are fine enough players and perhaps even better singers, but there's little doubt that its concept is one with a limited shelf life. On the other hand, its debut, Lost in the 80's (TAND, 2008), peaked at #6 on Billboard's Top Canadian Albums chart, so perhaps there's room, albeit most likely briefly, for the trio's contrivance.

Mory KanteWhen Kanté and his twelve-piece group hit the stage after a very short break, however, there was no doubt that this was the real deal. Other than a little weight, Kanté, approaching sixty, looked twenty years younger as he delivered nearly two hours of danceable African grooves that had the audience involved from the first note. Few others, with the possible exception of Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, are as masterful on the large, 21-string harp with a large resonating body made from a gourd cut in half and wrapped in cow skin. And while Kanté's most recent release, Sabou (Riverboat, 2004) was a return to more acoustic traditional roots; his Montreal performance was electric and electrifying. The only reason the crowd didn't jump to its feet when the set began was because it was already on them. Even a young child, no older than three, could be seen dancing through almost the entire set, remarkable given the show began at a little after 9:30PM—well past any three year-old's bedtime.

While Kanté's kora gave his group a unique complexion, he played it for less than half the set, opting for the most part to sing and work the stage, in addition to playing acoustic guitar on one tune early on. Instead, it was the marimba-like but independently evolved African balafon that helped define and distinguish Kanté's ensemble sound, which also featured a three-piece horn section, three female vocalists, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Kanté's voice bears some comparison to Malian singer Salif Keita, but only in the most superficial way, possessing a deeper tone and a penchant for creating well-articulated percussive sounds that, at more than one point in the show, he used as a trade-off against his percussionist's djembe to great effect.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Mory Kante Mory Kanté

Engaging the audience in call-and-response, screaming and sing-along segments early in the set, Kanté's ability to keep the audience participation going throughout the performance was a remarkable feat. Most groups are happy to get the audience involved once or twice, but with Kanté it was a fundamental part of the entire show. As was his continued interaction with the members of his group, most notably the djembe player. And while the relatively few changes in Kanté's writing could have caused the set to drag at times, his showmanship—which included calling upon his backing singers to show some dance steps as well as bringing two male dancers onstage towards the end of the show for some remarkable gymnastics—and the unshakable groove of his group made it a fine way to end the festival.

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