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Live Reviews

Montreux Jazz 2009 Festival Journal

By Published: October 10, 2009
43rd Montreux Jazz Festival
Montreux, Switzerland
July 5-6, 2009
Summer months of music on the European festival circuit are indeed a multi-cultural garden of both earthly delights and otherworldly musical experiences. For performers and fans alike, these planes seem to unite for unique harmonic convergences. Among many storied festivals through vast geographical territories, the name Montreux may conjure the strongest images. Looking out across Lake Geneva at a rising moon and an awesome sunset, it was obvious why Montreux is considered one of music's legendary locales. There are intimate surroundings throughout the Montreux-Vevey area—flower-lined pathways crammed with politely boisterous revelers that keep the two-week party going almost until dawn every evening.
The lengthy list of artists who have called it home, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Ernest Hemingway to Freddie Mercury, is testimony to Montreux's widespread appeal, and this year, the broad musical offerings mirrored this diversity. The natural beauty of the Swiss Riviera is just as vital as the local inhabitants who nurture such an environment.
The city's main celebration is a musical one. Once again, organizer and figurehead Claude Nobs established a deep mix of modern day music. The lineup ranged from the world premiere of the piano duo featuring Chinese sensation Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock to the Black Eyed Peas, who currently rule popular music charts worldwide.

July 5: Scoot Over Elton and Mr. Joel

The much anticipated, heavily hyped piano showcase from new collaborators Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
and Lang Lang was the premiere offering on a stormy Sunday evening. While there was definitely a pop star element involved in their pairing, there were also elevated exchanges to savor.

"This is not about perfecting the classical tradition," conductor John Axelrod told a media gathering. "It's about the music they share. We don't want to get stuck in a museum. We don't do this for people with preconceptions."

"We try to eliminate categories," added senior statesman Hancock. "We're all brothers in music. I think we need to open up a bigger world for classical and jazz music. Through our collaboration, we may do even more for piano."

No less enthusiastic, Lang Lang gushed about his fellow collaborator. "Herbie is absolutely my favorite musician," said Lang Lang. "It was a great privilege to meet him."

This was the kickoff to a landmark series of engagements in which the dynamic duo and Axelrod performed with local orchestras. At the impressive Montreux show, the performers sounded as if they had been connected for years. At times, the 27-year-old Lang Lang was gracefully holding back, though at a vibrant looking 69 years of age, Hancock proved that he could continue to surprise people.

The chemistry between the pair was in strong evidence, and with Axelrod at the lead, the collaboration felt like a band, rather than an orchestra. Axelrod had plenty to work with in the superb Orchestre National de Lyon, and together, they captured the audience's immediate devotion.

Following the orchestra's introductory passages from Dvorak, the ensemble settled in as Lang Lang and Hancock, both dressed in formal black, initiated the "Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Much of the playing was note-for-note indistinguishable, a remarkable quality in this setting, and the sound was superb. Lang Lang segued into a pair of short solo spots with his personal take on tango, followed by a flawless piece by Franz Liszt.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
1918 - 1990
composer/conductor
's "Candide Overture" shimmered like the surface of Lake Geneva. The key performers showed such a delicate touch that if a pin had dropped, it would surely have echoed in the ears of the audience. When the two stars sat side by side on Lang Lang's seat for a crystal clear "Mother Goose Suite" by Maurice Ravel, it was clear that the pairing, promoted by Nobs after he heard an improvised jam at the 2008 Grammy Awards, was inspired.

The duo delivered an incredible performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," in which familiar territory was revamped into a visit to an uncharted planet. The finale of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 2" inspired looks of silent awe from the rapt audience. The concert may not have turned form on its ear, but it did bring new clarity to well-tread ground.

Minor misalignments between polished ivories and orchestral soloists aside, the concert was thoroughly enjoyable and presented in an optimal acoustic environment. As opposed to often obligatory crowd responses, the standing ovation seemed sincerely rendered.

"This is the highlight of highs, as good as it gets," proclaimed Quincy Jones to the adoring audience. "Except for 'We Are the World,' this is the most important global event I can think of being involved with."

Strong praise from a strong source indeed. In terms of classical music, that was exactly what Lang Lang and Hancock offered in rare form.

July 6: To Pea or Not to Pea

Auditorium Stravinsky lacked the throngs for Black Eyed Peas that had gathered for The Dave Matthews Band just a few nights before. Nonetheless, the crowd was ready to party. Besides a few studious youngsters who attended the Hancock-Lang Lang show, this was the only indoor concert with a strong youth presence.

The Peas arrived surfing skyward on the unprecedented success of their latest release The E.N.D. (Interscope, 2009). The album produced a pair of singles entitled "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feeling" that made the BEP only the eleventh act ever to hold the number one and two spots on Billboard's Hot 100 since the chart's inception.

The Peas brought a high energy act with big special effects, but as a live act, they are still growing in terms of achieving the heights of their recordings. The set was marred by technical problems from the beginning, but this unexpected event resulted in an impressive improvised free-verse rap that proved the strong roots of the quartet's rhyming abilities. Still, the group spent much of the concert's first half imploring a hollow response from a swarm that was there to dance, but the crowd received little inspiration from what emanated from the stage.

Frontwoman Stacey "Fergie" Ferguson is a charismatic performer whose personal trainer deserves a generous bonus. Ferguson is the face of the group, but in concert the foursome, including Will.i.am (William Adams), Apl.de.ap (Allan Pineda Lindo) and Taboo (Jaime Gomez), showed equivalent star power.

The second half of the show saved the night, beginning with the heavy thumps of "Pump It," from the hit-filled album Monkey Business (Interscope, 2005). Suddenly, the Stravinsky floor morphed into a hopped up mass that resembled an oversized childrens' jumping castle.

A strong string of familiar, inspiring grooves followed, and as the Peas roared down their closing stretch, they proved they were indeed one of the hottest acts currently touring.

George Duke Trio featuring Chaka Khan: Class Act

Considering the wide range of performers, perhaps George Duke best bridged between the genres of classical and progressive music. With a gig that could have been a tribute set, Duke traversed terrain that was both familiar and eye opening.

Duke had the perfect attitude for his aptitude. He looked thrilled and honored to perform in the intimate Miles Davis Hall, a demeanor mirrored by both his brilliant trio and the featured singer, Chaka Khan. The performers began as a gourmet, late-night snack kicking things off around 1 am, but they became a full on feast by their nearly 3 am conclusion. This superhero showcase, complete with fantastic four, stood proudly amidst far more heavily hyped acts.

Chaka Kahn may have lacked vocal nuance in some songs, but she had more than enough emotion to compensate for it. Khan's most powerful moments, and there were many, included "Take the A Train" and Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
's "End of a Love Affair," the latter piece taken from Khan's Echoes of an Era (Electra/Rhino, 1992). When she dedicated a surprising "To Sir with Love" to her late father, dry eyes were few and far between.

"I've worked with every diva on the planet, and Chaka is one that I love," said Quincy Jones after the show. "If God made a woman with a bigger heart and a better voice, he kept her for himself."

"Many years ago when I was messed up on drugs and undependable, Quincy and Claude were always there for me," mused Khan. With this blunt admission, perhaps Ms. Kahn revealed why she put so much soul into this particular show.

An appearance by George Duke surely didn't hurt either. Duke received a standing ovation as he walked on stage, then proved he deserved it. He hit all the right keys as he alternated from an ECL piano to a Yamaha Motif ES 8. Duke spent most of his time, however, on a majestic old Rhodes that looked as though it had been taken right off the set of the 1960s TV show "Mod Squad."

Rounding out the heroics were a dynamic duo of Mike Manson on bass, who managed to up the ante on a stage previously held down that evening by the bass stars SMV - Stanley, Marcus, Victor (Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten), and drummer Ronald Bruner. Jazz fans will soon hear much more from Bruner if he continues in a similar vein.

Superb Sidebars

While Montreux does not feature widespread venues, like the Montreal International Jazz Festival for example, there were still plenty of free venues near the relatively small convention complex. The zany but highly skilled Flat Earth Society
Flat Earth Society
Flat Earth Society

band/orchestra
from the Netherlands made the hillside grass around Parc Vernex Bandshell a fine place to spend an afternoon. Meanwhile, the Marshall University Jazz Band proved that the American East Coast offers hope for the future of the genre. New York City was well-represented by The Virgins at the nearby Jazz Café.

For European summer festivals, the competition for headliners is stiff—programs from ocean to ocean often feature similar headliners.

In fact, numerous organizers of other well-known festivals came to observe the format and enjoy the music at Montreux. Their observations mirrored my own—Montreux offers the highest standard of both tradition and innovation.


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