Montreux Jazz Festival: Montreux, Switzerland, July 3-5, 2011
July 4: Geneva Fireworks
Weekdays saw a slight ease in the weekend crush. There is always a gleeful progression along the lakeshore walkway: just as the primary venue has been redesigned, so have some of the lively little temporary terraces and makeshift global village cantinas. Gaze out at the shimmering shoreline near the small central marina during festival nights. From some points, near the small rocky reef, it looks as if a well rendered sculpture of Miles Davis smiles at passing women in the waxing moonlight.
Thousands of little plastic Heineken cups litter the scenery all night but are no more than a brief blotch by dawn. Gardens and sales booths are restored in close condition to immaculate floral walkways, waiting to be buried again by mid-afternoon. Onsite donation boxes for an animal welfare recycling project got a big boost.
Monday, a virtually non-noticed Fourth of July here, was the first night Auditorium Stravinski clearly featured a jazz format. The Lee Ritenour-led quartet may have been a victim of shuffled schedule snafus. Founder Claude Nobs and producer Quincy Jones were honored at the US embassy in the nearby capital of Bern for showcasing acts that "represent the American lifestyle." Travel time may have caused an almost 30-minute delay for their introduction that led to a shifting crowd. Maybe it was a bad sign. Ritenour's session was technically fine, but a bit tedious by then. Something was missing for Montreux magnitude.
Special guest keyboardist Dave Grusin, another very capable artist, was not dynamic either. Ritenour employed some pedals to decent effect covering some older tunes, but it was the rhythm section, drummer Sonny Emory and bassist Melvin Davis, that kept his team in the ballgame. A brief scan of the hall found more than a few folks engaged in conversation, ignoring both courtesy and the stage.
At this level the fine line between exceptionally proficient and exceptional performance is what generally makes top dollar tickets and talent a relative bargain in the long run. The audience seemed satisfied enough, but not inspired. This quartet would soar the next night with Joe Sample, but nobody knew it at the time.
George Benson has been on a remarkable run these days, usually one of the very best performers to grace whatever event he commands. Benson has long held one of the sweetest signature sounds around, and his enthusiasm is contagious. After the festival opened with more experimental, ensemble themed shows, this was definitely mainstream jazz tradition and it was definitely great. Once more, his smooth scat and staccato strung hybrids stood out.
Many in the audience caught Benson's excellent Nat "King" Cole tribute last season, and were anxious for another installment of updated nostalgia with what was billed as the first live orchestration of Breezin' (Warner Bros., 1976). Future standards like the perfect opener "Affirmation" or crowd levitating title track provided an interactive history lesson about how Benson, like Cole; has become a pillar of what's classified as American music.
The updated effort, smoothly conducted by pianist Randy Waldman, featured uncredited strings that deserved notice for their crystal clarity. The marquee theme "Revisiting the Moment" echoed accurately, nearly note for note. Some of Benson's picking amidst strummed chords sounded vital as oxygen. For a wonderful while it was US bicentennial summertime again, and true or not those days or 35 years later, life seemed a breeze indeed.
Well, not exactly everything for Benson when he played Montreux back then. "They turned the air on here tonight," said Benson as he smiled and wiped his brow. "They didn't in the old place. Claude wanted it to look like we were working harder than we were." Benson made every note or break look easy. Playing something a thousand times has that affect.
Like King's men the night before, Benson's band were the unsung heroes. This time it was long time assistants Michael O'Neill (guitar), Stanley Banks (bass), Oscar Seaton (drums), percussionist Dio Saucedo and keyboardists David Garfield, Thom Hall and Ronnie Foster doing the honors.
When Breezin' initially came out, Benson had not developed into nearly the prime performer he is today. Now may be an even better time to catch some definitive cuts. "We learned a lot of lessons on that album," reflected Benson. "My reasoning is always play for the audience." Ask anybody who saw him in Montreux and they'll tell you. The great George Benson does that and more, indeed. Watch, listen and learn.
Missed Opportunity for Many
Sweat can shine as much as polish. Robert Randolph is a well-rehearsed, widely-traveled peddle slide guitarist who keeps his high-volume music coming from the gut. He impressed people unfamiliar with him during a supporting role with King the night before, and snuck up on those wise enough to stick around for his relatively late scheduled show. The hall had been packed for Benson, but only a couple hundred wise patrons remained for most of Randolph's sizzling set. Thousands of ticket holders discarded what was probably one of the best shows of the festival, nearly comparable to Benson's in terms of musical apples and oranges.
Randolph and the Family Band (Brett Haas on guitar, Danyell Morgan on bass, Alaina Terry on keys, Carlton Campbell on drums) ripped the house up. Everybody but the earthquake drummer sang a soulful chorus to Randolph's happy harmonies in a loud, hard-edged revival manner. It's no easy trick to pull off cheerful-type blues based anthems, but by the early morning end of the show, every person in the too small but well-amped audience was on their feet moving, ready to testify. Browsing Randolph's recent, gentler recordings may be misleading as to the band's almost raucous stage presence. Call it heavy metal gospel.
A trademark song like Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" almost always diminishes when compared to the original but Randolph pulled off the challenge. Substituting speed for hallucinogens, almost keeping the original urgency, Randolph channeled the voodoo child. Many effects on epics like "If I Had My Way (I'd Burn This Building Down)" were basically indistinguishable from whether Randolph was on a mutated six-string or his personal pedal steel. What mattered was the sweet, down home sting of Randolph's delivery.
Most of the show was at one speed: scorching. Speaking afterward, many folks unfamiliar with Randolph were now committed converts. He was probably the revelation of the week. Even on sleepy, somewhat besotted 3am busses, people gave big respect, adding loud, praising accents to his name in French or German.
Rock on the Water
Incoming raunchy prospects The Pretty Reckless get accelerated hype and scrutiny from 17 year old, tabloid tabbed front woman/girl Taylor Momsen. She toned down her "wild child" act and was all business in Montreux, before around 500 would be teen banshees and a few dozen curious geezers. On stage at least, songs like "Light Me Up" showed growth beyond reality show type roots, and there are probably few, if any performers her age with comparable rock chops behind them. Hype on TPR is more fact than gossip. Once Momsen gets beyond flashing the jailbait factor, this band could raise some really decent noise. That is, if they it doesn't live up to its name.
Momsen might envision an enduring role model like Melissa Auf Der Maur, whose deep droning bass chords carved Godzilla footprints for both Hole and Smashing Pumpkins. In concert, it becomes obvious that Auf Der Maur's contribution to those bands was more than minimal. Almost a third of the mostly teen crowd bailed after Momsen's appearance, but many of those that stayed now had ample space to float and dance frantically to Auf Der Maur's heavy harmonies. For a set of mostly album cuts, the twin guitar performance bordered on experimental "metal machine" type songs, with lyrics and a beat. Auf may be an alternatively acquired taste, but for the 250 folks who caught her act, it was an entertaining flavor. Worthy of a bigger audience.
Melissa Auf Der Maur
A larger crowd returned for a hearty set by Guano Apes, a popular German crew that had moderate regional success in these parts years back before disbanding in '05. If the well done Montreux gig was any judge, the reunion was a good idea. Guitarist Henning Rumenapp was textbook solid while bounding bassist Stefan Ude climbed every prop on the flashy stage. With catchy howler Sandra Nasic and stickman Dennis Poschwatta elevating people's heart rates, the hook-filled set generated consistent high energy and bodes very well for the comeback to continue.
One of the most anticipated Jazz Café shows featured Brit sensation Anna Calvi, a songwriting guitarist who has already been worshipped by major press. After a big buildup and big attendance, exit interviews indicated the 50-minute show was a letdown compared to most of her recent efforts. Many of Calvi's moody riffs didn't catch on with the noisy crowd. Perhaps the material was too "artsy" for a party club set.
Calvi did rally for a strong finale and proved she deserved at least some of the previous accolades with a great, distorted solo on "Love Won't Be Leaving" and a closing homage to Edith Piaf's version of the '50s hit, "Jezebel." The swarm was finally hooked, and switched from apathy to ecstasy. It was such a big finish the last ten minutes was like a different show. The question is, was it enough?
Maybe the grind of media bombardment, a heavy touring schedule since last year and releasing her debut album is taking a toll Calvi's team should consider. Then again, there are few professional musicians who haven't been in the same boat of demands and dreams.