Montreux Jazz Festival: Montreux, Switzerland, July 3-5, 2011
On Tuesday, there was another huge ensemble tribute, this one for producer Tommy LiPuma's 75th birthday. Many of LiPuma's most successful protégées appeared for segments lined-up after brief equipment modifications. In contrast to King's backyard type gathering, this was a more formal affair. In terms of talent, the multi-segmented show was a festival in itself.
"If it wasn't for these artists I'd probably still be cutting hair in Cleveland," nodded LiPuma, sounding touched by the attention. One overheard couple complained the event was more like an awards show than a concert. The revolving door format worked for a majority most of the time, but there were some breaks in the action that subdued a crowd which was ready to roar.
Opening the show was the same Ritenour crew as a night before. The same, except totally different. Maybe it had been jet lag or the ear of the beholder. Maybe they saved something for Tuesday or for LiPuma. Maybe Ritenour didn't want to get blown off the stage again by Benson. Instead, tonight the group sounded fantastic, run after run. A more animated Grusin switched one hand to piano and the other to keyboard while Emory and Davis remained a flawless foundation.
"Stolen Moments" has been rendered so many times, so many ways, it's tough to find a respectably novel approach. The Ritenour band did each other proud with a guitar based but not shackled take that showed yearning and fulfillment, and made the short list for best single festival performance. In addition to his fine bass playing, Davis delved into some wicked wah-wah scat.
One of LiPuma's Blue Thumb label acts, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, came up next. Hicks showed some of the wear and tear he was notorious for, but must be quite a survivor based on accumulated debauchery. His three song, loose twenty-minute set was actually a good fit, with '70s FM cornerstones like "Canned Music," and "I Scare Myself." Violinist Sid Page and the current Licks earned their title. Hicks fondly uttered the best line of the night: "Tommy was the consummate producer. I think he even bailed me out [of jail] a couple times in LA."
For better or worse, it seems there was never canned music in Hicks.
Next, the evening's primary backup band arrived, and quite a band it was with bassist Christian McBride, drummer Lewis Nash, keyboardist Ricky Peterson and piano professor Joe Sample on jazz history. This great group grew even better when Sample illuminated past eras with a story and a tune. His American Rag chronology and solo interpretation of "Caravan" were worthy of an honorary degree.
It looks like David Sanborn plays so naturally nowadays he could probably jump off a horse or out of a parachute and launch immediately into a blazing solo or whispering hint. His version of "Smile," always nice to hear near the little tramp composer's resting place, might as well have floated down from the clouds. Sanborn stayed on stage over much of the night and was an outstanding contributor to the program's vitality. He has sounded hungrier for exploration during the past couple European tours, much to the good of his music.
That Randy Crawford was particularly popular was no surprise, but her unexpectedly rowdy reception almost seemed as if a six pack of divas popped out on stage behind her. The vocalist, who worked with Sample in The Crusaders during the 70s and reunited with him for a pair of albums during 2007-08 fit so well with the house band it sounded like they had toured together forever. True pros. Crawford stood sublimely subdued, barely changing position for around 15 minutes, sounding smooth as silk but a little too soft.
Crawford's delivery was too natural to sound restrained, but she seemed to let just enough of her voice go to please the listeners, a bit more in progressive selections. "Rio de Janeiro Blue" was effective as an appetizer. "Me, Myself, and I" didn't really evoke or evolve the era of Lady Day. Then a surprising, excellently felt version of "Imagine" hit the mark much truer to John Lennon's melancholy musing than many overblown covers, and made Crawford's appearance stand out.
Just when Crawford, Sample and the crew opened up the kicks and got the place buzzing, intermission was announced. Kill that buzz.
The crowd was quite restless by the time Leon Russell opened part two of the show. They were more restless after Russell finished, around six or seven minutes later. Like Russell's documented health problems, the mini-set was frail. Russell went through a forced sounding version of "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms" and a sometimes indecipherable "Stranger in a Strange Land."
It was a strange, almost sad land on stage. Russell's personal, unlisted support band never really got a chance to warm up. After previous masters, the abrupt backing quartet sounded pretty rudimentary. Russell's keys were as hazy as his voice. Luckily, he was just getting primed for his part in the finale.
Another break for equipment changes, so close after intermission, seemed to drain the crowd, most of whom had been standing in the crowded, humid hall well over two hours. There was a quiet mood around the concourse that indicated people hung around just to make sure they got their money's worth.
Diana Krall glided out to one of the biggest ovations of the evening and earned the reception with a nicely swinging "Do I Move You (adding 'Tommy')." It was the peak of personalization. A fruitless stab at Joni Mitchell's "Case of You" fermented too slowly, but overall Krall's piano trio format with McBride and Nash was one of the week's hidden gems.
Maybe it was nothing more than the luck of sequencing, but almost 45 minutes straight of relatively low-key, back-to-back piano sets from Krall and Dr. John seemed a bit too subdued. Both could have growled a little moreor at least cooed a unique duet if they preferred.
A high number of slower songs has absolutely nothing to do with musical quality, but it's certainly a factor in how lively a place gets. It may be too picky or hyperactive to note, but some fans walked out looking like they were leaving a lecture hall more than a concert hall.
Dr. John's rendition of the bittersweet "My Buddy" was an illustrative example of this. Plenty of applicable verse and heart, but after Russell's underwhelming cameo and Krall's reserved turn at the piano, dozens of folks poured out of the packed auditorium either to stretch, catch some of the show on a large screen near the bars, or take a little walk to get jostled in fresh air.
It looked like a considerable number of folks remained for just a glimpse of the good doctor. Mr. Rebennack's persona at the piano alone justified that. If Doc had prescribed a faster introductory song (assuming he had a choice) the place would have gone loco, but instead he lulled them further into contemplation, not boogie land.
The show was well over three-and-a-half hours long and mostly a blast, but at weak spots sometimes it seemed like three days. There can be too much of a good thing.
It would be up to Benson to rouse the masses from statues into swingers. He did, with a beaming grin and mischievous, pencil thin mustache curving up like a bent fifth string. Musically the closing 45 minutes or so of LiPuma's gala would be hard to beat for the rest of the summer, by anybody; anywhere. Benson and Sanborn played so well together one has to wish they have a longer, more formal partnership someday soon. Sanborn didn't hog anything but maintained strong leads throughout. He acts proud to be among crossover stars and made sure to push the effort. Meanwhile, Benson deserved a festival MVP.
The highest point jelled as the ensemble of Sanborn, Sample, Benson, Russell and the full support band did back to back extensions of "This Masquerade" and the closing "On Broadway." Not even the best Swiss clock could keep time like these guys. The monumental medley lasted half an hour. Funkified jazz at its most deliciously driven. It looked like Dr. John came back to one of the numerous keyboards for a bit, but current proximity and an overflow hall that you could barely move in made that unverifiable.
It was also hard to distinguish the glowing white Russell's playing among multiple keyboards, but it certainly looked like the reclusive old session man was coming alive during his career resurgence. Team captain Benson offered plenty of praise and gratitude to Russell for "putting him on the map" and tried in vain to nudge the near motionless Russell to share a chorus, but Leon was contributing effectively while locked into his own private zone, and the words got in the way.
From left: David Sanborn, George Benson
The grand finale erased uneven earlier portions of the show. The departing crowd was cheerful and animated even under sardine stairwell conditions. Maybe some of the concert dragged a bit, but it remained a powerhouse experience. Life has tough choices, even facetiously. Rather to watch some of the best musicians on the planet focus on flawless delivery, or let them get a little sloppy as they jack up the heat. Decisions, decisions. With a line up like this, there were plenty of both.
Maybe LiPuma's birthday was an appropriate time capsule of a successful producer's life. Shuffle the gold and the dust until things all come together. Gladly, all's well that ends well played.
The most consistent stars of Music in the Park are the magnificent, giant trees not far from the band shell. Just a glimpse of Laura Marlin and her audience's reaction makes her a newcomer to watch. Blaringly heralded bands like The Vaccines make some drooling UK music coverage look more than a little anxious. Of all the Davis Hall shows, it seemed Trombone Shorty and Orleans made one of the most lasting impressions on both the crowd and promoters with their rousing revue. Expect Shorty in a bigger room here soon.
Jone's Global Gumbo projects should be, if not already, an annual tradition. In fact, they should have a related, opening day parade down the main street in front of the convention complex, always themed on the diversity of music Montreux represents. It could end at a lakeside kickoff show. Perhaps like many other cities do during special occasions, Montreux could ease the oppressive parking enforcement. Looking around, it's comical to believe the city is that desperate for funds.
At a festival like Montreux, watching a bit of the ticket or concession stand cash flow that goes on hour after hour gives an idea of the huge revenue involved. Considering production costs, that flow has to be deep and constant for quite a while before most merchants get near breaking even. Festival publicity said Montreux had achieved the goal of a 10% increase in food and beverage sales.
There seems to be an overwhelmingly accepted new business model throughout many Western European music festivals that multiple DJ sets are the way to schedule after hours, running until dawn. Perhaps the theory of dispersing the masses into nearby annexes after headlining shows is a way to keep the consumers spending on site while affording time to chill.
Where many of the shows sell out, inner-connected club settings also provide places for those who couldn't get tickets. So far so good, but sooner or later even paradise probably has a tipping point. That might be the case these days along Lake Geneva.
To many previous accolades, Montreux must now add a negative point. Even the elite aren't immune to infestation of idiots. The party ran all night, but this year there was a cost. Crowd skirmishes and arrests were seen, during presumably isolated incidents. Still, this observer has only witnessed three such volatile scenes at widespread festivals, and all were incidents at Montreux this year.
Our odds on public gathering probability say there will be approximately one harmless but distracting butthead and one potentially dangerous scumbag per 2,500 concert goers. The odds of a festival attendee witnessing any problems remained unlikely. Chances of personally getting hassled anywhere in the general 20 kilometer Montreux-Vevey area still seem almost impossible.
As Montreux Jazz continues to upgrade and expand it will be interesting and crucial what occurs with growing attendance numbers. Let's hope the scene remains free of violence, unnecessary inflation, or the totally wasted. One wonders what Nobs and Jones might think, or even know, about the behavioral blemishes. Too bad it's become naive to expect consistent civility anywhere.
The statistic that matters is that almost all of the performers at MJF were excellent, with a high percentage of greatness on display, sometimes in rare collaborations. Jazz traditionalists may shudder that, even worse than Deep Purple closing the festival, there was a hip hop program in Stravinski Hall. Whatever your artistic preference or philosophy, reality showed those concerts were among the most high energy and well received. "Hey ho," old Igor himself might have said, "give me more." This jazz revolution will not be categorized.
You really couldn't go wrong any night. Jazz proved supreme in the musical scheme. Montreux jazzes it up as well, and probably better, than any place on the planet.
Maybe a debate on Montreux 2011 simply comes down to something the well-schooled drummer and teacher Sonny Emory related during one of many afternoon workshops at elegant Petite Palais, conducted by guests like Ritenour, McLauglin, Sanborn and himself.
It was another beautiful afternoon in the gardens around the concert halls. The discussion shifted to musical priorities, preferences, and what kind of music best suits Montreux.
"Groove is paramount," testified the highly spirited Emory, with persuasive conviction. "The kind of music doesn't really matter. If it grooves, it's good."
Montreux Jazz remains the reliable paramount of groove.
Page 1, BB King/Carlos Santana: Lionel Flusin
Page 1, Chillon Castle: Samuel Bitton
Page 1, The Funk Ensemble: Odile Meylan
Page 1, Aloe Blacc: Daniel Balmat
Page 1, Anna Calvi: Muriel Rochat
Page 2, Lee Ritenour, Robert Randolph: Lionel Flusin
Page 2, Auf Der Maur: Daniel Balmat
Page 3, Sonny Emory: Odile Meylen
Page 3, Crawford,Leon,Krall,John,Sanborn/Benson: Lionel Flusin
All Photos: Courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival