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Montreal Jazz Festival: Montreal, Canada, June 28-July 7, 2012

Montreal Jazz Festival: Montreal, Canada, June 28-July 7, 2012
By Published: August 21, 2012
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
June 28-July 7, 2012
From the time of the airplane's descent to the airport in Montréal, I knew something was different and perhaps special about this place. Instead of a square or rectangular grid style of suburban housing plots, from my window I saw circular formations of housing, many with swimming pools in the back yards.

That's a cool design for a neighborhood, I thought. Similar ideas would come to mind often during my sojourn at the Montréal Jazz Festival, celebrating its 33rd year over ten days, June 28 through July 7, 2012.

After exchanging U.S. greenbacks for Canadian currency at the airport, and getting adjusted to being greeted with "Bonjour!" I saw the young people assigned to round up musicians and others attending the festival in an official capacity. They directed me to a van that would take us downtown to our lodgings near the festival grounds.

I had the pleasure of riding with a group of musicians from Paris, the band of singer Nina Attal, a young lady making waves on the European funk scene. This was their third time playing in Montréal for the Festival International De Jazz De Montréal, the largest such event in the world. I sat next to Bruno Pimienta, a thin cat with a laidback manner sporting a beard. We struck up a conversation, and after revealing my secret identity as a jazz journalist he said to feel free to call him "Spicy." He regaled me with the names of jazz musicians he admired: saxophonist Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
b.1956
saxophone
(with whom he had done some workshops), singer Gretchen Parlato
Gretchen Parlato
Gretchen Parlato

vocalist
, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding
b.1984
bass, acoustic
, pianist Gerald Clayton, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
b.1982
trumpet
, and drummer Gene Lake
Gene Lake
Gene Lake
b.1966
drums
, to name a few.

He said he had just met fellow drummer Herlin Riley
Herlin Riley
Herlin Riley
b.1957
drums
at a European festival the previous week. When I asked him some of the older drummers he liked, he immediately piped up: "Papa Jo Jones
Jo Jones
Jo Jones
1911 - 1985
drums
. I love the way he looks when he plays. It's like theater watching him." When I said that Papa Jo was the original jazz master drummer, Bruno adds: "There's a reason they call him Papa!"

Turns out Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
was the first drummer who sparked his interest in jazz. Bruno has a rock background, and wasn't into American jazz until he heard Jones playing with saxophonist John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
from 1963, or thereabouts. He says it then "clicked" for him, and he began to investigate jazz.

My first impression of Montréal and the people here is that, just as I've heard and read, it's very clean and the people nice, at least on the surface. As a New Yorker used to the hustle and bustle and the often brusque manner of my native New York countrymen and women, this was as pleasant a surprise as moving to Westchester and discovering that motorists will stop and let you go by, even if they have the right of way.

But the kind of "nice" is different than the Southern hospitality of my kinfolk in Georgia and Florida. The vibe I'm talking about I sensed from the festival staff, at the hotel, in stores, and the like: very, very cordial. And in the case of the media relations team, incredibly accommodating and willing to go the extra mile. The air of the patrons of the festival and those just walking the streets was quite relaxed, good for an urban guy like me needing relief from stress. The cultural vibe is French, what with most people speaking that Romance language and crêpes joints as frequent as churches and liquor stores are in Harlem.

I knew something had been missing in my life. Turns out it was crêpes with strawberries and Nutella.

I found the setup for the festival in downtown Montréal a wonder to behold, with numerous outdoor stages (Scéne TD being the largest), and smaller tents with vendors well-spaced, and jazz fest info booths close by. I overheard the Artistic Director of the festival, André Ménard, say that on this particular day (the third of the ten-day festival) 50,000 people were present, yet it didn't seem overcrowded. Vendors were not on top of each other as I've found oftentimes at festivals in New York City—especially street festivals.

In New York, it's as if some festival organizers view vendors as grocery merchandisers do, with a mind toward optimal usage of space for profit. Hence, pack 'em in. In Montréal, the vendors and the performance spaces breathe, as they should for an event where sophisticated, family friendly music such as jazz is the central form.

But, yes, there were all sorts of groups present throughout the festival. Quite a few, in fact, performed music not primarily jazz. But you'd either have to be very young or have one's head under a rock to not know that jazz festivals have, since at least the 1950s, included acts from other genres—especially more popular genres—to draw larger crowds. No shock there.

Yet, shockingly beautiful was the Place des Arts, the major performing arts center of Montréal, Quebec. The inside design is breathtaking in its elegance, its particular combination of form and function. As I walked to witness a duo performance by singer/pianist Patricia Barber
Patricia Barber
Patricia Barber
b.1955
piano
and pianist Kenny Werner
Kenny Werner
Kenny Werner
b.1951
piano
, on the left I saw a male bassist and female pianist-singer in the Place Deschamps; on the right was an art gallery, the Galerie Lounge TD, featuring works inspired by music, jazz in particular. Artists such as Richard Séguin, Yves Archambault, Diane Dufresene, Marcel Barbeau had featured works, as did Anthony Benedetto (Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
b.1926
vocalist
) and Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
. Dignity and appreciation leapt from the canvas of Bennett's piece, "Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
."



As I kept walking, I saw an installation of video art that transfixed my attention. I came to discover that the various halls—from the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to the Théâtre Maisonneuve—rival the best in the States, including Carnegie and Lincoln Center.

Patricia Barber and Kenny Werner

The acoustics of each hall differs. The best, perhaps, is the Maison Symphonique de Montréal, completed last year as the home of the Montréal Symphony. That's where Barber and Werner performed together, both playing piano, with Barber singing witty and sensitive melodies with gentility. She wore no shoes. After hearing her originals, it became clear that she was barefoot and intellectually pregnant.

The two artists took pleasure in sharing their simpatico with the hushed audience. Both engaged in percussive play occasionally, reaching into the keyboard strings with one hand to create a thudding sound effect with the other. Werner would, at times, rock back and forth in bliss, before unleashing a torrent of notes. At others, he leaned forward in Hampton Hawes
Hampton Hawes
Hampton Hawes
1928 - 1977
piano
/Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
-like fashion, attuned to a muse he and Barber created on the spot.

Barber's sensitivity to the call-and-response interplay with Werner was so acute that she would verbally say "haa" and "ahh" sounds. Her original, "For Company," had lyrics that might excite students of post-modernism:

"for company I like French philosophy

Deconstructive obscurity formalized, canonized and dignified by the university."


I appreciated Barber signifying on the absurd aspects of that important and crucial perspective. Yet without a way to integrate with earlier value systems in a comprehensive manner, post-modernism is ultimately a dead-end point-of-view. That it's been all the rage in the American academy in recent decades is undeniable. Of course, this paragraph may ultimately be meaningless since it's all a matter of interpretation . . .

A piece Barber was commissioned to write, "Til' You Call" ("I got a letter and a check in the mail," out of the blue, she said), was touching in its tale of love expected, and (hopefully) not unrequited. Her update of Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
's "You're the Top" in the second chorus, with political references to President Obama and Democrats, was an example of her wit.

The varied intellectual references found in her lyrics were also evident in "Missing," in which the phrase "post-enlightenment free" was bandied about. These are lyrics for the well-educated. That song is featured on Barber's upcoming Concord date, set for release in early 2013.

The audience was very quiet, and you could feel the intensity of the listening. When the two artists finished, the people in the hall rose up in applause, continuing until the two came back. Barber was still without shoes. They played a meditative encore.

Colin Stetson

Later that evening, I attended a late-night solo saxophone concert at the Gésu—Center De Creativite, an intimate space—where, from the outside, you see the remnants of a beautifully designed church. The Gésu Theater would bring me much pleasure during the festival. Not so much this evening. The soloist was the American-born Colin Stetson, who now lives in Montréal. On alto and bass saxophones, Stetson would establish a groove, and then repeat it constantly through circular breathing. I wondered what electronic recording, if any, he had up there with him, because it didn't seem possible for all of those sounds to come from the horn by itself. (Multiple microphones on the saxophone, I later discovered, is the basis.)

One song sounded like a rock number with Stetson playing various parts. Another repeated phrases á la late-Coltrane, and interpolated variations. I wondered: is this an innovation or a gimmick? (Michael Bourne of WBGO suggested it could be both.) For me, if Stetson found a way to intersperse some bebop, and sound like multiple horns in the manner of, say, Supersax or the World Saxophone Quartet
World Saxophone Quartet
World Saxophone Quartet

band/orchestra
, while improvising his own lines, I'd likely be more impressed. But I was tired, so only stayed for three songs. (I heard later that he did a touching song about a whale who wanders through the ocean alone because his song call frequencies are abnormal.)

For me, the jury's still out on Stetson's approach. As a solo saxophone demonstration, however, I didn't think it elaborated or refined the profound lessons of Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
and Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, who have set a standard of solo sax performance yet to be reached.

Michael Bourne

I began the following morning by interviewing Michael Bourne, whose deep voice has been part of the identity of WBGO, 88.3 FM in Newark, New Jersey for over a quarter century. It was great chatting with someone I've been listening to on the radio since the early 1980s. But what some who recognize his voice on radio may not know is that he's a print journalist of longstanding, too. He's been writing for Downbeat since the late 1960s.

Our discussion took place in the media room on the second floor at the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, located on the corner of Saint Catherine St. and Places des Festivals. In honor of his 20-year relationship with the festival, the press room now bears Bourne's name.

I asked him what makes the Montréal Jazz Festival so special:

"This festival is the best because of the quantity and the quality. All festivals have a character, but everything is here. The people who put this on really understand the interplay of all the musics.

"When people complain about not enough jazz, I say just open your ears, it's there, there, and there," he says pointing left, right and center. "George Wein presented Chuck Berry at Newport in the 1950s, when he was just getting started. These prejudices about the different styles of music are ridiculous."

He continues: "It's the integrity of the people who put this together, the imagination. It's year-round now. They've transformed this city and this street. This is a main artery, and a full-time performance space. . .

"They've done all this with great business sense. But first and foremost, they're people who all love the music. This is the paradigm for all jazz business; there's no jazz business more successful in the world than the Montréal Jazz Festival. And it's non-profit. All the money they make from merchandising goes toward paying the people you see playing in the street for free."

Sixty percent of the concerts are free. It's also the first festival in the world officially recognized as carbon neutral.

"The infrastructure, economically and otherwise, is amazing. They could run a country," Bourne declares without a trace of doubt. "At the end of the night there's so much trash in the street, and the next day it's all gone. A hundred thousand people will be in the streets for these events and I've never seen a fight or trouble at all."

He noted how certain musicians, for instance, Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
, seem to perform their best in Montréal, in part because of the enthusiasm of the festival's audience. The international flavor of Montréal may even exceed New York's, he added. The stellar press relations team keeps him coming back.

"There's no press corps in the world that comes close to these people. They are so professional, and they get done everything that you need to get done. And they'll make the effort, and if it can't get done, it's not for lack of trying."

I can attest to the truth of this statement. My contact, Vincent Lefebvre, was a model of courtesy, humor, and laidback Montréal charm. He insisted that my wife and I check out the Star Wars exhibit at the Montréal Science Centre in the King Edward Pier in Old Montréal. He gave us comp tickets to seal the deal. By recounting the story and fictional locales of the Star Wars saga, and the main and secondary characters, the exhibit uncovers mysteries and facts about identity in ways both fun and educational.

Considering that 400 or so media from 25 countries report on the festival, the press teams' professionalism deserves mention.

However, the music, of course, remains the biggest magnet for Bourne. "They bring African musicians and Cuban musicians that we don't get to hear in the U.S. And they have all these great Canadian musicians that we never get to hear in the U.S. because it's almost impossible for them to get a worker's permit.

"It's the hallmark of this festival that you end up missing more great music than you hear because there's so much. You'll be walking down the street and all of a sudden something will just grab you. Yesterday it was a kid, a trombone player, all of 17 or so, at the main outdoor stage, playing 'Over The Rainbow.' He was playing the verse with a sound that was so dark and beautiful. You couldn't believe he was a kid with that sound; it was so masterful.

"I'll never forget turning a corner and hearing a group I thought was a bluegrass group, and there was a guy playing a kora. Of course the banjo comes from the kora. Another night I heard some cats, a power rock group like Cream, with a guy playing like Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
1938 - 1972
trumpet
on 'Sidewinder.' And that was in the street. That happens all day long."

SMV: Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten

On Saturday evening, three titans of the bass guitar took the stage of the Théâtre Maisonneuve after a dramatic light show signaled their entrance. They launched into a funk beat that had the house rockin' from the very start.



Last year, Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
b.1951
bass
, an electric bass innovator, was given the Miles Davis Award. This year he was one of two artists featured in the festival's Invitation series, where a musician performs in various configurations, displaying range of artistic reach. He had performed on opening night with the Japanese piano marvel Hiromi
Hiromi
Hiromi
b.1979
piano
; he was to play with the Harlem String Quartet on yet another evening.

Tonight, June 30th (which happened to be his 61st birthday,) he played both electric and acoustic bass. His facility on both was a marvel to hear. Yet he seemed to derive as much enjoyment from watching his fellow bassists do their thing as playing himself.

Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
b.1959
bass, electric
is a top record producer and thumb-slap master who extended and elaborated the techniques of Clarke, Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
1951 - 1987
bass, electric
and Larry Graham. On deep groove tunes he'd smack the instrument's fingerboard like a talking drum. Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten
b.1964
bass
is most famous as the bassist with Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
b.1958
banjo
and The Flecktones. His sweet and buttery tone projected a technique so virtuosic that you might have thought your ears were deceiving you— especially on his feature, "Classical Thump"—when in fact it was a high-level demonstration of his famed "double thump" method.

They also performed ballads, with a gentleness usually reserved for behind closed doors. Most of the cuts came from the group's debut funk/fusion recording from 2008, Thunder. (Heads Up)

I happened to run into Miller at the Hyatt hotel in the Quartier Des Spectacles before the concert. Here's his take on the festival: "Usually you've got to travel a long way to experience something on this level. But it's an hour from the States [by plane]. Here you're in the middle of a truly international experience. All festivals reflect the festival director's tastes. Here you get a full picture, not all straight-ahead, or smooth jazz or all funk. It's beautiful."

Dr. Lonnie Smith

The Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill isn't in the Quartier Des Spectacles, where the Place de Arts edifice and most of the other indoor and outdoor venues for the Montréal Jazz Festival are located. Yet as Montréal's most renowned jazz club, running 364 days a year, Upstairs is a comrade-in-arms to the annual event, and is listed in the festival's large program guide.

When I finally arrived at 1254 Rue Mackay, walking downstairs to enter Upstairs, the spirit of the 65-seat club reminded me of the Village Vanguard, Smoke, Small's or that old favorite of musicians, Bradley's. Once you step in, there's a long bar diagonally to the left, small tables with linen cloths, and people eating fine food and drinking refreshments. Pictures of greats local to global adorn the walls, and classic album covers set a standard for which the live musicians can aspire.

Of special note is a section of articles and testimonials devoted to the late Len Dobbin, a much beloved broadcaster and supporter of the music in the Canadian jazz community.

The organist Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
b.1942
organ, Hammond B3
led a trio that included Jonathan Kreisberg
Jonathan Kreisberg
Jonathan Kreisberg
b.1972
guitar
on guitar and Johnathan Blake on drums. The turban-wearing organist led by gestures, glances that blossomed into smiles, and a sense of adventure and exploration on a journey through genres that were merely way stations for groove and feeling tones of expression. He supplemented his Hammond B3 organ with a Korg electronic keyboard that produced sounds ranging from the conga to what seemed to me to be a sample of Miles Davis's trumpet.

Kreisberg played with fierce passion when called for, lessening the intensity on the appropriate numbers. For instance, "The World Weeps" was like a New Orleans dirge; Kreisberg alluded to The Godfather theme in passing. Blake's drive and power excited Smith, who scatted while riffing and sometimes sang in falsetto voice. Blake kept the time accurately; his pulse was precisely attuned to the guitar and keyboards, whether they played a slow or medium blues, a shuffle or Bossa groove, a rock style akin to the group Journey, Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
b.1971
band/orchestra
-like fusion, or straight-ahead swing.

A thoroughly enjoyable set was enriched further by Smith's dramatic flair and sleight-of-hand expressions. When a group such as Smith's organ trio glides from humor and irony to tragedy and peaceful acceptance, and feelings in between, you know you're in the hands of a great musician and band leader.

Smith gave himself the title "Dr.," and became a Sikh in the 1970s. He announced that his new CD, The Healer (2012), was being sold for the very first time then and there, on his own Pilgrimage label.

Me'shell Ndegeocello

I dashed to Club Soda, which seats 540 (950 standing) to see singer- songwriter-bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello
Me'Shell NdegeOcello
Me'Shell NdegeOcello
b.1968
bass, electric
. I enjoyed her collaboration with Jason Moran
Jason Moran
Jason Moran
b.1975
piano
, mashing up Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
piano
with today's dance grooves, at Harlem Stage last year. So I wanted to see and hear her with her own group.

She doesn't move around much in performance—she just stands there and brings the funk. Some folk, rock, soul and fusion too, since, as a genre-bender from back in the day (early '90s), she's not confined by categories. In fact, her chosen last name reportedly means "free as a bird" in Swahili. She started in a James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
vocalist
groove, with "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."

Ndegeocello soon sang a song from her album Weather (Naïve, 2011): "Oysters," a duet with her pianist, softly telling a story rich in imagery. Drawing on the American folk song tradition, as filtered through Nina Simone
Nina Simone
Nina Simone
1933 - 2003
piano
, Ndegeocello belted out "Sea Lion Woman." "Chance," also from Weather, was in a pop mode. Since she has jazz chops on bass, I wish she had done something more in that vein, but going by the audience reaction, she did just fine by them.

Andre Menard, Artistic Director

The following afternoon I interviewed the festival's Artistic Director in the Salle Stevie Wonder (adjacent to the press room), where earlier the festival founder and president Alain Simard interviewed bassist Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
, recipient of the 2012 Miles Davis Award. Since the issue of the integrity of calling the event a "jazz" festival, given the wide range of musical styles represented, is a common point of contention by critics, I asked Menard: What is your programming philosophy?

"If the festival had some roots it would be the European festivals, where the jazz festivals have a more diversified ground that they're covering than just strictly jazz. In New York City, a jazz festival is supposed to be about jazz.

"In our case, it's about jazz and music that are cousins or neighbors of jazz. Especially in these days and times where music circulates so easily on the net, and guys who work together send tracks. So the penetration of all the musical genres is as great as it's ever been. What I hear is jazz percolating in much of pop music right now, be it electronica, and there's lots of it that's totally improvised or greatly improvised. Or singers like Janelle Monáe or Gregory Porter
Gregory Porter
Gregory Porter
b.1971
vocalist
, who we saw here.

"To define what is strictly jazz is pretty tough. There's a huge chunk of the festival that's pure jazz, guys like Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
and Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
and Ron Carter. Then there's the other music that's a part of our mix.

"As for our philosophy, as much as this festival is inclusive socially, people from every walk of life can attend the festival, we try to make it as inclusive as possible musically. We try to represent what's current, what's interesting in music and in jazz, and what's historical as well. It's pretty large.

"When you have a festival this size it's almost like an anthology every year. Everything that moves in music seems to be represented at the festival. Generally speaking, we get good feedback from the crowds and the musicians love to play here. And they like the diversity of it."

The Life and Blues Of Bessie Smith: The Devil's Music

One example of diversity in programming is the inclusion of a theater piece based on the music and life of Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
1894 - 1937
vocalist
, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, was known as the Empress of the Blues. I hadn't seen the production in New York at the St. Luke's Theater so I was glad to have the chance in Montréal, at the Cinquiéme Salle in the Place des Arts.



Smith was played by Miche Braden, who performed blues classics such as "St. Louis Blues," "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," and "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" with the requisite sass and sauciness. She was joined on stage by saxophonist Keith Loftis, pianist Aaron Graves, and bassist Jim Hankins , who throughout served as the main character's foil.

The play provides the bare outlines of her life story: the rise to stardom and wealth, her good-for-little, philandering husband, her taste for women as sexual partners, her love of her son and difficulty raising him, and her untimely, tragic death. From a strictly musical perspective, it was interesting to hear Braden speak the words of playwright Angelo Parra regarding the impending rise of "Swing" music and Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
.

Had Smith lived, it would have been marvelous to have captured, on record and film, her adaptation to the Big Band era as she fought to maintain her throne. As regards the set design and direction, both seemed fine to me. I'm not a drama critic so that's my opinion as a layman. But I'd urge you to see this play if it ever comes to your area. It's a cautionary tale about the traps and temptations of fame and fortune in the context of gender, sexuality and race that has resonance even today.

And speaking of today, thank goodness the blues is recognized and respected as the ground for most American music, including jazz and gospel. In 2012, it's very clear that the blues, as a force of culture, is here to stay. The blues and jazz are much greater than the myopic judgment—based on narrow religiosity—that deemed it, in Bessie Smith's time, "the devil's music."

James Carter Organ Trio

James Carter
James Carter
James Carter
b.1969
sax, tenor
's facility on woodwind instruments—he plays all saxophones, from soprano to baritone, and flute as well—is awe-inspiring. In the context of his organ trio, together for a little over a decade, his virtuosity serves to excite and entertain. He keeps the styling of the sui generis saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
Eddie
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
1922 - 1986
sax, tenor
alive via a gruff manner on tenor with humor underneath the growl. His style is Type A, extroverted, and he's not shy about playing the entire history of jazz saxophone in one set, from the wide-vibrato of early years through to the free experiments of Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
and Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
. He's assimilated Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
into his sax language too. In my estimation, Carter uses vocal, over-blowing techniques for dramatic effect, and circular breathing to amaze. His altissimo range is phenomenal.

As a bandleader, he gives his musical mates space to freely express themselves, as he grooves on the sidelines, dancing and smiling. He doesn't hog the spotlight.

But I still wonder, as you'll see below, about his performance style.

Joined by Gerard Gibbs
Gerard Gibbs
Gerard Gibbs
b.1967
organ, Hammond B3
on Hammond B3 and Leonard King Jr. on drums, Carter began the performance at Club Soda by announcing the set list, mostly derived from their 2011 recording At The Crossroads (EmArcy). Rarely is an entire set list outlined before a performance, so this was a refreshing change. Mark Whitfield
Mark Whitfield
Mark Whitfield
b.1966
guitar
performed with the group on guitar, though Rodney Jordan was listed in festival programming.

Miche Braden, before going to play Bessie Smith again in the play discussed just above, joined the band to reprise her role on the album. In the play, she's limited to the styling of the 1920s and '30s; here she took on blues and full-fledged swing with a tigress- like intensity, even wailing a few scat choruses in a style only heard in jazz from the 1940s.

The group veered from the sacred reverence of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
's "Come Sunday" to the pop anthem "Saving All My Love For You" (in honor of Whitney Houston) and the up-tempo stomp, "The Walking Blues."

I spoke with Carter about the recording the following day:

James Carter: The album was originally entitled It's All Good News To Me. I was looking to have more spiritual content in it but between "Come Sunday" and "The Old Ship of Zion," we felt that the secular, or other side of the tracks, if you will, was heavier.

So I felt that we could save that title for another recording that could be more gospel-related. At the Crossroads was in lieu of the original title because of the sacred content that shows the fine line between sacred and secular, if you will. Not taking anything away from either one of them—I feel like they're one and the same. I think there are some people who use sacred and secular because of whatever content they feel is necessary to differentiate, like 'We're not talking hokum here, like hot dog for your rolls.' Meanwhile, on the other side we're talking about "Balm in Gilead." In a lot of instances, it depends on what the music is doing for the public at large.

It heals, because it gives you something to think about, not only from a neurological standpoint, but dealing with the other chakras, the other energy centers as well, that words and syntax, a lot of times, can't touch.

So it's all healing, which goes back to the term, "It's All Good News to Me," depending upon what you're looking at.

All About Jazz: So, another way of saying it would be that the sacred and secular is part of the same continuum.

JC: Yeah. For most people, it depends upon which edifice it's being delivered in. If it's in a church, it's sacred; if it's in a club, then it's the other.

For me, one of the most iconic scenes portraying that dichotomy is in [the film] The Color Purple. When you think about the juke joint, but at the same time there's this rockin' church down the road. "God's trying to tell you somethin.'' And here's Shug Avery at the juke joint, but it's hitting her deep. She's got to come back home. And she brings the band with her. And her, the band and everybody came into that church, and they were all playing—that's the beauty of it. That the door is always open was portrayed musically and cinematically. That's the lesson I got from that: [the church] is where it all comes from. They continue to exist and they continue to inspire. It's all healing."

I'd amend Carter's claim by saying that music has the potential to heal. The lessons of the recent murders in Wisconsin, in which a sociopathic white supremacist killed Sikhs before worship, are instructive. He was in a white power music group that used heavy metal/thrash/punk-styled music to recruit and spread hate.

Staying within the discourse of sacred and secular, I wonder about Carter's performance style. He strikes me as similar to the rhythm and blues saxophonists who would walk the bar and blow crazy hard for the sake of local audiences. Although this practice was part of the Detroit tradition he was reared in, considering Carter's extraordinary saxophone skills, such an approach would be somewhat like a Harvard- educated theologian deciding to preach in a storefront church, whooping and hollering hysterically rather than teaching the Bible with profound hermeneutical insight.

I only thought of the metaphors above after speaking with Carter and reflecting later on the possible dichotomy between his talent and ability, and his performance style. I look forward to speaking with him about these matters on another occasion.

Tord Gustavsen

I jetted from my interview with James Carter over to the Hyatt Hotel to speak with Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen
b.1970
piano
, 41, a Norwegian pianist who records on the European ECM label—these days, with saxophonist Tore Brunborg
Tore Brunborg
Tore Brunborg
b.1960
saxophone
, bassist Mats Eilertsen
Mats Eilertsen
Mats Eilertsen
b.1975
bass
, and drummer Jarle Vespestad. His latest release is titled The Well (2012).

Gustavsen, who like Stanley Clarke, was a focus of the festival's Invitation series, was featured in quartet, trio, duo and solo settings. I heard his solo performance, which was a beautiful realization of the ideals he discusses below.

I especially looked forward to our chat because I wanted to get a feel of the musical roots of one of the top reputed European jazz pianists. In the course of my time as a jazz journalist, I've found that some American jazz artists and critics think that the music is becoming too cerebral, too European, lacking the grounding and tradition of American blues and swing.

The conversation broached not only those matters; it turned out to be a continuation of the theme of the healing and sacred side of music. But first I ventured his opinion on the festival itself, where he's played for four years.

AAJ: What's special about the Montréal Jazz Festival?

Tord Gustavsen: It's a well-run festival. They don't forget to pick you up from the airport like other festivals; things as basic as that. And they have venues suitable for different kinds of music. The last time we were put in a theatre, a 700-seat auditorium, which was great. This series that I'm doing now is in the Gésu—Centre de Creativite, which is a brilliant space for a series like this. And they've got the outdoor stage for things that really suit an outdoor setting, so the variety of spaces and venues really embraces the variety of jazz and the variety of jazz audience. I like the fact that their programming reaches out to the far ends and to the core of jazz history. It's brilliant.

AAJ: The spectrum.



TG: The spectrum. And in many parts of the world, you may feel a separation between the American and the European jazz scene. And I feel here that we are brothers and sisters. And they're really appreciative and knowledgeable about the creative scene in Europe, while also still staying true to the American roots of jazz and to the contemporary stuff happening in America. For me, as a European traveling worldwide, I think that's touching and points to the future of jazz.

AAJ: How would you describe your music? I know you're on ECM, and you'll be playing in different configurations. I'm looking forward to them, particularly the solo concert, because that not something you usually do, right?

TG: Not so much. I do a lot of solo interludes and solo sections inside the quartet and trio concerts. So in that respect I do it a lot.

AAJ: But not a solo concert.

TG: Exactly. Doing the whole overall shape of a concert with piano only is a different challenge all together. I do it maybe once or twice per year. I really like it, but it's also extremely challenging. And I feel the need to not overplay things is paradoxically even stronger there than in the quartet setting. It's so easy to start doing everything you know on each song, when you play solo. That's not the way I want to play. I want every musical space to grow and get the impact that it can have. And I want to make every melodic idea or phrase stand out and have the contemplative potential that it can have develop.

Doing that in a solo setting is even more challenging and even more rewarding.

AAJ: We've mentioned jazz, the spectrum, the core and the periphery.

TG: But I didn't really describe my music, though. I really feel that in everything I do that the core issue is that of stripped down beauty, beauty as something radically different than sweetness or prettiness. It's about getting in touch with the sacredness of beauty. Where you play what you really feel, and you don't play the other shit. You know? And you let dynamics and double tempos and complexity develop from that core, or foundation of stripped down beauty. That's what I try to do in every setting.

With the trio or quartet that I've been working the most with, that's where we've taken that approach to the farthest extreme by really getting hardcore into the central minimalism and building our grooves, building our dynamics from there.

I'm extremely fortunate to be able to play with the musicians that I consider the best in the world for this music. My relationship with Jarle Vespestad, the drummer, with whom I've been playing for ten years now, is a very intimate thing. His combination of responsiveness and groove, of sensitivity and strength—that's what I'm looking for in a musician. Real strength and humbleness integrated.

AAJ: What you're saying about beauty has such historical and philosophical ramifications in terms of aesthetics. When you speak about beauty, you're going back to some of the original definitions of what aesthetics is but you made a clear distinction. You're not just talking about surface beauty. It seems that you're aiming for more inner and emotional depth.

TG: That's right.

AAJ: But you also talk about strength and humility. What I've found in my study of the blues is that the blues isn't just about sadness and tragedy. It's about a mix of emotions that might come out as irony, which itself is a mix. So what would you say about the blues and swing, which is fundamental to American jazz?

TG: I would say that I relate fundamentally yet paradoxically to the blues. Because it's not really my roots yet what I play is unthinkable without the blues. I have been listening passionately and deeply to very early jazz, and to the restored recordings of Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
1911 - 1938
vocalist
's albums and very early stride piano players. It's the intensity of both rhythmic and emotional duality in that music. You never [quite] know if it's swing feeling, or even 8th [note] feeling. It's all in there together. You never know if it's major or minor. You never know if it's masculine, or a really fragile, feminine vibe they're sending out. And I love that kind of fundamental duality. Those kinds of qualities I really relate to.

But I find when I get to the core of my own musicality, these things are interpreted or reinvented in light of Scandinavian folk music, and in the light of the Impressionist composers or neo-classical composers that I have been listening to and grew up with.

Lastly, and maybe even more importantly, to the church music I grew up with, which was a mixture of European Lutheran hymns and African American spirituals that were sung in our churches too. So it comes together. And I think I'm finding more and more how to have a duality of major/minor tonality, and free tonality that is unthinkable without the American blues but still is something completely different.

AAJ: And when we talk about the blues, there's an obvious strong connection with the Afro-American church tradition. But since the blues is fundamentally a folk music, there's something that links it with folk musics around the world.

TG: Exactly. There is. And you can really hear it when you listen to music from Mali and other West African countries; it's really there.



AAJ: And when you look at the virtuosic tradition in jazz piano, there's often a connection to the European classical tradition, from Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
, Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
1912 - 1986
piano
, Earl Hines
Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
piano
up through Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
—the icon here. They studied European classical also. So that's another link to your approach.

TG: Very true.

AAJ: How would you describe your artistic or aesthetic objective?

TG: The answer has to be two-fold. In one perspective, I'm striving [to be] above the separation between emotional intensity and elegance. To have the elegant control of a well-shaped form and arc, and melodies that are clearly accentuated and formulated and phrases that are "Aaah," just where you need them to be. But at the same time doing that with a "Wow," [as in] a therapeutic free jazz session. You know? So when we rise above that separation, and make that happen, when I feel just as intense as I feel in control, that's the space I like to be in.

Having said that, when I get feedback from people, quite simply stating that something I've done on record or in concert has touched their lives, basically speaking, then we move outside of the cool jazz language, where music has the power to heal and to put you in an encounter with the divine, or the sacred, or your inner self, whatever you want to call it.

I know the few records that I've lived with over the years that really did that to me. I know the music that was able to reach me after tragic loss or tragic love. If something we do can have that kind of impact in two people's lives in the world, then it's all worth it 'cause I know the power of that.

To receive that kind of feedback is really striking, especially [to] the album made in the aftermath of my own family's severe tragedy [The Ground (ECM, 2005)]. So many responses of people: "My husband died two months ago. I've been listening to this album ever since and it makes the days more bearable." That's what it's really about, if music can have that kind of impact.

Final Impressions

The range of musical offerings at the Montréal Jazz Festival is so huge that you simply must live with the fact that you can only see a small portion. My primary focus was on groups or artists I had either never seen before or very little.

In solo performance, Tord Gustavsen was meditative and quietly intense, building from smaller units into organic wholes. I felt privy to very private moments of shared bliss and discovery. He was totally immersed in the moment, sometimes rising up from the piano chair, unable to contain the energy seated. Other times he leaned forward for dynamic emphasis.

I heard shards of children's melodies, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
-like Latin-esque sounds, classical stylings both current and from centuries past, and echoes of church music. Since the Gesù—Centre de Créativité is a converted church (seating 427), the mood was right on point. If his goal was to transcend dualities by embracing them, he succeeded. If one let it, this music could indeed heal.

Jef Neve

I saw yet another acclaimed European pianist, Jef Neve
Jef Neve
Jef Neve
b.1977
piano
, fronting a trio in L'Astral, located on the first floor of the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan. Admittedly, I haven't spent a lot of time heretofore familiarizing myself with the European jazz scene heavily, especially now, with a jazz column at the New York Daily News to manage.

Yet in a global world, it's my responsibility to gain a holistic appreciation and understanding of the jazz scene globally, whether jazz is at the center or even the periphery of musical and cultural development. So having the chance to hear Neve and Gustavsen live and direct, and meet cool guys like "Spicy" is yet another reason I appreciated the entire Montréal Jazz Festival experience.

Bassist Ruben Samana and drummer Teun Verbruggen joined the Belgian Neve, who began the night indeterminately, with no intro or greeting to the audience. The time signature was neither 2/4, 3/4 nor 4/4.

The piece rose and fell like a suite, and when the mood was on an upswing, just how much the band was totally into it came into clear focus. Other songs were soft and pretty, with a special interactivity between the pianist and bassist.

Between the second and third songs, Neve began speaking to the audience. "Great," I thought. Then: "Uh oh. He's speaking in French . . . only French." Damn, maybe I should've taken French instead of Spanish in high school. (Or perhaps Neve should've been more attentive to the fact that at a festival such as this, some English speakers may not, in fact, speak French.)

"Saying Goodbye On a Small Old Ugly White Piano," from Neve's 2010 Imaginary Roads (Verve) recording, is a beautiful ballad with a melody begging for a lyric. The drummer's brush work was superlative, the bass solo heartfelt. I was struck by the colors and shades the trio achieved through repetition and contrasting rhythmic grooves. They clearly enjoyed playing together, and seemed to share inside jokes. The trio even played an up-tempo 4/4 number with swing elements refracted through their own prism. The overall experience was like mysteries to be solved or knots being untied. I'm not sure why, but that's what I wrote down in my notes as I listened.

Ambrose Akinmusire

This young man's music is a curiosity to me. I feel that Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
b.1982
trumpet
has a concept, and an aesthetic that he's striving for. His leaps in trumpet register, his unorthodox phrases, his feeling of a center of strength upon which his daring instrumental forays are based, intrigue me. But this set, of his quartet—Sam Harris
Sam Harris
Sam Harris
b.1986
piano
, piano; Walter Smith III
Walter Smith III
Walter Smith III
b.1980
sax, tenor
, saxophones; Justin Brown, drums—in the same hall in which I saw Tord Gustavsen, did not move me. Regretfully, I found myself bored.

Much of it sounded, to me, like mood music. I kept asking myself: where's the groove? Turns out he was unveiling new compositions, so perhaps their forms and arrangements were still being finalized. Shades of Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
, Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
b.1960
saxophone
and Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
b.1962
trumpet
wafted into the ethers. The arrangements were thoughtful, and certainly didn't fall into the head-solo-head pattern, which could be a good thing. Yet and still: what about 4/4 time? What about a standard or two, for something recognizable?

His last composition was an introduction to a string quartet, written for Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
. The song began and ended mellow, and the audience rose in applause. Perhaps they heard something I didn't. Maybe I'm biased as a fellow black American expecting more from a young brother who has achieved such early acclaim. Perhaps my East Coast edge doesn't quite yet connect with Bay Area cool. Or maybe I just can't yet hear a sound and approach that will turn out to incline toward a future direction of the music. I guess we'll see. Whichever way it goes, Ambrose Akinmusire is an artist still in development, so there's no need for a final judgment based on one Blue Note record or one performance. I look forward to seeing and hearing where his vision and talent will take him, his groups and fans, as well as those critics for whom he's a darling.

Sophie Milman

Russian-born Sophie Milman
Sophie Milman
Sophie Milman

vocalist
grew up in Israel and now lives in Canada. She's a regular of the festival, and apparently has performed in Club Soda numerous times. I found her a pleasant singer, yet one who played it safe, little or no risks, at least that I could hear. On "Take Love Easy," for instance, I thought she could use more of her diaphragm, and vocalize from her gut.



On "Do It Again" she sounded anodyne next to her band, which, by the way, seemed to relish in the chance to swing. They played for Milman, but with each other. For me, there was little or no sense of surprise from one song to the next, as the tempos and her sprightly manner changed little.

To become great, a singer (or an actor, for that matter) must go deep within to portray depth of feeling and range of emotion in their story-telling. With Milman, I felt that all is okay in the world. Problem is, it ain't. The issue may be with what she, from stage, called the "artistic temperament." She told a story, before singing "So Sorry," about releasing her Russian-Israeli anger and fire in an airport and at home with her husband. Maybe that's why she's "so sorry" but I wished she would have put more of those very emotions into her renditions.

Then she sang "Till There Was You," a song featured on her most recent recording, In The Moonlight (eOne, 2011). She used to perform this tune for her dad—it was one of his favorites—during road trips. It was the first English language song she ever learned. The back story gave her interpretation poignancy, and for this song she let her Israeli accent come forth, which made it even more earnest. Finally, I thought: we're getting somewhere.

Then she sang a song in French, and though I didn't understand the denotative meanings, she seemed to portray more nuance in French than in English.

"Day In, Day Out" was a good up-tempo change of pace. She closed with "No More Blues."

Musically speaking, some more blues was just what was needed.

Oliver Jones / Peter Appleyard

The late, great pianist Oscar Peterson is Canada's most iconic jazz musician of the 20th century. Peterson played with the powerhouses of swing and bebop in Jazz at the Philharmonic, helmed several of the greatest jazz trios in history, and had a prodigious technical facility that transferred the styling of Art Tatum and Nat "King" Cole
Nat
Nat "King" Cole
1919 - 1965
piano
to the rigors and pleasures of bebop.



Each year since 1989, the Montréal Jazz Festival has given the Oscar Peterson Award to a musician for their musicianship and contribution to Canadian jazz. Peterson himself was the first recipient; Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones
b.1934
piano
, a pianist much-beloved in Canada, was the second. That Peterson and Jones were tight is evident by the text accompanying a blown-up image of the two men hugging, shown at the free museum, the Bell Exhibition of the Legends of the Festival on the second floor of the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan.

Before doing his own set in the second half of the performance on July 5th at the Théâtre Maisonneuve, Jones came onstage clad in a tuxedo to introduce the 2012 recipient of the Oscar Peterson Award, Peter Appleyard
Peter Appleyard
Peter Appleyard
1928 - 2013
vibraphone
, a British-born vibraphonist who's been a steady presence on the jazz scene in Canada since the 1950s. Jones himself was introduced by Festival Vice-President of Programming and Production Laurent Saulnier.

After accepting the award, and recounting a touching tale of Peterson playing a benefit gratis for the hospital that helped care for Peterson after a stroke, Appleyard was joined by a local pianist, Neil Swainson
Neil Swainson
Neil Swainson
b.1955
on bass, a guitarist who formerly played With George Shearing
George Shearing
George Shearing
1919 - 2011
piano
, and drummer Terry Clarke
Terry Clarke
Terry Clarke
b.1944
. The sound of the ensemble was glorious, and the lighting superb. The light design was like another instrumentalist, changing color, light direction and intensity according to not only the mood of a song, but in accord with the arc of the solos!

We were showered in sophistication of taste and ecstasy of swing on songs such as "Tangerine," "Nuages," "Cool Walk," "Midnight Sun," "Django," "Sweet Georgia Brown," and "Love for Sale." The latter was a drum feature not only for Clarke; Appleyard, who started as a drummer in the 1940s, also took over the kit for a few choruses. He also sat at the piano and picked out soulful choruses full of fun. I especially liked it when Appleyard, 83, would slide from one end of the vibes to the other, continuing to ring fleet passages using two or four mallets.

Accompanied by a bassist and drummer from Montréal, {Jim Doxas}, Oliver Jones performed a set of mostly originals. Many were mid-tempo, as in the pretty tune "Yvonne." "Most composers write about people we know, places we've been or dreams we've had," Jones told us. "Little Burgundy" was written in honor of a part of Quebec in which he grew up. Another song recalled a street he lived on by combining gospel, boogie woogie and swing elements.

Fifteen years previous, Jones said, when he performed in Calgary, Canada's own Diana Krall
Diana Krall
Diana Krall
b.1964
piano
opened for him. "Now, rightfully so, I've opened for her!" In honor of Krall, Jones penned "Dance Again Diana."

Jones is a power player, with comparable strength in both hands. He's comfortable with the down home, as demonstrated not only by the songs of home mentioned above, but also on "Something for Chuck," a dirty, nasty blues, with tremolos used liberally for emphasis. He performed a song he wrote for Oscar Peterson's brother, a dear friend. In tribute to Peterson, Jones played "We Remember O.P." with flair and flourish.

Jones veered from his set of originals to play a Gershwin medley, which emphasized virtuosity and sensitivity: "Rhapsody In Blue," a number from "Porgy and Bess," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Embraceable You," and a scorching rendition of "I Got Rhythm."

Jones closed with a stirring interpretation of Peterson's most famous composition, "Hymn to Freedom."

Cedar Walton

The final show on my itinerary before heading back to the States was the Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
Trio, featuring Walton on piano, his long-time bassist David Williams, and Willie Jones III
Willie Jones III
Willie Jones III
b.1968
drums
, who gives a good approximation of the aura laid down by Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
drums
before his untimely death in 2001.

The Gésu Theatre was a perfectly sized venue for the trio, which performed a new blues number, a Latin-esque tune, the ballad "My One and Only Love" with rhapsodic swing, and "Young and Foolish," raising the heroism quotient of the swing through the jazz device of breaks.

"Clockwise," in waltz time, was a nice pace changer. The group followed with a Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
medley, demonstrating their ability to traverse varying grooves with aplomb. Ellington's pop number "Satin Doll" led into Walton's "Firm Roots," a favorite of jazz players who love swinging, and one of the songs that have firmly placed Cedar Walton in the roots of the post-bop jazz canon.

Outchorus

They say you always remember your first. I've been to relatively few jazz festivals, and, then, always as a fan and patron rather than in my capacity as a journalist. But this is the most in-depth festival experience I've ever had. All subsequent festivals will be compared, inevitably, to my very first Montréal Jazz Festival. God willing, this for sure won't be my last.

Photo Credits

Page 1, Chromeo: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 1, Patricia Barner/Kenny Werner: Denis Alix

Page 1, Michael Bourne: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 1, SMV: Denis Alix

Page 1, Life and Blues of Bessie Smith: Victor Diaz Lamich

Page 1, James Carter: Denis Alix

Page 2, Tord Gustavsen: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 3, Ambrose Akinmusire: Jean-François Leblanc

Page 3, Sophie Milman: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Page 3, Oliver Jones: Jean-François Leblanc


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