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2016 Montreal Jazz Festival: June 29 - July 1, 2016

Mark Sullivan By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
June 29-July 9, 2016

When they say the Montreal Jazz Festival is the biggest in the world, they're not kidding. Several city blocks full of concert venues, outdoor stages, and vendors. There are six seated concert venues on the grounds, and another six just offsite (literally down the block)—so many that I didn't get inside all of them in three nights of concerts. There's simply no way that a map of the grounds can prepare you for experiencing it for the first time.

The festival has always had a stellar lineup of jazz musicians on the bill. But with so many stages to fill—and a street party that draws many who may not be jazz fans—there's also plenty of folk, world music, and pop music of all sorts. Other genres were strongly in evidence during the opening festivities.

June 29: Melody Gardot/Lisa Simone; Gregory Porter; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

The festival's Opening Concert was headlined by the American singer Melody Gardot, with singer Lisa Simone opening. Simone's introduction mentioned her "good DNA," and as the daughter of the legendary Nina Simone it's hard to argue with that. She shares some of her mother's jazz/pop approach, but without the dark corners, and is almost exclusively a singer-songwriter rather than an interpreter of others songs. Most of the material in her set came from her recent album My World (Sound Suveyor Music, 2016), beginning with opener "Tragique Beauty." Electric/acoustic guitarist Herve Samb began the tune to bring Simone onstage, and was her right-hand man throughout the performance. The group gave an energetic reading of their first Nina Simone cover, "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" (a medley from the musical Hair that became a surprise hit). Samb brought the song to its climax with a high energy wah wah solo, one of several times he took his acoustic/electric guitar into pure electric territory.

"Hold On" displayed Simone's comfort onstage, as she moved freely beyond center stage during the performance. Bassist Reggie Washington got the spotlight with a solo introduction to "Expectations." Simone is generous to her band members, contributing to the unified stage vibe. She took her stage wandering to another level with "Unconditionally" (her song about becoming a mother). Most of it was sung from the audience with a wireless microphone as she moved around the perimeter of the main floor, shaking hands with audience members as she went. She returned for a quick encore: "Work Song" by Nat Adderley, with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr., a classic jazz blues that had also been performed by her mother. Great energy and showmanship: the audience was definitely warmed up.

Melody Gardot is clearly a Montreal favorite. As she entered the stage in dramatic, bright lighting she was greeted with a standing ovation. She immediately picked up an electric guitar and launched into "Same To You" from her recent album Currency of Man (Verve, 2015). Gardot is often labeled as a jazz singer, but there was no jazz flavor in the music I heard. The opener was rock all the way, and she moved to piano for the funk tune "She Don't Know" (a song about a street walker, which she sang after a saucy spoken introduction). She switched back to guitar for the blues "Bad News," a sultry slow burner. Still not jazz, but she definitely has some range.

Scheduling overlap caused me to miss American singer Gregory Porter's opening act. I came in as he was singing his song "On My Way to Harlem," a song about all the great African-American artists associated with the place—Duke Ellington, poet Langston Hughes, even Marvin Gaye (including a quote from "What's Going On"). It's a great statement of what Porter is about: respect for the past, but with a contemporary sensibility. It's immediately apparent that Porter is a jazz singer, albeit one with equal love for classic black pop music and gospel. He possesses a marvelous vocal instrument, a rich baritone that immerses the listener like a warm bath. Porter sang two selections from his current album Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note, 2015) next: the title tune (about seeing the humanity in the man on the street) and "Don't Lose Your Steam" (inspirational advice to a young man about following his dreams).

After another older tune ("Hey Laura") and "Holding On" from the current album, Porter introduced "Musical Genocide" as "a song for the music lovers...which I guess is all of you." A tour de force for the whole band, it was a paean to the heart found in classic black pop, which Porter does not hear in much contemporary music (the recurring line in the chorus is "I do not agree"). The opening bass solo teased a quote from "Smoke on the Water," then Porter entered singing "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." The piano solo morphed into a version of Bob Marley's "No More Trouble" (with an "I Shot the Sheriff" riff thrown in), and the band responded to a lyrical mention of Earth, Wind & Fire with another quote...and so it went. A little gimmicky, maybe, but good "name that tune" fun.

Neo-soul masters Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings played the big opening free outdoor concert (Le Grand Concert D'Ouverture), a triumphant return after cancelling their 2013 performance for health reasons. Jones definitely looked to be in vibrant good health. After the longstanding soul performance tradition of introducing and spotlighting the band members, she gave an extended dance demonstration. The boogaloo, jerk, tighten up, funky chicken, peppermint twist, and swim all got energetic renditions, closing with a James Brown routine (Jones apologized for not being as good as the Godfather of Soul, but she looked convincing to me). In a large outdoor space with Jumbotrons you have to wonder if the crowd is even paying attention, but Jones got active audience participation when she asked for it.The set ended with two album title tunes: "100 Days, 100 Nights," and "I Learned The Hard Way" as a brief encore. Celebrate the occasion, pump up the crowd: mission accomplished.

June 30: Christian Scott; Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra featuring Wynton Marsalis; Chris Potter

New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was the prestigious Invitation artist for the first three nights of the series. He started a rhythm loop on his computer and the band launched straight into their first tune, an electronica-tinged sound with a mixture of acoustic and electronic drums and electronically processed double bass (from longtime band mate Kris Funn). Impressive performance by drummer Corey Fonville—the first demonstration of the versatility he would show throughout the set—as well young flutist Elena Pinderhughes and the leader. Alto saxophonist Braxton Cook joined the band for the second tune, which had an electric Herbie Hancock Sextet feel (pianist Samora Pinderhughes moved to electric piano). Scott announced that they were playing music from the recent album Stretch Music (Ropeadope, 2015) as well as recently recorded music to be released early next year in time for the centennial of the first jazz recording. He is proud of this band, and with good reason: they were absolutely smoking.

Another rhythm loop began the next tune, followed by an all-acoustic modal tune, which went into a straight ahead swing feel with walking bass. There was even a round of trading solos (12s, if I was counting correctly: it was a fast tempo). Noting that this was a jazz festival, Scott called John Coltrane's "Equinox" next. The band really stretched out on it, jam session style. At its conclusion Scott went into lengthy band introductions—complete with stories about how they met, etc.—entertaining, but I had to run off to another show. I had very little familiarity with Scott's music before this, but it was a great show. He manages to combine hip-hop elements with the jazz tradition in an exciting, completely convincing way. He was especially complimentary about his pianist, promising to record his compositions in the future. Given what a powerful player he was that is definitely something to look forward to.

Every jazz fan has an opinion about trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, so I should probably share mine. I'm a great admirer of his technical skills on the trumpet, tend to find his composing capable but stiff, and have little use for his ideas about "conserving" jazz. I'm not a fan of the repertory orchestra approach generally, but I accept that it has a place. So I'd like to think that I approached the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis featuring Wynton Marsalis concert with an open mind. I only caught part of their first set, which included Ted Nash's arrangement of the early Chick Corea classic "Windows," and two Duke Ellington compositions. The first was the infrequently played "Braggin' in Brass" from 1938. Marsalis mentioned that the Orchestra was founded in Ellington's spirit, with several alumni of Duke's orchestra, and that this piece is especially challenging for the trombone section. This was followed by the beautiful "Isfahan" from The Far East Suite, composed by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1966.

Even just this small selection showed a broader stylistic range than I expected. Impeccably played (as expected) but with plenty of energy as well. As always Marsalis was a charming Master of Ceremonies, and he wore the "featuring" label very lightly. He was a member of the trumpet section: he made his announcements from there, and took no more solo time than any other orchestra member. I'm still not a fan, but I was impressed, and wished the evening's schedule had allowed me to stay for the second set.

Saxophonist Chris Potter brought a trio with him to Montreal. They began the concert with a cover of "Synchronicity" by The Police, followed by Potter's "Dr. Benway." Potter explained that he had been reading William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch when he needed a title, so he used that character's name. He introduced bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who proved to be very flexible playing partners. "Dream 3" (a working title) began with arco bass and soprano saxophone, then moved to a bass solo before the full band finally entered (Potter threw in an "Over The Rainbow" quote). That arrangement is a good example of the way the group made the most of the possibilities with only three instruments.

"Jeep's Blues" was a change of pace, followed by another untitled piece going by "Untitled (11)." Potter seems to have a lot of trouble with titles! This one has already been recorded, so a title was promised sometime before the release. The set ended with two covers. Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" is a tune Potter associates with saxophonist Joe Henderson, who performed it frequently in a trio format. "Little Willie Weeps" is a tune associated with Charlie Parker, which Potter often performed as a sideman with trumpeter Red Rodney, who had been a Parker sideman. The group was called back for an encore, a latin tune I did not recognize (probably another Potter original). The saxophone trio is a demanding format, but this group made it look easy.

July 1: Christian Scott with Charlie Hunter; Chick Corea Trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade; Charlie Hunter Trio

The Invitation series usually involves a series of collaborative concerts, with the invitee being joined by different guests each night—sometimes reunions with former playing partners, sometimes brand new combinations. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah took the opportunity to play with guitarist Charlie Hunter (a player he has long admired) for the first time. An intriguing combination, but the approach turned out to simply have Hunter sit in with Scott's regular Stretch Music band.

In fact the show started out exactly as it had the night before, and after calling Hunter onstage for the second tune it continued that way, right through the performance of Coltrane's "Equinox." By all appearances Hunter was following Scott's music by ear—I didn't see any charts—and his main challenge was finding space within existing arrangements in a six-piece band. He did that brilliantly, sometimes using his hybrid bass/guitar to double bass lines, play accompaniment, or solo (which he did using only the guitar end of his guitar, since he was playing with a bassist). He was an exciting additional soloist, but I only saw him move the band into a new place once, during a section when only the rhythm section was playing. This delighted Scott and the rest of the band, so it's a shame there wasn't more space for it.

"Equinox" started out as a feature for pianist Samora Pinderhughes, but again had plenty of space for the rest of the band, including a hot Hunter solo that reminded me of guitarist John Scofield. Hunter left the stage when "Diaspora" was called, featuring flutist Elena Pinderhughes. At this point I had to run to another show, so it is possible that Scott and Hunter did something unique to the occasion later in the set.

The ever-ebullient pianist/composer Chick Corea began his trio show by taking pictures of the audience with his phone, which was facilitated by the house lights in the spacious Maison symphonique de Montréal (the home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra). He then proceeded to "tune the audience" by prompting the crowd to sing a series of phrases he played on the piano, call and response style. Apparently satisfied with the tuning, the group launched into Corea's famous "500 Miles High." The introductory chords of the standard "Someday My Prince Will Come" are so familiar they got applause before Corea even started to play the theme. He dedicated the performance to Miles Davis, the jazz musician most strongly associated with the tune.

Corea called on bassist Christian McBride to play the introduction to Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." The introduction could have easily stood alone, as McBride wove the theme into his improvisation. When the rest of the group joined in they continued the three-way conversation that characterized the entire performance. This was conversational improvisation of the highest order, all three players constantly listening to the others and reacting: there was never any predictable, stock playing in either the solos or accompaniment. Drummer Brian Blade was just as active. Prone to dramatic interjections while accompanying, he also provided truly musical drum solos, usually on the form of the tune, accompanied by the other instruments just like any other soloist. The final tune before intermission was the great bebop pianist Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit." Corea told the story of how he first heard the tune on a 78 rpm record as a child, when it was far too fast for him to play, and praised Powell's underrated abilities as a composer. Corea began the tune playing inside the piano before going into full bebop mode.

The second set began with a Jimmy Van Heusen standard (I'm pretty sure it was "It Could Happen To You") which Corea learned from a Miles Davis record. He introduced "The Enchantment" as "a tune by my favorite composer: me." Next up was a medley of two Thelonious Monk tunes: "Blue Monk" and "Work." The set ended with Joe Henderson's latin tune "Recorda-Me." I was anticipating Corea's "Spain" so much that I was sure this was going to serve as an introduction, but that was reserved for the encore. The band began with an abstract free improvisation, reminiscent of Corea's early avant-garde group Circle (more inside the piano playing here), then moved into a version of the famous theme from Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez (familiar to jazz fans from the Miles Davis recording on Sketches of Spain). All a sly buildup to the immediately recognizable "Spain" theme. Certainly the expected concert closer, but no less exciting for that. Bringing the night full circle, Corea engaged the audience in another sing-along, this time with progressively more complex piano licks.

The concert finally ended after nearly two and a half hours. It was an astonishing demonstration of creativity, improvisational skill, and instrumental prowess. And hugely entertaining to boot. On top of that, it was part of Chick Corea's 75th birthday celebration. He displayed stamina that would be the envy of many performers half his age.

The Charlie Hunter Trio performance gave me the opportunity to see Hunter weave his magic with his own group, with drummer Bobby Previte and trombonist Alan Ferber. Hunter doesn't need a bassist, as he covers bass and guitar parts simultaneously on his 7-string instrument that combines bass and guitar. It really takes chord-melody playing to another level, and is even more impressive to see live than it is on record. Hunter played a lot of funk-influenced music earlier in his career, but the dominant flavor now is the blues. He told the story of a musician he knew who finally got a gig with the great bluesman Otis Rush. After telling Rush how excited he was to be playing with him, Rush replied with a phrase Hunter used for a song title: "(Wish I Was) Already Paid And On My Way Home." Great playing from the whole band, but Previte was especially impressive. Every solo was different: one was played entirely on two cymbals, and his final one used everything he could hit with sticks, including drum rims and the floor. Hunter even sang the blues on one tune. Despite the lateness of the hour, the group played an encore, Hunter announcing "this song is for the ladies." Which was probably a joke, but it did include that crazy Previte drum solo.

Photo Credit: Dave Kaufman

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