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A Camera's Eye View: Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2009


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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
July 1-12, 2009

There is something truly empowering situated behind the lens of a camera waiting with expectation for the moment when the soul, mind and body of an artist strike bare wires and something electric unexpectedly happens. Privately, ownership of that moment belongs to the artist—publicly, documentation of that juncture is in possession of the person behind the lens. Where it goes after that is a matter of good will or good business.

Jazz photography for all of its iconic moments and heroic bandstand activities is still a freelance medium with few dollars earned in support of the habit. Most players burn out after a couple years. The late jazz photographer Paul Hoeffler used to gripe about all of the charity calls he fielded from day to day. I used to sit in his work space and clutch those glorious black and whites of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Dizzy or Oscar and lose myself in the artistic dreamscape. Hoeffler was a master printer who labored over every inch of information in a negative until the appropriate balance and density between black, grey and white was achieved. Those toxic darkroom chemicals would cost him his life in the end. If Paul could have remained cancer free long enough to experience a fourteen megapixel marvel, he surely would have embraced advanced technology with the same enthusiasm jazz icon Herman Leonard expressed holding the new Nikon D700.

Photography at jazz festivals is my specialty and passion. I love the energy, the camaraderie between fellow lens jockeys, the challenge, the music, the musicians and the opportunity to paint with the eye. Conditions for the most part will defeat you—lighting is often miserable. The most shutter time that photographers ever get is three songs, or worse, just thirty seconds if the artist's management insists on restrictions. I've worked under all conditions—with conditions, without—even the "don't shoot this side of my face" restriction. At this point nothing fazes.

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is perhaps the most gracious forum in which to photograph. Perhaps artistic director Andre Menard is an arbiter of fine jazz photography evidenced by his inviting New Orleans photo giant Herman Leonard to photograph at will. Menard also announced the creation of a gallery using floor space currently operating as the designated press area. Leonard's work will eventually decorate the bright, well-lit walls. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few impressions from this season's event. Work like this is done on the fly. It is fast, it is deliberate and it is exhausting.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with the Chano Dominguez Quartet: Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier de la Place des Arts, June 30, 7:30 pm

The first thing I try to locate is where the main person of interest will be situated. I count the number of microphone stands, the lay-out of amplifiers and study the clutter. I then ask myself, "Do I have a clear shot?" I check backgrounds for appealing graphics.

With Marsalis, I had to wait until the band took their seats. When I saw Marsalis take the first chair position in the trumpet section, I immediately headed toward the opposite side of the room to get a clear view of his position.

The music started. It was luxurious with big sweeping themes—like Flamenco music Ellington style—using four trumpets, clever counterpart and a mix of Spanish and African-American rhythms. Through the lens, it is all action. A tenor solo, a piano movement—then the bassist shifted at just the right moment allowing a clear shot at a musician coping with a monstrous score. Suddenly, the brass kicked in and Marsalis lifted the bell of the horn above the section. He did this for nearly twenty seconds—enough time to reset the aperture and ISO. I waited until he froze holding a long tone and clicked. I knew the timing was dead on.

I continued to shoot the players—especially dancing. I used a large frame of the entire orchestra and banked a decent set of images.

Melody Gardot: Theatre Maisonneuve de la Place des Arts, July 1, 6 pm

Gardot was one artist that I seriously dreaded photographing. Based on a session last year, the absence of light made it nearly impossible to extract anything beyond a silhouette, which I tried converting to black in white. Lost cause!

Gardot has a beautiful voice and knows her audience. They are fiercely loyal and participants created a near total silence, as if in a spiritual s?ance.

The lights went down, the crowd quieted and the cameras rose in the total darkness. A voice appeared at the microphone and began to sing a prayer. Not wishing to trample the silence, the surrounding scrum of mixed lenses eyeballed one another, nervously hoping for another opportunity. Fortunately, Gardot rose to a workable spot of light and picked up the guitar. I have learned from long experience never to take residence on the left side for a right handed picker—the microphone stand will slice an artist to bits.

Gardot sings, and sings beautifully. Her recording My One and Only Thrill (Verve, 2009) is wonderfully detailed and the songs are gorgeous. The words tell stories and the stories connect.

Eventually, Gardot bent upward towards the light and brought about a near miracle. Her complete body was bathed in strong accentuating light. I read the creases in her shirt and facial mannerisms, but most importantly for the photographer, I heard the tear in her voice negotiate with the eyes.

I followed Gardot through a series of phrases, watch as she breathed, then raised her head and delivered another spellbinding line. My hand stayed firmly planted and clicked in rhythm just when I felt an emotional peak was met. I never depress the shutter until I feel the music, words, emotion and energy have sorted the material out.

Esperanza Spalding: Jazz Dans La Nuit, July 2, 10:30 pm

This is another venue in need of balanced lighting. Two large posts stand on guard inside and very little space along the perimeter to plant a mono pod.

Spalding is the flavor of the day. She has momentum, a big jazz vocabulary, great looks, style, personality and virtuoso command of the acoustic bass. She also resides musically in the future. She is as hip hop as needs be, as funky as the instrument allows and mainstream when suggested.

At the opening of the concert, the stage went black, and all that could be heard or seen were the hum of amplifiers and red bulbs blazing near the volume knobs. For the photographers, it was another one of those helpless moments. Just as emcee Katie Malloch finished her intro, the darkness lifted and a modest level of light shone across the sprawling bandstand.

Spalding jumped into action. The opening piece was funk according to jazz principles. She danced and sang around the microphone, and it was a challenge of major proportions to keep her in view. I knew that many images would blur, so rather than exhaust my prime position, I held back until Spalding picked up the bass. I assumed she wouldn't stray far from that location, but "Crack!" "Bang!" She was at it again. It was all in the body—the connection between wood and flesh. In Spalding's hands, the bass seemed as if it was part of her birth cycle—the last item to be dealt with in the delivery room. From her top hand wrapped around the highest region of the fingerboard down to where the fingers rip at the metal coils across the mid section, they stretched and prodded, freeing volumes of ecstatic purposeful notes. Spalding plays like an athlete. It's not your average twenty-minute workout—this is nine innings with no relief and four quarters of full court intensity.

Tony Bennett: Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier de la Place des Arts, July 3, 7:30 pm

I've planned this in my head for years. I've interviewed Bennett, and it was a marvelous conversation. I found him delightful and informative. It was not a pop star mish mash of nonsense talk—it was all about art at its highest level.

I knew going in this would be a battle zone. The money shooters would be there, so my thought was arrive early, stake a position and hold firm. Dead on! Both sides of the stage were flanked by three to four hundred mil lens—even a couple point-and-shoots tried to claim territory.

The stage was a shooter's delight—blank, no microphone stand, music stand or galley of musicians. In fact, the players were pushed far enough back to allow Bennett enough space to jog a half mile if he chose. It didn't matter which side the photographers positioned themselves, the man would be there in a matter of seconds.

The show opened with Bennett's daughter Antonia, who for her part gave a fair reading of the material, yet sent a wave of fear through the minds of photographers—would her father's time on stage be cut short?

When Bennett arrived, kissed and embraced his daughter, it was monumental. Light shined on the man like a magnified ray of gracious sunshine. Every detail, from shoe shine to crease in that broad loving smile, could be recorded. And the voice, my goodness, what a voice! It yanked at the nerve center. Then he came again with hands held high—pause—smile—big, earth cracking note—click, click—another shot to file.

This shoot was easy. Music poured and rolled in large waves and flooded the room with warmth and vitality. I love this man!

I observed Bennett command every inch of the stage—a slow walk to the right, a turn, a small hand gesture, a slow turn and back the way he had come. On cue, there he was moving closer, as if he had read my mind.

The third song was a ballad. By now I was exhausted—not from the number of spent frames, but from the emotional intensity Bennett compressed into every song. I mostly stood and humbly watched. Somewhere, after an abbreviated solo, the voice returned and I witnessed the veins in his neck gather. His face looked muscular like a weightlifter squeezing a world record from one last lift. The volume had bone-crushing intensity when suddenly I felt a ripple of tears flow down my face. I shook my head and wiped the moisture aside. The note eventually lifted, leaving the audience to scream ecstatically. Meanwhile, the scene stealers were heading toward the exit with plenty of images stored in both memory banks. I felt a bit embarrassed, like I had folded under the pressure, until I saw my partner Kristine clutching a Kleenex and gently dabbing her eyes.

Dave Brubeck: Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier de la Place des Arts, July 4, 7:30 pm

I really expected a media battle for space while attempting to capture a purposeful image of a legend as certified as Brubeck. I know his music like the number of roads leading out of my hometown. Brubeck's music led me through high school and college.

I knew his red hot and cool period—the cool tone of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and the smooth ride. The music swung with barely a pulse. Brubeck at the time wasn't a favorite among jazz critics who were fixated on the re-harmonizing of jazz by pianist Bill Evans, the express train fingers of Oscar Peterson, the Duke was still around—so was Teddy Wilson—and Keith Jarrett caught fire with Charles Lloyd. Herbie Hancock was making waves with Miles. Wynton Kelly was still saying all of the right things. The argument was that Brubeck was too rigid, or that he didn't swing long and far or hard enough. Then Time Out (Columbie, 1959) hit, and "Take Five" suddenly became a monstrous hit. Now every kid with an instrument had to master five-four meter. Even the old guard left behind by the dance era, who could read their way through the encyclopedia Britannica, could not get a handle on the peculiar beat, let alone hold it in place.

I had tried on a couple of occasions to catch a decent image of the man I so admire, but failed. The face always seemed to turn towards the shadows. I decided that this night had to be different!

As soon as Brubeck appeared with saxophonist Bobby Militello escorting him to the grand piano, I knew the night would be generous. Brubeck wore what seemed a cream colored jacket and a broad smile. None of us knew he'd lost a son a couple of days before. There was no evidence of that in his composure and comfort behind the piano. Throughout, the smile remained stationary.

The playing was solid Brubeck—big chunky chords and hard swing. I moved a few feet one direction, then to another, trying for a clear view of the hands. This could not be accomplished without standing dead center in the auditorium and offending two thousand plus paid attendees. I kept returning to the face, and what a beautiful face with all of the native features of birthright still in place.

Shorts: Joshua Redman; Joe Lovano; Chris Botti; Wayne Shorter; Al Jarreau; Miles from India; Kenny Werner Quintet; Jamie Cullum and Madeline Peyroux

Joshua Redman is always a difficult subject to capture. He is all about movement, much like Kenny Garrett. The sound came from all regions of the body. His legs rise and fall as patterns dictate while his head bobbed and weaved and his skin looked as if it was ready to blow. The horn was only half the instrument.

Chris Botti performed in a finely tailored suit. His essence is in the details, which I surmise are predetermined. The music was sumptuous and easily savored with no hard edges or unexpected dissonance. The lens embraced him. Botti moved about like a well choreographed line dancer. The shoulders aligned perfectly with the instrument—this is poster stuff.

Wayne Shorter and the camera have never been best of friends. This has nothing to do with an aversion to being photographed, but more to do with his quiet nature and manner, in which Shorter brings his music outward. This night, he showed very little body movement, little expression and traveled no distance across the stage. What happened, happened in place. The lighting is always withdrawn during Shorter's affairs.

What happened between the other musicians was an entirely different thing. On this occasion, pianist Geoffrey Keezer filled in for Panamanian counterpart Danilo Perez. From this vantage point, the brief period spent in the company of Shorter and Keezer was the highlight of the festival because their interplay was so real, it was unreal. Keezer kept agitating the harmonic tension, goading Shorter to answer in ways unimagined.

For Al Jarreau, Montreal was not a venue to show off big chops. The voice sounded stressed and bit behind the curve. Still, with everything in place the master's night was full of surprises, and for us on the sidelines a feast of image gathering.

Miles from India was big fun and big sound. The ensemble consisted of sitars, tablas, saxophones, three drummers, brass and plenty more, yet this should have been more compelling. There was plenty to extract from the wired expanse, yet not much in the way of prolonged excitement. Saxophonists Bill Evans and Rudresh Mahanthappa pushed the hardest yet the weight of too many competing players may have been inhibiting. Three kit drummers in total synch did not catch fire. I kept thinking Mahavishnu Orchestra and all of those jarring interludes and how they so magically broke space between soloists.

Kenny Werner is a pianist's pianist. He was also visually appropriate and musically bold and inventive.

Jamie Cullum showed pure showmanship with solid music principles. From the downbeat, the photographer must chase him with the lens—the guy never stops grooving. It is as if Disney let loose on him while having an animation seizure. Wonderful! Cullum can sing, goad an audience, entertain and most definitely play the piano. From the galley, the maneuver is known as "chasing the cricket." But you've got to love the guy!

Madeline Peyroux isn't the most active participant in her shows. In fact, it is her near motionless stage demeanor that appeals. The recordings come with more polish and assuredness.

Throughout the coming months, I'll review and listen to the photos. Music remains imbedded in each image. Those glorious tones, searing melodies, unspoken body languages and physical interplay will continue to inspire and penetrate the quiet regions of heart and mind. Click!

Photo Credit: Bill King



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