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The folks who run the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal must be blessed. When your correspondent drove in the night before the first full day of performances, the rain was torrential and the scene grim. By early the next morning, the rain had stopped, having cleaned the city and typical festival weather had appeared: warmth and sunshine. The forecast for the week calls for more of the same as well as another typically atypical festival program.
The festival is celebrating its 26th anniversary this year. During those years, it has become the premier jazz destination in North America for several reasons. Apart from New Orleans, no other city puts so much of its weight behind a jazz festival. With the centrally located Place des Arts complex shut down to car traffic, a real "festival environment is created. Anywhere in downtown Montreal, snatches of jazz can be heard from restaurants, jazz-themed paintings and merchandise (not just official) is available and, much like suburban 4th of July fireworks, most of the citizens come through at some point to enjoy the scene and take in a free concert.
The organizers of the festival encourage participation by both the casual passerby and the intense jazz fan; the free concerts range from nostalgic Dixieland acts to blues bands, big bands, straight ahead jazz combos and even ethnic ensembles. The indoor programs, which require a ticket, liberally mix summer festival stalwarts with uncommon entries, performers often making either a rare or a first trip across the Atlantic. And with the furthest venues being no more than five minutes walk from the central plaza, multiple show attendance is encouraged and is filled out by walks past the numerous free stages.
The first day of the festival each year is a mellow one: getting organized and settled in the hotel (fabulously located in the center of the Place des Arts complex); remembering the many good places to eat; becoming accustomed to the (almost too) hot weather and the ever-increasing throngs of people; remeeting old friends; and eagerly anticipating several days worth of hopefully compelling music.
The festival's musical programming is, for the most part, thematic. Given the several venues at its disposal, mini jazz festivals are created within the larger one. The first concerts for your correspondent took place in the magnificent Monument National, a performance venue for music but mainly theatrical productions during the year. This is the annual site for the jazz festival's invitation series, an opportunity for a selected musician to play four nights in a row with different groups of his choosing. Recent recipients of this privilege have been such figures Dave Holland, Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette.
Of the larger concerts, these are usually the most exciting as the invitees can balance their working groups with rare collaborations or long-overdue reunions. This year's invited musician was Zakir Hussain, a particularly novel and challenging proposal. Hussain, the peerless tabla player and proponent of Indian classical music in international contexts, may seem an odd choice at a jazz festival and particularly in such a visible role. But Hussain has been closely involved in many jazz encounters, from John Handy to John McLaughlin. Most jazz readers will know him from his work opposite McLaughlin in the '70s Indian fusion group Shakti.
The first of his invitation concerts was a duo performance with his old friend Ustad Sultan Khan, famed sarangi player and vocalist from India. Debunking the notion that choice of Hussain at the festival would be an unpopular one, the Monument Festival was packed to capacity and erupted with wild applause at several junctures. This is not to say that the music was simple and swinging. As if preparing the audience for some of what would be in store over the next few days, Hussain and Khan presented an hour-long master demonstration on Indian classical music.
The initial form was "simple : Khan would state a somber microtonal melody on his sarangi to the lightest of accompaniment from Hussein, like the soft kisses of a mother singing her child to sleep. Hussain would then slowly rise in energy as sarangi took on the role of a bass or piano (to put it in jazz terms). What would follow would be virtuosic displays of tabla technique, fast and loud to be sure but no self-indulgent drum solo. The intensity would continue to build, ending on a hard beat, Khan once more taking on the primary melodic role. This exchange continued several times and while basic from the above description, was rich with detail from the singing sarangi and the sensitive tabla.
For those who have never heard the tabla, or heard it in expert hands, it is a remarkable instrument. It can be tapped, petted, stroked, caressed, hit, pounded, rubbed or poked, each technique resulting in a wonderful new sound. Taken together, the tabla can be as expressive as any chordal or more traditionally melodic instrument. Towards the end of the "piece (called that because Khan would always revisit the same melody either at the beginning of his lead section or as counterpoint to Hussain's musings), Hussain played while explaining "the language of the tabla. He demonstrated how the instrument talks (a funny example of an exchange between a mother and her coming-home-too-late son, complete with slaps across the face) or can be descriptive. He recreated Indian rush hourwith trucks, scooters, cars, dogs and elephantand the obviously resultant traffic jam. He made his drums sound like a galloping horse (quoting the "Lone Ranger theme song in the process), a moving train and a jumping deer.
This was not only musically fascinating, it was a helpful touch for those who may not have been aware that that the instrument is considered much more than just a percussive tool. Hussain's humorous teaching showed why André Menard, one of the organizers of the festival, introduced him by saying it was a long-held dream to have Hussain play at the festival as part of the invited series. The exultant set ended with an Indian folk tune from Khan's native region featuring his plaintive vocals. Your correspondent was wowed, the duo was given a standing ovation and this portion of the festival programming started off wonderfully.
The other show of the evening was Octurn, an octet which were compared in the festival program to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. Your correspondent was drawn into jazz at an early age by that album so that was enough of an endorsement to check out this otherwise unknown (to me) band. Everyone knows the story of Miles' fusion experiments and how they changed the face of jazz in the '70s. Any group though that tries to nod in that direction though has to also take into account what the legacy of Bitches Brew isacid jazz and '80s vamp-based funk jams.
Octurn, a pianist, a Fender Rhodes player, electric bassist, drummer, baritone and alto players, trumpeter and guitarist, seem to take all the energetic elements of fusion and replace them with a polite sonic wash, creating the musical equivalent of vanilla pudding. Though the bassist and drummer were the most locked in, their insistent funk lines and jazz break beats didn't allow the music to breathe at all, the antithesis of Miles' own raucous groups. The group lacked a defined lead voice and spent most of their time meandering and playing uninspired solos (particularly the superfluous guitarist) rather than coalescing into a vibrant sound.
Leaving this show to rest up for the next day of the festival (at least three shows daily for the rest of your correspondent's stay), the late night free concert at the Scene General Motors (the largest of the free stages and site of the final festival blowout) seemed intriguing. Jaipur Kawa Brass Band exemplified what the festival programmers try to do with the public performances.
The ten-piece Indian "big band played Eastern and far Eastern music; some members danced and did what could loosely be described as "acrobatics . Dressed in ceremonial outfits, they drew a large crowd on a slightly humid night, most of which, including your correspondent, probably never had seen anything similar. Though it was difficult to appreciate the subtleties of their performance in the midst of the large crowd, the party-like atmosphere and the site of so many people listening to this obscure music was heartening. Another fine day at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Continue: Day 2