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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2008: Days 4-5

Andrey Henkin By

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June 29th
Day 4 of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal was notable for one of its most high-profile appearances, perhaps even exceeding Return to Forever on Day 2. Montreal has had many legendary jazz musicians at the festival but none with more widespread fame than Woody Allen; so much so that he was given two evenings at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, the festival's largest venue (an honor also given to Steely Dan during the second week). The filmmaker was here with his New Orleans Jazz Band, a group with which he plays semi-regularly in his hometown of New York. Allen, according to reports, has been an aspiring clarinetist since his teens and has been an object of desire for the festival for years. With finally no scheduling conflicts, Allen was free to appear in front of a capacity audience.



Allen is not a renaissance man. Where he excels in writing and movie-making, he falls flat in jazz. At best he is an accomplished amateur, if only for knowing so many songs without the benefit of a music stand. His tone his is thin and warbly, with heroically misplaced attempts at vibrato. His low range is rather harsh and he has trouble working his solos far away from basic melodies. No one can doubt his enthusiasm and sincerity but those dissipate across a venue as large as Wilfrid-Pelletier. Anyone wondering whether this was a joke was quickly disabused of that notion. This is not a novelty project and none of Allen's self-effacing humor is present.

The material was a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces from primordial jazz history—spirituals, brothel songs, and blues from early New Orleans. Allen's band, led by musical director Eddy Davis, is thorough, highlighted by the bass of Greg Cohen, the only musician who plays with both John Zorn and Phil Woods. The aesthetic was very traditional, with lots of group improvisation and individual solos kept to only a chorus or two. Music like this is to be found at the festival at a couple of the early afternoon free stages. In this grandiose context, it seemed a little odd and that was reflected in the audience reaction. They could not in good conscience enthusiastically applaud Allen's rudimentary solos but whooped and hollered when the group was at its most raucous. Certainly one of the stranger concerts in festival history.

From there we go back to Studio Hydro-Quebec at Monument National for the wonderful duo of pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Interestingly, this was the second couple to play as part of the Jazz Contemporain series (after Henneman-Baars reported about on Day 2). During some adorable stage banter from Fujii, she explained that though she and Tamura were celebrating their 21st anniversary and have been playing together for even longer, this was really the first time she had composed music specifically for them. Given its quality, one wonders why she waited. In this intimate—really intimate—setting, Fujii the composer could exist equally with Fujii the recitalist, her pieces functioning in a realm closer to contemporary classical than jazz. They had the idiosyncratic melodrama one expects from her and all those unexpected conclusions to melodic lines. The one image that often came to mind, with Fujii's gauziness and Tamura's rasp, was of a lullaby played to a screaming baby. The music was less revolutionary than evolutionary and was some of Fujii's best in a career already full of highlights.

The evening closed with the final concert of the Hank Jones Invitation Series. Jones began the evening solo, including a version of "Lonely Woman" that was neither Ornette Coleman's or Horace Silver's that entranced guest bassist Charlie Haden—himself one of the festival's favorite Invitation Series participants. Haden then performed a limpid set with Jones that followed the pattern of the other three concerts—an exploration of the Great American Songbook and jazz canon. Haden was almost playing a straight accompanist role; for anyone who saw his week of piano-bass duets at Blue Note last August, the flip in roles was fascinating. Jones chose the tunes—pieces like "My Love and I," duo staple "Alone Together" and "What'll I Do"—and their feels. Haden, ever mellow, was happy to frost Jones' delicious lines and interject his usual sparse solos. The pair, having worked together before, has an excellent rapport, not least because of a shared easy-going nature and beautiful tones. Even during confusion over the time signature during one piece, the pair laughed it off and restarted the section. The highlight of the set was a completely gorgeous take on the spiritual "Sometime I Feel like a Motherless Child," taken from their previous album collaboration Steal Away (after a 1994 Montreal concert appearance). Less gritty than Jones with Joe Lovano and less tentative than Jones with Brad Mehldau, this final evening distilled all of Jones' grace. It has been fascinating to see the gradations in his playing over the three evenings and partners.

June 30th

Film and music have been inextricably linked almost since the former's inception. Now musicians score soundtracks for films but in early times, a sole piano played accompaniment to what was a wondrous new medium. Those heady days were paid tribute to during the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal at Cinematheque Quebecoise in a series entitled Cine-jazz. During the first week of the festival, a number of Canadian players, including pianist Francois Bourassa and saxophonist/flutist Jean Derome, had the opportunity to relive history but in a modern way, improvising music to a number of classic silent films. On the fifth evening of the series—and final night of coverage by this correspondent before handing over the reins for Week 2—the pair's cinematic foil was the 1925 classic The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, presented in a restored extended print.

Things have changed since the original days of the silent film, both for cinema and for music. Thus Bourassa and Derome had to face the challenge of creating modern music for what, at times, seemed like a very anachronistic document. Given the fact the movie follows a linear plot, the pair had the added task of being simultaneously atmospheric and impressionistic. The notion of improvising to film is not new but most often the choice of source material is far more abstract. With The Phantom of the Opera, Bourassa and Derome had to avoid melodramatic pitfalls while still increasing emotional resonance. They did so with generally consistent success, whether it was through moody snatches played during underground chamber scenes, sprightly lines to sections of performed dance or almost hackneyed emphatic blasts during the first unveiling of the Phantom. It was clear that both musicians were familiar with the film, able to follow its plotline as the abstract foundation to their improvisation. Bourassa's counterpoint to Derome's sax and flute was masterful and eventually one forgot that the music was not an actual part of the film. That itself is the highest praise.

The final show of this correspondent's 2008 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal might seem out the realm of the relevant. But jazz must not be considered in a vacuum. If we are to spend time considering its parentage, we must also consider its progeny. One such group is the seminal hiphop act Public Enemy, who "blew up" the Metropolis to a boisterous crowd any jazz show would love to have.





Earlier in the day, the group gave a press conference about their upcoming performance. It has been said—most often by the group—that Public Enemy's press conferences are better than most other rappers' shows. A truer statement has never been made: Chuck D was insightful and belligerent, Flavor Flav was ever the hypeman and subjects as disparate as jazz history, oil, American politics and family vacations were touched upon. Much of what Chuck D said during the press conference was repeated to the capacity Metropolis crowd, befitting an MC who has always spoken about far more than himself. But Public Enemy has not survived for over 20 years purely on political awareness; to quote their lyrics, they "rock bells."



In 1988 the group released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album whose importance to the hiphop genre can be compared to that of Miles Smiles and jazz, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and rock and Reign in Blood and metal. To celebrate the china anniversary of the record, the group presented it live in its entirety, an ambitious and marvelous undertaking. The group's guitarist and bassist were unavailable as was spokesperson Professor Griff so Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord (who replaced original member Terminator X a decade ago) and a drummer played sparser versions of the songs that highlighted their dystopic nature. Appropriate to a performance at jazz festival, there were breaks between the numbers during which Chuck D or Flavor Flav gave some historical background; as Chuck D said, "We're improvising."

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is one of those rare records to be of a time while also being timeless. The world situation in 1988 was hardly ideal and 20 years later, Public Enemy's music is still apt, particularly with an historic American presidential election on the horizon. Public Enemy were sincerely angry back then but age has not dulled their edge, nor their charismatic stage demeanor: Chuck D ran around the stage with child-like exuberance, Flavor Flav was a show unto himself, the S1W's (Public Enemy's security/dancers) were ominously serious and DJ Lord was a one-man case for the turntablist as a legitimate musician.

It may not have been traditional jazz as would be expected by some at the festival. The volume and length—almost 3 hours—was draining and highlights like a Flavor Flav drum solo and non-Nation rhymes like "Fight the Power" and "Welcome to the Terrordome" all melded into one numbing experience. But as Flavor Flav stated, "Jazz is the soul-root of hiphop." For all the adventurous and open-minded bookings during the festival's 29-year history, the invitation extended to Public Enemy demonstrates why it is unrivaled.

Photo Credit

Woody Allen by Denis Alix

Public Enemy by Randall Michaelson



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