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Jazz, Zen, and Hip-Hop: The 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival

Matt Hooke By

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Exploring the grounds of the Montreal Jazz Festival is like going to all you can eat Las Vegas buffet.

"Look over there at table four; there's Dixieland. Wait at table six, there's Latin jazz, supposedly the main table as a new head chef, let's go there."

You can stuff yourself by going to more than ten concerts during a single 13-hour day at the festival. The best part is that all of the outdoor concerts, over 300 shows, are free. An audience member can bounce around from stage to stage from morning to night, taking in everything as they please, creating a unique opportunity to discover veteran performers along with up-coming bands.

The diversity of acts is nothing new; since its founding in 1980, the festival from June 26 to July 6 has always been progressive, embracing international artists and fusion. The event still passes All About Jazz writer John Kelman's 2011 test "When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival?" If you only want to see traditional jazz, there is more than enough options to satisfy your eardrums.

However, this column is about the fusion of jazz with other genres of music and how its spirit is evolving. The festival proved especially inviting for people looking for experimental takes on the genre, as countless artists excelled at pushing the music forward. Much of the music of the Montreal Jazz Festival would seem out of place at a jazz festival in 1980, but much like how a 10-year-old has a different personality than the adult he becomes, Montreal has changed while still maintaining its essence of creativity and freedom throughout the years. Though some performers such as Alt-J may have only a tangential at best connection to the genre, most of the time the wide array of artists showed how innovators both young and old are adding their own ideas to the jazz tradition.

Nik Bärtsch Ronin

Saxophonist Sha's silhouette, illuminated by the lights behind him, was etched on the brick columns of the Gesù church during Nik Bärtsch's Ronin performance on July 5. The hallowed ground of the church fit Bärtsch's music perfectly, as he integrated spiritual practices into his creative work and mindset.

Bärtsch breaks down the capabilities of his instruments in the way a child who just received guitar or piano would (what young guitarist hasn't strummed the taut strings past the nut of a headstock?), exploring the possibilities of pure sound without regard for convention. A piano is a keyboard instrument, but it is also a box, so why not slap your hands on it like a Cajon? It has strings, so why not pluck them or mute them like you would a bass?

Bärtsch's answer to those questions was a resounding yes.

His exploration should not be surprising considering Ronin came out of 27-hour music rituals that he would organize in an old brewery in his home base of Zurich. His playfulness makes this highly complex polyrhythmic music accessible to an audience who may otherwise not be receptive. You can enjoy it for the simple fact that it grooves like the legendary funk groups, such as The Meters, that Bärtsch idolizes or you can enjoy the intellectual exercise of understanding his mastery of harmony and quickly shifting time signatures. It is music for the brain and the body. The music stays true to the Funkadelic maxim, that if you free your mind, your ass will follow.

Bartsch is a master at developing a slow burn into a white heat. The first track he performed at Gesù, "Modul 58," started off slowly with Bartsch playing a simple piano line while drummer Kaspar Rast created ambiance with light cymbal hits. After several minutes of music light enough to float on the air, the beat dropped like an anvil as Rast and bassist Thomy Jordi ratcheted up the energy while Bartsch played the piece's central piano figure.

Bärtsch's composing philosophy is about simplicity. Though his music is quite involved the individual parts are minimal each one building on each other, by emphasizing different beats within a measure or having a different time signature, to create a single dynamic organism that has each instrument function as an integral organ within a great mystic beast.

It is hard to talk about Bärtsch's composing separate from the Zen spiritual practices that inform his work. At a workshop the afternoon before his concert at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal; organized by Sébastien Sauvageau the leader of jazz band L'Oumigmag, Bärtsch took the eight-person group through a series of physical exercises before teaching them his composition "Modul 23." The group consisted of a mix of professionals seeking new ways to enhance their musical talent and amateurs who came to gain more insight on one of their favorite artists.

One participant, Tim Doherty, had previously spent nine days with Bärtsch in Zurich to learn about his compositional technique. Doherty said that Bärtsch's workshops taught him about the importance of community in creative work, along with more technical aspects.

"I discovered his music about ten years ago, and I became obsessed with it right away," said Doherty, a Boston-based guitarist with the Ben Levin Group and the leader of the groove band Shibui. "It wasn't like anything I hadn't heard before; it opened up my understanding of rhythm and how instrumentalists can listen and perform with each other."

Though Doherty is an up and coming musician, Josée Campeau is the opposite, as she has been a cellist for Montreal Cirque de Solei for 20 years. Despite Campeau's long career, she is always searching for artists who search for new ways to create and went to the workshop hoping to connect to like-minded musicians.

"The spaces between the notes," said Campeau when asked about what made Bärtsch's music stick out. "Even though it's highly structured, there's always a flow. There's a high level of presence when you play the music, and that's what attracts me."

"(Bärtsch) teaches you about community, how to listen to each other," said Doherty. "How to be open to the spontaneous and react accordingly without holding all this tension in you. Without pretension without ego, just getting to the heart of what the music can be."

The exercises started as tasks meant to explore the feeling of being in one's body, to gain an understanding of an individual balance or imbalance. We stood still without instruments and saw how our weight balanced between our legs, analyzing the tension in our shoulders when walking with arms relaxed like dead weight falling off your shoulders.

For Bärtsch, these exercises are not just a method for enlightenment, but a necessity for survival after several injuries he suffered as a teenager due to overexertion during practice sessions.

"The goal (in music) is to have fun and play together until you're very old," said Bärtsch. "If you compare that to sports for example, in sports when you hit 35 it's over, just because of the physical capacity. In music, you have the chance to play forever, but the physical thing is very important."

"You need to learn how to be intelligently lazy," said Bärtsch. "Very often we put in a lot of pressure a lot of strength when it is not necessarily needed. Which means, in the long run, you lose a lot of energy. You can do a movement, play a bass, sing, with less effort but more presence."

Bärtsch rejects the idea of art as a young man's game. He sees music as a lifelong process where one continues to grow and develop as one gets older. At 47 years old he is producing some of his most exceptional creative work, with even more life and vitality than his earlier projects.

He tries to pass these lessons down to the young musicians he mentors through his label Ronin Rhythm Records, trying to get his young charges to think in terms of five-year cycles instead of six-month-long ones.

His exercises did not solely consist of solitary self-discovery as Bärtsch believes that community is one of the most critical aspects for any musician. One exercise had us walk around, shaking each other's hands, in another Bärtsch tasked us to form triangles with other people at the workshop. All communication was non-verbal, creating many comic moments when signals were misread. After the series of body exercises, the class took a break before going to the first music portion. Bärtsch focused on an instrument often thought of as glamorous as a brown toad in the swamp, the shaker. Bärtsch chose the shaker because it is one of the simplest instruments to play; it does not require any technical knowledge to hold something and move your arm up and down. It is also one of the oldest instruments, Bärtsch joked that the shaker might have its origins in people listening to a fruit full of seeds.

Everyone started by standing in a circle, moving the shaker in basic four-four time. Then like a chef adding layers to a lasagna, he introduced more elements, transforming the simple act the musical equivalent of navigating a canoe in a hurricane. By the end everyone had to keep time with their shaker, balance a juggling ball on their head, count to five in a clockwise order that reversed every time someone said "and" in front of a number, and clap your free hand on your body in a permanent clockwise motion.

The latter two elements caused the most confusion as in a previous exercise he had every clap their hand on their leg when they said the number, so going to this new form forced you to retrain your muscle memory. The point of the exercise was to turn off what Bärtsch calls "the monkey mind," the part of the brain that wants to analyze every action, to focus on "the musical mind," the natural affinity human beings have for rhythm.

Bärtsch makes it clear that he does not think all analysis is bad; the detailed works he makes required him to examine many forms of percussive music and classical music ranging from Stravinsky to Japanese drumming traditions.

When Bärtsch took the group through "Modul 23" a piece that emphasizes five vs. three vs. four, the group, despite playing together for the first time, felt like a well-oiled machine. The hours spent chuckling at each other when a juggling ball fell off someone's head, interrupting a peaceful moment with a loud thud, created a quick sense of camaraderie.

"We can train and rehearse and practice a lot, but you cannot make it safe for yourself on stage," said Bärtsch. "It goes to the next level you need to somehow let go in terms of trust. The group together has such a big possibility to risk something. That's one of the most inspiring phenomena as a band, and you need that moment where you don't hold it."

Though his attitude might seem laid back, Bärtsch thinks about every aspect of his performance in complete detail. When he first started touring, he insisted on bringing his own light technician, so the lights would correspond with the mood the band tries to convey. In quiet moments the lights are dim or non-existent, slightly rising with the music to a climax where they change with every note of Sha's horn or slam of Rast's drums.

Bärtsch tries hard not to underestimate the impact an audience can have; his best example of how the audience can affect the musical mind is when he performed with a ballet. He could not see the crowd until a moment before the show started, but he felt their presence strongly, hearing their chatter without being able to see a single face.

Bärtsch wants each listener to experience his music in their own way. He is fine with crowds being seated, like the one at Gesù, or standing, understanding that people can enjoy music both kinetically or intellectually. Instead of the descriptive titles that most composers use, he refers to his compositions as differently numbered moduls, like "Modul 60." The unorthodox titling system allows the listener to invent a story or an image to go along with the music without being corrupted by what Bärtsch thinks the piece means. It is Bärtsch's job to create the music, the listener's job to give meaning to it.

Sax Machine

Unlike Bärtsch's concert, no one sat in chairs during SaxMachine feat Racecar's show on July 1 at the Heineken stage. Hundreds of people jumped up and down pumping their fists in their air as saxophonist Guillaume Sené and trombonist Pierre Dandin performed hard bop-inspired lines. The show was no revival as MC Racecar rapped over electronic drums that vibrated the air like jackhammers as the room filled with the smell of sweat and beer. "We aren't playing traditional jazz, but we are using jazz codes like playing the theme on the top of the track and playing it again at the end and improvising between," said Sené. "I like this way of using the jazz ethos in another way."

"You can only hear a cover so many times," added Racecar.

Even fans of the group would have been unlikely to recognize much of the material. All the songs that the trio played but two at the Heineken stage Friday were improvised.

The beats ranged from '90s boom-bap inspired drums to electronic house to Latin inspired rhythms. MC Racecar toyed with the audience like a puppet master, starting claps only to stop them at the most awkward moment to elicit laughter from the crowd. During one especially inspired solo, Racecar began fanning down Sené with a towel, mock-worrying that he could ignite on stage.

"I think taking yourself too seriously will be your downfall if you're so serious that the crowd isn't having fun," said Racecar.

Sené and Dandin created beats by live looping electronics and saxophone. Dandin even grabbed a conch shell and incorporated its saltwater tinged sound into the instrumentals.

Sax Machine was formed by accident. Sené made a couple of recordings with his loop pedal not intending to play any live shows with the concept. Then a promoter from the 2009 Recife Jazz Festival in Brazil heard Sené's music and offered him a live show. In 2012 the Chicago-born MC Racecar joined the group after moving to France because of his girlfriend.

"We wanted that frontman, someone to interact with the crowd," said Sené on why he invited Racecar to the group. "We invited Racecar to Rennes our home city in Brittany, and we did a jam session at home that lasted all fucking day long."

"I can find inspiration wherever right now," said Racecar. "It grabs me. I don't grab it."

Schemes

Schemes and Sax Machine are like kindred spirits with how they both blend hip-hop and jazz influences. During their performance on July 3 at the Rio Tinto stage, Schemes felt like a neo-soul group, with smooth vocals from Nadia Hawa Baldé backed by relaxed basslines by Maïko Despeignes and occasional raps by Mike Clay. Then the smoothness evaporated into the air like water droplets, getting shocked by a heat lamp. The band after a monologue from Clay about how "it's a cold, cold world," went into a free jazz section with every instrument going ballistic in a way that would make Albert Ayler proud. It was if Sun Ra's space ship flew over the Montreal night sky flanked by the P-Funk mothership.

"All of us have listened to all kinds of neo-soul and hip-hop it's been done before. Amongst all that we've listened to Anthony Braxton, Eric Dolphy, and John Zorn, so they have to be part of the show," said Clay. "We love hip hop; we love free jazz, and those two elements complete who we are."

Hugo Parent-Pothier met Clay at a house party and was impressed by his freestyling abilities and asked to collaborate.

Clay himself is a professional ghostwriter for pop artists. The rest of the band have their own more pop-oriented side jobs, a fact that inspired the name of the band, as Clay views the group as a way to use channel the money from other projects into a more experimental outfit. Clay played 11 shows in four days at the festival, performing with Clay and Friends, Urban Science, and of course Schemes.

"(The band members) all play with all kinds of people and that's the great thing about Schemes," said Clay. "This is the project where we can all get together and do us."

Cha Wa

New Orleans is the mother of jazz. The genre emerged from her bayou in the early 20th century, like how life emerged from the primordial ooze of the pre-Cambrian era. The building blocks for Jazz came out of church music, the drumming rituals in Congo Square, and Mardi Gras second lines. From these materials, Jazz came out of black New Orleans as a statement of artistic genius.

On the same day that Schemes brought jazz to the space age, Cha Wa brought the genre back to its roots with their take on traditional Mardi Gras music. The two frontmen J'wan Boudreaux and Joseph Boudreaux Jr. wore elaborate Indian suits with plumbed feathers across their arms and extravagant foot tall headdresses while performing at the largest outdoor venue, the TD stage.

Mardi Gras Indian suits are a tradition going back over 200 years. The suits are meticulously hand-sewn bead by bead in a process that usually lasts up to a year.

For the Boudreaux brothers, the music runs in their blood.

"They're portraits of my dad Monk Boudreaux," said Joseph Boudreaux Jr. when asked about the portraits on his white suit. "He's my father and J'wans grandfather. He's one of the pioneers of this music that we do, so these pictures are a dedication to him."

Cha Wa channeled the political power of music shouting "no justice, no peace" with a raised fist in the air. Despite their adherence to hundreds of years of tradition, they added new elements as well, with trombonist Jose Maize Jr. contributing a rap verse to one song.

In a two-month span that saw the death of three New Orleans legends who helped define the city for a generation, chef Leah Chase, and songwriters Dave Bartholomew and Dr. John, it felt inspiring to see the culture they championed represented on the main festival stage. New Orleans and Montreal have a unique connection as two former French cities known for the strength of their jazz scenes. The enthusiastic audience response to Cha Wa despite a language barrier touched the band deeply.

"Even though I know (the band and the audience) can barely understand each other the music speaks," said J'wan Boudreaux. "The music makes the world go round."

Jazzmatazz Montreal Wrap-Up

The aforementioned bands may come from different worlds, but they draw from many of the same influences. A focus on groove unites all of them, an understanding that a great beat can change the world. Improvisation is central to each artist both on the micro-level, by creating variations in a groove like Ronin and Cha Wa, or on the macro-level, like Schemes and Sax Machine who featured an emphasis on completely improvised parts.

Bärtsch, despite his classical and jazz leanings, often books hip-hop artists at his Zurich nightclub Exil, understanding its artistry and appeal to young people because of its energy, storytelling, and focus on improvisation. Jazz and hip-hop have always had a connection, A Tribe Called Quest exclaimed "we've got the jazz" over "Green Dolphin Street." Miles Davis's last album Doo-Bop featured production by Easy Mo Bee, who would later go on to produce some of the best tracks on Notorious B.I.G's debut Ready to Die. This column is named after a Guru album, Jazzmatazz, that features the late rapper backed by Branford Marsalis and Lonnie Liston Smith among other great musicians.

The eclectic ways that artists built on the jazz ethos in Montreal offered proof that jazz is an inclusive art form. The genre has always borrowed from folk and international influences even during its early stages, Duke Ellington's 1967 album Far East Suite, being a stellar early example. Now more than a hundred years after Buddy Bolden created the first jazz band in 1895, the genre is still as relevant as ever, with arguably the greatest album of the past decade, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly Jazz being a jazz hip-hop record featuring west coast artists like Ambrose Akinmusire. Jazz is not dead; it has just changed with time. Does a caterpillar die, when it turns into a butterfly?

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