Jazz festivals can be an exercise in anticipation: Look forward to the first show, then the next, then the one after and then the festival ends. The hectic schedule means one concert is barely over by the time you are scrambling to find your seat at the next. The Montreal Jazz Festival alleviates this difficulty in a way that festivals in New York City cannot—centralization. The attractive Place Des Arts in downtown Montreal, with its differently sized venues and assortment of outdoor stages, makes going from one show to the next a quick two-minute walk or run, depending on how much time you have. For the jaded jazz festival attendee, the Montreal festival is better than most. The beneficial exchange rate makes expenditures such as tickets and peripheral record shopping seem like spring sales. The line-up, at least in this year’s festival, had several players who do not come to the east coast often enough; The notion that every musician comes to New York is being deflated as one jazz club after another closes. Crowds are polite, attentive and appreciative. There are no whispered conversations or inane running commentaries. The notable exception to this was one woman who, during a Michael Brecker/Charlie Haden duo show, kept asking her husband “So, they’re just making this stuff up?” The festival's structure made it necessary to pick and choose among over 350 available shows. Most of the free ones appealing to the casual passerby were not even worth seeing. That left some obvious choices and some obscure ones. The combination of the two gave a good overall impression of the 2001 festival.
Opening night brought Charles Lloyd and his quintet (John Abercrombie, Geri Allen, Marc Johnson and Billy Hart taking the drum reins from the late Billy Higgins, to whom the concert was dedicated). Unfortunately, Lloyd loses much of his impact in the huge 2000-person Spectrum. Having recently seen him at the Knitting Factory in front of 200 people makes me miss his rambling stories and spiritual messages about the power of music. While he was occasionally inspired as was Marc Johnson in one solo, the performance was rather perfunctory, because or despite the camera boom flying around the stage and obscuring the view of those who spent hours on line for the “best seats”. John Abercrombie, usually phenomenal in small settings, in particular seemed lost and distracted.
The intimate 200-person Salle de Gésu, located in the basement of a church and using stone columns as a decorative motif provided a much better space for the evening’s later concert—the ECM Artists: Ketil Bjørnstad, David Darling and Terje Rypdal. The combination of the gorgeous warm sound of the venue, the stark white lighting focused on the stonework and the talent of the three performers made this an early highlight of the festival. The music was dark and moody and utilized silence as much as sound in the singular ECM way. A “chicken or the egg” question leapt to mind: Do artists on the ECM label adapt to the classic sound or does Manfred Eicher just pick people who play that way already? The captive audience members, eerily silent until huge rounds of applause at the ends of segments, were definitely not casual passers-by.
Shakti was among the big-name performers occupying the gargantuan Salle Wilfred Pelletier. Before each of their performances, I profess boredom with McLaughlin’s current (or retro?) infatuation with Eastern music. Then the show and the unbelievable playing overwhelm me again. To be fair, Shakti’s style has changed since McLaughlin resurrected the group three years ago. As the quartet becomes more comfortable playing with each other, the music strays away from strict Indian classicism towards rock- and jazz-oriented improvisations. The group got lengthy ovations, in part due to McLaughlin’s francophone ability and the revival of the old Mahavishnu Orchestra favorite “You Know You Know” in an Indian setting. The place was rockin’ to the last seat in the last row. How do I know? That’s where my seat was (thanks Admission.com!?).