Montreux Jazz Festival 2010: Grand Geneva Finales

Phillip Woolever BY

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Montreux Jazz 2010
Montreux, Switzerland
July 15-16, 2010
Planet Jazz

For a city with census figures at under 25,000 citizens, Montreux throws one hell of a party. For summer music fans, its heaven.

The 44th edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival wrapped up this season's two week engagement on some very high notes. Constant capacity crowds witnessed inspired collaborations and programming exemplified a continuing standard through another July jubilee that proved Montreux Jazz remains at the pinnacle for any type music festival. The scene is a recurring, golden era evolution all its own. That was as crystal clear as the shimmering shoreline water that captivated thousands of well-attired attendees from all sectors of society, united in musical passion.

For at least a few drifting days it seemed like the whole world, or maybe just everyone in that part of Switzerland, had a prevailing love of jazz. Evening traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, seemed only to be headed toward the music. Consistently exceptional promotion featured custom banners throughout town. Buses were decorated with bright new images of musical notes or performers. Advisory signs and signals atop modified barricades simply stated "JAZZ" with florescent arrows pointing the way to the center of the action in the convention complex area. Many persons of the beautiful persuasion were inspired, en masse, to follow that wild call of horny howling in the garden of bops and beats.

Interaction with frivolous fringes of the crowd indicated that for many jazz fans, Montreux has remained a unique designer destination. An estimated total attendance of around 200,000 turned the usually serene, flower laden walkway along Lake Geneva into a throbbing mass of rare proportion and presentation. If there is a more comfortably compact, constantly fashionable locale for jazz to be found, it would be surprising.

The upscale vibe included glamorous waterfront lounge areas or exotic dining stands alongside interspersed, guzzling swarms around a Swiss army of Heineken stands. It was a massively melodic mob scene but completely orderly and well mannered. Disability access was probably limited in some outside areas simply due to the crush, which made squeezing by a not too harsh chore at some bottleneck standstills. It was a reasonable price for massive social interaction along the lines of a beehive.

Overall, the festival sold approximately 85% of the available tickets. Auditorium Stravinski, cavernous home to most of the top dollar concerts, was reportedly sold out for 14 of 17 shows. There was brisk business at many of the dozens of lake front vendors in a street fair atmosphere. Inside the main complex, souvenirs, liquer and more caviar to be consumed than imagined possible were dished out in abundance.

In between and all around the more prominently featured pay events were some exceptional free shows, including an excellent variety of performers in the Parc Vernex outdoor band shell. DJs or film screenings filled the Jazz Café and Studio 41, where dance/trance parties ran from before dusk to after dawn. In what was billed as a "world premiere" the high-demand, standing room sold out show by Quincy Jones's global project was broadcast for free in 3D at the neighboring, regal Petit Palais, complimentary 3D glasses included. Little touches like that keep the customers coming back for more.

Some of the very best musical moments of the two week gala were saved for last, and the throngs danced in appreciation with greater numbers and abandon than during some earlier nights. Heading into the final weekend of a 16 day waterfront party that was blessed with mostly beautiful weather and beautiful people, Mark Knopfler gave a deep, subtle performance that ranked as one of the festival's finest, then a night later the still expanding elder statesman Herbie Hancock headed a stage full of all-stars who joined his Imagine Project in a classic set.

There was no huge frenzy similar to last year's surprise short notice grand finale sets by Prince. When Daniel Lanois' motorcycle accident forced his collaboration with Brian Blade and Trixie Whitley, deemed Black Dub Collective to cancel, replacement Emmanuelle Seigner brought along her recently released US fugitive husband Roman Polanski, which caused a minor paparazzi fart. Is Seigner two years younger than Polanski's conviction based victim? It seemed like the majority of festival attendees were just fine without any drama, tabloid worthy or not. Montreux must mean mellow.

Thursday, July 15: Money for Something

Knopfler's current enterprise is billed as the Get Lucky tour, which supplements the 2009 release of traditional folk based, multi-instrumental narratives in an acoustic format. While a handful of newer material like the opening "Border Reiver" was further introduced the vast majority of tunes in the approximately two hour set consisted of Knopfler's biggest amplified epics from both Dire Straits and his distinguished solo projects. That's exactly what the faithful wanted: sticking close to the original blueprint with just enough interesting twists to keep familiar refrains fresh but basically intact.

Just before the band took the stage, a politely humorous gentleman shuffled out and implored folks, on behalf of Knopfler, not to detract from their neighbors' experience by using cell phone cameras or other recorders. "Please respect Mark's wishes and resist the temptation to use these devices," concluded the crewman. Nice sentiment. You can guess how many seconds it was before some goober stuck a glowing mini-screen into 30 peoples' immediate plane of vision. When ushers attempted to enforce the no film policy it was even more of a distraction. Leisure humanity at their finest.

Maybe its the vast variety of human elements in Knopfler's perceptive portraits that strike such a strong chord with so many of his followers, and why the Dire Straits catalogue continues to thrive. It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that Knopfler's loud, loyal crowd was by far the grittiest and probably most devoted in a festival with no shortage of intense headlining characters. A large number of patrons held a drink in each hand. It was a moody blue collar atmosphere, and Knopfler was definitely the working class guitar hero. The swarm crammed into Stravinski and lined up outside the doors overflowed a capacity of approximately 4,000 while dozens stuck outside were forced to watch on HD screens.

That's not to say Knopfler is the type performer who makes it look easy. In fact, one of Knopfler's strengths is how the apparent effort of what he's aiming for translates through, if not flawless dynamics, pure inspiration. Despite considerable accolades and rare material rewards, Knopfler still faces challenges in being accepted as a traditional craftsman opposed to a star of more style than substance. Compositionally, Knopfler continues to prove himself as a historical novelist, often preferring projects closer to his heartfelt instincts than more profitable paths along the hit parade.

Knopfler's smooth skinned palate shined with intense, introspective expression when he bent into the strings, but he never seemed to be taking himself too seriously. Considering that he possesses one of the most distinct, trademark twangs in popular music, it says a lot that he doesn't seemed satisfied with "good enough."

Knopfler is quite under-stated on stage. His picturesque narratives are more a soft spoken word style than sung, delivered in low tones and usually with minimal movement. Tonight a chagrined Knopfler was confined to an office-type chair from an injury, but seemed more focused than hindered from a comfortable looking perch in front of his majestic, red Reinhardt dual amp set.

Yet there is nothing subtle about the enduring impact of Knopfler's songbook, from which he and a group of frequent collaborators tweaked a few bridges and folked-up some familiar anthems. As Knopfler alternated between a Stratocaster and a Les Paul, sometimes you heard the same note in a different galaxy.

The show began with shadowy overtures between flutist Michael McGoldrick and violinist John McCusker, who each got almost as much overall solo time as Knopfler but didn't act like wingmen gone wild. The pair also kept things grounded with touches of mandolin or wind instruments and were as basic to the beat as bassist Glenn Worf and drummer Danny Cummings. Keyboards were manned by Guy Fletcher and Matt Rollings. For the mutually experienced ensemble, it was all systems go.

As the audience settled back to submerge into Knopfler's deeply detailed landscape it quickly became obvious he remains one of the great storytellers in music, whether drawing upon whimsical characterizations or sculpting personalities and social commentary from rituals of the past. Knopfler can twist his six-string signals around the hall and around people's heads, holding some notes that seemingly float above others. Could such timing come from generally being left handed and playing from the right? Knopfler may have jump started a few frets at first but it added to the true texture of performance purity. Once again, the humanity factor at work.

"Sultans of Swing," done virtually note for note as a quartet, might as well have been Dire Straits over twenty five years ago. Knopfler nailed the now standard solo with precision that made it seem new, not like something he's done a million times. Judging from the jungle land reaction, that blazing interlude was the point of the whole exercise for some customers anyway, and why not? If you've got a proven body of work like Knopfler's, flaunt it.

The key to Knopfler's success tonight was not straying too much from the soul of his source song pool. Nothing helps a show keep crucial momentum like an audience consistently cheering the opening chords of song after song. Brief introductory passages on familiar themes that could be termed industrial folk were preludes for some pieces, but such flute or keyboard solos soon led to heartily recognized refrains.

Knopfler featured four fine tunes from Sailing to Philadelphia (Mercury 2000) , "What It Is," "Prairie Wedding" and the title track, which highlighted Knopfler's ability to create life like characters. Tonight on "Speedway at Nazareth," a proven crowd favorite and concert fixture, the band probably hit at least a 9 on the 10 scale performance wise.

One of the only instances when the spell was briefly broken came during "So Far Away," which plodded predictably in comparison to the rest of the set list. The assembled swarm was oblivious to any letdown, if indeed there was one. Even a cynic would have to admit that Knopfler's efforts were highly agreeable to a broad public, while many spectators acted like it was the show of the year. When Knopfler and crew basked in the cliché-proof, heartfelt standing ovation then toasted the audience, fans literally bolted for the bar to return the favor.

Knopfler broke from the last harness with a lit up thumb and index finger, then came out of his chair with serious intentions for the climactic jams of "Telegraph Road." Get a close up of the hundred fevered faces in the stage left standing area forty feet from Knopfler's reverbing amps, and put this one in the Montreux time capsule.

A sterling version of "Done With Bonaparte" had the simmering crowd swaying across Stratocaster waves to a shore of bliss. The roaring response verified that while Knopfler isn't the most dynamic front man, he remains one of the most powerful. Tonight was a clinic on how Knopfler possesses one of the most popularly recognizable voices and equally identifiable guitar tone signatures on the planet. The set was a triumph of both intellect and riffs.

There were plenty of pleasures to be had outside the primary walls of sound, a proverbial feast for the senses. Anyone strolling along the lake path could stop for either basic or exotic refreshment as a Swiss sky of soundtrack music seemed to blend forever along the flowered trail.

Phoenix headed a tastefully fashionable night of lean machine rock in Miles Davis Hall, which included brief freeze frame opening sets of early 21st century style avant-garde by Solange La Frange and Yacht. Touring off the success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2/Universal2009), the six shooters had to extend some catchy drones to stretch their heavy strobe hour and fifteen minute set, but most of their effects-based presentation was enjoyable, and they did indeed rock. If none of it was pre-recorded (and that's a technical question, not a negative insinuation) then it was a very commendable little concert, and marks Phoenix as one of the better new French outfits.

Contrary to guidelines for the Knopfler show, cell phone photos or filming were de rigueur for the crowd of around 500, and the dozens of constant small screen counterpoints actually enhanced the pop-rock-trance club type setting. This year organizers relocated the entrance and widened sight lines of the Miles Davis Hall, which usually holds an evening's secondary price level shows. Judging from tonight, it was an excellent move in regard to customer considerations like overall viewpoints, stage accessibility, and access to restrooms or vendors.

Friday, July 16: Prodigious Vibes of Planetary Peace : Quincy Jones and the Global Gumbo All Stars

This conglomerate of global masters had reportedly never been convened in tonight's quintet form, though various projects had intersected most players in trios or pairs on recent recordings, tour support, or Berklee academics. Whatever prior experiences each man had or shared, the communication and interaction personified by each artist proved music is a universal language, as advertised.

For the most part Jones, billed as Musical Director, held court at stage right and played master of ceremonies, introduced the tunes and provided anecdotal background. "I picked the greatest musicians I could for this," said Jones without a trace of exaggeration. The hype meter was on high, but for the most part the band lived up to their sequenced biographical praises and exceeded a widespread mix of stylistic expectations from the distinctly diverse crowd. Jones enjoys almost unparalleled prestige around this festival, and he had his trademark quality all over this show. He applied the "amazing" designation to the point of overkill after some movements, but most of his superlatives were accurate.

Whether this was the result of a few phone calls and a couple quick rehearsals or an extended group effort on multiple fronts , these fellows certainly played together well. News flash there? The surprise would be if a group this qualified didn't put out great music. All of the performers established individual instrumental impressions and each got ample solo time to make more elaborate personal statements.

Tonight's audience was quite a friendly fish stew themselves, with probably the most eclectic energy to be found. That didn't mean they were giving any free rides when the show started half an hour late. At ticket prices from 220 Swiss francs, or around 175 US bucks, there was understandable derision and impatient clapping. For what would have to be considered an elite crowd overall, it was obviously not the best impression to start with.

Then time became a footnote. Schedules went out the sculpted window as the jams ran almost twice as long as their scheduled 75 minute slot and the audience grooved happily. Any tardiness by the musicians was quickly forgotten. There was a great feeling of communion even though many songs kept direct elements of the performers various individual repertoires.

Richard Bona the well known bassist from Cameroon kicked off the festivities with a fine performance featured in his recent solo engagements, composed of multi-echoed effects and vocal loops. This primal chant sort of exercise sounded like a history of song around the world, and served as a fine foundation for the evening. We're giving Bona the MVP because he logged the most stage time both solo and in support.

Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez accompanied himself on foot percussion and smacked some scalding scales that drew a huge audience response. His Faziou piano sounded a ringing advertisement for the brand.

On "High Life," West African guitarist Lionel Loueke provided vocals with a crisp choral quality, and added dimensions with his effects pedal. During a subsequent, comedic scat sequence he sounded like a vast countryside's worth of tongue clicks. The audience ate it up with a glowing grin.

One high point was the counter balance between Loueke's Ivory Coast tenor and Bana's softer, high pitched responses. When they harmonized it was like a basement tapes version of Graceland. The two recently worked together on Louke's Mwaliku (Blue Note 2010) and the camaradarie was apparent. Some people near the stage sang along in Native dialects, and many patrons who sat stoically on the floor in a crowded standing room section appeared to be meditating.

Overall, the show came down to a rotating series of solos, which spread the wealth and added to the run of accumulated highlights without stretching anybody's charm too thin.

The three aforementioned non-percussionists got most of the featured moments, but Cuban drummer Francisco Mela and Brazilian rhythm king Paulinho DaCosta were equal contributors who kept great time. Mela had the most stage presence in the quartet, even when he played in a back up mode. Da Costa is said to be one of the most recorded major instrumentalists in history, and tonight he showed enough licks to fill many a skin stretched vault . The pair's percussion jam near the end of the show got one of the biggest responses of the night.

Some guest spots added to the highlight reel. Pianist Greg Phillinganes, who along with Loueke would stay on stage for Herbie Hancock's Imagine Project, showed the ability to mimic meters like a master. When he and Rodriguez turned a "Happy Birthday" duet got into a cutting contest on keys, it evolved into sweet spontanteity at an optimal octave.

16 year old vocalist Nikki Yanofsky reconnected with Jones while in Europe and was invited to participate here. She did three songs that showed why she has a growing reputation. She quickly worked past the age label though it remains an unavoidable subject, especially when most players around her are at least two or three times her years. Maybe her style was a bit too traditional for the format, and she avoided some call and response moves, but she did fine overall amongst distinguished company, and looks to be around quite a while.

Finally, to the crowd's loudly declared delight, Hancock also made it to the stage party and led the finishing impromptu troupe through a spirited version of "Water- mellon Man" that clocked in at over 15 minutes as he played off almost everyone on stage. It was a DVD worthy spectacle, and doubtlessly available soon.

The Imagine Project: Beautifully Clear Vision, Even Better Music

Hancock re-imagined some chart topping songs for an all star album of guests, The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock Music, 2010) with the stated mission of spreading the multi-national word and improving cultural tolerance. Now he's taking the show on the road with a great, polished but playful band. Don't imagine going. Get there.

Hancock is always reliably adventurous. Last year he came through withLang Lang on a symphonic piano duo tour, this year he's taming a whole new beast. The collection is probably Hancock's most mainstream in terms of familiar chart or playlist topping tunes, with material interpreted by a vast group of master improvisers. The touring unit could probably reproduce the exact notes and sound of their source material if they and the sound crew wished. Once in a while,briefly, they did.

The telepathically linked rhythm section of bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who are notching quite a list of gigs together including Jeff Beck's '09 ramble, are a worthy show in themselves. Rock solid Colaiuta has some of the very best kettle to foot rolls going, though tonight he was relatively reserved and kept in 1-2 backup gear during prominent ballads. He and Wilkenfeld have worked into a rowdy but relaxing routine that few rhythm sections in any genre can dream to match.

Perky Australian Wilkenfeld had a sizeable cheering section around her side of the stage that looked more like a Limp Bizkit mob. Between Wilkenfeld's string slapping skills and a punk-pixie babe factor, the army of hopefuls showed good taste as they moshed away, but with respect for the less lively crowd around them. It was nice to see Wilkenfeld get the pumped-up respect. One got the feeling that if Wilkenfeld ever formed a funk rock band with Esperanza Spalding they could do a profitable arena tour in these parts.

Vocalist Kristina Train was in the tough position of not only matching an ensemble at the highest echelon of excellence, but also singing a hit parade from all over the mainstream pop charts without pitching a high tech Vegas lounge effect.

This show came near the halfway point of a global tour, with Hancock's upcoming 70th birthday celebration on the horizon, but he was focused on the pleasurable task at hand. It seemed like something he planned on being involved with well into the future. Hancock looked relaxed and ready in a copper toned shirt that kept a robotic shine. There was a strong, fitting image of a visionary among masters. "We demand peace," said Hancock. "We have Asians, Africans, people from all around the world, but we're all the same family." That message came through as solid as the dazzling dexterity displayed by Hancock's current partners.

The project's title song, John Lennon' s "Imagine" was crafted with unimpeachable workmanship by all, but sometimes the extended phrases seemed like a bit too much unnecessary gloss. One of the song's strengths is the stark plea which shouldn't be over-ornamented. Still, the arrangement was entertaining and the passion was real. It seems that without a doubt Lennon would have appreciated the spirit, artistry and theme of the project.

Train's vocals on "Don't Give Up" were particularly effective in reflecting an introspective mood that provided a cooling canvas for the players to color, like a rainbow while the rain remains.

Loueke on guitar and Phillinganes on electric keys were more animated than during their earlier "Gumbo" set. They displayed more outgoing personas, and added extraordinary vocal backing. "Imagine" was after all, an extensively rehearsed and performed tour by now.

The band absolutely killed on another jammed up mash of "Watermellon Man." They played a full circle ying version for the yang of Hancock's "Gumbo" guest spot and allowed every player to stretch out and let the audience know they were in for something special, in case there was any doubt. A very pleased Hancock looked ready to dance as he stepped seamlessly from programming a Korg OASYS to the Faziou piano keys. Body language said Hancock was really engaged in the event.

Hancock repeated a rising modulated wave while Wilkenfeld and Colaiuta rumbled wildly. Exchanges between Hancock on a Roland AX synthesizer and Wilkenfeld while Colaiuta subtly thundered away in the background were price of admission moments. When Hancock subsequently strolled over to Loueke, who was now into higher pitched keyboard sounding effects, their duet was icing on the galactic cake.

Actually, amidst an almost perfect storm of happily raging instrumental interactions, everyone showed the power of righteous restraint. The songs were excellent but in truth, the parts were just as great as the sum under these circumstances. How far the Imagine Project reaches or endures remains to be seen. It could conceivably rotate players and classic tunes season after season. At the very least, Hancock and friends showed the concept was well worth it in terms of kick ass bands alone.

Besides, any concept that has "Space Cowboy" on its set list has a heart in the right place. Hancock, a classic, cosmic soul man himself, has a lifetime pass to the musical pilot's seat on any worthy "rockit." Tonight, the synthesis engines were on full throttle.

Into the Night

A pair of the free programs most interesting offerings came back to back as a waxing moon presided over Parc Vernex. Mac Abbe et le Zombi Orchestra are a face-painted quartet from France who are equal parts stage show and band, a kind of Spike Jones spinoff with some legit chops to accompany their gimmick. The "macabre" pun is definitive. Think of the band for a Munsters wedding and you've got the picture, candelabras and all, definitely one of the best Halloween party combos to haunt a stage.

Next came a great set of tribal island beat hopping that was hip enough without urbanization. The group billed as Nana'n'kho featured some primary members from Senegal and were definitely one of the very finest acts in the park. This seemed to be one of the most diverse, high quality programs in recent seasons. Anyone who couldn't find loads to love must not enjoy live music.

Montreux Jazz is not only jazz, not half the time, but still just jazz enough. The experience is enchanting for any musical taste. As the sun set or moon shined softly to create hypnotizing light patterns across the lake, multiple jazz notes throbbed like beacons of calm in a crazy world.

Maybe the most charming thing is that Montreux Jazz remains relatively small enough that the festival makes a noticeable difference in the makeup of the town. Necessary commercialization doesn't bury the spirit of the scene. Like other increasingly rare destinations on the planet, Montreux is not only an exquisite experience but also a unique state of mind. Many music festivals have a wandering tourist vibe around either the grounds or more intangible intellectual properties.

In Montreux it seems the local language for two weeks is jazz in many similar dialects. Word gets around. Ironically the packed double 2am sardine can buses crammed with a weary wide variety of people is a fitting image. Some general concert schedules were set with earlier starts than in prior years to allow less pre-dawn bus stop overcrowding, but the majority of the crowd stayed late whether they attended the main marquee shows or not.

Once again, on what many travelers treat as a justifiable jazz pilgrimage, the faithful showed up, at an amazing altar to musical art. Once again, as almost every visitor to Montreux Jazz finds, the journey was rewarded.

Photo Credit

Lionel Flusin: Mark Knopfler, Quincy Jones, Richard Bona, Lionel Louke, Francisco Mela, Herbie Hancock

Daniel Balmart: Phoenix

David Bjorken: Tal Wilkenfeld

Odile Meylan: Zombi Orchestra

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