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Montreux Jazz Festival 2019

Martin McFie By

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Montreux Jazz Festival
Montreux, Switzerland
June 28 to July 13, 2019

Montreux Jazz festival began in 1967, driven by the vision of Claude Nobs in collaboration with Geo Voumard, Rene Langel, and the Office of Tourism in their hometown Montreux, on Lake Geneva. This year 2019, was the 53rd edition. For two weeks in July, the small town expands to entertain a quarter of a million visitors. Montreux has managed to maintain the original ethos and character of what is a Music Festival more than a pure jazz festival. It was a product of its time. By 1967, the split between instrumental modern jazz and popular blues-derived music with lyrics and dance rhythms was final. At Montreux, it's all music. Miles Davis played here, so did the The Rolling Stones on their first tour. There was an enormous amount of music at Montreux, twelve live stages (half of which are free) stretch along the side of Lake Geneva with the magnificent Alpine mountain range as a backdrop. Music played in the afternoon, in the evening, and through the early morning.

Day 1

Sting, former frontman for the British rock band The Police, opened the festival showcasing his many musical incarnations, which have been decorated with 17 Grammy awards. His performance is part of his "Sting My Songs Tour." For the moment his work is centering on Reggae collaborations with Shaggy. However, he admitted there was still enough jazzman in him to improvise some sections.

All major performers with an established songbook play their biggest hits at festivals, whatever their current projects may be. Hearing a big hit live has a special magic that is impossible to reproduce in the studio environment.

Day 2

Sir Elton John CBE, celebrated a sparkling 50-year career by including Montreux in his "Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour" after 300 million album sales. His adaptation of "Candle in the Wind" for Diana, Princess of Wales, was the highest selling single in history. Realizing that the 4,000 capacity Stravinski Auditorium would be insufficient for Sir Elton's audience, even with two performances, the decision was taken to transform the local stadium in Montreux into an outdoor venue for 15,000 people, in just three weeks.

Performances at the Montreux Jazz Club began with Seun Kuti& Egypt 80 building on the style of his father, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. The Montreux Jazz Club has theatre style seating for 600, at times configured with candlelit tables to seat a hundred people close to the stage, creating the club atmosphere.

Day 3

Montreux Jazz Festival supports High School and University jazz bands. Throughout the Festival there were orchestras from Utah State, Southampton University UK, Denver Jazz Club, Mountbatten Big Band UK, Groover Big Band, Holland, The Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, Dixie Dominus Traditional jazz band USA, and the California Jazz Conservatory. in many cases the young musicians fund their travel, underlining the sad economic fact that big bands are a very tough commercial proposition.

In the evening, Janet Jackson, youngest of the famed Jackson family and a driving force in a 1990 revival of R&B popularity, performed in the Stravinsky Auditorium while at the Montreux Jazz Club, British singer Rahh presented her soul compositions. She included "I won't be a problem," which broke down into a section of rhythmic clapping in counterpoint. Her composition "For the Love of It" was dedicated to her father, who once briefly shared management with The Beatles. The name Rahh makes onomatopoeic reference to a tigress' roar, and in places, she displayed feline energy coupled with her powerful, wide-ranging voice.

Bobby McFerrin may be best remembered from among his ten Grammy awards for writing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" (1988). McFerrin took the stage with four acapella singers in his VOICorchEstra. As soon as they sat down in a semi-circle, McFerrin kicked off his shoes and began to sing his joyful sounds, slapping at his chest for emphasis, defining the rhythm, dipping through his vocal range from high to low in a beat. He called "You got it" to pass the sound and balance between them, conducting intuitively. The music became ethereal, mesmeric as it flowed. At times a flute could have been playing, at times a drum solo was discernible, but the magic was that there were only ever five singers on stage.

Day 4

Snarky Puppy gave a workshop to explain their band as a cooperative of around 15 musicians from which scheduling and availability indicate the members to play a tour or gig. Fresh musicians and ideas defeat complacency or as they admitted in reply to a question, encourage occasional confusion. In composition, they record the kernel of an idea and tempo. If they decide it has merit, the band defend that first inspiration, keeping it sacrosanct through the process, regardless of other musical or commercial pressures.

In the evening Chilly Gonzales took to the Montreux Jazz Club stage. The laconic humor of Gonzales the self-confessed showman, dressed in a belted bathrobe, brought a welcome lightness to the mood of the festival. Make no mistake; the man can play the piano. The first of his compositions was reminiscent of the measured calm of "Gymnopedies" (Erik Satie, 1880). Then the tight spotlight on Gonzales opened out, and another spot lit on Stella Lepage and her 'cello. They played his 2011 composition "Cello Gonzales." The extended mature depth of the 'cello notes in arco blended with the single strike notes and chords of the piano. Joe Flory on drums and flugelhorn joined in singing with the group as Gonzales continued his banter in three languages at the same time.

Day 5

While Chilly Gonzales repeated at the Montreux Jazz Club, Rock band ZZ Top performed their "50 years with ZZ Top" in the Stravinsky Auditorium. Outside the artist's entrance, fans wearing false beards dressed in chalk-striped suits and waited near the band's sleeper bus to welcome them.

A lecturer from nearby Lausanne Conservatoire gave a workshop on Techno-live systems. Later at the Talent Awards in La Coupole, Italo-Swiss singer Giulia Dabala sang "Why don't you like me?" Recording a track of her voice in techno-live, she then over sang the loop, creating a rhythmic groove on an electronic drum at the same time. Two friends joined her in close harmony, sharing the production process. They may have been alone among singers at the festival to use a tuning fork for precise vocal pitch. In spite of the demands of the technical process, this was a pleasingly melodic and polished performance, each song bespoke, performed live and recorded in the moment.

In the Montreux Jazz Lab's 2,000 seated/standing space, Texas band Khruangbin (airplane in Thai) explored the sounds of world cities in a hard-driving funk psychedelic Eastern style. Donald Johnson Jr had the drums, Laura Lee bass, and Mark Speer guitar; both of them added vocals. Later in the Lab, Cat Power (Chan Marshall), who is on her tenth album, put her past life troubles behind her. Her austere earlier work surpassed, her music now evinced shades of early blues with energetic rock rhythms.

Day 6

In the afternoon, Melvin Taylor gave a blues workshop answering questions on his life in music. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, he grew up in Chicago." Blues is the foundation of modern music," he said, adding "Blues always comes from someone before you."

Next evening at the Montreux Jazz club, Taylor played his Ibanez SA200 guitar joined by Bernell Anderson and Rick Jones on keyboards, B.T. Richardson on bass and J.Davenport on drums. So the band was made up of a rhythm section and blues guitar, with electronic keyboards added. The audience applauded, and the show roared along. And yet, there was something more authentic and intimate about what happened the previous day in Taylor's workshop. Then the Chicago bluesman had sat on a chair as if he was sitting on his front porch with his guitar comfortably balanced, telling stories and singing, bending strings and playing out his blues. From one day to the next, Montreux programmers had illustrated the paradigm shift from blues to rhythm & blues, bringing along with it the 12-bar blues progression to form the basis of much of pop music.

In the park, Pacific Mambo Orchestra, a 12-piece band, heavily laden with brass and percussion, played Latin dance rhythms with all the energy required to tempt the audience onto the grass dancefloor.

Joan Baez played the Stravinsky Auditorium her "Fare thee well" celebration. Baez was once the steely conscience of American youth at war. Pacifist, plaintive folk singer and guitarist, she returned to Montreux to celebrate her long career. She was accompanied by Gabriel Harris drums, Dirk Powell on guitar, piano and bass with Grace Stumberg supporting vocals. Baez sang "Oh Freedom / Before I'll be a slave / l'll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord to be free." Anthems from troubled times in America. There were unrequited love songs too "T'would be the sweetest thing / To make me sing / Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind." There were the same innocence and purpose as ever, calling her audience to peace and freedom in her haunting voice.

Meanwhile in the Montreux Jazz Club, Portuguese/ Brazilian trio Coladera was joined by Marcos Suzano on percussion. The trio sang traditional songs and sambas from their homelands in a fine tenor voicing while playing guitars and electric bass.

Day 7

The afternoon workshop was a conversation between French singer Camille Bertault and Brazilian composer and Latin Grammy winner Ivan Lins, who explained the source of his inspiration as the multiplicity of different cultural influences in his home country. He accepted Bertault's challenge to compose live and started a Latin groove on the keyboard as she imagined a melody line. Clearly, they did not have time to work on the composition in depth, but Bertault does specialize in intuitive scat versions of classical music, so her ability to compose in the moment is well-honed.

In La Coupole, Brekky Boy from Australia on the piano was joined by Liam Hogan, drums and Robert Hamilton, stand up bass. Each piece built to a loud crescendo then dropped to a sharp finish. They featured complicated rhythmic patterns and insistent phrasing in their music. When music is played so loud that ear protectors are issued at the door, it does beg the question of whether important detail is being lost in the noise, particularly when the musicians are achieving such high technical quality.

Day 8

Throughout the festival, special trains departed for scenic journeys to Chateau d'Oex carrying New Orleans Jazz Bands, Paradise Creek and Pichette, and boats cruised Lake Geneva featuring Brazilian, rock, jazz funk and blues music. More trains left for Rochers de Naye presenting bluegrass and rockabilly music en route. El Mundo was a temporary dance studio built beside the lake, every night featuring the latest in Latin dance and Fitdance music.

In La Coupole, Italian Trio Mezcal played what Giuseppe "Pip" Dimonte (bass) described as world music, with Emiliano on percussion including a set of conga drums and Alessandro Lorenzi on guitar. A series of long, low bass notes accompanied the guitar phrases. There was a vague Arabic vibe, but after returning three times to search out the sound, it remained present but unresolved. The bass was often played in arco and always performed well.

In the Stravinski Auditorium, Faouizia Ouihya was joined on stage by Alberto Malo playing drums. In her first European performance, she sang "Freak show" expressing youthful insecurities, then accompanied herself on the piano in "Happy." Moroccan-born Faouizia now lives in Manitoba, Canada. In her sparkling silver jumpsuit, she displayed a commanding stage presence delivering high energy pop-rock music.

George Ezra, from Hertford, England came to the Stravinsky Auditorium with a seven-piece band, having achieved a #1 UK single with his pop composition "Shotgun" (Sony, 2019). Written in Barcelona it has the feel of a simple repeating poem, but the phrasing is undoubtedly catchy. In a heatwave, everyone at Montreux 2019 had been "Riding shotgun/Underneath the hot sun" as the lyric goes, but thankfully nearly all the performances were indoors in air-conditioned comfort.

Day 9

The afternoon workshop by DJ Imajin explained the processes of a beat per minute matching, raising the pitch and blending recordings. Those processes manufacture smooth rhythmic transitions and inventive continuity to excite club music dancers.

In La Coupole, British duo Run Logan Run came in from Bristol. They are Dan Johnson drums, and Andrew Neil Hayes on tenor saxophone. A new composition "Posthuman" explored human relations with rapidly advancing technologies. Johnson applied increasing intensity and tempo as continuous heavy reverb sent the tenor saxophone sound echoing eerily around the room. The music had all the drama of a gallop to an undefined cataclysmic end.

In the Montreux Jazz Club Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, born in New Orleans, played "Sounds she never heard" with clean brilliance on flugelhorn, reflecting on music unheard by a lost lover. He then took time out to explain his investiture as a chieftain of four American tribes, as he stood bedecked with gold ornamentation. Adjuah is a forceful, intelligent, and highly articulate speaker. He followed on with Herbie Hancock's composition "Eye of the Hurricane" from Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965). He was playing back and forth with Logan Richardson on alto saxophone. Adjuah then expounded his moral viewpoint on treating others with equality. The force of his arguments may have discomforted some in the audience, but they listened politely. He played out, again with brilliance, to an ovation for his music.

Billy Cobham sat center stage at the Montreux Jazz Club on a raised platform, celebrating his 75th birthday at Montreux not too far from his home in Berne. After his time with Miles Davis, Cobham was influential in bringing rock and funk rhythms together into the jazz fusion style. His Crosswinds Project featured Fareed Haque guitar, Tim Landers bass, Scott Tibbs keyboard, Paul Hanson bassoon and special artist Randy Brecker on trumpet. Wearing his signature bandana and a white outfit, Cobham played his double size drum kit including two kick drums with customary precision and attack. The muted trumpet played with the bassoon to great effect but the whole band was tight and a real pleasure to hear.

Day 10

Listening to Vincent Fenton from Tours, France recount in a workshop how he arrived at his music, was to hear the intelligent voice of a musician perhaps unwittingly working his way back to the musical discovery route taken by early jazzmen. Self-taught pianist Fenton arrived at blues chords intuitively and composed in response to his emotional reaction to sounds. In a later relaxed impromptu session before his performance in the Montreux Jazz Lab, he played piano giving a crisp touch to his romantic ballad composition of blues chords with jazz swing. His journey, unencumbered by deep theory, produced music of pure clarity, which was a delight to hear.

The 25-musician Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra which draws from the best high school musicians in the city and greater New Jersey area played in the lakeside park. Their musical director Joe Bongiovi (a cousin of Jon Bon Jovi) directed the impressive big band from the side of the stage. Ashley Chen sang "Orange Colored Sky" supported by that swinging big band sound. Next day, they went live on RTS radio Paradiso where Annie Quinn, soon to study at Berklee, sang a spirited "At Last."

Yann Tierson is a touring and studio musician, who produces music for films partly as a bi-product of his recordings. His most well-known work appeared in the movie Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain which starred Audrey Tautou as a whimsical Parisian dreamer. Tierson presented his music in the Montreux Jazz Club where a single spotlight settled on him at the piano for the first two pieces, in the third he introduced the reedy melodica sound. The spectrum broadened to a spotlit reel-to-reel player sending out birdsong. Vocals joined a vertical drum and synthesized sounds as Tierson crossed the stage to a keyboard then moved on to tubular bells. The atmospheric performance was enhanced by dramatic lighting effects.

Day 11

The Blind Boys of Alabama formed in the segregated State of Alabama School for the Blind and first performed on radio in 1944, as Jimmy Carter recounted. Joey Williams accompanied Carter, Eric Dwight McKinnie, Paul Beasley, and Benjamin Moore on guitar as they sang an old spiritual "Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John" Then Amadou and Miriam born in Bamako, Mali added a harsh African dimension to the music. Together they sang a new composition "I Can See" (God's been good to me / He opened doors and / I can see). They all took a break before their evening performance in the Montreux Jazz Club where The Blind Boys sang in close harmony "People get ready," into an upbeat "Spirit in the Sky." They sang a resounding protest anthem "We shall not be moved," but the audience was moved, very much moved by their music as the group were guided from the stage, each placing a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him.

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley came from Ghana, West Africa with his 9-piece band. He offered a blessing before the group began their Afrobeat and Ghanaian Highlife style music program. He surprised by adding "Blue Moon" to the set list which the driving rhythm swept along with ease. They included an original Afrobeat composition by bassist Charles Oduro Donkor. The abiding impression was the joyously irresistible West African rhythm celebrated by dancer Sewaa Frempong wearing colorful traditional Ghanaian dress and sporting a horsehair fly swish.

Day 12

Bobby Barzini grew up speaking French in Quebec, Canada, but now records his folk music in English. Following up on a successful recording " I Wonder" he sang a new piece with an apologetic lyric titled "Move Away" which will feature on his next album.

In the talent awards, Gwen & Tiana were joined by friends who made up the rhythm section while Tiana smiled and sang her way through the Afrobeat music and Gwen played keyboard, his braided hair flying around his head as he danced to the beat adding jazz phrasings to the music.

Joe Jackson continued his "Four-Decade Tour" in the Montreux Jazz Club, marking the time between his very first punk rock album and Fool (earMusic, 2019), with Doug Yowell on drums, Graham Maby bass and Teddy Kumpel on guitar. They came to the stage and began one by one, starting with drums, then Jackson played "Alchemy" from Fool. Their second tune took the audience back to the start of Jackson's musical story asking, "Is she really going out with him?"

Day 13

Wynton Marsalis came to Braxton Cook's high school, called him for a solo in "It don't mean a thing" and wouldn't let him sit down. Years later he transferred out of Georgetown into Juilliard which was not a good fit for him, but he did meet Andrew Renfroe on guitar and Curtis Nowosad on drums in New York. Cook spends time learning the solos, music, and history of great alto saxophone players, particularly John Coltrane. He may be outside the Juilliard box, which he described as Armstrong to Bird, but not all that far out musically. His compositions are heavy on four, they feature intricate jazz improvisation on alto saxophone and guitar blended into r&b and soul songs which he composes and sings himself. He recalled an early influence, "Just the two of us," by Grover Washington Jr. and sang his soul composition "Can you hold me?" Cook added alto saxophone as smooth as silk in his compositions "No doubt" and "Pariah." That evening they played Montreux Jazz Club. Devoted to his music for the long run, Cook displayed a finesse born of dedication and talent.

Songstress Anita Baker came to Montreux on her Farewell Tour, with her smooth r&b style from the quiet storm period. She sang to applause and nostalgia for 1970s music. She promised no dancers and no trapeze artists, just some old love songs which she duly delivered in a big production show.

Day 14

German duo Atna comprises singer Inez on synthesizer and Demian on drums. Their music had an otherworldly quality from reverb on vocals, with a tribal vibe coming from heavy kick drum, mallets and flat strikes on an aluminum sheet suspended in front of a microphone. Their lyrics dwelt on freedom, peace, and justice.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah musical director, led the Montreux Jazz Academy orchestra, a quintet of exceptional young musicians who had worked together on their music all week. They opened with "Caravan" sung clearly by Natasha from Los Angeles. They featured the spirited guitar of Brazilian Diego Figuereiro. As a tribute to Joao Gilberto the father of bossa nova who recently passed away, he played guitar in that style. The quintet played out together with Adjuah leading them in John Coltrane's "Equinox."

Since his time with Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, trumpeter Terence Blanchard from New Orleans has composed 40 film scores, notably with Spike Lee, and played on many more soundtracks. His E collective group that played the Montreux Jazz Club were Charles Altura guitar, Fabian Almazan keyboard, Oscar Seaton drums and David Ginyard, bass. Blanchard has taken a firm stand against gun crime in America, shining a spotlight on sites of recent tragedies, expressing frustration at inaction and tendering a calming influence with his music.

And finally, one last round of applause for the men in black, the Montreux Jazz Festival sound quality was superb.

Montreux Jazz Festival 2019 closed with the Sinfonietta de Lausanne celebration "Sounds of the 1980s," the music of Quincy Jones who commented, "Montreux is the Rolls Royce of festivals."

Photo credit: Montreux Jazz festival 2019 / Marc Ducrest

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