Montreux Jazz Festival: Montreux, Switzerland, July 3-5, 2011

Montreux Jazz Festival: Montreux, Switzerland, July 3-5, 2011
Phillip Woolever By

Sign in to view read count
Montreux Jazz Festival
Montreux, Switzerland
July 3-5, 2011
The 45th Edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival included many iconic profiles, bonded in unique partnership, and rare as the sunset air. Those collaborated chords ensured Montreux remains at the pinnacle of performance packaging, as the festival continued a streak atop European "must see" musical destinations.

The 2011 program retained a global eye on legends of jazz and other popular genres, while including more commercial (i.e.: younger demographic) and novelty acts. Bobby King, Carlos Santana, Sting, Paul Simon and George Benson led a star-powered charge that compiled a reported 87% of tickets sold, with complete sellouts for 18 of 32 events. Beside Benson and a pumped-up David Sanborn, the rejuvenated Return to Forever IV, Esperanza Spalding and the Miles Davis Tribute project were among currently touring jazz giants that kept Montreux's itinerary true to traditional billing.

There was a different vibe across the grounds, a bit more intense; than in recent years. That could be a result of social issues, it could be the heavier accent on guitar feedback this season. Personal observation indicated more miscues than usual, either by booking or performance, but those few hiccups were a tiny price to pay for a standard range of available shows as worthwhile as Montreux maintains. Better to see a striving artist miss than a stagnant artist muddle.

Meanwhile, life amidst bemused locals goes on at a typical, casually efficient pace. The population or perimeter has not increased like the rapidly growing festival's—daily activity more than doubled. Many in the region's diverse population flocked to observe the tourist party and catch typically fine free performances. Visitors were treated more like tasty migrating geese than intruding hordes.

Jazz conservatives considering a costly visit should be forewarned that excluding the free "Music in the Park" series staged outside, the amount of acts that could be even thinly stretched into a jazz mold was less than 40% this year in Montreux's primary venues. That 40% still constitutes a majority however, and whatever your preference the majority of the music was once again excellent.

It seems many artists have a special respect for the Montreux spotlight, and it's probably not too cynical to assume an awareness factor that a Live at Montreux DVD could be selling before they're back in their room after a show. There is an intangible time capsule affect here, as in yes, this could be the current apex of hunter and gatherer civilization, and this is the soundtrack to our marketplace. Whether it was the crowds or the performers, there were more per capita moments of roaring approval this year than in recent memory.

With much improved public walkways it's easier and more pleasurable to catch multiple shows, back and forth between venues. Due to tightly limited two-way traffic around the hilly waterfront locale, most patrons passed between tour busses, shuffling equipment convoys and entourages, adding to the communal environment. Even amidst limo stands or pricey pavilions there were no jazz snobs to be suffered.

In July, snow capped peaks still illuminate distant horizons across the water while daylight remains until after 2300 hrs on ornate Swiss clocks that decorate stately facades. Multiple maintenance crews labor at all times, keeping up appearances, including many clean public facilities. The many canine visitors get prominently marked litter bags every five meters and woe be the tourist, rightfully so, who fails to scoop poop.

The Funk Ensemble

The flow of human traffic is lined by hundreds sharing romantic views either with intimates or the general, highly congenial swarm. For the most part, it's a very relaxed and refreshing locale, even in crammed spots where non-invasive, group hoedowns are encouraged by elevated DJs for everything from obscure world beats to Michael Jackson hits. Montreux Jazz is a crowd, dancing.

Though certainly on the high end of the cost meter, demand still far exceeds supply at Montreux. While you often get what you pay for, whatever you get isn't usually cheap in Switzerland. There was a lot of good, free music again this year, especially as the Jazz Café featured many hot ticket new bands and the always reliable park band shell provided a balance of jazz that trumped most rockers, between tradition and abstraction. Good balance. If you arrive early enough, say the third set after a 2 pm start, you can stretch comfortably in the grass with a view of the stage that remains great under varying conditions and humanity.

Chapter Index
  1. July 3: Guitar Masters Guide the Way
  2. July 4: Geneva Fireworks
  3. July 5: A Very Non-Standard Night of Standards

July 3: Guitar Masters Guide the Way

This edition's first weekend was ignited by titanic tag teams featuring King and Santana on separate stages with multiple, rotating guests like John McLaughlin, who sat in during King's Saturday set after revisiting the John Coltrane and Sri Chinmoy-inspired Love, Devotion, Surrender (Columbia, 1973) with Santana, the previous evening.

There was also a higher percentage of amped-up guitarists scheduled than in many years, but for the most part Montreux has always embraced a rocking ethic, with previous invitees running from Alice Cooper to Led Zeppelin. In an area with numerous monuments honoring historical artistic figures, Freddy Mercury's centrally poised statue sees more fans pose alongside it than any other landmark.

Anna Calvi

Observing close proximity sales stalls in a central area that stretches for approximately 550 meters, Montreux's reported attendance figures averaging around 20,000 guests per day for a total near 230,000 visits appear accurate. As the first full week began, it looked like numbers were up by thousands on the festival grounds, a couple hundred people down for some of the Miles Davis Hall sets, and always packed as usual at the premium shows in Auditorium Stravinski, which tightly holds approximately 4,400.

King is King

Ultimately, the Swiss Alp summit meeting was elevated even more. Every six-string slinger in the weekend's vicinity joined the marquee guitar gurus in a superstar Sunday tribute jam featuring King, christened "Greetings to the Chairman of the Board." It's doubtful Frank Sinatra would object to King inheriting that title, especially after the tribute in King's autobiography, including how Sinatra gained King entrance into previously segregated Las Vegas clubs. Now, as King sat centered amidst younger colleagues calling out tunes and tempos, the title seemed appropriate. Chairman of the Sounding Board might have fit better.

The lineup was amazing on paper and on key, with guitarists Santana, McLaughlin, Robert Randolph,Susan Tedeschi,Derek Trucks, Ladell McLin and Philipp Fankhauser, plus keyboardist Silvan Zingg. New York's Shemekia Copeland, daughter of late Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, shared most of the vocals behind King's narration, with Tedeschi also singing with admirable southern US grit.

After more formal set lists on previous nights, the players looked relaxed and at home. King and Santana got down to business so informally it seemed they'd forgotten how much of a thrill it was for most of the audience to watch their interaction on stage.

The show ran uninterrupted, like a righteous river, well over two hours from beginning to end; much of it along a rolling, medium paced backdrop that showcased King's impeccable travelling squad. Tonight they kicked back in autopilot, supporting extended foundational riffs from King's repertoire like "Everyday I Get the Blues."

BB King Jam

The band, under trumpeter/director James Bolden, showed how seamlessly they could switch gears with guitarist Charles Dennis, bassist Reginal Richards and drummer Anthony Coleman carrying everyone like a chartered yacht. As King rattled off themes that drifted outside recently observed set lists, it was a perfect example of how unrehearsed spontaneity can lead to profound, one-of-a-kind interludes. Walter King and Melvin Jackson on sax, keyboardist Ernest Vantrease and trumpeter Stanley Abernathy rounded out the noteworthy band.

It was non-stop, soft-charging and effective music. King held court in a swinging swarm that passed the baton spotlight through five or six long jams of relaxed rhythms. King seemed capable of maintaining the moderate pace all morning long, to huge ovations, as everyone with a working device took videos. For much of the show, a fifth of the fans clapped along while actually keeping the beat.

King didn't display much of whatever guitar prowess he retains, but his iconic personality made an easy connection with fans there to love him and catch a glimpse of a legend. King understood and justifiably capitalized on his role, very relaxed while perched in the bandleader throne for his own serenade. When he did jump in, King favored staccato bursts over stretched frets as if he was working between what other players did. It was hard to differentiate who strummed what sometimes, but always a rare symphony in blues major. Though King rarely picked a solo string, his rambling vocal presence was clearly a beacon of light into the orbits of other stars.

"When you get to be my age, you do like I do, just sit here and look out and tell other people to play," mused the 86 year-old.

King was in comfy, living room sofa mode, but he also maintained a determined vision of how the ensemble should perform. The interaction as King gently drilled the troops or allowed pieces to develop became a master class in metered mechanics as the group jelled. The gigantic band was not as precise as some other acts, simply due to basics like practice time, but moments when the collective peaked were priceless nuggets. Even around 100 to 250 US dollars a face value ticket, it seemed like a bargain at any exchange rate.

The moment McLaughlin strolled out to join King and Santana at center stage was truly electric, of body and soul. McLaughlin and Santana immediately reconnected with merging signature sounds from proceeding nights and eras. It was cool to see major players alternating multi-song backup roles. The probably unrehearsed collective followed shared leads, sometimes with a sequential, seat to seat nod, sometimes amidst multiple vibratos.

Santana was wired in Caravanserai (Columbia 1972) mode while McLaughlin pitched fourth dimensional feedback fuzz until they paired so purely that a suddenly electrified King snapped to instinctive attention and won a couple subsequent six-bar quick draws himself. It was hard to verify if or when King, Santana and McLaughlin had played together, so for the sake of accuracy let it stand that this was a rare, precious handful of time in the annals of guitar glory.

The show offered a unique opportunity to see a subdued, still brilliant Santana roam casually outside his standard set list in salsa blues. His charisma is still as remarkable as his skill, even modestly employed. Wife Cindy Blackman Santana, observing backstage, heeded King's call to join in on the drums. There was a strong family vibe all night.

There were also interesting takes on the delta and the dancehall. The most audience friendly moments, at least according to crowd response, occurred when either guest vocalist Copeland or Tedeschi took the microphone. Tadeshi and her Allman Brothers Band-member husband Trucks opened for King on this European tour. They responded expertly to every familiar move he made, and proved worthy of King's repeated compliments by helping him look good.

The grand finale was an amazing, half hour long wang-dang-doodled medley of "Fever"and "Spoonful," revved up three beats. Santana lit the closing fireworks and presented King some incredible bursts of "Fried Neckbones" for a sonic sendoff. King's slow, sincere farewell was almost lost amidst the thunderous ovation as he made a poignant, fragile exit to "The Thrill is Gone." Fitting irony, perhaps. There were many thrills. Soon to be available DVD aside, they would remain for the lucky inside Auditorium Stravinski tonight.

Nothing officially said so, but there was much chatter about this being an off into the sunset type retirement situation for the declining monarch. Of course, that's been said for years. For now, King can still pack and please a sizeable, distinguished hall. He has some magic left, and he left some for Montreux.

Harmony Happening Down the Hall

A slick trio of soulful, fresh R n' B singers brought Motown for the future to Miles Davis Hall as Bilal, Aloe Blacc and Raphael Saadiq laid the funk on smooth and hard for a succession of sets that probably had the highest percentage of overall audience dancing for the week.

Even after six string saturation from King's neighboring guitar cornucopia, Saadiq made a strong impression with his own unique, sweetly southern USA styled phrasing. Blacc, riding an international wave of success with his single "I Need a Dollar," sang with enough positive energy to dispel any one-hit-wonder type tags. Soon, he may need an accountant. Indeed, there were many riches on every night to be had as the wealth was well spread from hall to hall.

Aloe Blacc

In the Jazz Café, crammed full of early revelers, propulsive singers Imany and Selah Sue were a perfect example of free shows rivaling expensive events for a good time. Considering the amount one might eat and drink on that plan, it shows why free venues are packed with busy concession stands. The emerging women were a perfect fit in the often noisy, multi chambered confines, and they registered with the fans; not true of all acts booked for the Café this year.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.