Thursday, July 08, 2010

7.8.10 Mon Dieu!!!

This article originally appeared in the 7.8.10 issue of Metroland.
Some more extensive coverage of the Montreal Jazz Festival can be found below in this blog.

The Montreal Jazz Festival is commonly hyped as the largest and best jazz festival in the world. That well maybe so-- after the four days I spent at the Festival last week I can say it is mind-blowing, it is immense, it is intoxicating, and it’s in Montreal. What more do you need?

Now in its 31st year, the Festival is spread out over almost two weeks from late June to early July. The Festival locus is the Place Des Artes, a roughly eight-city-block expanse smack in the middle of Montreal; there’s a couple big modern buildings there, housing a number of big theaters and auditoriums, and a ton of open space, where a half-dozen very large outdoor stages are spread out. Admission to the Festival is free, and there are hundreds of free shows on the six large outdoor stages and a number of smaller stages; there’s even a small wooden dance stage built into the sidewalk that was busy every time I walked past it. And then there are hundreds more ticketed shows in theatres, auditoriums, clubs, and cafes either inside or a stone’s throw from the Place Des Arts.

The festival is extremely well laid out; even with tens of thousands of folks milling around, one can quickly scope out the entire Festival grounds—even with a lot of construction going on; next year, when the work is done, the layout will be even better.

Food and drink are everywhere—Heineken is a major sponsor, so there’s “jazz bars” every ten feet or so, there’s food vendors selling these serious hotdogs everywhere, and outdoor cafes overlooking the outdoor stages throughout the Festival. I stood in very few lines for anything, and, remarkably, nobody was charging “festival prices.” Livin’ is easy at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Of course, the frosting on all of this is that the Festival’s in the heart of Montreal, one of the great cities in the universe. There are hundreds of hotels near the Festival (mine was two blocks away), and there are insanely good restaurants of all types everywhere. And as the Festival doesn’t really crank up in earnest until the evening, afternoons are a time to explore Montreal. And to make that easy, there is a municipal bicycle system, hundreds of computerized bike racks holding thousands of bikes. For $5 a day, you get unlimited bike usage for 24 hours. I biked to all these restaurants recommended by my Facebook friends and ate like a freakin’ prince. Heaven.

OK. The music? Well, as is the case with most “jazz” festivals of any magnitude, this is really a generic music festival, with major headline acts that tend towards the banal, like Steve Miller and Lionel Ritchie. Below that is a wild variety of world music, hip hop, folk, some rock, and a whole lot of other things that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with jazz. In the course of 12 hours, I saw three (count ‘em) strolling “gypsy” bands. But, then, there is a TON of jazz going on if you look for it, and what makes this Festival so special is that you don’t have to drill down very far to find real substance, whatever the genre. This is a very thoughtfully and tastefully curated festival, and even the most jaded muso can zero in to the source playing something somewhere here.

My highlights included the first half of the John Zorn Masala Marathon, an explosion of Zorn’s experimental “Jewish music”, featuring downtown heavies like guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Uri Caine, cellist Eric Friedlander and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Lyrical, challenging, varied, centered, and fun. I missed Zorn’s other big show, with pals Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, an amalgam of Zorn’s old No Wave noise projects and Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Apparently, the show wasn’t marketed particularly accurately (a rare misstep for Festival organizers) and a goodly number of the 3000 strong audience thought they were gonna hear medleys of old Velvets tunes, or something. The “lou’s” turned fairly quickly to “boo’s”, reportedly causing Zorn to scream “if you don’t like this music you can fucking leave!” Now that would have been something to see.

Anyway, another brilliant show was the impromptu trio of drummer Manu Katche, bassist Richard Bona and guitarist Sylvian Luc. The Festival has this delightful habit of mashing up talent like this--each of these supremely gifted folks was headlining with his own group elsewhere--and this show, in a small grotto concert hall in the basement of an ancient church, was an hour of improvised groove nirvana, good humor, and dazzling virtuosity.

On the outdoor free stages I saw LC-33, a Columbian salsa group who were spectacular; Brooklyn’s Slavic Soul Party, who were annoying; L’Orchestra Internationale du Vetex, a young, scraggly Quebequois hippie-gypsy band, who were brilliant and everything Slavic Soul Party wasn’t; Wop Pow Wow, some sort of misguided Canadian conceptual world music group that I never want to think about again; Beast, a Montreal trip-hop group, who tried hard but didn’t do it for me; Caravan Paradise, a Parisian techno group who did do it for me (and 100,000 other screaming people) in a big way; Grace Kelly, the teen-aged Bostonian saxophonist and singer, who quietly ruled; and Chicago Goes West, a young trio from Calgary who Friday afternoon took over the biggest outdoor stage at the Place Des Arts and with all the calm in the world reminded the massive crowd what jazz is.

But for me the most fun was seeing the Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson with her backing band, our own Lustre Kings. Wanda played to a packed house in this cool nightclub right in the center of the Festival—the kind of club that you see in gangster movies, never in real life—and she utterly killed. And what fun to see Mark and Chops and the boys doing what they do so well, what they do for us all the time, in front of hundreds of ravenous fans. It was nuts. Wanda’s on the comeback trail with an upcoming Jack White produced album, and she’s dragging the Kings along with her, and if this show was any indication, this comeback will have legs.

Sometimes we have to be reminded that this wonderful city is little more than a three hour drive away. And with events like this, so utterly well conceived and run, so fun and life affirming, so affordable, it should be a crime to stay home. See you there next year.


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