Sunday, July 04, 2010

Montreal Jazz Fest Post Two

Jazz Festival Post Two

Thursday July 1 Montreal Quebec Canada:

Up. At ‘em. 7 AM. That awful in-room coffee then a run behind the hotel through the beautiful McGill campus. I was about 3 blocks from the hotel and I realized I was in front of the building where the Future of Music Coalition Conference was held almost 4 years ago.

Everybody’s been telling me I had to go to Schwartz’s for a smoked meat sandwich, it was back up in the same general neighborhood as the joint I’d eaten at Wednesday, and the web site said “hot meat 10 AM.” So I grabbed a bicycle and got up there around 10:30. Place was empty (people had warned me about lines there at lunchtime) and surprisingly tiny and dingy. The sandwich just two small pieces of rye, a bunch of corned beef, and yellow mustard, was sublime. $5.90.

Decided to give the Festival every possible chance to redeem itself to me after the very uneven showing the day before. I started hitting the free stages shortly after noon, and the first thing I ran into was L’Orchestre Internationale du Vetex, a strolling gyspy-like band. Very young, they all looked like they’d slept in their clownish clothes. And they rocked the smallish early crowd hard. Let me put it this way—they did everything I thought Slavic Soul Party was supposed to do, and didn't. They all moved constantly, they fawned when one of them took a solo, the girl on the bass drum had one of the better grooves of the Festival, and most of all, they were having the time of their lives playing together, and that shit’s infectious.

My bud J. Eric Smith just wrote a thing for his Times-Union blog about how collectivism doesn’t work for rock and roll, it’s hysterical and dead-on and you can read it here: Now, it may not work for rock and roll in a fairly strict sense, it can work, in spades, for a scraggly, neo-hippie, street gypsy band like L’Orchestre Internationale du Vetex.

The Vetex’s were followed quickly by a smaller, slicker, but similar group called Gruv’n Bass, who were merely OK. Despite name, the groove was not nearly as strong as for L’Orchestre.

There wasn’t a whole lot more going on, and the streets were starting to get crowded. It was starting to get to this critical mass where all of the free stages were turning into mob scenes, regardless of who was playing. The crowds were like waves, getting bigger by the hour.

I hung in at the press room, drinking expresso and writing, and watching the other writers milling in and out of the staging room for press conferences. I almost went in for the Richard Bona press conference (he was doing a big solo show Friday night) just ‘cause I wanted to find out more about the guy.

I had a 6 o’clock date with John Zorn’s Masada Marathon, the 1st of a 2-part concert where Zorn was going to bring together all of the strains, and many of the musicians, from his more than a decade-old project to create “new Jewish music.” This was held in one of the major theater venues in the Plaza Des Artes, the Theatre Maisonneuve, a 60’s era 1500 seater. My issue was that I had also picked up tickets for a 7 o’clock show down the road by Canadian avant-folk group Courtney Wing---I figured I’d catch 45 minutes or so of Zorn then split. Unfortunately, there were no aisles in this damn place and I was in middle of a row, maybe 30 seats from the side entrance. Leaving in the middle of the performance, while doable, would be a serious effort and a disruption all around.

Turns out the show was so cool I didn’t want to leave. The show was split into 4 or 5 sections, each with its own ensemble / artist, each lasting roughly 20 minutes. They were bookended by larger groups, led by Zorn, either as a seated conductor or a saxophonist. These were utterly fantastic. When the first group started—featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen, cellist Eric Friedlander, percussionist Cyril Battiste (and I’m forgetting a few more) –what struck me was how perfect the sound was, and how mesmerizing, from note one, this music was. The later ensemble included Uri Caine on piano and Dave Douglas on trumpet. In all of the songs there was some structure, melody, and themes, but Zorn sculpted the pieces as they went along, using a series of hand gestures to call solos, duets, techniques and sequences. It was as much to watch as it was to listen to. Most pieces had a middle-eastern modality to the melodies, but all kinds of stuff flew in and out from every direction.

In between were smaller ensembles and some stunning solo cello from Friedlander, the only mis-step and it was fairly minor, was the women's acapella ensemble. Four women, dressed in what appeared to be mismatched (and uncomfortable) bridesmaids gowns, smiling nervously and singing fairly quiet little avant-garde ditties in what sounded like Hebrew. Neither they nor the music were ready for this stage or this show.

This was the biggest ticketed event I attended at the Festival, and all in all it was an absolutely brilliant two-plus hours. I was wishing that I had grabbed tickets for part two, which was going up at 9:30... And I’ll just have to catch Courtney Wing some other time.

Back out on the street, I realized that I was hungry, not having eaten much since Schwartz’s. I hiked up Ontario to La Paryce, who several folks had told me to go to for Montreal’s finest burger. There was a line, but I snared a stool at the tiny bar. Yes, it was one righteous burger, not too big, but with a great mess of stuff on it, tomato, onion, pickles, cheese, etc. And reasonable, like $7 or so? I was in and out fast.

There was some white-boy blues at the blues tent, very mediocre stuff; and LC-33 had just finished their second night; damn, I was ready for another dose of those guys.

Up the hill, I did get a look at Bostonian saxophonist-singer Grace Kelly, the 17 year-old Chinese girl who played Pittsfield back when she was like 14. There’s a picture from the Pittsfield gig of her wearing Phil Woods’ hat while a hatless Woods watches her play, and it is one of the best jazz photos I’ve ever seen. Anyway, she was on one of the smaller outdoor stages, and had a packed, and I mean jam-packed, courtyard in the palm of her hand, playing and singing bluesy bop jazz like a seasoned pro. With a crack band.

After all of the ethnic, multi-techno, world music I’d been seeing over the last couple of days, it was refreshing to see something, finally, that could only be categorized by the word “jazz.” This was, after all, a jazz festival.

Anyway, I’m a big Grace Kelly fan. Next time she should be on a bigger stage.

Instead of, say, Jose James and the Blackmagic Band, some kind of jazz hip-hop fusion thing that played right after Grace on the Scene TD stage, and thereby automatically attracting tens of thousands of curious onlookers, and who left me, well, completely cold.

Back for a third time to Gesu to see my truly wild card show, something called Punk Bop!, featuring a drummer named Ari Hoenig. I was started to dread this, because the name of the group was so lame, and was thrilled that the group, while having nothing whatsoever to do with anything remotely “punk”, was a seriously fire-breathing bop group. The young Armenian pianist Tigran Himasyan really stood out, but they all played with a great shared sense of dynamics, of fun, and of purpose. Drummer Hoenig was a character, looking at times like a wind-up monkey, and making more facial expressions in the course of one tune than most drummers make in a lifetime. He’s not quite as showy as that guy in the glitter jacket who’s all over YouTube, but he’s almost as disconcerting to watch. But in any event, Punk Bop! was a super-fine show despite to off-putting band name.

That’s Thursday.

Friday: took a jog down to old town to look at a little highly recommended café. It was a long run back uphill through Chinatown, but I got home. Worked again through the morning, around 1 decided it was time for that last big Montreal meal. Almost walked, as it was just beautiful out, but decided to grab another bike. It’s just too much fun on the bike. Got to old town, which, unlike at 7:30 in the morning, was crawling with tourists. The little café was loud, crowded, I was given a table in the middle of the place and a laminated menu. Uh, no. I split, got another bike, and headed back up to the plateau. I couldn’t find the highly recommended La Cocayne on Rue St. Denis, but wound up at Le Cherrier. I was sweaty from the uphill ride, and the hostess stuck me in a booth inside and turned the ceiling fans all the way up, which was sweet. I had the house red, a meat plate appetizer, and duck breast with some kind for fruit sauce—might have been boysenberry. It was French, it was good, it wasn’t expensive, I was happy.

I had one real musical event today—Wanda Jackson and The Lustre Kings. Mark Gamsjager of the LKs has been a friend for, what, 25 years? Hell, I’m their lawyer, come to think of it! The LKs cover Blotto’s 1-2-3 Hang Up, fer cryin’ out loud. And here they are with the Queen of Rockabilly, a former GF of Elvis, a lady who just recorded an album with Jack White. Yeah baby...

Met up with Mark and his bassist, my pal Chops, at the L’Astral venue, right under the press room, a place that looks like an old movie theater from the outside, with it’s marquee, big glass doors, and lobby, but is in fact a really cool club, with a big stage, tables all around, a wrap-around balcony with a couple tiers of seats, and a couple of bars. Like I posted, the kind of nightclub you only see in Gangster movies.

Mark and Chops had plenty of prepping to do, so I decided to take one more walk around the grounds. I tried to get some kind of official Jazz Fest shirt for my 16 year old, but found the designs and colors available simply and profoundly ugly! Somebody was going for some kind of 60’s-70’s-retro look, and utterly failed to bring a contemporary sensibility in with it. Instead of retro, then, we got a bunch of designs and colors that long ago fell out of style, and for good reason. And yes, there’s a difference.

Anyway, I took a walk and was startled to have all the characters from the daily New Orleans-style parade all come walking around the corner, heading back to their staging area. They were still on stilts, or in full costume, but they were all just heading home after the gig, chatting with each other; one showgirl had her daughter and husband walking along. I wish I’d been more ready, I snapped a couple shots but not want I wanted. This was nothing less than Picasso’s harlequin paintings sprung to life—totally unguarded, and very beautiful.

Head spinning from this I got up to the Scene TD stage, and I heard something strange there. I heard jazz. Coming around from behind the stage I was stunned to see a young jazz trio from Calgary called Chicago Goes West, just playing relaxed bop jazz like they were in a basement club in some college town. And thousands of people were listening, and every place down the massive mall that people could sit, people were sitting. And grooving. It was a trumpet trio, and there was a LOT of Miles in what the young cat was playing. But it stunned me that here, on a Friday evening, on this gigantic stage and mall that had really been the bane of my existence since I got here, they had booked the most basic of jazz ensembles. To play jazz. I got a beer and one of these extraordinary hot dogs and found a chair to savor this. Good show.

Time for Wanda. There was a line down the block to get in. A smattering of rockabilly cats and kittens, but not as many as I’d expect in Montreal. Got a high-top just off stage right. A young couple walked by looking for seats and I invited them to join me. Lovely folks, visiting from Minnesota, just drove into town and bought tix for whatever was available. The place was packed when the Lustre Kings walked out. They played a couple, then Mark gave Wanda the big show’ biz intro. She’s a little thing, and walks with a slight stoop, but has a beaming smile, and her raspy voice is still very much intact. And she’s razor sharp, cracking jokes, and improving with people in the crowd yelling stuff to her.

At one point the folks between me and the stage just got up, picked up their tables and moved them to the side, creating a little dance floor that quickly filled up with young girls, who were boppin’ the blues to a 70-something year- old lady.

She was fabulous, spraying water on the front rows, talking about her new album, talking Elvis, talking Jesus; she had an obvious affection for the Lustre Kings, she mentioned each member by name, and when they laid into “There’s a Riot Goin’ On’”, well, there was a riot goin’ on. A big happy riot. The crowd was just swooning for Wanda the whole night. My new friends from Minnesota were just blown away. Me, too.

Afterwards Wanda and her husband Vernon (who looked exactly the way the husband of a 75 year old Queen of Rock and Roll should look) greeted fans out in the lobby. The line, again, wound around the room and up the stairs. People were snapping up the 45 of the new Jack White single and getting is signed. It was over an hour before the place got cleared up. I got caught up with Mark, his wife Kathy (another old, great friend) and Mark’s mom who'd made the trip up. Then it was time to call it a Festival. I wandered out into the warm night. It was after 11 and the place was a mob scene. I decided to take one last look at the Scene TD, which had a “Surprise Concert” scheduled for 11. I came around the corner and was blasted with light and sound and energy from 200 yards away. There was a techno group on stage (who I later learned was Parisian band Caravan Palace), but unlike the others I’d seen previously up there, these guys were where they belonged. The girl singer, dressed up in leather, owned the stage, singing her ass off in French. There was an acoustic guitar virtuouso playing over the din, a violinist, too. The lights were incredible. And there must have been 100,000 people on the Plaza, screaming and dancing.

This was what it was all about. This was brilliant. I’ll remember this last scene the rest of my life. Good night, Montreal.


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