Wednesday, July 06, 2011

7.6.11 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2011

This is the long-form version of an article published in Metroland

So, here we go again to the Montreal Jazz Festival. The Festival ran from the 25th to the 4th, and I had four nights to cover it. I choose Monday the 27th to Friday the 1st, right in the middle of the schedule. Was this the best choice? Who cares! The Montreal Jazz Festival is so well put together, so perfectly modulated, and so huge (800+ concerts inside and out) that there can be no bad choices. I would imagine heaven to be like this, except here there’s better music and food.

My friend Dave was my co-pilot and executive programming consultant this time around. Dave’s a jazzbo, a sax player specializing in free and avant-garde jazz, who played and recorded for much of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. It was great to be around somebody who understood this stuff...

Everybody makes snarky comments about the festival programming: A good chunk of what’s presented here ain’t jazz by any stretch. Most jazz festivals book pop music, and MJF probably more than most. And that’s OK. Jazz today is a genre in severe distress, and if it takes booking Prince or the B-52’s to get the numbers up, so be it. Somebody coming to see a pop show will likely wind up at a jazz show, too, and might learn something about this rich, complex, and rewarding genre.

As I mentioned last year, what’s so remarkable about this festival is that it’s so easy. Free shows are going constantly, from mid-afternoon to late, on six stages spread around the Place Des Arts complex which is located smack in the middle of the city. Ticketed shows take place in the several beautiful concert halls in the Place Des Arts or in smaller venues a block or two away. Schedules are available everywhere, food is available everywhere, drink is available everywhere. Shows run on time. Despite on-going construction in and around the festival site and tons of people going every which-a-way all the time, one can always get from one end of the festival to the other in about five minutes.

And then there’s the city itself. It’s got that French thing going on, you know. And that means, among other things, that the food is good. Great. Astounding. And the bistros on St. Denis or Old Town are a 15 or 20 minute walk from the festival.
Good shopping, too!

What’s not to like? Absolutely nothin’. Say it again y’all.


DAY ONE

How easy was it? How’s this: we drove into town, and inside of an hour were checked in to the hotel, got press credentials, had a beer, had some food, dodged a gaggle of freakin’ mimes, and were in our seats at the Theatre Jean-Duceppe for Marc Ribot’s Caged Funk.

Which was a strange show to start out with. Guitarist-composer Marc Ribot is a downtown NYC icon of the avant-garde, noted for inventive uses of the electric guitar and collaborations with everybody from Tom Waits to Elton John. This was the last of three nights of Ribot shows, following a night with his trio Ceramic Dog and another with his Latino ensemble Y Los Cubanos Postizos.

Caged Funk grew out of a joke Ribot made to a promoter a few years ago after a few drinks about starting a funk band that played nothing but John Cage tunes. The promoter booked it on the spot. So, Ribot wrote some charts with guitarist Marco Cappelli and debuted the works last year and reprised them here. He brought some serious firepower for this show: Cappelli on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keys, Brad Jones on bass, DJ Logic on turntables, and JT Lewis on drums.

It was a difficult show. The material was, shall we say, challenging. It didn’t help that the group was severely under-rehearsed—everybody had their heads deep into sheet music, and you can’t bring the funk if you’re reading goddamned sheet music. Of course there were moments, like sparkling solos from Ribot and Cappelli, DJ Logic creating turntable magic, and Worrell playing the inside of a grand piano with a pencil. Ribot’s solo piece Some Of The Harmonies Of Maine was pastoral and lovely, albeit a little long. But too much of the show was a lot of bleeps and blurps, with the seated Ribot gesturing franticly, the other musicians staring at their sheet music and looking perplexed, and almost none of the groove thing suggested by the show’s title. Nothing ever really cut loose; there was plenty of tension and little resolution. A video of the performance I found on the web reminded me of nothing more than those hysterical “Shreds” videos on YouTube that feature classic rock performances overdubbed with fractured, absurdest music. Ouch.
Tell me I'm wrong.

Oh well. Next! I stopped in at L’Astral, a smallish theater dolled up like a nightclub, to see international popster Keren Ann. I caught the last song by opener Chris Garneau and was blown away. Playing and singing with his back to the audience at a grand piano, appearing to be painfully shy, he whispered when he spoke and sang dramatic yet simple songs in a breathy voice a la Antony or Chan Marshall. And as affected as that may sound, it didn’t come off that way. It was beautiful, emotional, and the packed house was riveted.

Keren Ann, with whom I was barely familiar, didn’t have a drummer, and I’m sure that had everything to do with money. Damn the economics of touring today. She needed one. While the initial downtempo songs were marvelous and atmospheric, with only an acoustic guitarist and pocket-trumpeter for accompaniment, the bottom fell out whenever she tried anything upbeat. Which is too bad. Keren’s a great singer, songwriter, and guitar player with stage presence to burn. But an audience should not have to conjure up drums in their heads to make a performance work. Looking forward to seeing her do a proper show one day.

Then it was but a few steps to the massive Scene TD stage for Galactic. Led by drummer Stanton Moore (who looks surprisingly and disturbingly like Seth Rogen), Galactic is known for massive big-beat New Orleans instrumental music, and that’s what was delivered, at least starting out. Big and bouncy. A few songs in they brought out Living Colour’s Corey Glover, dressed like he was going to a golf outing circa 1920, and things went up a notch. Then, strangely, the band quieted down, and played a few mid-tempo funk-lite pieces that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Crusaders record. The late-night crowd’s interest was starting to wane, but Galactic brought it back with a stone rocker that featured an incredible Moore solo, with him on the lip of the stage playing a snare drum and various other things that were held up by his bandmates, who were also holding microphones all around to get the madness through the sound system. The effect was great in all sorts of ways, especially sonically. Then the band started in on what seemed to be a light reggae groove, Glover came back out, then a familiar guitar wah-wah thing started to repeat. Dave looked at me and said “is this what I think it is?” just as the band exploded into Led Zeppelin’s epic “How Many More Times.” When they landed on that riff, Moore was standing behind his drums, hitting everything he could hit was hard as he could, beaming and looking like a happy wind-up monkey. What a way to close day one.

DAY TWO

My festival routine goes like this: work in room through the morning, go have a ridiculous late lunch, nap, then go to shows. It works out well for me.

So, early afternoon we walked up to Rue St. Denis and the uber-French bistro L’Express. We’d both eaten here before and were way psyched to be back. We were seated in the back under some skylights. I ordered Rillettes L’Express because I had no idea what it was, and the Sauté Canard Confit avec Salade, Dave got the Salmon Frais du Something Something. And out came the kick-ass pickles. Les RillettesLe ConfitDave's Salmon du Something SomethingLes Pickles du Kick-ass

I finished the Rillettes and still had no idea what it was, other than kind of a pate kind of deal. I just looked it up and see that it’s a pate kind of deal usually made with pork, although I think mine was made with tuna. It was good, although a little mild. Didn’t know what a confit was either, and now see that it’s laboriously prepared hunks of duck; had I known that I would have paid more attention to my duck. Dave made out big time with the salmon, which looked fantastic.

Nap.

Off to my favorite festival room, Gesu, a small grotto-like concert hall in the basement of a former church about half a block from the festival site. We saw a 6 PM show featuring Fly, a trio of youngish NY jazz vets: saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard. The music was stridently post-bop, with hints of blues and swing tossed in here and there. The group was captivating. I was focused on drummer Ballard, first out of annoyance; he had this odd style, quietly stabbing at the drums and not letting the sticks bounce. He looked awkward and stiff. Then I began to appreciate the ingeniousness of what he was doing, and I found I was fixating on him to the exclusion of everybody else. In amazement. Bassist Grenadier was agile and lyrical on the stand-up bass, and towards the end brought out a bow and played the bass like it was a fiddle and we were at a hoedown. Turner might be the most understated musician I’ve ever seen. He stands in one place, feet together, and moves slightly up and down while he plays, bending at the knees. It didn’t help that he was a black guy, dressed all in black, standing under a wash of green light, while the other two were white guys in white shirts standing under white floods. In any event, Turner was a measured and interesting player with a beautiful and controlled tone that echoed the dry woodyness of Coltrane’s alto sax.

We flew out of Gesu and hustled down to Metropolis for Bootsy Collins. Metropolis is a old theater-turned-club with a 2300-person capacity, and word had it that seating was at a premium. There was no way us two geezers were gonna stand for what promised to be a marathon show, so we got there an hour early to get seats. Good thing, too. We got third row stools on the tiered balcony; and within 20 minutes the balcony was packed.

At 8:30 on the dot a young band, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, started laying down one big super funky groove. This is a bit of a casual look for a Bootsy band, I thought, but the sound is definitely right. Then, out walks this tall skinny black kid waving a trombone in the air, and the crowd goes batshit.

This was my introduction to Trombone Shorty. I had no freakin’ idea. I haven’t watched Treme, where a lot of people know him from. I’ve seen the name, he’s played Infinity Hall down the road. Based on his name, I assumed he was a little old dude playing some NOLA second-line stuff on trombone. Ummm, wrong! Where, exactly, the hell, exactly, have I been? I’ll answer that. I don’t know. Just out of it, I guess.
Trombone Shorty nee Troy Andrews is hands down the most incredible individual performer I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a few.

He and his band took no prisoners with a huge funk sound (helped by a spectacular sound system and someone on the board who knew how to use it) with Shorty soloing over the top on trombone and trumpet, with a pair of saxes riffing in the back. The tunes were all great, the show started on a plane waaaay up there and then climbed higher. Breathtaking. It occurred to us that this was what Galactic was supposed to do the night before, and didn’t. This was like a younger, beefier Tower of Power on lots and lots and lots of steroids. The drummer pounded with long hair flying, like a young Dave Grohl. The whole band was locked in.

Lately, I’ve seen and heard a lot of wimpy anemic music. It seems like the entire alternative music scene has been taken over by sensitive neutured guys with acoustic guitars and ukuleles and lousy beards singing about their freakin’ little feelings like I freakin’ care.

Trombone Shorty kicked the ass of all that and most everything else, too. Severely. After an hour of this relentless, heart-stopping, cerebral funk, Shorty, now stripped down to a wife-beater and raggedy jeans, traded 8’s for a few minutes with the saxophonists and the guitarist. These dudes could all play, not surprisingly. At this point the entire crowd, right down to the most lethargic, jaded, and brain-dead, were totally, helplessly engaged with everything happening on the stage. The room was going nuts.

Then the band suddenly took it down, to the first quiet groove of the night, and Shorty stood, slightly crouching, looking away from the crowd. Then he pounced, grabbing the mic, leaning into it, and letting go with a perfect: “bayeeayyyyybee”, and hello Marvin Gaye. Sexual Healing. Devastating. Time stops. Yup, Shorty sings, too. Oh man can he sing.
He next introduced a song by “our hero Louis Armstrong”, and off they went with a fairly straightforward version of “Sunny Side of the Street.” Shorty took the solo on trumpet, and it was pure Satchmo, the tone, the trills, the feel...I actually started crying right here, I was so moved. Then the solo changed, Shorty landed on a note and held it while the band vamped. Circular breathing. Two minutes, three, four? He kept the round tone and the pitch absolutely steady, with a barely-perceptible dip just before the top of the passage. The crowd was howling when he ended the exercise with an upward shriek and collapsed on his back. Cheap theatrics? Yup. Easy to do? Nope. Effective? Oh god yes.

Encore, more hard funk, with some 70’s style All Band Movement, then just to make the sublime go to another dimension, they all switched instruments mid-song. Without dropping the beat. Shorty was now drumming, the drummer was on guitar, the bassist and conga player were on horns, like that. AND THEY STILL KICKED ASS.

And that was it. Dave and I traded hyperbolic “best show” this and “best show” thats. Which is not unusual after a really good show, we all do it, and then one usually wakes up the next day realizing that OK, that show was great, but the best? C’mon.

Neither of us had those second thoughts the next day. Or now. This was seeing someone totally game-changing just as he’s hitting full gallop. Like seeing Springsteen in 1976 or Prince in 1980. And I don’t use these parallels lightly. Go see him soon, before he slicks up, slows down, or morphs into something else. No one can burn this bright forever.

45 minutes or so later and it’s Bootsy time. The band comes out as the DJ plays a narration about The Funk, Parliament Funkadelic, George Clinton, Bootsy, The Mothership, etc.. The band starts vamping while a big MC stalks the stage, continuing the fascinating discussion about The Funk, etc. Big, and suitably ridiculously attired, band: two keys (including Bernie Worrell, back for more), a DJ, assorted singers and horn players (including a singer all in white, with a white miniskirt, and furry white knee-highs), and assorted guitarists and two bass players (Bootsy would make three). And out comes Bootsy, in a shiny sparkly gold suit, top hat, and platforms, along with the star-shaped shades and star-shaped bass. Star time.
I gotta tell ya, after Shorty, this was all a bit silly. And not good silly. Kind of pathetic silly. And we had come for Bootsy, we’d come for exactly this. And it was WAY too loud. Bad loud. Violent, hurting loud. So loud you couldn’t hear anything. A booming din without definition, without form. After the second song, Dave and I looked at each other, and without saying a word, we split. And we weren’t the only ones. There was no point in staying. Night, Bootsy.


DAY THREE

For lunch we went to La Paryse, a tiny joint a few blocks from the festival that is touted as serving Montreal’s best burger. I went last year and liked it fine. And I liked it fine this time, too. But best burger in Montreal? Doubtful. Fine, righteous burger nonetheless? U-bet.

Nap.

5 PM, and we hit the Heineken Pavilion, where roots-rock was presented on a little open-air stage. We wanted to check out a band we’d gotten just a glimpse of the night before, local Montrealers Buddy McNeil and the Magic Mirrors. Dressed ludicrously in sailor garb, these folks played raw, goofy, 50’s-60’s garage / primitive music with a ton of smarts and soul. In the same territory as The Cramps or Southern Culture on the Skids or The Detroit Cobras or our Knyghts of Fuzz, every song was full of familiar riffs and disarming lyrics and a surfeit of attitude. The cutesy-pie girl bassist was a star, as was the loose-limbed lead singer, who sang like Richard Hell and had a pocketful of cool Keefer moves. The jazz festival audience, sitting on resin chairs and eating and drinking, didn’t seem to have a clue what to make of this. But the waitresses were all dancing, every single one. And sometimes that’s enough.


Back to Gesu, to see Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, an 18 piece big band that played Argue’s compositions with Argue conducting. The band looked disheveled and grim, and Argue was initially a dark presence on the stage. Turns out they’d played Vancouver two nights before and Ottawa the night before and probably hadn’t slept much. But the music was glorious, lots of Philip Glass-like repetition underneath layered with long, complex, but rarely discordant, notes over the top. This music had almost nothing to do with traditional big band music. This was really a chamber orchestra, with five trumpets (who all also had flugelhorns), four trombones, and an interesting assortment of winds, including bass clarinet and bass flute.

The band and Argue warmed up as the show progressed, with Argue revealing a charming, if dry, wit. The song topics and inspirations revealed a vivid imagination and wild range of interests; the moon disintegrating, the Jacobin Club, an imaginary Brooklyn, Maher Arar, the innocent Canadian victim of US rendition, and taking the Fung Wah bus to Boston. Every song was fascinating, provocative, and beautiful. I’m hoping Argue gets big money gigs scoring major films. That’s where he belongs.

Down the street to Club Soda, a club set up similarly to Metropolis, but half the size. Lee Fields and the Expressions were mid-set. Fields is an old school soul shouter who’s been putting out records on obscure labels, often his own, since the 1970’s. His recordings have been the bounty of crate-diving collectors; Fields is associated with and uses musicians out of the stable of the soul revivalist label Daptone Records, who’ve brought you the likes of Sharon Jones and Naomi Shelton.

Maybe I’m weary of this “authentic” soul revival thing. I dunno. Perhaps this is unfair, but it feels like Brooklyn white hipsters presenting distinctively black performers to other white hipsters. Like some kind of cross-cultural freak show. There’s something unsettling about that. Here was Fields, in his ruffled shirt and fronting an all-whiteboy band. The first thing I heard him say was “This song is for the ladies. C’mon everybody, give it up for the ladies.” The white hipster crowd swooned. Why, they’re so close to the source! Givin’ it up for the ladies! I just had to sigh. There was something seriously wrong here.

So, I wandered block up to the world music stage where the Roberto Lopez Project was cranking out salsa and a range of other afro-cuban styles. They were good and they were fun. I was shocked to later learn that the band is Canadian, made up mostly of ex-pats from various Central and South American countries. Fronted by the radiant Massiel Yanira (El Salvador) on vocals, the group sizzled with intelligence, energy and charm.

Then a block over to the blues stage for Lucky Peterson. I grew up watching Peterson, known then as “Little Lucky,” playing the organ on the Buffalo morning TV show “Bowling for Dollars.” (Yes, only in Buffalo.) I wanted to tell him that the last time I saw him he was sitting on Howlin’ Wolf’s lap in a Buffalo juke joint in 1970. I wonder if he remembers that. Sadly, Lucky’s show, what I caught of it, was a mess. Starting out as a trio with Lucky on organ, music was a secondary consideration to “entertaining” the people with incoherent buffoonery. After a couple songs Lucky, who’s not so little anymore, picked up a Tele and started wailing with Hendrix riffs. He somehow got his 300 pound body off the stage and into the crowd, where he pretty much stopped playing, leaving his bassist and drummer to riff and look at each other for about 5 long minutes. Strange. Then his daughter came out to sing, Lucky reappeared, it was more than halfway through the “set” and I split as they launched into a tepid version of “Take Me To The River.”

Grabbing a quick slice at the Heineken pavilion we could hear and see what was going on at the big Scene TD stage. A Canadian female singer named Ima, some kind of Faith Hill wannabe, did totally banal versions of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Fire.” On the biggest stage at the festival! Really?

Finally, back to Gesu for an 11:00 show of Apex, featuring alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green. What an odd and cool pairing—Rudresh, young and eclectic, and Bunky, the elegant veteran and celebrated jazz educator. Great couple of names for the marquee, too. My notes for this are as incomprehensible as my brain was fried for this show, but I recall lots of fireworks, one very Eastern sounding tune (Rudresh, very much a Midwesterner, discovered Indian jazz while at Berklee and has spent much of his recent time introducing it to the world), and a couple of gorgeous Green ballads. Rudresh’s powerhouse style contrasted nicely with Green’s more nuanced playing. The set was marred only by the overplaying and overpowering of drummer Damion Reid. Reid is as technically proficient a drummer as you’ll find, jaw-dropping, in fact, but his aggressive playing often obscured whatever else was happening onstage, especially the terrifically constructed solos of pianist Matt Mitchell.

With all the running around to 5 shows, I totally forgot that Fitz and the Tantrums were playing on one of the free stages. Damn, that one was on my must-see list.

DAY FOUR

Got up and found a real 'murkin breakfast in a Vietnamese diner.

Then we walked across town to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art; the featured exhibition was the “art” of Jean-Paul Gauthier. Give me a break. The rest of the museum was mediocre at best.L'art, mon amis

Decided on an early dinner, tried to get into Au Pied De Cochon and couldn’t, so we wound up at Bieres et Compagnie on St. Denis which came highly recommended...it was interesting (lots of beers and a three-page mussels menu) but not quite spectacular.les mussels de something or other and some tasty sausages

So then it was time for....Peter Frampton! I put in for Frampton tickets because, well, I don’t exactly know why. Because there wasn’t a whole lot going on otherwise? I guess. Because I have a soft spot for the guy? Maybe. Because it was a silly thing to do? Guilty! The show was in the big (3000 seats) Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier Place des Arts, the most beautiful modern performance space I’ve ever been in. A really cool space.

OK, what do Canadians have against aisles? In all of the big halls I’ve been in, you can enter from the far left or far right, but there are no center aisles. Which can be pretty weird when the hall is 50-60 seats across like this one.

Anyway, the show was the 35th anniversary performance of Frampton Comes Alive and it was sold out. There was tangible excitement in the air. Really! I was thinking about how few have risen so high and fell so quickly and completely as Peter Frampton, how the utter shellacking he took from the rock press and the public in the late 70’s was unfair and undeserved. In a few short years, the guy went from highly respected blues guitarist (I mean, five albums with Humble Pie!) to someone nobody would admit to ever liking. How the punk movement rendered obsolete and laughable rock stars in white suits. But here was Frampton, 35 years later, reliving the dream. Perhaps I over-romanticize, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

He came out beaming to a hero’s welcome, looking hearty and healthy at 61. He had that black Les Paul with the three pickups and he launched straight into “Something’s Happening”. The band was on and included bassist Stanley Sheldon, who played on Frampton Comes Alive the first time around. Frampton noted that the show was going to be in a different order than the album, because the order of the original show was changed to fit onto vinyl albums, and also that songs that didn’t make it on the album but were in the original show would be played. Gotta like that attention to detail. He emphasized certain lyrics that acknowledged his strange journey, like “never to accept defeat” from “Lines On My Face”; before I had to split I’d heard “Show Me The Way”, “Take Me To The Sun”, “Baby I Love Your Way”, great pop songs all... He directed most of his solos at bassist Sheldon. He likes being in a band. And he can still play that guitar. There was nothing wrong with this show. I’m so glad I was there.

Over to the world music stage for a taste of Baloji, a Congolese-Belgian whose name we’d been making cruel fun of all week (like “what’s his first name, Heywood?”). Idiots we are. Baloji & his band laid down a brilliant mix of Congolese / Nigerian traditional and afro-pop styles, informed heavily by American hip hop and soul. The lanky Bajoli was mesmerizing, charismatic and defiant in his delivery, like an African Joe Strummer. I could have watched him all night, but could only hang for a couple of songs, because...

I had to boog to get up to the big stage in time for the highly-touted New York salsa band La Excelencia. A top-shelf band to be sure, but they weren’t remotely ready for their close up. The press on them says they care more about social issues and the music than fashion or glamour. Which is fine, but dudes, when you’re on the big stage, with the huge projection screens and the massive lights and 20,000 or so people out front, you gotta put on a show! The lead singer, decidedly non-glamorous and dressed nondescriptly in black, rarely ventured far from the mic; the music, while solid, lacked the drama that typically gives salsa its kick. It wasn’t until the very last song that we got a piano solo (and a conservative one at that) and a percussion break. La Excelencia put on a great dancehall show; unfortunately it was for a stadium-size audience, and it simply didn’t read.

And that was it. Time to go home. Madge is on the phone. Thank you Jazz Festival. You rock. Thank you Montreal, you lovely city you. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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