arnold jay smith: Montreal Jazz Fest @ 30:
Business as Usual (sort of)

July 11th 2009 11:07 am

Copyright © 2009 arnold jay smith

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) celebrated year 30.  Thanks to its efficient publicity department you already know that.  My personal “handler” on the international press desk was the multinational Carola Duran who instinctively knew how to calm our consternation when we asked for tickets to long sold-out indoor events.

Let’s begin with the spanking new physical plant.  The new pressroom is in a Canadian government gifted building just off the Festival grounds (Place des Arts).  It is spacious and welcoming with a bar serving beer, wine, water, both flat and gaseous, and a new pleasant wrinkle: an espresso machine for coffee, latte and cappuccino, all gratuit.  One could spend most of one’s time hanging out speaking with fellow fourth estaters you haven’t seen in a year(s) or perhaps ever.  I was there over our Independence Day weekend (July 2-6) –FIJM ran from June 30-July 12– when the rain came and went not daily, but hourly. No exaggeration that.

As most of the events were presented outdoors you’d think this would have posed an attendance problem. FIJM visitors and locals alike simply raised umbrellas; the ever-fashionable Montréalers donned colorful foul weather gear and boots and carried their Starbucks containers.  The temps, they were on the cool side.

For example, Stevie Wonder gave a free–to the public; he got paid—concert before an audience of upwards of a guestimated quarter million souls. FIJM founder Andre Menard told me that extra police were called in not to quell any unrest, but for safety reasons as more streets had to be closed.  I wasn’t there –I eschew large crowds—but I was told by relatives who live nearby that they were sitting so far away that even the allegory of the cave didn’t apply. They couldn’t see the giant screens and the sound was bouncing off Mont Royal north of Sherbrook (the northern boundary of the festival) where viewers were ensconced.  Oh yes, my point: it poured, twice. No one went home.

The executives-in-charge said that overall attendance was the same, but I found more room to move about the Place than in years past. (This may have been my 13th or 14th Only one person south of the 48th parallel has more FIJM sorties and that’s WBGO’s Michael Bourne with 17.  He also wins with more trips to our favorite food haunt, Pizzadelic.)

For the uninitiated FIJM is the largest Jazz Festival in the world with multiple events talking place in- and out-of-doors simultaneously.  You can’t wander anywhere and not hear music. There’s blues, Cajun, klezmer, African, reggae, pop, rock, you name the genre they’ve got it.  If you want the many phases of jazz and only jazz you can have that, too.

Between the dark clouds I drifted to the main Alcan Rio Tinto stage, which still bore a GM logo. [It was announced after my departure that Toronto Dominion Bank -- TD -- would replace GM as the new lead sponsor.]  There appeared to be more youth bands than in years past. One particular band, Stageband La Decouverte, contained players so young –how young were they?–  they were so young that the girls appeared to be not yet into training bras, and the boys looked like after they played they were going back to complete the signs on their tree houses, “No Girls Allowed.” But they read those stock charts down, let me tell you. Some solos may have been written out for them, but others were not. They swung hard and enthusiastically.

The indoor, i.e., ticketed, concerts showed off the festive side of the 30th Anny.  This weekend Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck were just two of the headliners. Brubeck played two Canadian concerts despite his son Michael’s death.  “I just had to do it for you guys,” he told Menard in a teary moment.  Both the Bennett and Bubeck were sellouts in the largest venue, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

As was a concert featuring Al Jarreau with vocalist Molly Johnson as his opener.  Johnson does cutesy patter followed by mellower songs, which were pleasant enough.  I quickly tired of the patter and the songs went nowhere, for more than an hour.  I found out later from some of her Toronto neighbors that she does that same repertoire ad nauseum. Jarreau was not much better. He did his shtick. Now Jarreau shtick is better than a whole lot of others, but shtick it was nonetheless. The packed house dug it; I left early to catch Branford Marsalis next door.

The second largest venue, Theatre Maisonneuve, was home to Marsalis’ Quartet featuring Joey Calderazzo on keys. Refreshing straight ahead hard blowing bebop extensions is what this band is all about.  Powerful doesn’t cover the topic.  Branford announced the mostly unfamiliar music save Monk’s “Rhythmning.” Even those “Rhythm” changes took on new meaning this night. The sold out house was rapt and attentive and knew when to cheer and applaud loudly. It is so heartwarming to see that.  It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to FIJM.

Earlier in Maisonneuve was the bus and truck version of Bob Belden’s brilliant and unique conception Miles from India [ed. note: Belden has ended his association with the Miles from India band] Some of the personnel on this tour were Nicholas Payton, trumpet, Bill Evans, tenor and soprano and JJA Jazz Award alto sax winner Rudresh Mahanthappa; Pete Cosey, guitar; Robert Irving III, keys; drummers Lenny White, Ndugu Chancler and Vince Wilburn plus six Indian musicians, including Badal Roy, on various percussion, sitar and mandolin.

The CD does not do justice to Belden’s creation [ed. note: credit due also to Louis Banks]. The Indian musicians are spread out center stage with the Western instrumentalists at the edges. The drummers are splayed out in the rear. It is a feast for all the senses as you can feel every pulse. The selections are from Kind of Blue, E.S.P., Bitches Brew and later electric Miles, all East Indian inflected with ample space for percussive abstracts. This was another “hot ticket” concert with the attendees on their feet clapping rhythmically and screaming for encores.

This was my favorite concert of the weekend.

(An aside here: both the very beautiful and acoustically piquant Wilfred-Pelletier and Theatre Maisonneuve have no center aisle.  Each row contains some 30 seats.  It appears to me that if you’re in the middle, which I was, you have serious problems in an emergency of any kind.  I wasn’t the only one who noticed.)

In other highlights, saxophonist Sadao Watanabe made a rare Western appearance with an all-Japanese band. Watanabe, an early pop-jazz fusion artist, played a set of familiar-sounding things perfectly performed, as his is wont. As I had just arrived after a miserably long and wet drive north from New York City, I fell out early.

Guitars were billed as the featured events for the third year. There was a guitar exhibit and many guitarists played. I caught Frank Vignola doing a short string trio –rhythm guitar and bass– set of Django Reinhardt-flavored tunes, as well as a more traditional trio led by Canadian Sylvain Provost. Nice contrast there as Vignola was hot and fleetingly virtuosic, Provost more laid back.

But for me it was saxophones. Lee Konitz played a set of tunes with a group called Minsarah. Straight out of the book of his old boss Lenny Tristano, the alto saxist played pure improvs. As Phil Woods said, “You can’t steal a Lee Konitz lick because he hasn’t got any.” The acoustic hall Gesu, which is in the basement of a church, is a perfect venue for Konitz. At one point he put a rag in the bell of his horn as a mute. Gesu is an intimate space where you get to know the players real fast. It’s become my favorite.

In addition to Marsalis and Konitz, the pairing of Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano was everything you’d expect. Taking pages from historic tenor duels the reports from the scalped ticket Gesu was that they blew a hole in the bell tower with “Blues Up ‘n’ Down” then encored with “Body and Soul.” Talk about fire and ice. Chilean reporter Pepe Hosiasson noted that though he was exhausted from his long flight he would not give up his seat. “I fell into bed a very happy man,” he said the next day.

In the new Festival Headquarters there is a nightclub that replaced Spectrum, the converted movie theatre that was lost to the wreckers ball. Dubbed Astral, it was there I saw a local 10-piece band with the Franglish title Le Large Ensemble. Its instrumentation includes a couple of drummers/percussionists, guitarists and a frontline of saxes and trumpet re-imagining music of various styles and composers including Miles Davis.

Speaking of clubs, a highlight of my visits to Montreal, fest or no, is always a visit to Upstairs.  Slightly off the beaten path, this small venue enjoys crowds that are unusually enthusiastic and knowledgeable. (And the Chilean chef is killing.) This time it was Sheila Jordan, with whom I shared a birthday celebration this past November at Dizzy’s Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center.  She turned 80; me 70. Ms. Jordan, who loves to say that she loved Charlie Parker so much she married his piano player (first name Duke), did a wonderful creatively improvised set of scat and vocalese. She was accompanied by the local Jeff Johnston Trio, which kept up with her every nuance. Not easy to do.

If it sounds like I was kept busy during my abbreviated stay at FIJM, mix in dinner with cousins and some hang time on the one sunny day and you’ve got it about right. But I miss that the pressroom was no longer in the hotel where the musicians stay. There I could slap more palms, grab some greeting hugs and exchange road war stories. For me that’s an important part of what jazz life is about.

By the way, you need your passport to get in and out of Canada; drivers’ license notwithstanding.

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