Montreal Jazz Festival

Montreal Jazz Festival (first weekend; June 28-July 2)

by Philip Booth
copyright © 2001 Philip Booth

Saxophone titans, established and up-and-coming divas and artists representing several shades of world music, funk and electronica were among the acts generating the most enthusiasm during the first weekend of the Montreal JazzFestival's 22nd edition. The event, staggering in the breadth and depth of music offered on 25 indoor and outdoor stages from noon until after midnight, began June 28 and notched a record-breaking attendance of 1.7 million people by the time the final notes sounded July 8.

The Salles du Gesu, one of the festival's most intimate venues, a 425-seat basement theater allowing for pristine sound and uncluttered sightlines, wasthe setting for several artistic triumphs, including a brilliant, urgent set by esteemed soprano saxophone master Steve Lacy. The saxophonist, navigating the bop-to-free terrain with the help of raucous trombonist George Lewis and a pianoless rhythm section, supplemented his heady original compositions with affectionate renditions of "Pannonica" and "Bye-Ya," two pieces written by the leader's one-time employer, Thelonious Monk.

The same site was home to an inspired performance by fast-rising tenor and soprano saxophonist Chris Potter, who concentrated on music from his recently released Gratitude, an early candidate for jazz CD of the year. Potter, pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Clarence Penn grooved hard and improvised mean on challenging post-bop material. The saxophonist sprayed out rich, dark sheets of sound--a la John Coltrane, one of several icons honored on the album--during an unaccompanied solo at the beginning of a new, untitled tune. And the group responded to two thunderous standing ovations with sweet performances of the standards "Star Eyes" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"

Potter's show, sure to be remembered as a highlight of this year's fest, included the ballad "Eurydice" and the rhythmically complex "The Mind's Eye," written for Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker, respectively. By coincidence,those musicians were also on the bill. Brecker, host of an invitational series at the Monument National, led various handpicked ensembles on five consecutive evenings, devoting one night to a program of duets with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Danilo Perez.

Shorter, the nominal leader of the best band he's fronted in a decade or so, needed only a single show to create a buzz. He took advantage of the occasion, at the spacious, comfortable 1,453-seat Theatre Maisonneuve, feeding off the sturdy, flexible rhythms of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and irrepressible drummer Brian Blade. Shorter, seemingly hurrying through his own, classic "Footprints" and, for the encore, Miles' "All Blues," sometimes soared, digging into the music, and sometimes seemed reluctant, as ifhe weren't sure whether or not to commit to the prospect of the thing. He'snot lacking in onstage musical inspiration with this group, though, particularly in the work of Blade, a fast-rising Louisiana native who cut his teethon the New Orleans scene and has been called on by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchelland Emmylou Harris. Blade again demonstrated the reasons he gets the calls:He offers finely tuned propulsion, perfect time, a bottomless bag of tricks, virtuoso technique and an ability to create emotional drama without overplaying.

Subtlety was everything, too, for tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, and the music he played as a member of Haden's Latin-jazz ensemble at the Maisonneuve. The bassist, soloing only three times during the two-hour concert, presentedthe lovely, delicately shaded Cuban boleros heard on his new Nocturne. It was a long, mellow evening of Spanish-tinged noir, with Haden and Lovano joined by three of the disc's other players, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, violinist Federico Ruiz and drummer Ignacio Berroa.

Haden and the Cuban-born Rubalcaba, now a South Florida resident, met 15 years ago during a festival in Havana, they said during a joint press conference at the festival. The CD is a subdued collection of boleros penned by Cuban and Mexican composers, and popularized during a three-decade period beginning in the 1930s.

"The feeling I always have when I make a recording like this is I wish thatI could have been there," Haden said. "I wanted to be there. I guess that'swhy I do everything. I just want to be places where I wasn't, so I wanted to experience playing this music, especially with Gonzalo, who comes from this music. We went to Miami, where most of the musicians on the recording lived. It was one of the most meaningful musical experiences of my life." Said Rubalcaba: "That kind of music is open all the time to move, to create something new every time that you approach [it]."

The sax madness, if you will, kicked off with an ambitious Coltrane salute at the Maisonneuve, pairing the David Murray Octet with the World Saxophone Quartet, which also includes founding member Murray.

Charles Lloyd was joined by an exceptional group--guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Billy Hart--at the Spectrum nightclub, which has a capacity of about 1,000. The quintet's inspired performance included a slow and soulful "Georgia" and a sweetly swinging version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom," both from last year's "The Water is Wide" album, a disc that featured one of the last sessions recorded by late drummer Billy Higgins. "He was a very beautiful man," Lloyd said of his fallen compadre. "We went through a lot together. He still resides here in our hearts, andhe will be manifest in the spirit of the music."

The word was good, too, on the performance by veteran tenorman Johnny Griffin at the Spectrum. Lovano led his own nonet at the Maisonneuve, on a set ofmaterial taken from last year's 52nd Street Themes.

A veritable survey of female jazz and world-music singers was yet another emphasis of the sprawling fest, with multiplatinum standards-bearer Diana Krall returning home to Canada for two sold-out shows at the 2,982-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier and legendary Cape Verdean vocalist Cesaria Evora enchanting audiences the following evening on the same stage.

Club Soda, a nightspot with a capacity of about 520, was home to the "Chanteuses Chanteuses!" series, which opened with performances by three-time Grammy winner Nnenna Freelon and resourceful Chilean singer Claudia Acuna.

Jane Monheit's two shows at the venue were among the most highly anticipated of the fest, and for her first concert, the much-hyped young singer easilynailed her chosen standards. Monheit, 23, a glamour gal with girlish stage patter, was backed by pianist Kenny Werner, saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Hart on material taken from her two fast-selling CDs, last year's Never Never Land and the just-released Come Dream With Me. Among the most affecting: "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "More Than You Know," a duet with the amazing Werner on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's true:Krall's title as queen of the retro jazz divas may soon be snatched away byMonheit.

Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter Joao Gilberto, relied on sexy charisma, a percolating, electronica-laced backing band and cooing, insinuating vocals on "So Nice (Summer Samba)" and other pieces from last year's Tanto Tempo to thrill a packed house at the Spectrum.

Patricia Barber, the acclaimed Chicago singer-pianist associated with that city's Green Mill nightclub, of course is up to something far more original than many of her competitors, as evidenced at the Maisonneuve. Barber, bassist Michael Arnopol, drummer Adam Nussbaum and guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris offered atmospherics, moodiness, sure swing and a quirky sense of humor on a two-set show that included "You're My Everything," "All the Things You Are," "Caravan," the Brazilian rhythms of "Estate" and "Manha de Carnaval" and several intriguing original compositions slated forBarber's next recording.

Festival audiences were also treated to the second annual Montreal fest party by groove-jazzers Medeski Martin and Wood, with guest DJ Logic, and versatile guitarist John Scofield sitting in on "The Dropper," "A Go Go," "Note Bleu" and Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic," among other pieces. Metalwood, the fast-rising fusion and jamband exponents, opened the show at the cavernous Metropolis nightclub (capacity: 2,000) with a blistering, absolutely convincing set ofmaterial taken in part from the Canadian quartet's fourth CD, The Recline.

Guitar hero John McLaughlin and tabla master Zakir Hussain, the BulletproofAfro-Beat Orchestra, from Brooklyn, and a sublime trio with classical- and new age-influenced ECM artists Ketil Bjornstad (piano) Terje Rypdal (guitar)and David Darling (cello) were among the other shows we were able to catch.

A free show with funk bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Burhan Ocal's Oriental Istanbul Ensemble drew an audience estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000, at the General Motors stage at the Place des Arts, ground zero for the fest.

One sure way to measure the caliber of any given music festival is to tallythe first-rate acts you missed while attending other shows. By that measure, the Montreal Jazz Festival was as frustrating as they come. Among the concerts that couldn't be squeezed in: Krall, Femi Kuti, Jimmy Scott, Stereolab,Bill Carrothers and Bill Stewart, Scofield's own band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Steel Pulse, Nils Petter Molvaer, Michel Legrand with Phil Woods, Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer, the Terence Blanchard Sextet with Cassandra Wilson, Claudia Acuna, Michel Legrand with Phil Woods, and a series of performances by Italian musicians.

So much high-caliber music, and frequently all at the same time -- Would that more North American events would present jazz lovers with such a dilemma.

Philip Booth, based in Tampa, has ears/will travel.

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