copyright © 2004 James Hale
Twenty-five years ago, Montreal was used to being on the world stage of entertainment. Free-spending mayor Jean Drapeau had put his city on the map — far beyond Canada's meager standing at the time — by bringing home the World's Fair (1967), the first non-US Major League Baseball franchise (1969) and the Summer Olympic Games (1976).
In that heady atmosphere young Montrealer Alain Simard had the idea of starting "some kind of massive Utopian encounter." Together with business partner Andre Menard he decided that the largely francophone city would embrace jazz, as long as it came tempered with more commercial music in the mold of George Wein's Newport and Claude Nobs' Montreux jazz festivals. In 1980, on the small island that been the site of the World's Fair, Simard and Menard staged their first festival, drawing 12,000 people to the St. Lawrence riverfront to hear the likes of Ray Charles.
In 1982, the festival reached an early milestone, booking Miles Davis — still a huge draw on the comeback trail — as well as heavyweights like Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins. In addition to staging concerts at a gorgeous, intimate, art deco theatre, the festival established an outdoor presence, turning St. Denis Street into a mini-Mardi Gras, thus helping to make the burgeoning cafe area an important tourist destination. Right away, the festival was customer-friendly, charging well under $100 for a passport that provided prime seats for the headline shows.
The festival also quickly established itself as a favorite with musicians. Montreal has always been a welcoming city to visiting jazz artists — from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to Albert Ayler (all of whom played memorable concerts there). While it's less than a day's journey from New York City, Montreal is a world away in terms of culture, politics and social outlook. Simard and Menard picked up on the tradition and notched it up several rungs, treating musicians royally and introducing an 'invitation' series of concerts that allowed one artist to curate their own mini-festival over several nights. Little surprise, then, that when DownBeat polled musicians about their favorite festival moments a few years ago, Montreal topped the list.
Today, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is a monolith. Having moved, in 1989, to the larger outdoor setting of Ste. Catherine Street and the adjacent Place des Arts complex, as well as 10 indoor stages, FIJM in 2004 drew just under two million people. Some paid as much as $125 a ticket to see Tony Bennett; others — an estimated 205,000 on closing night alone — filled the street for FIJM's banquet of free concerts and special events.
My favorite indoor venue is the Salles du Gesu, a cozy stone-walled chamber inside a renovated church. On opening night, the space featured Greg Osby's new quartet with pianist Megumi Yonezawa, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Tommy Crane. A distinct change from his previous band with Robert Hurst on bass and Rodney Green on drums, this new rhythm section plays somewhat freely while Osby sails above with his trademark diamond-hard tone. The spidery, mop-haired Crane does the seemingly impossible; he's both constantly busy and completely faceless. It's no small measure of Osby's strong rhythmic sense that the band kicked as hard as it did without a strong presence on drums.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Crane was Adam Cruz, who anchored Danilo Perez's trio in the same venue. The fiery Cruz engaged Perez head-to-head throughout the set, challenging him rhythmically the same way that Brian Blade does in Wayne Shorter's quartet. That kind of aggressive approach brings out the best in Perez, who otherwise tends to bury his Panamanian roots under his attraction to more rococo adventures. Together with Cruz, he burned in Montreal — appropriate since the show was both delayed and interrupted by a malfunctioning fire alarm.
When the wail of the alarm sounded, Perez didn't miss a beat, accompanying it with a discordant, repeated cluster at the piano's bass end. When an errant monitor buzz distracted Keith Jarrett during his trio's performance at the large Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier he stormed away from the piano and offered to exchange silence for the prestigious Miles Davis Award, which had been handed to him by Simard and Menard moments earlier. Jarrett's hissy fit was the only bad note in a generous recital that found him, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette cleaving closely to American standards like "Tennessee Waltz". What this trio can do live is so well documented that you can be fooled into thinking you've heard it all, but then Jarrett launches into an extended improvisation like the one on "You Belong To Me" (a song Jarrett's trio has never recorded) that blows it all away. It, along with a snaking version of "I Thought About You", were highlights, but even a rather perfunctory take of "Bye, Bye Blackbird" was sublime.
Jarrett's long-time bassist, Charlie Haden, shared the festival's Invitation Series with Chick Corea. For his part, Haden split his four nights between duos (with pianists John Taylor and Egberto Gismonti), a trio (with Dewey Redman and Matt Wilson), Quartet West and a revamped Liberation Music Orchestra. Gismonti — who had headlined his own show a night earlier with Montreal's thorny string-and-wind ensemble I Musici — engaged Haden in a brief program of pleasant reveries, but was overshadowed by Taylor's luminescent romanticism. Often compared to Bill Evans, Taylor displays a stoicism in his playing that makes him seem resilient rather than world-weary. His lyricism was an ideal match for Haden's studied minimalism and dark, woody tones.
The following evening, Haden, Redman and Wilson paid homage to Ornette Coleman on two pieces, including "Lonely Woman", allowing Haden to revisit one of his early career highlights. While Haden and Redman both looked somewhat fragile on stage, their lines were strong and confident sounding, underscored by Wilson's taut and creative drumming. Moving back to his customary tenor, Redman was deeply moving on a gorgeous version of "Body And Soul".
While Haden's series seemed ideally suited to the elegant, old theatre of the Monument-National, Kenny Barron's new band all but disappeared inside the cavernous Spectrum nightclub. Featuring Anne Drummond on flute and Stefon Harris on vibes, Barron's quintet works a lot in the upper register, and their gentle, ephemeral playing did not penetrate the far reaches of the venue.
By contrast, Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra seemed too big, too overheated to be contained by the intimate Gesu. Exuding abrasive humor and massive chops, the band roared through one of the trademark sets that has made it a must-see as the Monday night house band at New York's Jazz Standard. With Charlie Burnham soaring on electric wah-wah violin and Ben Perowsky driving hard on drums, Bernstein's band was a genre- and era-defying treat.
As always, with wall-to-wall music — both inside and outside — played at 500 shows, FIJM made it seem like jazz could indeed conquer an entire city. There's no question that in its 25 years, the festival has certainly won the hearts of Montrealers and no small number of those from out of town who make it an annual pilgrimage.
C o m m e n t s
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