copyright © 2002 Arnold Jay Smith
from Jazz Notes 10/2002
The crowd grows with each succeeding year in this our North American French outpost. But, alas, the music, like so many other "jazz" festivals here and abroad, is less and less of that musical genre and, not unlike the wines and food in the city, more varietal. That said, it bears repeating that Montreal's is a real festival. The entire city takes part. As in past years, major thoroughfares in and around the Place des Arts become pedestrian sprawl. In the evening -- sets begin at 6 p.m. -- seas of bobbing and cheering throngs queue as each outdoor stage prepares for its performances. During the day there are places for families to enjoy music and music-related games for kids.
Now that the JJA has anointed MJF's director Andre Menard, you all should get up there and see for yourselves. Their Press Office off the lobby of the Windham Hotel in Place des Arts welcomes us with smiling faces, including yours on an ID lanyard. Sophie Desbiens and her crew, principally her lieutenant Antoine, stand, or sit, ready to offer you tickets to any of the indoor venues where available. And if there are sellouts, as there often are, there is an active barter arena where extra tickets become available. You make friends real fast. In one case, my wife and I -- she's a videographer -- "at the behest of Toots Thielemans were personally escorted by Antoine to the last rehearsal for a Dave Brubeck 80th Birthday salute which featured a Take 5" with Toots and Jim Hall. A true history-making meeting even for this jaded reporter.
Our Festival/July 4th weekend began and ended kind of strangely: "Disorder At The Border" upon entrance to Canada and choking, eye-burning, acrid smoke from forest fires to the northwest as we departed.
While you can get to Montreal easily even in these times so long as you are prepared for the potential long lines at the border, we prefer the beautiful early morning drive through the Adirondacks as the mist still fills the hollows and the deer and other wild creatures are breakfasting along the side of the highway. However, we were not prepared for the two-hour wait for a 10-second clearance (I timed it).
All was made well as our first indoor concert was a duo performance by Toots and his long-time pianist Kenny Werner. They intuitively wove their ideas around each other like flamingoes in heat. While his guitar was prominently displayed, Toots played only harmonica in the 1 hour-long concert. When he was later asked why no "Bluesette," which he calls "my social security number," he smiled, shrugged, and quietly replied that he felt the audience didn't need it. Indeed, they were on their feet with that "whoosh" no fewer than three times.
It was a weekend of guitar contrasts. Jim Hall did a reverential recital in the Salle de Gesu, a converted church. About half way through, Hall said, "My contract calls for an hour-and-a-half, but I don't know if I've got enough in me." Save for the Hall devotees, I fear he was right.
Later that evening another JJA Award winner, Russell Malone, appeared in quartet format in a nightclub setting at the converted movie theatre, The Spectrum. Malone's set, a peppery mixture of ballads, blues, and American Songbook, was greeted with cheers. He was as strong as ever weíve heard him. Which brings up that point about Montreal audiences that we have made in the past: They come to hear and the artists had better be there to play. Russ was on the money.
Meanwhile, outdoors in the middle of what is normally St. Catherine, from which the Festival gets its cat logo ("St. Cat", not French, but what the hell.), Little Freddie King was singing and playing a set of Louisiana-bred blues. The guitar playing was a far cry from the virtuosic Hall and fleet-fingered Malone, but the largely white crowds were getting off on this high energy Delta picker. The stage crews keep the outdoor performances on a strict schedule so that one stage doesn't bleed into another, but the crowd would not let King off so easily. Three encores later he was still doin' it. Another note about press credentials and treatment: If you are wearing your badge you are given prime standing space, definitely not an inconsiderable advantage.
Each year there is a thematic Invitational series. This year it was split between Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes. Valdes did four nights, including one with the Cuban group he founded, Irakere. Irakere still has the fire of the group that featured trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, alto saxist/clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, and tenor saxist Carlos Averhoff in the front line. Sadly, they do not have the introspection that the three now-North Americanos brought to the group. There is technical prowess for days, but some of the African-cum-Cuban-cum-jazz-cum-rock has distilled out and what remains is the last pressing from the group, whose recordings were first brought to these shores by this writer in 1977. Valdes and his Irakere ran through a set with nary one bolero, that Cuban balladic form which came to us as the rumba. What we are left with is bravura, not in small doses either. The audience went wild.
The Brubeck 8-0 was the final official concert of the Festival. The great living legend (sorry about the cliche) played a set of largely unreleased music, save for the aforementioned "Take 5" and one tune from his last CD, The Crossing. In fact, most of it wouldn't be recorded until he got back to NYC later in the week.
But the music wasn't over yet. There was rock, r&b, and world music still to be enjoyed on the many stages around the Place des Arts. That's the beauty part; at the MJF you run out of time and energy before you run out of music.
C o m m e n t s
Little Freddie King blues band 1 of 1 T. Wade December 18, 02
The Delta Bluesman from McComb, Mississippe for his age (65yrs) put the crowd on their heels. The man sings from the "gut" and puts it out there with blues feeling. He was great. Would like to see him in a Club environment. Great band! You were right about the crowd not wanting he to stop playing. Maybe they will have him back on the big stage soon.
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