Montreux Jazz Festival Offers More Than a Pocketful of Jazz: Brother, Can You Spare a Jazz?

Montreux Jazz Festival Offers More Than a Pocketful of Jazz
Brother, Can You Spare a Jazz?

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2005 Bloomberg News, Reprinted with Permission

The Montreux Jazz Festival presents big-ticket acts such as Alice Cooper, Kraftwerk, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Audioslave and Elvis Costello in the prestigious Auditorium Stravinski and Miles Davis Hall.

Guess where most of the jazz musicians play. In the casino, right next to where people smoke, drink, gamble and carouse — well, not quite, yet the slightly shady location can be seen as metaphorical.

Jazz is literally small change at the festival on the Swiss Riviera, which ended July 16. Before you can consume anything, you have to change your nice hard Swiss francs into the festival's currency called jazz. Goods and services sold in the booths lining the lakeside path from the Congress Center to the casino are priced in jazz.

The exchange is on a par, 1-for-1, though the jazz is a decidedly soft currency. Since there are no jazz cents, the prices were obviously rounded up when they were converted from francs. And there are big "WE DO NOT TAKE BACK JAZZ" signs on the walls of the little exchange booths. Talk about a metaphor. Who wants yesterday's jazz?

Demons or Angels?

A fan is put on the defensive. Jazz the music is a "very sophisticated, very urban sort of entertainment," as Evan Eisenberg writes in his book The Recording Angel (Yale University Press). Its audience, white and black, suspected that it was something remarkable, with a tincture of the demonic or the angelic that set it apart from all entertainment previously known."

It might have been better to call the money "pop." The festival has been going the way of pop and rock for decades. Since pop music is basically petrified jazz, it tends to be more stable, and a currency named pop would have sounded better. You could buy beer at four pops a pop.

The organizers explained that jazz the currency was introduced some years ago when some concessionaries were thought to be hiding Swiss-franc profits from the authorities and that making the jazz convertible would have defeated the purpose. Possibly.

The fact remains that only really poor countries have currencies that are not convertible. If you should end up with a pocketful of jazz when you go home, there is nothing to do but throw it in the rubbish.

Be that as it may, as many as nine acts a night perform in the three major venues for 16 days. It was a bit like being on a film set; a lot of energy, money, and experience being invested over a short period of time. Well known for its technical prowess, the Montreux festival can be counted on for good sound, lighting and production. The ambiance is usually excellent.

No Neil

So there was no excuse for Crosby, Stills and Nash, who were, let's say, disturbing. They had a good band behind them, yet they were shaky, their time and intonation were off and it sounded as though their once sophisticated harmonies had been dumbed-down. To begin with, of course, you missed Neil Young. Mostly, it was disturbing to hear anthems of youth like "Marrakesh Express" turn out to be pompous, middle-aged camp.

There were free outdoor concerts and the Central Washington University Jazz Band played with precision and verve one rainy afternoon in the Parc Vernex (it rained a lot). College students play better and better. The big band seems to be evolving into a classical formation. Listening to so many sounds day after day, they begin to meld into one blob. Only the worst and the best stay with you.

Bobby's Band

The best included Steve Earle in the Auditorium Stravinski, Zap Mama in Miles Davis Hall and Steps Ahead, Marianne Faithfull and Bobby McFerrin in the casino. Supported by Lew Soloff's trumpet, Faithfull sang the inventive assortment of songs associated with her with conviction and stamina (although she fell down at the end, just before "Broken English.")

McFerrin, possibly the coolest one-man band of all time, sat in a straight-backed chair on a bare stage with dreadlocks and a T-shirt, singing sophisticated combinations of melodies, harmonies and bass lines simultaneously while slapping the percussion on his chest. It was an epiphany of self-sufficiency worthy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Glenn Gould.

Faithfull and McFerrin were worth the trip to Montreux all by themselves, so in retrospect it may have been a bit quaint — possibly even paranoid — to have gotten so worked up about the name. We should be beyond all of that by now. Jazz has become "America's classical music," although that too has come to sound quaint.

Still, staging Alice Cooper at a jazz festival is like eating a quarter-pounder at the Fauchon gourmet store in Paris. At the very least, it's bad karma. Brother, can you spare a jazz?

C o m m e n t s

Rock at Montreaux 1 of 3
David W.
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August 06, 05

Maybe someone saw that guillotine Alice Cooper uses in his stage act and decided Montreaux would benefit from a band that used "head" arrangements.

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