It’s the 33nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.
You got to keep things fresh, even at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and that’s why I went to see Angelo Parra’s bio-musical The Devil’s Music: The Life And Blues of Bessie Smith. This is the first time a musical has been incorporated as part of the fest, but the production fits right in. Featuring the very talented Miche Braden as iconic proto-blues mamma Bessie Smith, the show revolves around bawdy (bisexual) Bessie drunkenly reminiscing with her backing band in banter and song just prior to her untimely death in 1937.
Sharing the stage with just a bassist, piano player and saxophonist as her musical and dramatic foils, Braden brings Smith to life with a brazen confidence so necessary to the role. The performances of classic songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and “Downhearted Blues” anchor the show, but it is Braden’s outsized performance that makes this essential history lesson so instructive. The playing of Keith Loftis also stood out, and Braden’s sexualized musical duet with the saxophonist was as entertaining as it was provocative. While the whole death premonition thing is a little corny, Smith speaking directly to the audience isn’t, and the production is an apt remembrance of an uncommonly successful female musician who overcame obstacles of poverty and race in the early 20th century. A volatile personality with a troubled love life and a fond affection for alcohol, Smith influenced everybody from Billie Holiday to Nina Simone to Janis Joplin. Catch this if you can.
I also will admit that I went to yet another Miles Davis tribute gig—the Montreal Jazz Festival loves Miles Davis—this one entitled Miles Smiles and featuring late-era Miles alumni including electric bassist Daryl Jones, saxophonist Bill Evans and keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco along with trumpeter Wallace Roney (subbing for the big man), monster drummer Omar Hakim and veteran fusion guitarist Larry Coryell. Anytime you have Hakim and Jones as your rhythm section, you are going to have a badass band, and they did. Playing loud and electric, the outfit would usually introduce the vamp, then take turns soloing, vamp again and out. Strangely, the order for the soloing was almost always with same, with Roney going first (and usually leaving the stage when he wasn’t playing) , then Evans, then Coryell, then DeFrancesco, then back to the vamp. Hakim only took one or two solos all night, but just watching him work the backbeat was more than enough. And as far as thundering Jones is concerned—thundering Darryl Jones for president. Coryell was hands down the best and most interesting soloist of the evening, ripping it up and down and playing bluesy (like the Texan he is) or jazzy or frenetically or whatever. As I’ve said before, Coryell is the most versatile and talented guitarists-for-hire working today.
Walking out of the show, everybody was humming the most catchy and bombastic of latter-era electric Davis tunes, that being “Jean Pierre.” Check out the most memorable version of this iconic tune from his classic live album, We Want Miles.