Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Day 2

It’s the 33rd annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As I familiarize myself with the city of Copenhagen as well as its expansive jazz festival and all that it provides, I’m overwhelmed and impressed by this rich and varied cultural experience. Besides well-established groups coming in from all over the globe to perform, there’s lots of cross-pollination going on between artists from different countries, some authentic jam sessions and loads of musical surprises. So, for the time being, jazz pervades. On Thursday night, I started out watching the Kenny Werner Quartet with guest trumpeter Dave Douglas. Werner is a Brooklyn-born piano wizard who’s been recording since the early ’80s and apparently is quite at home in both the United States and Europe. Along with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, drummer Johnathan Blake and Danish jazz saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, Werner and Douglas presented some powerful compositions, both new and old. There were classically influenced passages, thoroughly modern jazz with great soloing and a little bit of old-fashioned hard bop with Douglas playing like Lee Morgan circa 1965. Blake was mighty-mighty, and the whole band seemed energized by Douglas’ presence. Me, too.

From there it was off to see amazing German pianist Michael Wollny play some structured compositions with a band of great Danes including saxophonist Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard and trumpeter James Buchanan. The strangest part of their performance featured three of the musicians playing typewriters in percussive, random fashion. But don’t worry, they weren’t electric typewriters; this was an acoustic group except for the Danish guitarist with a moustache like Freddie Mercury. It was the first time these guys had ever played together, but their collective sound was thoughtful and meditative, and the compositions showed great depth and nuance.

Then, just as we were heading out the door after Wollny’s mesmerizing set, in walked Danish jazz-guitar hero Pierre Dørge, so we had to stay. To my surprise, Dørge, longtime bandmate Irene Becker and a substitute saxophonist were playing alongside a young poet. Listening to this wild Danish dude hollering beat-inspired prose in a language I didn’t understand while Dørge and his group improvised around him was a mirthful treat. Dørge is a very unorthodox player who eschews conventional methods in favor of semi-atonal riffs and percussive, single-line picking. He even had this small electronic box that simulated the droning raga sounds of a tamboura that he played against to remarkable effect. It was a completely spontaneous performance, and it epitomized the strange possibilities of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. To be honest, I think I’m starting to like it here.

Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Day 1

It’s the 33rd annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

After 10 full days (and nights) of hanging out at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I now find myself in Copenhagen, where the international jazz fest is already in full swing, and I do mean swing. It seems that the population of Denmark spends more money on jazz per capita than citizens of any other country, and while Copenhagen is fairly expensive across the board, there’s still plenty to do regardless of one’s income. The city is lovely in the summer (cobblestone streets, canals, kickass architecture, etc.), and it doesn’t get dark until quite late, making my ongoing jazz sojourn a very pleasant affair.

Disoriented from overseas travel and lack of sleep, I started out on Wednesday night by going to the beautiful outdoor venue Jazz By The Sea to catch my old friends Medeski Martin And Wood perform with saxophonist Bill Evans and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Both Brecker and Evans have long pedigrees playing electric jazz fusion—sometimes of questionable quality—but having MMW as your rhythm section would make any musician play loud and proud. This was the band’s first gig on its summer tour of Europe, and MMW was still working out the set list just before go time. Personally, watching the sun go down and enjoying a cool summer breeze while listening to live music outdoors made for a great introduction to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and when drummer Adam Nussbaum spontaneously joined the band onstage for a tune, the energy level immediately jumped up two notches. As always, John Medeski was a true standout, playing a variety of keyboards, including blowing freeform through an amplified melodica. Sadly, I was only able to stay for the band’s first set, because I had to run over to the Jazzhouse to hear the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is one of jazz’s great survivors and has achieved the status of a true master, both musically and spiritually. His tenor style is derived from that of late John Coltrane, and his flute playing is right up there, too. His latest quartet is staffed with young jazz lions, specifically pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. Lloyd’s first quartet back in the 1960s featured Keith Jarrett, Jack Dejohnette and bassist Cecil McBee, and his new group may be just as good, which is really saying something. Lloyd opened the show with a silent prayer (this is in a jazz club!) and ended with a meditation adapted from the Bhagavad Gita. Lloyd’s tenor playing gained strength as the night progressed, Moran was sublime on piano, and drummer Harland was basically unstoppable. In spite of my jetlag and battle fatigue, I still stayed for both the early and late sets, as Lloyd’s group settled into a spiritual groove that proved irresistible. Then, after a quick jaunt over to the legendary jazz haven, Café Montmartre, it was time for bed. But don’t fret; there will be more jazz reports from Copenhagen in the days ahead. To be sure.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 9

It’s the 32nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

From what I understand, Christian McBride is one of the busiest bassists in jazz. Certainly a virtuoso and in demand, McBride arrived in Montreal to play the Jazz Festival for the 10th time—and he’s only 40! Playing to a full house at the Gesù Theater, McBride and his group, Inside Straight, got right down to business, performing tunes off of their 2009 CD, Kind Of Brown. This band is frighteningly good: McBride’s stand-up bass work was strong, confident and bracing, alto/soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson’s playing was sharp and his solos were spot on, vibraphonist Warren Wolf is simply amazing, and drummer Carl Allen a true standout. The show was fun, too, as the band played a funky soul/jazz groove thing entitled “Used ‘Ta Could,” as in, “I used ‘ta could do stuff like that.” Unfortunately, they played just over one hour with a quick five-minute encore. It only was about 7:20 p.m., and the crowd was still begging for more, but McBride came out and said that he had to leave immediately to catch a 9 p.m. flight home. Yeah, right. Like I said, Christian McBride is a busy guy.

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut also performed at the Gesù Theater that night, and thankfully he didn’t have anyplace more important that he had to go. Chestnut’s piano trio didn’t draw the largest crowd, but they certainly satisfied the audience and played a series of amazing “spontaneous compositions,” as Chestnut likes to call his group’s improvisations. Bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith tread gently and allow Chestnut to run free all over the piano, and my friends noticed his clever sonic references to the TV themes from both Jeopardy and Perry Mason. Chestnut and his band were clearly having fun, their fine show was not cut short, and they didn’t stop playing until midnight.

And the midnight hour was the just the right time to stroll down to the Savoy du Métropolis and get local and get wild with Montreal’s own Nomadic Massive, a multicultural hip-hop collective with conscious messages and crazy rhythms from Africa, the Caribbean, Soul Train and beyond. Rapping and singing in English, Spanish, French, creole and Arabic, this was a party, y’all. The Savoy is a pretty small room, but it was the third of a four-night run for the band, and there was a steady line outside waiting to get in. Still, the Montreal crowd was loose and loving, and I have to admit that these fine people really do know how to enjoy themselves up here. Prediction: Nomadic Massive will inevitably occupy a much larger stage at some future Montreal Jazz Festival, probably quite soon. I can only hope that I’ll be there, too.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 8

It’s the 32nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Leisurely enjoying a warm Montreal evening and taking in the musical potpourri that is their Jazz Festival, I happened by the wonderful Gesù Theater and caught a solid set by mildly controversial alto saxophonist/vocalist Grace Kelly. I have to admit that watching this 19-year-old Asian-American girl playing bebop alongside alto veteran (and mentor) Phil Woods went a long way in gaining my respect. Her playing is sincere and emotive, and while she may be guilty of lacking depth, that will only change for the better over time. She is also a bit over-stylized as a jazz singer, but she has a decent voice and will certainly grow into that role with practice and isn’t afraid to put herself out there and entertain. In the meantime, Kelly has been playing with all sorts of jazz stars since the age of 13, been all over the world as a performer, leads her own quintet and has just put out her sixth CD, Man With The Hat, which also features her buddy Woods. Clearly, this kid will be around for a while. And why not?

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, the grande dame of rockabilly herself, Ms. Wanda Jackson, rocked and rolled the crowd at Club Soda. And at age 75, that’s really saying something. Energized by the career opportunities presented by Jack White, Jackson is out there hustling her new White-produced The Party Ain’t Over and is backing it up with a live show that delivers the goods. Besides singing old hits like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have A Party” and including an obligatory tribute to her old boyfriend Elvis Presley, Jackson is now covering other vintage material including “Riot In Cell Block #9” and cool Eddie Cochran tunes like “Shakin’ All Over” and “Nervous Breakdown.” The main attraction here is that Jackson still has that great wail of a voice. Whether singing straight country or growling her way through some rockabilly-boogie, she is a total pro whose lifetime of performing continues to pay off for new and receptive audiences.

Then, after some delicious congee in Chinatown, it was off to see the Roots play to a very full house at the sizable Metropolis nightclub. The crowd was totally berserk for the band, and the Roots responded with a furious set of hard funk, black rock and adrenalized hip hop that included killer tunes like “The Seed” as well as snippets of crazy covers like “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Bad To The Bone” and “Rock And Roll, Part 2.” Most significantly to me, the band played a rousing version of the late, great Gil Scott-Heron’s classic warning “The Bottle.” The only problem with this great rocking show was that the Roots chose to cut things quite short and left the enthusiastic audience begging for more and out on the street by 10:30. Although the band put the blame directly on the venue, the Metropolis was unhindered by any sort of curfew, and rumor has it that the real reason for the abrupt cutoff is that ?uestlove was simply in a hurry to go spin records as a guest DJ elsewhere in town. I guess that explains the big limo that was waiting outside the Metropolis. Well, I’m sure that the real party went on in Montreal for ?uestlove, Black Thought and all the rest of the Roots—and even for some of their fans.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 7

It’s the 32nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Bandleader Don Byron is all about the project. For the past two decades, he’s organized his thinking around the sounds of a wide range of stylists including Raymond Scott, Duke Ellington, Sly Stone, Henry Mancini, Junior Walker and many others. Byron’s most recent effort has been to organize his New Gospel Quintet, a dramatic and jazzy approach to gospel music that’s dedicated to the original gospel innovator, Thomas A. Dorsey.

Opening an early evening performance at the Gesù Theater with a lengthy version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Byron established himself as an intuitive musical director who follows his own fierce instincts above all else. The group’s direction became much more obvious when singer D.K. Dyson joined the other musicians onstage. Beginning with the song “Hide Me In The Bosom,” Dyson displayed a strong and dynamic presence, and her powerful vocals provided focus and context to the evening’s proceedings. Although Dyson’s singing was an obvious focal point of the show, Byron’s own clarinet and saxophone work was equally, if not even more, essential.

Byron himself seemed torn between playfulness and seriousness as the show progressed. At one point he cut off Dyson as she was about to begin a song, saying, “No, was ain’t doing that.” And that was that. The band simply changed gears and followed Byron on another long, twisting instrumental journey as he bounced from bass clarinet to clarinet to tenor saxophone. Despite his gruff exterior and autocratic style, Byron was clearly enjoying himself as the group embraced his bold new arrangements of classic gospel fare, like Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Which reminds me: Back in 1967, Ornette Coleman released a bold, difficult album of him jamming alongside fellow altoist Jackie McLean entitled New & Old Gospel. That disc didn’t have the blatantly religious overtones of Byron’s new project, but the single-mindedness of Byron’s vision is not dissimilar to that of the respected Coleman. So, let’s look forward to the CD release of Byron’s fine group with Dyson, bassist Brad Jones and killer drummer Pheeroan akLaff. It’s all really good stuff, and that’s the gospel truth.