Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 8

jazz7bIt’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

So I took a day off from all that jazz and went to see new documentary Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae in anticipation of the evening’s free, outdoor concert extravaganza featuring a most solid crew of rocksteady all-stars. Filmmaker Stascha Bader may not have had the same kind of resources that Wim Wenders had when he filmed The Buena Vista Social Club, but he still manages to document this blessed reunion of elder Jamaican musicians and give us a good history lesson, too. Spanning the short few glory years between ska’s reign and the advent of reggae, the rocksteady vibe was a slow and easy groove with deep soulful vocals.

Much like the films Standing In The Shadows Of Motown and West Coast equivalent The Wrecking Crew, Rocksteady focuses on lesser-known backing musicians and old entertainers who still have an important story to tell. Building to a rousing reunion concert in Jamaica, we hear from veteran ’60s crooners like Leroy Sibbles (of Heptones fame), Ken Boothe and Derrick Morgan as well Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley (once known collectively as the I-Threes). Bader mixes vintage films and old photos between candid interviews, plaintive home visits and new recording sessions as we learn about the roots of reggae from the people who were there. Of course, the music is what seals the deal, and hearing singer Dawn Penn discuss and reprise her magical soul single from 1967, “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” is a highlight, as was watching Morgan rise one more time to sing “Tougher Than Tough” in rudeboy style. Accomplished and versatile musicians like the great Ernest Ranglin populate the veteran backing band, and these old-school Jamaicans can still play as sweet and soulful as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or as in-the-pocket lowdown as the Funk Brothers.

And that’s how it was on Tuesday night in Montreal, as the skies cleared after a rainy afternoon and more than 100,000 folks gathered in front of the General Motors stage to see the show. The event was much more of a reggae revue then a strict rocksteady affair, but when you’re entertaining a crowd this size, you have to give the people what they want—that is, a fair amount of tribute being paid to Bob Marley. The stage lighting was bright and festive, and it was a long parade of stars as Hopeton Lewis, Stranger Cole (pictured), Sibbles, Boothe, Mowatt,Griffiths and the Tamlins took their turns in front of a huge grooving band of rocksteady players. The Tamlins sang “Stop That Train” and Boothe did “Shanty Town.” Griffiths and Mowatt were beautiful, and they really gave the show their all. Griffiths sang “The Tide Is High” (originally recorded by John Holt and the Paragons back in 1967) and Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” while Mowatt delivered a loving version “No Woman, No Cry.” All in all, another sweet night of good music and good times at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 7

jeffbeck350It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Diversity is the key, and world music represents nothing if not diversity. I say this because Montreal’s International Jazz Festival features a lot of world music. For example, in the next few days the Metropolis Ballroom will have hosted King Sunny Adé & Femi Kuti, Alpha Blondy & Olmou Sangare and Burning Spear & Toots And The Maytals. And on Monday, I was lucky enough to catch a rehearsal for the festival’s big Rocksteady extravaganza, which coincides with the showing of the documentary Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae.

The Rocksteady film, directed by Swiss filmmaker Stascha Bader, traces the post-ska roots of reggae music to the rocksteady movement of the mid-’60s and features a number of Jamaican music luminaries including Ernest Ranglin, Marcia Griffiths, Ken Boothe, Judy Mowatt and Leroy Sibbles, to name a few. The Rocksteady concert will bring a number of these reggae greats back to the stage, and it was great to see the Tamlins crooning “Stop That Train” and Boothe singing the Desmond Dekker classic “Shanty Town.” Sibbles, an original member of the mighty Heptones, was also on hand, and the singers were backed by a top-notch band of veteran Jamaican musicians. If you like reggae music, this show will be a blast, and the Canadians are hungry for reggae!

While all this rocksteady business was going on, Jeff Beck (pictured) was just a couple of blocks away accepting the first annual Montreal Guitar Show Tribute Award. The Montreal Guitar Show runs simultaneously with the jazz fest, and let me just say that Canada really, really loves its guitars! Beck was patient, soft-spoken and thoughtful as he fielded questions about his amazing career, and it was nice to see the human side of this designated guitar hero. Beck has been hitting his stride the last few years and is playing better than ever, as evidenced on the recent Performing This Week: Live At Ronnie Scott’s CD and DVD. Beck’s two sold-out shows on Monday night at the gigantic Salle Wilfrid Pelletier auditorium were crowd-pleasing affairs. Beck was flawless at the early show, opening with the rousing clarion call of “Beck’s Bolero” and running through a catalog of his great instrumental repertoire. His touring band features monster drummer Vinne Colaiuta, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and keyboardist Jason Rebello. In case you don’t know, Tal Wilkenfeld is the cutest little lady bassist you’re likely to see (this side of Esperanza Spalding) and was featured in a wild segment where she and Beck play her bass simultaneously. It was fun, and Beck obviously adores her.

Concluding his three-night run as the featured artist of the festival’s Invitation Series, Joshua Redman and his Double Trio put on an ambitious, well-conceived performance at the Théâtre Maisonneuve, which is a far larger venue than the Gesù where he’d played the previous two nights. This was an event, as the band has only played together onstage a few times, and Redmond was totally in control of this all-star ensemble. Flanked on his right by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade, and on his left by bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Greg Hutchinson, Redman played tenor and soprano with great intensity. He led the band through a series of breathtaking performances, shifting through different combinations of his master musicians and drawing tunes from the recent Compass. Clearly, Redman and the musicians around him are poised to remain at the top of the jazz world for years to come, and they probably will. Nuff said.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 6

lionel-loueke390It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Watching saxophonist Joshua Redman on the second night of his three-gig excursion at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I was struck at how different his demeanor was from the previous evening. At the first show, Redman was quiet and guarded, barely speaking to the audience and running his band through the tunes with tough authority. On Sunday night, however, the talented Redman was upbeat and effusive, thanking the festival for the opportunity to partake in its celebrated Invitation Series, where each night the featured artist gets to play with a different dream team of his choosing. Perhaps that had something to do with Redman’s improved mood, as he’d certainly picked some great musicians to work with, particularly fellow saxophone star Joe Lovano. The two have collaborated many times over the years, and Lovano is something of a father figure to Redman. The Sunday gig was a blazing, saxophone affair with Redman and Lovano trading phrases, playing in unison and generally pushing each other to great heights. Supported by the fantastic Greg Hutchinson on drums, pianist Sam Yahel and bassist Rueben Rogers, Redman and Lovano gave the sold-out crowd some truly exciting jazz. For the encore, they played “Blues Up And Down,” a lowdown tenor battle made famous by saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons.

The Lionel Loueke Trio also performed on Sunday night, and the Benin guitarist showcased his unique style of African jazz. Loueke (pictured) is an up-and-comer who’s played with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Cassandra Wilson to Santana. He’s a charismatic, distinctive young player, and he had the African fans in the Montreal audience howling in appreciation of his indigenous world/jazz fusion. Loueke’s voice compliments his muted, fleet-fingered guitar style, and although the trio format was a little skimpy for me, it certainly allowed Loueke to stretch out and entertain his fans. He has made a few records as a leader, the most recent being last year’s Karibu.

At the same time as Loueke’s gig in the spanking new L’Astral club, Patrick Watson (the band) was playing just outside on the General Motors Stage to well more than 100,000 people. As predicted, the Canadian band approximated Radiohead/Coldplay proportions with this dramatic exhibition of its theatrical rock cabaret. Frontman Patrick Watson ruled the roost with huge video screens and numerous special effects, including shadow puppets and space-age lighting projected onto the buildings surrounding the site. The core band was accentuated with horns and a string section, backup singers from some Nordic country and special guest vocalists. I have to admit, it really was quite a sight, and the music wasn’t bad either.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 5

joshua-redman3501It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Once again, I’m moved to give credit to the folks behind the Montreal Jazz Festival, as it takes more than music to keep such an extensive celebration running for three decades. The synergy between private funding, municipal assistance, corporate underwriting, old-fashioned capitalism, academia, mass and multi-media, endowments, art, commerce, show-biz, technology and the earnest commitment of countless individuals can really add up to something special if you know what you are doing.

That said, the jazz fest is starting to heat up, and the musicians are all taking their best shots as the artistic camaraderie (and competition) runs high in Montreal. Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman (pictured) arrived to play the festival’s vaunted Invitation Series, where a single artist plays a number of gigs with different players of his choosing each night. Redman, who first performed in Montreal with his father Dewey Redman back in 1991, brought his young quartet to the Gesù Theater for an early-evening performance. Redman, who is 40, looked sharp, said little, played tenor and soprano, and led his band with authority. Drummer Eric Harland provided a rock-solid sound and pianist Aaron Parks was really something special, playing gorgeous melodies and supportive counterpoint to Redman’s brawny saxophone sound: a very impressive first gig of a three-night stand. Next, he’ll be with a different rhythm section and special-guest sax-buddy Joe Lovano.

The amazing performance of Miles From India was unique and exciting and really had to be seen to be appreciated. What evolved from a studio project with musicians contributing their parts electronically from different points of the planet is now an immense, flesh-and-blood reality fusing Indian music and jazz, specifically the sounds of Miles Davis. Davis used tablas and sitars on some of his ’70s fusion experiments, and the Miles From India band includes his old tabla player Badal Roy and several other Davis band alumni. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonists Rurdresh Mahanthappa and Bill Evans were literally surrounded by two keyboardists, three all-star drummers, badass Daryl Jones on electric bass, an electric-sitar player, an Indian mandolinist and four Indian percussionists. Whoa! This was a big, crazy, bruising fusion band playing a wide range of tunes from the Davis songbook.

Of course, I left before the end of the Miles From India show because I was once again running back to the Gesù for another late-night gig, this time featuring drummer Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band. Yes, when Blade isn’t playing all over the world with Wayne Shorter or any of his other side gigs, he leads his own band of young hotshots. Blade is an explosive, exuberant drummer who’s a joy to watch, and his band was tight, tight, tight. Having made six CDs under the Fellowship moniker, Blade has plenty of material to draw from, and the sterling support of pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Chris Thomas and saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler would make any bandleader jealous. Blade actually got his own start with Redman many years ago and has grown into one of top drummers on the scene. Watch him go!

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 4

wayneshorter350It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As Montreal’s massive jazz festival lumbered into its first weekend, I was blessed with the opportunity to see two living legends on Friday. First and foremost, the Wayne Shorter Quartet returned to Montreal, playing at the large and elegant Théâtre Maisonneuve to an appreciative audience. Indeed, Shorter (pictured) is probably one of the best-loved jazz musicians on the planet, and his legendary status as veteran of the Miles Davis Quintet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and fusion kingpins Weather Report only begins to explain this grand degree of affection. A true eccentric and marvelous composer as well as a remarkably imaginative saxophonist, Shorter seems to charm everyone with his playful, Zen-like attitude as well as his sterling musicianship.

Shorter’s acclaimed quartet has gone through some changes of late, and this concert marked the appearance of Geoffrey Keezer substituting for pianist Danilo Pérez (who ruptured his Achilles tendon but is on the mend). Shorter has long been accepted into the jazz mainstream and his status as an elder statesman guarantees a degree of indulgence from his fans, but Shorter’s group played an unorthodox set filled with flowing, avant-garde improvisation that challenged his Montreal audience from beginning to end. Compensating for the absence of his longtime keyboard foil, Shorter took the lead on tenor saxophone and drove his group into uncharted territory, trading musical phrases with Keezer, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Brian Blade and soloing more aggressively than I have heard him do in ages. Playing tenor and jamming nonstop for the first hour of the show, Shorter allowed plenty of space for Keezer, Pattitucci and Blade to showcase their skills. Blade was particularly explosive, dropping bombs to offset Shorter’s arcane saxophone ruminations. Things got bogged down when Shorter finally shifted over to his soprano sax, but the degree of musicianship was so high that the group adjusted to his stop-and-start soprano style. Whether they adjust to Keezer or welcome back Pérez, the Wayne Shorter Quartet will surely be one of the best working groups in jazz. Shorter has had this group for almost a decade and is 75 years old, so catch him now if you can.

I couldn’t stay for the end of Shorter’s concert, because I was once again running back to the Gesù for the theater’s late-night gig, this time showcasing alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. Konitz is even older than Shorter and arguably just as accomplished, but his Montreal appearance didn’t receive a fraction of the attention that Shorter’s show did. Perhaps it’s just as well, as Konitz does not have the resources to keep his own band on the road and played here with international jazz trio Minsarah. While these young players supported Konitz on 2008’s Deep Lee, the band seemed under-rehearsed and was not in the same league as its fearless leader. While there were plenty of solid musical moments, Konitz could not save this gig from drifting into the realm of merely average. This is unfortunate, as he is still one of the best alto players of his generation, a pioneer of cool jazz and an inventive soloist with an amazing amount of creativity. Seriously, the guy played on Birth Of The Cool with Miles Davis in 1949. Maybe next time the Montreal folks can find a better showcase for the many talents of Konitz.