Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 5

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

It was a low-key Wednesday night in Montreal, but the Jazz Festival keeps pushing forward just the same. And while the fest’s mid-week booking wasn’t as alluring as the typical weekend highlights, there were still worthwhile performances to check out. Canadian-born Darcy James Argue is a young, respected composer who resides in NYC and leads the Secret Society, one of the more popular new big bands on the modern-jazz scene. Presenting his hefty 18-piece group at the undersized Gesù Theater made its Montreal performance feel all the more intimate, and Argue’s ambitious arrangements were damn impressive. Within such a large ensemble of reeds and brass, Argue’s fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen still stood out with her fine trumpet playing. Still, it was DJA’s compositions that demanded full attention. Beyond that, Argue’s between-song asides describing his various contexts and wild inspirations betrayed a fierce and vivid intellect that left me feeling a little left behind. (Secret Society indeed!) Check out the band’s new CD, Infernal Machines.

Continuing in the vein of rarified sit-down listening, I dutifully trouped over to see the long-acclaimed Dave Holland Quintet perform to a large, receptive crowd at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe. Holland’s status as a perennial Montreal favorite and esteemed jazz elder assures him the most favorable performance environs, and his band members are now all well respected, thanks to Holland in no small part. Unfortunately, with a musical front line of vibraphone, trombone and sax (and a stand-up bassist as the bandleader), things tended to remain rather mannered, and the music never really took off for me. It felt like all-star musicianship without any stars. That said, saxophonist Chris Potter still showed some truly amazing creativity and is the undisputed jewel of Holland’s popular quintet.

The most compelling show caught on Wednesday was the late-night Gesù gig featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green. Alto saxophonist Mahanthappa is a very hardworking guy who’s been quite innovative blending American jazz with Indian music culture for some time. He’s been on a real roll for the last few years, and his notable past work includes an absolutely amazing collaboration with Indian saxophone master Kadri Gopalnath called Kinsmen. For his most recent collaborative effort, Mahanthappa has brought veteran alto stylist Green back into the spotlight after years lost in the jazz wilderness. The whole East-meets-West flavor of their haunting collaboration (the dueling alto-saxophone thing and some intensely hypnotic compositions) made their performance a very enjoyable experience. And they can count! A quality representation of this group’s fine work is available on their new CD, Apex, which is certainly recommended listening. Some of their emphatically rhythmic melodic patterns are still dancing in my head a full day later.

Like I said, Wednesday wasn’t the most exciting night of this year’s Montreal jazz fest, but it wasn’t bad, either.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 4

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

One interesting aspect of the Montreal Jazz Fest is that it occurs at the beginning of the summer-event season, and many groups appearing are on their way to Europe to tour the lucrative festival circuit over there. This would include the group Fly, comprised of saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier. Before its sterling Tuesday-night performance at the Gesù, the talented threesome hadn’t performed together in six months. By now, the trio is off to Italy, Belgium, France and Switzerland for the month of July. The point here is that there’s going to be some lucky Europeans who get to hear this remarkable jazz trio. Turner has been touted as the next big thing for more than a decade, and the cerebral sax man’s playing is finally starting to catch up with all the hoopla, especially with this group. Ballard and Grenadier are best known as the (amazing) rhythm section of the Brad Mehldau Trio—and amazing they were. Despite their lengthy time apart, the unity and familiarity within this group was quite evident. Approaching their sound as equals, they played compositions by each member but never lost the sense of being a collective. All three played extremely well without hogging the spotlight, and the balance of melody and rhythm shifted from player to player quite naturally. Ballard serves as the onstage spokesperson, and if anyone stood out in the band, it was him. Still, it would be hard for any one person to stand out onstage with these guys, so let’s just say they were Fly.

Veteran bassist and Montreal favorite Dave Holland began his three-concert stint as part of the festival’s Invitation Series, and his first presentation was a duet with pianist Kenny Barron. According to Barron, speaking from the stage of Théâtre Jean-Duceppe Tuesday night, “Playing with Dave Holland is like riding in a Rolls Royce.” And indeed, the ride was smooth and enjoyable with no real bumps on the road. It takes a lot of concentration for a piano/bass dialogue to work well in a large hall, but the crowd was supportive, respectful and invested in enjoying the show. Not a lot of fireworks, per se, but Barron is an elegant player within the tradition and Holland still has all the right chops to make the music move. I could have listened to these two guys play all night long, but instead I shook a tail-feather and headed off to the Metropolis nightclub for a more upbeat encounter that began with Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.

Trombone Shorty’s career is going straight up like a funky New Orleans rocket ship, and his Montreal show was only hindered by the brief time allotment opening for Metropolis headliner Bootsy Collins. I ran into mega-journalist John Swenson at the gig. Swenson has a great new book out all about New Orleans musicians called New Atlantis, and he has been watching Shorty’s meteoric rise from growing up in the Tremé neighborhood to performing on a world stage. Like Fly, Shorty’s group leaves Montreal for Europe, where they’ll be barnstorming across the countryside all summer long. This show was probably the best thing going all evening long, and that was just with just one hour of playing time. So, get hip to Trombone Shorty as soon as possible, watch the HBO show Treme this season, and buy Swenson’s new book so you can appreciate what New Orleans and its musicians are all about.

Speaking of Bootsy Collins, the funkmaster is pushing a new CD, Funk Capitol Of The World, and they are really going all out to contextualize him as the keeper of the funk flame—after James Brown and George Clinton. Still, I noted that this tour isn’t going as well as hoped. In Chicago, they tried giving free entrance to ladies who would show up before 9 p.m. and gave away cheap ($12) tickets through the Chicago Reader, but to no avail: The Chicago gig was still poorly attended. In Montreal, Bootsy and his funk army started out with a full house still enthusiastic from Shorty’s upbeat revue. The first half-hour was pure unbridled funk showcasing Parliament-Funkadelic veterans like keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Dwayne “Blackbird” McKnight and drummer Frankie “Kash” Waddy. The early highpoint was a burning instrumental version of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” and McKnight just killing it with his relentless Hendrix-style lead guitar. Sadly, Collins himself couldn’t hold the center for long. He disappeared in the “middle” of the show and was absent from the stage for far too long while his substitute funkateers tried to keep the crowd dancing. By the time Collins finally came back out, most of the folks in the crowd were either gone or just exhausted. Still, they cranked things out for another hour, and Collins finally played some classic “space bass” on slow jams like “I Got The Munchies For Your Love.”

Verdict: Less than half of the Bootsy extravaganza was totally great funk, and the rest of his lengthy show was kind of weak. So forget the legendary bassist’s funk-comeback story. I’m putting my money on Trombone Shorty.

—photo by Sharonne Cohen

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 3

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

The nights are long, and you have to keep moving at the Montreal Jazz Festival or be left behind. Gathering my strength and several espressos, I began the night at my home away from home, the Gesù, to hear and see Geri Allen & Timeline. Allen is a respected pianist who’s worked in a variety of groups, but what makes Timeline unique is that besides amazing drummer Kassa Overall and bassist Kenny Davis, Allen’s group features tap-dancer Maurice Chestnut. Serving as percussion and stunning visual accompanist, Chestnut’s tap work was alternately fascinating and distracting. I preferred the dialogue between the other three onstage, and Chestnut only performed on some tunes, so thankfully it never was too overwhelming. Note: Overall’s crisp, imaginative drumming was so gosh-darned good that I almost forgot whose group it was. That being said, Allen was so freaking great on the piano that I couldn’t ignore her boss status either. And she even played the blues.

Moving on, I went to catch Marc Ribot’s final appearance of the festival, this time with his band, Caged Funk. Stemming from an adaptive collaboration with fellow guitarist Marco Cappelli interpreting eccentric composer John Cage’s Sonata For Two Voices, Ribot has put together a full-on Cage project. They also assembled an impressive batch of musicians to help complete their vision in Montreal, including legendary keyboardist Bernie Worrell, badass drummer J.T. Lewis, bassist Brad Jones and turntablist DJ Logic. Back in early ’70s, Miles Davis fused the sensibility of Karlheinz Stockhausen with the urban rhythms of Sly And The Family Stone, but this new project has more in common with Sonic Youth’s Goodbye 20th Century, where downtown-NYC rock musicians performed music by once-modern avant-garde “classical” composers like Christian Wolf, Pauline Oliveros and … John Cage. The Caged Funk show was not without its challenges, and it was the second of Ribot’s three nights where the large Théâtre Jean-Duceppe remained half-empty (or half-full). In my opinion, Ribot leaves something to be desired as a master of ceremonies, and he could have engaged his audience more. Not only that, but the band’s material was so obtuse at times that he lost a part of the audience who simply headed for the aisles. Of course, those who stayed caught some truly fascinating performances, and when Ribot directed his mega-talented band to simply grind the funk out of Cage, it was quite an imposing sound. I left before the very end of the show, so I can’t say if they encored with Cage’s 4’33” (joke; look it up), but a little bit of silence might have been all that was really needed here.

Then there was Keren Ann, so color me smitten. Just who is this accomplished, 37-year old Israeli-born/citizen-of-the-world singer/musician/composer/performer? I’m still trying to figure it out, but there is no question that she’s very talented. Playing to a full house at the acoustically challenged L’Astral and working without a rhythm section, Ann was supported only by a second guitarist and Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Working in close tandem with the affecting singer, Cohen ran his trumpet through an array of electronic effects, providing an atmospheric foil for Ann’s reflective voice. No wonder her songs have been used on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The L Word and Six Feet Under; this is super-smart, emotive, perceptive stuff, and she’s a doll.

Finally, I settled back at the good old Gesù for a late evening set by French trumpeter Stéphane Belmondo. Belmondo is a rising star of sorts, and the band he brought along to the festival was certainly of fine stature. Veteran drummer Billy Hart, pianist Kirk Lightsey and Parisian bassist Sylvain Romano united easily with Belmondo, and their sound was consistently fresh and exhilarating. Taking the classic jazz idiom and keeping it interesting is no small accomplishment, but these guys did it with effortless style. Besides Belmando’s straightforward playing, Lightsey’s work was totally strong and Hart’s presence a true wonder, driving the band throughout with a minimum of fuss. When it was over, everyone went home sated and happy, and that’s the way they do it in Montreal.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 2

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

Hypothetically, there’s something for everyone at the Montreal Jazz Festival. I personally wasn’t interested in mainstream gigs like Diana Krall (in her first ever solo performance) or Chick Corea’s latest edition of Return To Forever, so I began my evening watching saxophonist Kenny Garrett sit in with the Time Capsule band. Their gig was a tribute to Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr, a longtime Montreal musician (and Garrett’s father-in-law) who’s been debilitated by a series of strokes. The band features two of Khabyyr’s very talented sons, and they benefited greatly from Garrett’s added presence, playing some grooving Headhunters-styled jazz fusion before showing a brief documentary on the ailing Khabyyr.

Then, after a quick trip to Chinatown for refueling, I caught yet another homage, this time by Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos. As the name indicates, this is guitarist Ribot’s Latin project, and it features the music of Arsenio Rodriguez, a Cuban innovator who helped modernize crucial musical styles like the conjunto and developed the son montuno. Although the band was clearly under-rehearsed, the edgy rhythms of Rodriguez translated well under Ribot’s direction. I won’t say the band sounded like early Santana, but the guitar work was still hot, hot, hot. Sadly, Ribot isn’t much of a singer, but the Rodriguez compositions were very cool, the sound quite moving and Ribot’s fretwork consistently impressive.

Just as Ribot’s set was concluding, I walked right next door for an amazing duet performance by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Performing mostly original compositions (as well as a blues written by Charlie Parker), the two men showed themselves capable of great intimacy and grand innovation, even in the large and formidable Théâtre Maisonneuve. Performing like a pair of grand elders, the two masters practically became telepathic as the concert unfolded, and their intense musical dialogue was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally riveting. Redman and Mehldau are festival regulars, clearly enjoy playing here in Montreal, and I can imagine this musical love affair actually continuing for decades to come.

Finally, I returned to the Gesù to see the Anat Cohen Quartet. Cohen is an Israeli-born clarinetist who resides in NYC. Performing some of the music of another nice Jewish clarinetist (Benny Goodman), Cohen and her band were totally in sync. The effervescent Cohen had already done one gig earlier in the evening with George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, and fellow All-Star Howard Alden came out to play some bracing guitar with her for a few tunes, including a simple-yet-beautiful duet on Django Reinhardt’s famous composition “Nuages.” Pianist Bruce Barth was noteworthy, but the whole band was swinging, and Cohen’s star is clearly on the rise in the world of jazz. Stay tuned.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 1

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

Let’s jump right in. I’m back in Canada attending the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. While the Undead Jazz Festival in New York this week offers plenty of quality improvisation and jazzy eclecticism for omnivorous music fans, our northern neighbors throw a party on a far larger and much wider scale. Speaking of NYC, I began my sojourn with a couple of Manhattan-based acts. The first was at my favorite venue, the small and intimate Gesù, with the David Binney Quartet. This particular quartet has played together for years and displays Binney’s strength as a composer as well as his prowess on the saxophone. Binney is a thoroughly modern alto player and produced a steady stream of intricate, creative lines of sound, but drummer Dan Weiss stole the show repeatedly with an impressive barrage of rhythmic counterpoint as the band laid down its carefully structured foundations. You can usually catch this quartet playing at the 55 Bar in NYC and should definitely do so.

Then it was off to the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe to see ace guitarist Marc Ribot’s trio, Ceramic Dog. Ribot has performed at the Montreal fest many times, and this year he’s hosting several nights with different musicians as part of the Invitation Series. Although the venue on Saturday was only half-full (or half-empty), the band put on a very powerful show. Ribot’s guitar was burning with intensity as Ches Smith pounded the drums (and added a series of electronic textures to the mix) with bassist Shahzad Ismaily prodding the group from underneath. They played a convincing version of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” but I preferred Brubeck’s “Take Five” where Ribot juxtaposed traditional jazz sounds with the bracing style of guitar heroes like Mike Bloomfield, Carlos Santana and B.B. King. This was a left-end-of-the-dial encounter and only points to Ribot’s diversity as a player and a bandleader. More on him as the week progresses.

I only saw about a half-hour of Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento but can testify that he still has one of the most amazing romantic voices in the world. While I don’t speak Portuguese, there’s never a problem absorbing the intense and beautiful emotions he conveys, and when Nascimento let go with his wordless crooning falsetto, I was completely transfixed. The only reason I abandoned Nascimento was to run back to the Gesù for a solo show by pianist Brad Mehldau. Mehldau is a festival favorite—and with good reason. He’s one of the best piano players on the planet. As usual, Mehldau played with focused concentration and often-amazing complexity. Besides performing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he interpreted some Radiohead and Massive Attack before tackling an intricately melodic version of “My Favorite Things” and a beautiful take on Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” The only thing that could tear me away from such a performance was the clarion call of Prince’s midnight show down the street at the Metropolis nightclub.

Prince’s second night of two special shows was off the hook. While he’d just played for nearly four hours the evening before, Prince’s show was fun-filled and relentless. Featuring his typically rocking band and special saxophone soul man Maceo Parker, the Purple One served up a mix of totally hard funk, frenetic black rock, a surplus of Hendrixian guitar stylings and plenty of sexy soul numbers. Drawing from his deep repertoire, he sang favorites like “Controversy,” “Pop Life,” “D.M.S.R.” and “Take Me With U.” He also went into a driving version of Chic’s “Le Freak” and Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music White Boy” as well as the Time’s “Jungle Love” and Shelia E.’s “A Love Bizarre.” The show just went on and on and on (and on). At three in the morning, Prince came back for a third (or fourth) encore and did a triumphant version of “Purple Rain,” then came back again to supposedly end with “Kiss.” I walked out of the Metropolis at 3:30 wondering if I might have missed yet another encore, but in any case, score one for the opening night of the Montreal Jazz Festival.