July 5, 2015. Posted by Michael Bourne.
One of my first impressions at the Montreal Jazz Festival was that they'd created a cool look. I'd been to plenty of festivals by 1992, and all of them sold t-shirts, but most t-shirts were generic: the year, a logo, maybe a local icon, a famous mountain or some such. Montreal's t-shirts featured a cat playing a guitar, or playing drums, or singing (and looking) like Ella, or a cat dancing, or just the hip-looking head of a cat -- with a halo. Ste. Catherine Street is one of the city's famous thoroughfares and one of the festival's perimeters. Ergo ... Saint Cat.
Not always with a halo'd cat, most of the festivals images through the years have been works of Montreal artist Yves Archambaut. Clever. Colorful. Very Montreal. I've bought dozens of t-shirts with saintly cats and other Archambault designs. My favorite was last year's Archambault, Saxophoenix, a rainbow-colored phoenix flying from a saxophonist's bell. Curiously, the t-shirt is black with the saxophonist bigger, the litho is white with the bird bigger. I bought both.
Archambault's design for this year's FIJM is "Electron libre," a dancer (Michael Jackson?) floating among musical instruments. I also bought a new Ste. Cat.
Among the lifetime-type awards every year is the Prix Bruce Lundvall, named for the great jazz record-maker and meant for someone who's contributed to jazz but is not a musician. Several jazz record-producers have been honored, also photographer Herman Leonard, and this year for the first time a journalist! Bill Milkowski, contributor to Down Beat and other jazz mags, author of an acclaimed bio of Jaco Pastorius, and frequenter of the Montreal jazzfest, was presented this year's award by the festival's artistic director Andre Menard. Bill talked about his friendship with Bruce Lundvall, about knowing and writing books about Pat Martino and Jaco. He introduced a documentary about Jaco at a jazzfest theatre.
Bill and other writers at the jazzfest press conference talked about the business of writing about jazz, about his best and his worst interviews, about the quality (or lack thereof) of jazz writing now that anyone can cyber-scribble opinions on the internet, and especially about how all the changes in technology have affected being a jazz journalist. Bill remembered that, once upon a time, he typed a piece on an manual typewriter, "with white-out," then he drove into Manhattan on icy streets, he mailed what he'd typed via FedEx to Chicago, and eventually his piece was delivered to Down Beat. "Now," said Bill Milkowski, "I just push a button."
Dee Dee Bridgewater sang with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. "What's the (French) word for sexy?" Irvin Mayfield shouted at the audience. A babble shouted back. And he asked again. A babble shouted back. And he asked again. A babble shouted even louder as the answer walked on. She sang Harry Connick's "One Fine Thing." She sang the Gospel According to Duke, "Come Sunday." She romped some NOLA R&B, "Big Fat Woman." She scatted like a trombone. On one of the songs, the trumpet section engaged in a trumpet-go-around, all four of them endeavoring to play higher and faster. They got a standing (and cheering) O. Dee Dee endeavored to sing higher than a trumpet, but the higher up, the more she sounded like a strangled canary. So she laughed and came back down to earth, sang a Maisonneuve-quaking "St James Infirmary."
I got to Club Soda just in time for Betty Bonafassi. She's one of the most protean singers I've ever heard. She's multi-ethnic, speaks many languages (including Farsi and Japanese), sings in even more. She's created a show called Chants d'esclaves, Chants d'espoir ("Songs of Slaves, Songs of Hope") from listening through the Archive of American Folk Song that ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded for The Library of Congress, especially the collection of African-American songs that came from the tragedy of slavery and through the generations that came after. She performed the show at Club Soda with a chorus of women, a heavyweight electronic trio, and videos from the period when Alan Lomax was gathering the songs. Betty's group was almost deafening, but Betty's volcanic voice is even more powerful..
© 2015 WBGO
July 4, 2015. Posted by Michael Bourne.
And on the Place des Spectacles, Streetnix was playing "Summertime." The Miles and Gil arrangement. Distilled for alto sax, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and drums. All of them in shorts. Everyone having fun.
Professors. Professionals. Year round they teach and play in a variety of bands. And every year since I first came to the jazzfest they've been a favorite ritual of mine.
I first heard Streetnix play in an abandoned amphitheatre leftover from the Olympics. They played, and the Vic Vogel big band played, to celebrate FIJM's 25th anniversary. I've heard them sometimes on empty lots turned into jazz venues. Really, lots of lots. And always hip. "From A to Z," as saxophonist Jennifer Bell says. "From Adderley to Zeppelin." I remember once quite literally. They played "Mercy Mercy." They played "Black Dog." In recent years, Streetnix have played on the festival street and they've marched together with a NOLA-style brass band.
This year they've been playing at one end of the Deambulatoire. Always fun. "My Feets Can't Fail Me Now." Always hip. "Stairway to Heaven." Yes, more Z!
"Bon soir," said John Pizzarelli, and my immediate thought was "Don't say sorry that's all the French I know." I hate that unfunny insult I've heard too often from performers, especially when performing in mostly Francophone Montreal. And he did say something to that effect, but to a much funnier (and actually respectful) affect. He talked about learning American schoolboy French, especially phrases in French that you learn and repeat in class but rarely (or never) speak again in real life. One exception was one I learned in the sixth grade. "Ou est le bureau de tabac?" "Where is the tobacco shop (but really meaning the newsstand)?" Decades after the sixth grade, I was in Paris and needed a token for the phone, and I knew I could get a token at a newsstand, so I asked someone (in American-accented French) "Ou est le bureau de tabac?" -- and I was stupefied, flashing back vividly to grade school. John's question asked about the zoo, and the audience roared, all of them also flashing back to grade school.
John thereafter was even funnier. About half of his concert was virtual stand-up. He talked about the songs. He wondered why the song "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is sung so often upbeat. It's a sad song. "It's a song about a guy who missed the Saturday dance." John therefore sang sadly. And amusingly. He told stories especially about his upcoming album of Paul McCartney songs, about McCartney in a letter wanting John to record some of the post-Beatle songs, about McCartney being there as John recorded songs -- that John then sang at the theatre of Monument National in Montreal. "My Valentine" with a bossa feeling was a highlight. So was a Lennon-McCartney classic that John recorded when he first played the jazzfest in the early 90's, "I've Just Seen a Face." John's chops as a comedian, especially his razor-sharp timing, are as good as his masterful guitar playing. "John Pizzarelli Sings McCartney & More" was one of the most entertaining shows I've attended at the jazzfest, but he ended very differently, very touchingly, with a solo encore of a song as a memorial for the recent racist killings in SC, the Rodgers & Hammerstein song about bigotry, "You've Got to Be Taught."
Lorraine Desmarais played the late show, a beautiful (and biographical) solo piano recital in the Jesus Room. She's composed through the years pieces inspired by musicians and others she's loved in her life. Oscar Peterson inspired an Oscar-like flurry of notes. Chick Corea inspired a Chick-like quirky groove. Lorraine was a classical pianist when she started, and her variation on a Chopin classic was especially lovely and loving. Another highlight was a tango, inspired by a sexy tango teacher named Alberto. Lorraine sometimes gets so worked up when she plays that she'll often physically leap up. When remembering Alberto, as her fingers played the tango, her body danced the tango. Oliver Jones was an inspiration and was in the audience. Lorraine as an encore played Oliver's "One for Chuck."
© 2015 WBGO
July 3, 2015. Posted by Michael Bourne.
July 1st is Canada Day, and no one I know around the jazzfest in Montreal cared. Only shop that I observed shut down in the Desjardins mall was a salad bar. I didn't even remember that it's a national holiday until a fellow at one of the outdoor shows walked by with a small maple leaf flag sticking out from his shirt collar. Two little flags, actually. It was 7:20PM.
Two last gigs were played in the festival's band competition. Again in the rain. The Florian Hoefner Group from Nova Scotia played a hip variation on a folk dance from Newfoundland. Hoefner's "Newfound Jig" we judges voted the Stingray "Rising Stars" award ($5 grand) for the best new composition in the contest. Our close-to-unanimous winner of the Gran Prix TD was the quintet of Quebecois trumpeter Rachel Therrien. She'd been rained out on Sunday, but then performed inside for we judges in the Balmoral restaurant of the Maison du Festival. I felt that having a band play for people eating and drinking and talking was like basic training with live ammunition, like the "real" life of jazz musicians playing in joints. Therrien's group showed oodles of poise and spunk, especially Rachel's a cappella trumpet solo. They won $5 grand, 50 hours of studio time, and gigs at the jazzfests of Rimouski, Quebec City, and the 2016 FIJM.
Jamie Cullum is a kaleidoscope on stage. I've enjoyed him every time he's played Montreal. I called him (last time at the jazzfest, in Down Beat) "the Charlie Parker of pop." Jamie can do it all: play, sing, dance, be funny, jazz, rock, pop, all of the above delightfully -- but by the time the Gran Prix judges were done deliberating, Jamie's show was mostly done. I enjoyed him instead in L'Astral.
Jamie, when he's not performing, is a "presenter" (what the Brits call a DJ) every week on BBC Radio 2. "BBC Introducing" and PRS For Music Foundation were presenting three groups from the UK, all unknowns playing for the first time away from the UK. Jamie welcomed everyone jammed into (for free) L'Astral, and jammed some himself. He drummed on the piano's wood, strummed on the strings, played the actual keys, and sang a frenzied "Please Don't Stop The Music." He talked about recently becoming a father and sang a new song about his daughter dreaming. He talked about "BBC Introducing" broadcasting unsigned new artists and intro'd the groups: Malaika, a charming Irish singer/songwriter; Peter Edwards, a pianist with a trio that reminded me of the rhythmically propulsive Ahmad Jamal; and a trio called Mammal Hands.
I'm rarely surprised as much by music as I was staggered by what Mammal Hands played. None of the three really played melodies. They all played riffs -- intensely! Jordan Smart on the tenor sax often played motifs of 5-7 notes, repeated incessantly and more and more loudly -- while pianist Nick Smart likewise played more percussively and drummer Jesse Barrett mostly thundered. Mammal Hands was unique -- and exhausting!
© 2015 WBGO