July 2, 2016. Posted by Michael Bourne.
After an all-day odyssey with Air Canada, I did not get to Montreal until midnight Day One, but the feeling on Day Two was after 24 years at Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal, about as usual. I awaken to a big band soundcheck on a stage below my window. I get a glad-hand from the hotel manager, happy to have me back and finishing a story from last year -- when someone stole my credit card number. "Did you catch him?" I asked. "Yes," he smiled, slightly dangerously, "a Roumanian..." I gallumph up the hill -- just one block from the Hyatt Regency to the Maison du Festival, but my legs and my lungs feel as if I'm climbing actual Mont Royal.
An extraordinary commitment from the city to the festival, the street alongside Place des Arts, Rue Jeanne-Mance, was terra-formed into the festival's main street, complete with the giant TD Bank stage -- where Sharon Jones sang an ecstatic "Grand Concert d'Ouverture" to countless thousands of fest-goers.
One of the abandoned buildings around the Quartiers des Spectacles was resurrected as the festival "house" -- with a jazz joint, a restaurant, a museum, an historic video archive, and the press room. They're now transforming several more of the long-useless buildings into another arts center, especially for dance, and the near-finished facade is hugely gleaming. Bigger, the festival has grown year after year, astonishingly. Better, the festival has become, artistically, economically, even spiritually.
Farewells, this year. Oliver Jones, the most beloved musician of the Montreal jazz scene, will play a farewell concert with a trio and an orchestra, Thursday the 7th at the Maison Symphonique. Guy Nadon, known as "le roi du drums," played his 33rd (and said to be last) gig at L'Astral, the year-round festival jazz joint.
One cannot resist saying that Guy Nadon is elfin. Maybe it's his little hat. Or little smile. Or the charm as he talked about being a child and first playing with a nail on tin cans, as he played at the gig's outset -- little tunes on (not kidding) tuned tin cans, complete with soup and veggie labels. Then his 11-piece band came out swinging. "Killer Joe" (in a hiply-elongated arrangement) was a highlight, with solos all around and "the king of drums" having a last blast.
Lisa Simone, daughter of Nina Simone, played the opening for Melody Gardot -- two nights sold-out at the big hall, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Lisa's voice is powerful, but it's her physical energy on stage that blows the roof off. Lisa's presence in moments reminded me of how intimately Nina's presence connected with an enormous audience. Lisa sang soulfully with a guitar-bass-and-drums power trio, and her encore of "Work Song" was seismic. One of my friends wondered how Melody Gardot could follow Lisa, but she did follow, and she did acknowledge that Lisa was "not an opening act," she was proud "to be sharing" a stage with Lisa.
I'd never heard or heard of Melody Gardot when she first played the festival in 2008, and I'll never forget her entrance: walking with a cane, in dark glasses in a half-light, and alone. She snapped her fingers, she tapped a foot, she sang a spiritual, and she transfixed all of us. That was a star-making performance -- jazzy, bluesy, exotic, erotic, and often sweet. She sang, she played guitar and piano, she became the star Andre Menard, the festival's artistic director, predicted as he introduced Melody, now a star indeed.
She came out strutting, with a rocking jazz band (or a jazzy rock band) with lots of frenzied solos from saxophonist Irwin Hill, even playing two horns at once, echoing Rahsaan. Melody was delightful, telling stories in French and in English, playing raucous guitar or lyrical piano, singing always with her South Philly roots sounding through. "You Don't Know What Love Is" was the highlight. And as an encore, Melody conducted a very musical sing-along -- with the balcony especially sounding like a choir of angels.
© 2016 WBGO
July 7, 2015. Posted by Michael Bourne.
© 2015 WBGO
July 6, 2015. Posted by Michael Bourne.
No better ending for the jazzfest musically than with the godfather of Montreal jazz, pianist Oliver Jones. We talked in the festival videoteque as he was being filmed for a documentary, talked on the floor above the festival museum. That's where a virtual shrine is the very piano Oliver and Oscar Peterson learned to play on, the piano of Daisy, Oscar's sister and the teacher of them both.
I've talked with Oliver through all the 23 years I've come to Montreal. I didn't know until today that he'd left Montreal and lived in Puerto Rico from the mid-60's until 1980. Oliver was playing there a regular (but not musically happy) gig with a pop band. When he came back, Charlie Biddle was opening his jazzclub, and soon Oliver was playing the music he was meant to play. FIJM was just getting started then, and soon Oliver was a regular presence at the jazzfest. He played for a superstar singer in Quebec, Janet Reno, on one of the first shows I attended at the jazzfest. "That was one of my favorite gigs," he said. Another favorite gig of his and everyone's happened when Oliver played with Oscar, his greatest friend and mentor. Though they'd known each other for decades, they'd never played together in a concert. Oscar never completely recovered from a stroke, but if you didn't see his crippled hand on the video screen you'd never have known. Oscar's performance with Oliver was heroic. And swinging.
I was there for Oliver and Oscar, and the concert is still available on a DVD, but I reminded Oliver of my favorite of his many concerts at the festival. His farewell concert in the latter 90's. His retirement didn't last, but everyone attending that "farewell" evening was filled with love of the music and love for the musician. I still get weepy remembering Oliver, after playing a lovely solo recital, walking to the front of the stage and thanking everyone for his career playing music for us all. And then he said "What would you like to hear?" And he played requests.
In recent years, Oliver's festival concerts have been events, often with others from the continuum of Montreal jazz piano that's followed him and Oscar. This year he joined Pianos Cameleons at the theatre where he played his "farewell," Monument National. Jon Roney and Matt Herskowitz have been playing for years four-hands classical and jazz concerts, often becoming six-hands concerts with the likes of Julie LaMontagne. And tonight they were eight-hands with Oliver Jones.
"Cheek To Cheek" was the only solo and only standard, Oliver's welcome to an evening of fingers to fingers. Roney and Herskowitz both have fantastic chops, all the more fantastic when playing two pianos back and forth through familiar classics of Chopin and Rachmaninoff -- classics we can't always remember the etude or concerto numbers of, but classics we've known by heart most of our lives. Jon and Matt and Julie and Oliver switched off from piece to piece, usually two at a time, but eventually all four shifting seats and keys.
One treat was one of Oliver's own. He remembered that when he and Oscar studied with Daisy, she complained that they'd never play piano exercises correctly. They'd jazz up the exercises. Oliver composed "Snuggles" around those very exercises, played eight-hands with the Chameleons. Schumann's "Traumerei" was another highlight. Climactically, they all ran around the keys playing Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" -- but for the encore, Jon and Matt and Julie pulled all the piano stools around Oliver alone as he played what he's been playing as a concert finale for years, a jazz classic he's turned into the virtual anthem of Montreal jazz, Oscar Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom."
Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal officially ended on the Big TD stage in the street. Harmonica whiz Guy Belanger hosted a gathering of Montreal's best blues bands in a tribute to B.B. King.
You can hear interviews and music and much more from the festival on "The Checkout" hosted by the indefatigable Simon Renter.
And see what was happening on the festival's own video retro:
I can never thank enough all the folks at the festival, especially my dear friend Vincent Lefebvre, international media wrangler for the Herculean press corps. They all have been beyond generous to me for all these years I've come to the festival. They have made Montreal for me a home.
FIJM returns June 26th-July 5th, 2016, and I hope so will I ... MB
© 2015 WBGO
July 5, 2015. Posted by Michael Bourne.
Two million fest-goers again this year, even with the rain. Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal presented a wrap-up early this year. International journalists mostly split on or before Monday -- when the festival usually looks back for the media. More than 400 accredited journalists and more than 150 other media types attended this year's 36th annual Montreal Jazz Festival, and the execs wanted to look back even before they're done on Sunday. Jacques-Andre Dupont, the festival's new CEO, presented some of the singers from this year's 10th annual festival blues camp. Six teenagers, young women, a couple of them wanting to appear sultry, mostly sang sweetly "Trouble In Mind" and "Proud Mary."
Laurent Saulnier, VP of programming, and Andre Menard, artistic director, talked about favorite artists this year, especially surprises. Andre said that he'd never before heard (and was delighted by) one of the elders, Johnny O'Neal. Andre also encapsulated the central belief behind 36 years of the jazzfest: that, bigger, better, whatever the changes, whatever the growth, FIJM continues to be "a music festival programmed by music fans for music fans."
I opted tonight for one show.
For The Record is a troupe that creates extraordinary shows that celebrate movies in what seem like fevered dreams of songs and scenes. They presented last year a show that shuffled memorable moments and pop songs from the soundtracks of Quentin Tarantino movies. They've presented this year a similar and often as violent pastiche of Baz Luhrmann movies. With a rocking band, highlighted by a violinist in lingerie, four women and five men re-create the doomed lovers and others from Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and Strictly Ballroom. While the latter is not as tragic, the other three are violently romantic, with scenes counterpointed by a variety of pop songs. "Nature Boy." "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." "Let's Misbehave." Madonna's "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin." Tarantino's movies have many more iconic scenes -- I remember feeling all of us anticipating Marsellus going medieval -- but we know what comes from Shakespeare's play and from Fitzgerald's novel, and the singers/dancers/actors were quite visceral and sexy.
© 2015 WBGO
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