WBGO Blog
  • Bourne's Montreal Day Two: Star Wars, Architecture and the Jesus Room

    July 3, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    starwarsEquipe Spectra, the folks who produce the jazzfest, do plenty more throughout the year. They produced last year an amazing exhibition of artifacts -- props, costumes, sketches, scenes -- from the Indiana Jones movies. George Lucas archived everything from his movies, gathered by a curator. First thing, walking in, there was the actual ark!

    Now comes, again at the Montreal Science Centre, Star Wars. Boba Fett's flying armor you see first. And the animated bucket, R2D2. But the show is much more philosophical than cinematic. "Star Wars ... Identities" is what they've called the show. "What forces shape you?' is the show's question.
    "Select a species" says the first display. You pick a character to be from the Star Wars aliens. You can be human, but I opted to be Bith, like the musicians in that first tavern scene, round bald head with big black eyes and what look like gills for a mouth blowing an alien oboe. What follows are videos or other displays about how humans evolve identities, how the brain works, how social and psychological forces within and around us determine our personalities and how we behave, individually or in groups. Some of the displays include clips from the movies -- in one, how Anakin was beguiled by the Dark Side and became Darth Vader, while Luke resisted.

    I'd have enjoyed more clips and designs, more costumes and stories about the making of the movies. Some of the cinematic highlights include how Yoda's inverted syntax came about, how his eyes were designed to look like Einstein's, and there's the actual animatronic puppet of the Jedi master. And the carbonized Han Solo. And a mannequin lounging in Leia's harem bra and veils. Lucas created the sidekick Chewbacca to look like his favorite dog, and there's the seven feet of furry costume.

    All the while the show delights the Wookie in us all, Lucas wants us to think about who we are and "What are your choices?" Questions about our beliefs are asked, about freedom, conformism, hedonism, benevolence, and we answer by flicking our personalized wrist bands across our choices. Ultimately, the question is whether we'll join the Dark Side. I opted not to go dark, and left with the image of myself cosmically swinging on a space sax.

    Near to the Montreal Science Centre is the city's archaeological museum, Pointe-a-Calliere. Built on the actual ruins of the city's original foundation, the design is in-your-face abstract, especially an architecturally meaningless steel-and-glass fan that sticks out like a whimsically obscene gesture. Projected onto the ruins down below is a spectacular multi-media show of the city's history, stories about all the historical figures they named streets, halls, colleges, and beers after. Rene-Levesque. Maisonneuve. McGill. Molson.

    There's also a special private collection of samurai artifacts, especially the "terrible beauty" of samurai weapons and armor. All of the armor features helmets with the icons of warriors: a crawling crab, a crescent moon, a laughing gremlin, a foot-long centipede. Bloody though the swords were meant to be, each of the swords was uniquely crafted as a work of art. And at the end, there's Darth Vader again, his black armor very like a samurai's, his light sabre very like a samurai's katana. Terrible beauty indeed.

    Notre Dame Basilica
    Notre Dame Basilica

    Just a block away is the basilica, Notre Dame, with a blue ceiling full of stars and Montreal history in stained glass -- like the city's founder, Maisonneuve, planting a cross atop Mont Royal. Just across the street is Pizzedelic, and it happened to be lunchtime. Pizza #2: chevre et noix, goat cheese and walnuts, with black olives, sliced tomatoes, and I added more of the spicy saucisse Calabrese.

    Meanwhile, back at the jazzfest ...
    One hallmark of FIJM is that you miss as much great music as you actually get to hear. I'm sorry to have missed the formal concert d'ouverture: accordionist Richard Galliano with strings playing Bach and Piazzaola in the brand-new Montreal Symphony Hall. Place des Arts was already the biggest arts complex in Canada, and now it's even bigger.

    I nonetheless heard music aplenty, including the first of the ten bands entered into this year's competition for the Grand Prix de Jazz, sponsored by TD Bank. Canadian jazz groups (this year 4 from Ontario, 6 from Quebec) perform on the free outdoor stages. Winner gets money ($5K), studio time, a record deal with the jazz label Effendi, plus gigs at the jazzfests in Zacatecas (Mexico), Rimouski (Quebec), and (on a bigger stage) Montreal. Galaxie, the satellite system, also gives a prize ($5K) for the best composition of the contest. I am again this year one of the judges.

    Most extraordinary of all the changes around the festival is the sculpting of rue Jeanne-Mance, an avenue alongside Place des Arts, into the permanent Quartier des Spectacles. What was once a downtown traffic artery is now an open space with fountains, new trees, TV screens, and at the end the enormous TD Stage, complete with all the tech for spectacular effects. That's where the festival's Grandes Evenements happen, the Big Events that have (usually, and not kidding) a hundred thousand (or more) fest-goers listening, dancing, and drinking beer for (frequently pop) stars like this year's local-boy-made-good, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright. I've seen by now more than a million fest-goers crowded into the Quartier, and never once have I seen trouble. Montrealers have rioted about hockey, but not about jazz.

    FIJM also resurrected a long useless building on the corner as a year-round Maison du Festival. They have a restaurant, a museum, a library and videoteque of the festival's history. They have a jazz joint of their own, L'Astral, and performing there on opening night was Monk-and-Cuban-inspired pianist Rafael Zaldiver with special guest Greg Osby, also (in his Montreal debut) one of WBGO's favorite singers, Gregory Porter.

    Gesu
    The Jesus Room

    When asked what concerts I was looking forward to the most, I answered "whoever is playing in the Jesus Room." What used to be called Salle de Gesu, literally Room of Jesus, is now more formally called Gesu--Centre de Creativitie. An intimate theatre in the Jesuit church around the corner from Place des Arts, it's where so many of my favorite concerts happen at every jazzfest. And quite often I know nothing about the musicians. I know only that they'll be cool and will likely play music I've never heard the likes of.

    The World Kora Trio played first. Cherif Soumano plays the kora, a giant gourd with a shaft straight up, like a tentpole with wires angled downward. He sometimes strums glissandi like a harp. Or he plucks wires with his thumbs, sometimes impossibly rapidly, like a machine gun. Soumano's kora is one of the most melodically rhythmic (or rhythmically melodic) instruments I've ever heard. Eric Longsworth plays an electric cello, sometimes blowing beautiful African-inspired melodies or, as Longsworth looks and smiles at Soumano, they happily play call-and-response. Jean-Luc Di Fraya plays djembe hand-drums instead of a snare in his traps, and he sings, often in a high falsetto that flies like a bird through the music. I bought their album, and you can hear what I'm talking about on the website eric-longsworth.com...

  • Bourne's Montreal Day One: Pizza, Beer and James Taylor

    June 30, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    The 33rd Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal is my 20th as a journalist and/or broadcaster. I first came almost accidentally in 1992. I've come back ever since, always amazed and amused that the jazzfest is bigger and better every summer. I still can't parle français much more than schoolboy French, but jazz is the universal language.

    FIJMOK

    I am always ritualistic, and in Montreal one of my favorite rituals is Pizzedelic. Once settled in, I was joined by Vincent Lefebvre, wrangler of the international press, at my favorite of the four pizza joints named (though not really a chain) Pizzedelic. They each have a unique personality and somewhat different menu. Brightest (and breeziest) is the pizza resto on rue Notre Dame across from the basilica. Pizzas are square with a matzo-like crust and a grand variety of toppings.

    pizza1

    2012 Pizza #1: trois fromages, three cheeses: mozzarella, parmesan, feta. It's actually quatre fromages, but I don't like the blue cheese. I added black olives, pepperoni, and spicy saucisse Calabrese. And a red beer, La Belle Gueulle rousse.

    Tomorrow night is the festival's official opening, but James Taylor played an early concert at the big hall, Salle Wilfred-Pelletier of the Place des Arts. Just before the concert, he'd been presented with the Festival Spirit Award, and he walked on-stage with the metal sculpture, a self-portrait of Miles Davis.

    Photo by Denis Alix
    Photo by Denis Alix

    He thanked the festival (in way better French than mine) and played charmingly more than two hours, interrupted only by an intermission. "I don't know why," he said at the break. "We're just going to stand behind the curtain for 20 minutes."

    That he was having a good time radiated from the stage, even when singing songs ("Fire and Rain," "The Secret of Life," et al) that he's performed countlessly. When someone in the balcony shouted for one of his hits, he held up a chalkboard with his set list and pointed to that title. I'd been looking forward to "Sweet Baby James." "That was written for my nephew," he said. "He was named after me. He's a big thing now."

    Photo by Denis Alix
    Photo by Denis Alix

    Another highlight was his song inspired by a man found long after he'd been lost in ice, "God Have Mercy on the Frozen Man." And he let the band play, no wonder. "This is an excellent band," Taylor said as he introduced the stellar ensemble, including saxist Lou Marini, trumpeter Walt Fowler, keyboardist Larry Goldings, and drummer Steve Gadd.

    He'd gotten a standing O after "Fire and Rain," and the audience was up and dancing for "Your Smiling Face," dancing and singing along with "How Sweet It Is." Taylor's encore was that much more joyful with everyone chubbing and checkering "The Twist."

    James_Taylor___FIJM_DenisALIX-021
    Photo by Denis Alix

    Having someone having as much fun as James Taylor was was an ideal overture to another great jazzfest in Montreal.

  • Bourne's Montreal: The Old Fart Meets The New Jazz

    June 26, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    This year's Montreal Jazz Festival is my 20th. Through the years, I've especially enjoyed artists playing jazz like I've never heard before. I've always felt that jazz always and in all ways creatively encompasses the world, and that the jazzfest in Montreal, year after year, re-defines jazz. Here's a piece I wrote for Down Beat about the ear-opening jazzfest in 2006.

    “Jazz cannot be limited by definitions or by rules. Jazz is, above all, a total freedom to express oneself.”

    Duke said so in a 1952 Down Beat – and on the back of the Down Beat t-shirt I was putting on the last day of the Montreal Jazz Festival. I’d never read the t-shirt before, but Duke’s quote was timely. I’d been thinking about the definition of jazz all through the festival.

    Duke_Ellington_restored
    “How come you can’t hear jazz at the jazz festival?” was the question asked almost verbatim twice when I was interviewed on the fest’s first day by the CBC and talk radio CJAD. During one of the interviews on the Place des Arts, an actual Dixieland band was walking by. “One way you can hear jazz,” I said snidely but truly, “is to pull your fingers out of your ears and listen.”

    I’ve been scribbling about jazz in this magazine since 1969 and playing jazz on the radio since 1972, and in all that time I’ve heard no more pointless (or relentless) argument than the question of what is or is not jazz. It’s usually been most disputatious between generations. Many who loved Louis Armstrong hated Charlie Parker. Many who loved Charlie Parker hated Ornette Coleman. Many who loved Miles Davis hated … Miles Davis. What became most evident to me in Montreal was how much every generation re-defines jazz.

    “We try to always have music that’s got some element of jazz,”said Laurent Saulnier, officially V.P. of programmation but I always think of him as V.P. of The Edge. He’s always pushing the festival’s musical parameters, especially electronically, and yet he deeply believes that the biggest word in the logo (Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal) should always be bolded.

    He’s teased me for years about being an old fart, always nudging me to listen especially to the DJs every midnight at Club Soda.

    I’ve usually run screaming from anything hip-hop-ish, but (maybe because I’ll soon be 60, one of those zero ages when one looks back and forward much more keenly) I was game to hear a group Laurent was excited about called Plaster.

    plaster1

    Three cats, all Quebecois, play keyboards, bass, and drums connected to computers. Though the grooves they generated were often thunderous, there was a playful bounciness to the bits and pieces of melodies they twisted electronically or criss-crossed with samples, including the voice of a wittily distorted politician. I became more and more fascinated by the interplay, especially between keyboardist Alex MacMahon and drummer Philippe Goncalves. These were not, as I’ve often felt about electronica, machines playing. These were musicians playing the machines. These were composers and actual improvisers, especially when counterpointing riffs.
    And at the very thought of the word riffs, I almost leapt up shouting “It’s the Basie Band!” I could hear in Plaster parallels to the way Basie built calls and responses of the sections, always with the rhythm solid and propulsive. And how did Basie define jazz? Something about music that makes you pat your foot? Mine was patting like crazy.

    I was just as delighted when British singer Jamie Lidell played a midnight gig. Solo on the stage, he worked several electronic whiz-bangs, turning fragments of sound into rhythmic melodies, shifting tempos and moods while keeping a straightahead pulse, all the while singing sounds or words. And when he was joined by the whimsical pianist Gonzales, he was even scatting blues. Too much of the scat singing I hear nowadays is only babble in 4/4. Jamie Lidell, with his voice and his machines, was creatively improvising phrases like a saxophonist or a drummer, like a jazz singer is supposed to.

    Jamie_lidell

    Maybe I’m getting into an argument about what is and is not hip-hop, but what I’ve heard of hip-hop and electronica sounds too often like a stampede of jive elephants. Lidell’s hipper (and hopper?) pachyderms whirled like ballerinas. I’ve rarely felt any emotion from rap other than lust or anger, but Lidell was charming, laughing, and, as I shouted when I saw Laurent Saulnier dancing in the crowd, “This kid is swinging!”

    Not all of these hip-hop-electro-whatevers were so compelling, “jazzy” or otherwise. I quickly became aware which of these new musicians were, like Plaster and Jamie Lidell, creatively to be reckoned with and which were playing only new clichés. Microtone Kitchen, even with six turntables, seemed unable to spin the recognizable shape of a composition, and the grooves were monotonous as the clatter of train tracks. Bauchklang, with six singers grunting electro-funky beats all vocally, sounded to me and (in their pseudo-street posturing) even looked like wannabe rappers on an old Soul Train. And one thing jazz certainly never is is dated.

    Continuum is what I was hearing all across the musical spectrum in Montreal. Computers, I realized, offer jazz a new musical technology—no different than when Charlie Christian plugged in. And not all that was new that I heard was electrified.

    Don Byron is an artist who’s always played everything (from klezmer to Puccini, from Duke’s Jungle Band to cartoon tunes) as if the music is new now. Byron’s Ivy-Divey Trio (with Jason Moran and Billy Hart) celebrated the Lester Young Trio (with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich) in the jazzfest’s Jesus Room, and affectionately more than reverently.

    Likewise in the Salle de Gesu, The Bad Plus was not your father’s Bill Evans Trio. They played what pianist Ethan Iverson whimsically called “covers” (including back-to-back songs of Ornette Coleman and Burt Bacharach) among original pieces that often sounded to me like musical Rubik’s Cubes that they (and especially drummer Dave King) twisted into colorful configurations way beyond Rubik’s geometry.

    Around the corner at the Spectrum, the trio EST also bent the usual triangle into other polygons. Though they sometimes involved electronics, even acoustically they played powerfully, often melodies that sounded less like tunes and more like pure momentum. Do they compose in AABA form? No. Could I always pat my foot? No. But even footless, EST was swinging other parts of me quite (I felt jazzfully) headlong.

    I should mention that all the while I was waxing ecstatically about “new jazz” at the festival, there was oodles of “old jazz” – although, actually, what Dave Brubeck played in Montreal (and everywhere else he plays) was ageless. Everyone I heard pissing and moaning about not hearing jazz at the festival was not hearing McCoy Tyner! Wayne Shorter! Yusef Lateef! And plenty of straightahead Canadian jazzers we never get to hear below the 49th parallel. I especially enjoyed pianist LorraineDesmarais fronting a big band with what I characterized in my notes only as punch!!

    streetnix1

    Streetnix is the most festive jazzband every year at the jazzfest. A quintet fronted by alto saxist Jennifer Bell with trumpet, trombone, tuba, and drums, they can march in the street or play the littlest stage of the Place des Arts, playing anything from Oliver Nelson’s “Hoedown” to AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces” -- all the while kids are getting faces painted like cats and kids of all ages (like me) are laughing.
    I’ve always loved singers, but too often I hear the same songs the same ways. Not so every year in Montreal. Fest faves like Dee Dee Bridgewater and John Pizzarelli were, as always, swinging and funny, him singing Sinatra, her singing chansons.

    Two other faves of mine were singers who criss-cross songs from all styles, each with unique chops and charms, each with I feel a true jazz sensibility. Susie Arioli sweetly sings songs of Fred Astaire or Roger Miller with a breeziness like the brushes on the snare drum she always plays when she sings. Terez Montcalm, with a Joplinesque rasp in her voice, can get frisky when she’s torchy, singing “For Heaven’s Sake” with an upbeat or spelling “L-O-V-E” with the joy of that word’s every definition.

    And speaking of definitions, as I was at the outset, wondering what “jazz” means, whaddaya call Jamie Cullum? He sang pretty much anything and everything. ”Old Devil Moon” and a Dinah Washington song. Something folk-ish. Something rap-ish. He sang a heartfelt “Some Other Time” like I’ve never heard before. He played piano. He danced on the piano. He crawled through the audience singing “Nature Boy” and even conducted a sing-along. What I called him in my notes is Talent To Burn! And I also wrote “It’s all jazz!”

    I mean, what was Jamie Cullum really (and wonderfully entertaingly) doing on that stage in Montreal? Same as Jamie Liddell. Whichever British Jamie was performing, he was, with total freedom, expressing himself. And that is what jazz is! Duke said so!

    Read my t-shirt …

    Michael Bourne

  • Susie Arioli Talks With Michael Bourne

    June 19, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Singer Susie Arioli talks with WBGO's Michael Bourne about her new album, All the Way, and performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Enjoy!

    arioli2

  • Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts With Gary Walker

    June 7, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Add new comment | Filed under: Jazz Alive

    Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and pianist Marcus Roberts visited the WBGO studios to talk with Gary Walker about their new CD, Across The Imaginary Divide, and performances this weekend at New York's Blue Note jazz club. Enjoy!

    BelaFleckMarcusRoberts1bnjf