June 22, 2008. Posted by Michael Bourne.
What annoyed me most about the heart attack last year was that I missed the Montreal Jazz Festival. I'm not kidding. FIJM (Festival International de Jazz de Montreal) is one of the most enjoyable times of my life every year. Except for last year, I've gone every summer since 1992. I feel close especially to all the extraordinary folks who run the jazzfest, especially in the press room. Musically, the jazzfest offers an extraordinary variety, ticketed concerts in the evening, free outdoor concerts all day, and everything they do, they do with style, including the t-shirts. Everything happens in or around Place des Arts, in the middle of a metropolis but with the vibes of a carnival. And there's a Pizzadelic in walking distance in three directions.
I'll be there for it all this year, Thursday June 26th through Sunday July 13th, first as a judge for the GM and Galaxie band and composition competition, then broadcasting live from the heart of the festival on WBGO, 2-6:30 Wednesday the 2nd, Thursday the 3rd, and the 4th of July. I'm looking forward musically to the "Invitation" series of Hank Jones, especially the opening concert of duets with Oliver Jones. I've never heard my favorite pop group, Steely Dan, in concert, and they're playing two in Montreal, with Cat Russell as an opening act. I always expect compelling new singers every year, this year "nouvelles divas" Ima and Melody Gardot. And another festival favorite, Dave Brubeck, this year is playing a trio concert and recreating the octet.
One jazzfest ritual I will happily continue is falling by Club Soda at midnight for ... whatever is happening, usually music that's weird, often music that's wonderful. I realized at Club Soda two years ago how much jazz keeps on being re-defined -- and still swings. I wrote an essay for Down Beat to that effect, but too much of the piece, including the point (and punchline) of the piece, was lost editorially. So here's the piece, as meant to be read ...
(Summer, 2006, at the Montreal Jazz Festival)
“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.
“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.
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.
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 Lorraine Desmarais fronting a big band with what I characterized in my notes only as punch!!
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
© 2008 WBGO