WBGO Blog
  • FIJM Day Two 6/25/11

    June 26, 2011. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    Ben L'Oncle, photo: Jean-F Leblanc
    Ben L'Oncle, Photo: Jean-F Leblanc

    Il pleut. For five minutes, rain. For ten minutes, rain. Or, suddenly, bright sunshine. For five minutes. Montreal was meteorologically schizoid this day. And two of my shows were outside.

    Some of my favorite eateries have gone, but Moishe's lives on -- founded 1938 in the Jewish section of St Laurent, just along the block from the world-renowned smoked meat (Quebecois pastrami) of Schwartz's. Moishe's is old-fashioned, elegant-but-not-dressy, and indeed Jewish: rye bread, pickles, and serious cole slaw on the table just for starters. I always have the sirloin steak and the famous Monte Carlo potato (baked, then mashed, back into the skin, and baked again). One of the great dinners of Montreal.

    I'm a judge (umpteenth time) for the Grand Prix de Jazz, now sponsored by TD Bank. Ten groups from across Canada compete for $5K, studio time and a record deal with the label Effendi, a gig on the big TD stage at the end of the jazzfest, also gigs at the festivals in Rimouski (on the Quebec coast), in Zacatecas, Mexico, and next year in Montreal. We're wrangled by Genevieve Venne, very professional and very nice. What's always somewhat weird about judging is that we're seated up front at the outdoor stages, clipboards in hand, scribbling notes as the band plays and sees us, then, after 30 minutes, we all get up and walk out. The Jon Roney Trio, piano, electric bass, and an edgy drummer, played first. Nine more groups to hear over the next week.

    Ben L'Oncle Soul played the first of three Grande Evenements on the place des Festivals, once a main street alongside Pace des Arts, but now a year-round performance venue, with light towers, a grassy knoll, fountains by day, and space enough for 100K or so festgoers standing and usually rocking. Ben L'Oncle Soul, a French pop star, sang (mostly in French) 60's-sounding soul songs and one Motown standard, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," looking like James Brown meets Pee Wee Herman: funny hat, red pants, jumping around the grooves, with dancer/singer/sidekicks in knickers.

    Brad Mehldau played solo at the Jesus (the Gesu cultural center in a church just off the Place des Arts), the best (sez me) of all the Montreal festival venues, small-ish and intimate, ideal for solo piano. Brad Mehldau was phenomenal from the first, playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and, as on most of the concert, creating a rush of sound from repeated notes or phrases. So much of what (or how) he played sounded to me like powerful water -- now an eddy, now a whirlpool, at the climax a deep and frightening Charybdis. I was remembering Ira Gitler calling Coltrane's playing "sheets of sound." Mehldau was playing "tides of sound." Including some serious riptides -- although, ironically, intense as his playing became, he actually felt "subdued" by the piano. "It's kind of an old lady," he said of the piano. "I really want to tear it a new asshole." He played instead a "subdued" and lovely "Blackbird." "My Favorite Things" and a very dark "Hey, Joe" were other song he played that I knew. "I think I played something by Radiohead," he said. What he played at the end, one of his several encores, was like nothing I've ever heard from a piano. No devices. Nothing electronic. With hands, arms, and power Mehldau whipped up a maelstrom of sound, almost deafening, and through the storm came a melody, each note like a bird escaping the storm. Festgoers kept screaming for more, but, after hearing music so overwhelming, I'd heard more than enough.

    Brad Mehldau plays duets with Joshua Redman Sunday evening, but that's one of the many concerts I have to miss. I'll be hearing plenty of other music elsewhere at the jazzfest. And that's a hallmark of Festival International de Jazz de Montreal: that you don't get to hear as much great music as you get to hear.

    --Michael Bourne

  • FIJM Day One 6/24/11

    June 25, 2011. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    FIJM_affo_2011-saxI always look for certain signs, scenes, people, to know when I've come somewhere I love to travel to. Montreal, it's the drive from the airport, and as we near the heart of downtown, alongside the highway I see green copper steeples and the domes of several churches. I feel welcomed by this neighborhood skyline, and someday I ought to bop by these churches for a friendlier look.

    Wonderful it is, being back at Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. #19 -- supposed to be my 20th, but that's another story.

    First thing, essential: Pizzadelic, across from Notre Dame, with Vincent, new wrangler of the international press -- trois fromages (mozzarella, parmesan, feta) avec saucisse calabrese, pepperoni, and black olives, with a Quebecois red beer. I am now, even more, really in Montreal.

    "Don't ask him about Led Zeppelin," said Vincent as we headed for the press conference with Robert Plant. "Don't ask him about Led Zeppelin," said Greg at the door. "Please don't ask questions about Led Zeppelin," said Marie-Eve, VP of the press, great with child. (I was never into them. I've only been curious what "led" means.) And in came Robert Plant, long blond mane, face weathered, quite lion-like.
    "We have wanted him for many years," said Andre Menard, artistic director of the jazzfest. And, with a twinkle that in Andre's eyes is a klieg light, he observed that Plant and his Band of Joy might play some songs that "he might have played in some other group he might have played with."
    Plant laughed. "The Sons of Howling Wolf, you mean?"
    Alain Simard, co-founder with Andre, boss of the jazzfest, presented Plant the festival's Spirit Award, a bronze statue cast from a self-portrait by Miles Davis.
    "This is very heavy," said Plant, meaning literally, but he was also pleased to be honored. "I'm a big fan of music," he said, and he talked about his musical adventures in North and West Africa, in Mississippi, and he remembered especially singing Leadbelly songs on a tribute with Odetta, Harry Belafonte, and Gatemouth Brown. "I spend all my time trawling for music," he said.

    Jean-F Leblanc
    Robert Plant's Band of Joy, Photo: Jean-F Leblanc

    Though voices from the audience frequently called for Zeppelin songs, "I know where you want me to go, and I'm not going there," said Plant on the stage of the Wilfrid-Pelletier. Apparently, from the cheers, he sang a handful of Zeppelin songs anyway, none that I knew. (I don't actually know any, except maybe that blues he used to sing about squeezing the lemon.) Patti Griffin is the other voice in the Band of Joy and harmonized spectacularly with Plant's still-epic chops. I can't say I was as thrilled by the songs as the frequently standing and cheering audience, many of whom were (uncharacteristic of the jazzfest) loudly hammered, but the Band of Joy criss-crossed oodles of blues/rock/folk-ish sounds, especially Darryl Scott playing guitar, mandolin, steel, and what seemed to be an electrified bouzouki. Most compelling was the four-part harmony of a country song, "Satisfied Mind."

    FIJM's other coup as an opening evening event was having Prince play a late show at the Metropolis, always the most crowded of the festival's venues, and that much more crowded sold-out. I opted to be elsewhere, but I can report that Prince played four hours, and in the middle of the night sang "Purple Rain."

    -- Michael Bourne