July 31, 2014. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
I’m a judge for the festival's annual week-long competition of jazz groups from across Canada. They compete on outdoor stages for the TD Bank Grand Prix: money and three festival gigs.
I have a ritual with my long-time frere de jugement, Martin Roussel, director of the jazzfest at Rimouski (334.9 miles along the St. Lawrence seaway north-east from Montreal).
When we hear, sometimes more than half-way through the contest, a group good enough to win, we show an index finger: "That's One!"
Whoever plays thereafter will have to be better, and this year the TD "One" was a swingingly interplaying piano-bass-drums trio from Ontario, The Pram Trio.
There's also a special prize for the best composition, granted by the satellite television service Galaxie.
This year, we voted the Galaxie prix to Montreal bassist Rick Rosato, composer of a tune without a title - only called “New Untitled”…
© 2014 WBGO
July 30, 2014. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
"Happy Canada Day!" said Christian McBride, beaming. He heard a definitive "smattering" of applause. Maybe 4 or 5 claps in a full house in Montreal's Salle de Gesu.
Christian reacted, dumbfounded by the evident indifference. Or he was playing with the Francophones. He laughed — and pulled out a tiny Canadian flag: a red maple leaf on a white banner.
I've often said that I've been 22 times to Montreal, but I've never been to Canada. And I'm not kidding.
Banks close, and (by law) some shops close on Canada Day, but most Quebecois — and certainly the folks at the festival — don't care about Canada Day. They celebrate Quebec Day a week earlier. French-speaking "habs" (short for "habitants") think of Quebec not as a province of otherwise English-speaking Canada. Quebec natives think of Quebec as a virtually independent nation.
"Okay then," said Christian as he dropped the little flag into the piano. And then he played "O Canada" …
Christian's trio, with Christian Sands at the piano and Ulysses Owens Jr at the drums, played jazz as it ought to be played. Played songs we've heard countlessly, but rarely have heard played so freshly. Played songs they've played countlessly, but never have played routinely. "Day By Day." "Caravan." A funky/sexy take on Billy Taylor's "Easy Walker."
Richard Rodgers might have quibbled that they played "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World"-- "my waltz!" he must've screamed from the grave — in 4/4!!!! Played so sweet a waltz as a swinging whirlwind — but they played so quickly Richard Rodgers didn't have time enough to roll over.
I scribbled in the dark that jazz is the re-creation of a song that's been composed one way, but is played by cats like Christian's trio a different way. Played differently every time they play. And when played with such joyousness as they played on that gig, re-creation becomes recreation. Fun …
"We'll take you home with Thelonious Monk," said Christian — with a last little wave of the Maple Leaf. And an encore of "East of the Sun."
I don't know if this qualifies as a conundrum, but no one (but me, I'm amused by curious coincidences) observed that two cats named Christian were playing in the Salle de Gesu — the "Room of Jesus" …
© 2014 WBGO
July 28, 2014. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
No musician in Montreal is beloved like pianist Oliver Jones. He's like a musical godfather of the jazzfest.
On the same floor as the press room of the Maison du Festival is a museum of the jazzfest, which includes the aged upright piano of Daisy Peterson, teacher of her brother Oscar and also of Oliver. Oliver often remembers lurking by Daisy's house, listening to Oscar practise.
Through the years, Oliver has played some of the most purely enjoyable concerts of FIJM. Especially after he "retired" about a dozen years ago.
He's been back pretty much every festival since then. Playing solo concerts. Playing trio concerts. Playing duets with just-turned-90 Hank Jones. Playing duets to climax the last festival concert of his life-long friend Oscar.
And most memorable for me was the last of his "Invitation" "farewell" concerts all those years ago. I'll never forget when, after a lovely solo recital, he thanked the audience for his musical life, and then he asked in his always friendly Franglish, "Mesdames et messieurs, what would you like to hear?"
Song titles came flying from the house, and Oliver delightedly and delightfully played every request.
To celebrate his 80th birthday this year, Oliver gathered musical friends at Theatre Maisonneuve. With his trio, always generously spotlighting his long-time bassist Eric Lagace, he played charmingly.
"Teach Me Tonight." And his own "Looks Good To Me." "We're gonna play some ballads," he said, alternating English and French. "Let's see if any favorites of yours." "When I Fall In Love" segued into favorites aplenty.
Highlights were pretty much constant. A duet of riffs between Jones and Legace. A favorite classic of his friend Oscar, "Place St. Henri" from Peterson's Canadiana Suite.
Other friends joined in - singer Ranee Lee, violinist Josee Aidans, pianist Lorraine Desmarais - and then came a surprise for all the Quebecois in the house.
Ginette Reno is, or has been called, "the Streisand of Quebec." Oliver played piano 20 years ago when she sang a festival jazz concert I'll always remember.
Looking elegant, earthy, and ageless, Ginette sang "My Man," the very Fanny Brice classic Barbra sang in Funny Girl — and I was thinking: "Barbra who?"
Climactically, out came a teenager, Daniel Clarke Bouchard. A piano prodigy, as if the second coming of Oscar Peterson, the kid showed plenty of Oscar's flabbergasting dexterity with finger-flying boogie woogie and something classical-ish in a duet with Oliver.
As always for a finale, Oliver heartfully played Peterson's "Hymn To Freedom," and for an encore, the trio played "What a Wonderful World."
What a wonderful concert…
© 2014 WBGO
July 25, 2014. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
I've lost count of all the times I've enjoyed concerts of Tony Bennett, but he's always best in Montreal: he's often said he appreciates how greatly the festival treats artists.
And not only the artistry of Tony Bennett the singer - also the artistry of Anthony Benedetto, the painter. Spectra, producers of the Montreal jazzfest, presented last year a gallery showing of Tony's paintings. They also offer in, the festival's artshop, lithographs of Tony's portrait of Louis Armstrong.
Best of all the Tony Bennett performances I've attended through the years happened at FIJM 2004. He was so happy to be honored with that year's prix Ella Fitzgerald. He's one of the very few artists with an open invitation to perform at every festival. He especially loves the acoustics of the big Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.
I was sorry I was so involved in the finale of the festival's Canadian band contest that I couldn't come to this year's show — but then …
"Come to the soundcheck," said Tony on the phone. "We're gonna surprise everyone tonight. Lady Gaga is gonna sing with me. It's a secret!"
Tony and Gaga have a whole album of standards forthcoming this fall, called Cheek to Cheek. Tony loved how much Gaga loved singing "The Lady Is a Tramp" on his album Duets II. "She loves jazz," said Tony. "And she's really good!"
Backstage I came, and they came. Tony in a green track suit. Gaga in what looked like a black cocktail dress — for a party on Mars. Tight. Black. With a swirling drape of black from shoulder to shoulder. "I want you to meet--" said Tony. "I know who he is," said Gaga and kissed me.
I've rarely encountered anyone in show biz so immediately and downright radiantly nice as Gaga. It's no wonder she gets along with the nicest guy in show biz. And where she gets it was also evident. Gaga's very sweet mother was also hanging at the soundcheck.
They sang with Tony's quartet, with Mike Renzi now at the piano, two duets. "But Beautiful." Which was indeed beautiful. And a whirlwind of "It Don't Mean a Thing." Which was indeed swinging. I don't know Gaga's pop music at all, but her chops are fantastic. She can project a swooping chorus to the balcony. And she can sing in a hush, like the song she'd be singing solo, "Lush Life." I marveled especially at a very touching moment of the Billy Strayhorn lyric.
No press was allowed at the soundcheck or even during the performance that night, but someone in the balcony with a cell camera posted "Lush Life" the next day on You Tube.
When she sang with Tony, Gaga wore a white almost wedding-like dress.
When she sang the next night at the Montreal hockey rink, Gaga wore a blue octopus.
"Who's been kissing you?" someone teased me in the press room after I'd come from the soundcheck. She'd apparently left a scarlet lipstick kiss on my grizzled cheek.
"It's a secret," I said. And trembled, like a gawky teenager.
© 2014 WBGO
July 23, 2014. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
When Diana Krall first played the Montreal jazzfest 20 years ago, she was just getting started in her soon-to-be-skyrocketing career; she played a tribute to Nat Cole with Russell Malone on guitar, and Paul Keller on bass, in the bistro of the city's Comedy Museum, now long-closed.
That gig was one of the swinging-est performances I've ever heard. It's the concert I always remember first whenever I'm asked what have been my favorite musical moments through my 22 years at FIJM.
Every few years since then, she's returned to Montreal — each gig at a bigger venue - and every time, I catch the show.
This year, I got to reminisce with Diana during her Q&A with festival artistic director André Menard, which you can listen to here:
When still a newcomer, Diana played a lovely concert at Theatre Maisonneuve. Tony Bennett was singing that evening at the biggest venue, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Mid-way through his show, Tony called Diana onto the stage, sat her at the piano, held the microphone for her to sing, and in that moment virtually anointed Diana as a new keeper of the standards flame.
I was there that evening, and I’ve been there whenever she's played FIJM, including a show at the city's uncomfortably enormous hockey rink, the Bell Centre - where, as a surprise, her then-new husband Elvis Costello joined her onstage at the show’s climax.
Andre Menard, the festival's co-founder and always astute artistic director, suggested that Diana play a show solo for FIJM 2011, so she created a tribute to her beloved mom and dad.
Along with showing home movies and early cartoons, she decorated the stage with personal artifacts, including her dad's crank-up Victrola, and played songs of the 20s and 30s, from her dad's sheet music collection, that she practised as a child.
"I can still smell my dad's cigarette smoke," she said at the concert. Soon thereafter, she evolved the show into what became a tour of the album Glad Rag Doll.
For this year's mid-fest “grand event” or grand evenement, Diana bookended her tour for an audience of more than 100,000, mostly standing in the streets all around Place des Arts, with a group that included guitarist Marc Ribot and Karriem Riggins, the former drummer of her musical mentor, bassist Ray Brown.
Along with some of her favorite pop songs -- "Temptation" by Tom Waits, "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young, and several by Bob Dylan — she sang a deeply emotional "Let's Face The Music and Dance."
Husband Elvis Costello came on for the encores, which was inexorable, but not a surprise — he also played a solo concert, earlier that evening, at Montreal’s Symphony Hall. Having not seen each other, as both had been on tour, and with their twins away on a fishing trip, they actually flirted.
Then they sang duets - climaxed by a faster-than-a-speeding-bullet breath-taker, Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
© 2014 WBGO