• Bourne's Montreal: And Then Some

    July 16, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    It was raining as I flew into Montreal, June 27th, the day before Day One of the 33rd annual Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal. And except for a few cloudbursts that never lasted more than a few minutes, the weather through the jazzfest was ... summery. Ideal for a jazzfest that attracted about two million festgoers.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin
    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    Montreal is sometimes called City of a Hundred Cultures, and FIJM is the most popular of an annual oodle of festivals. Tourists came. Locals came. Whole families came, dressed like they dressed back home around the world. "International" the city is, and so is the (always bolded in the logo) JAZZ festival.

    Photo by Jean François Leblanc
    Steve Hill, photo by Jean François Leblanc

    FIJM presents each day about forty gigs around Place des Arts in the heart of the city, indoors ticketed, outdoors free. I heard most or all of maybe forty concerts, mostly in the festival's own jazz joint, L'Astral in the Maison du Festival, or in my favorite venue, Gesú (aka Jesus) Centre de Creativité in the Jesuit church around the corner from the festival's Quartier des Spectacles.

    Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, photo by Denis Alix
    Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, photo by Denis Alix

    I always say that a hallmark of the festival's greatness is that I miss more great concerts than I get to attend. I missed plenty of stars I'd meant to hear: Wayne Shorter, Melody Gardot, Eliane Elias, James Carter, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke's Invitation concerts, Tord Gustavsen's Invitation concerts, and Liza Minelli. I much more often opted to hear artists I've never heard (or even heard of), usually some of the most memorable music through the years.

    Miche Braden, photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Miche Braden, photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    Two theatrical shows were featured. Carlos Saura, Spanish moviemaker of the thrilling flamenco "Carmen," created a fusion of thunderous feet, visceral voices, and jazz, "Flamenco Hoy," for four evenings. Miche Braden ressurected Bessie Smith in her down-to-earthy bio-musical, "The Devil's Music," for five evenings. You can hear Miche singing elsewhere on the WBGO blog when she sang Bessie's blues live on a blues hour.

    FIJN's Maison du Festival is named for one of the festival's principal sponsors, Canada's aluminum corporation Rio Tinto Alcan. What was once an abandoned building on Ste Catherine is now the year-round festival building with a museum of festival artifacts and a mediatheque. Have a look at Becca Pulliam's blog tour of the extraordinary jazz library with curator Serge Lafortune.

    The Maison also offers a nice restaurant, Balmoral, and the festival's year-round jazz cabaret, L'Astral. I attended eight of this year's concerts at L'Astral. Rafael Zaldivar, a Cuban-born pianist with a Monk-ian edge, played opening night with guest Greg Osby.

    Taurey Butler, photo by David Tallacksen
    Taurey Butler, photo by David Tallacksen

    Taurey Butler, a Jersey-born pianist showing Petersonian chops, now lives and loves (married a soulful singer) in Montreal. Collin Vallon, a Swiss-born pianist, deconstructed melodies as if clockworks, then re-connected all the intimate gears and wheels.

    Colin Vallon, photo by Jean-François Leblanc

    Vic Vogel's big band played mostly Dizzy's Afro-Cuban classics with an oomph of brass I haven't heard since Stan Kenton shattered my bones. Vic Vogel's presence at the festival is a virtual ritual.

    He's played all 33 years, but I wonder if that's equaled by bassist Michel Donato, one of the long-time godfathers of Montreal jazz. If not always a leader, I'll bet he's played in someone's band every year. He's co-leader of a quartet with accordionist Marin Masturica and two guitar masters, Richard Leveille and Luc Fortin. They criss-crossed musical wings -- French musette, Brazilian chorinho, Gypsy swing. They told stories between songs that were longer than the songs and always disrupted the musical momentum, but then they'd play charmingly. I especially enjoyed two Brazilian songs: Hermeto's "Bebe" and a batucada with the guitars scratching strings as if cuicas.

    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    I've always enjoyed groups that swing joyously and are also...I believe le mot juste is nuts. Willem Breuker's Kollektief highlighted my early years at the festival. Italians used to be routinely wacky in the Jesus Room, especially the groups playing whirligigs of clarinets and accordions.

    This year's hoot was one of Montreal's own: L'Orkestre des Pas Perdus. First gathered almost 20 years ago by trombonist Claude St Jean, the "Lost Steps" Orchestra is an octet: seven "brass and other metals" (as the program says) plus drums. Laughing, like a circus band on steroids, they blasted in-your-face funk. And the walls of L'Astral almost came a-tumbling down.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin
    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    Two singers charmed me at L'Astral, both with uniquely theatrical charms and chops. Dorothee Berryman is best known for acting in Quebecois movies and as a jazz DJ on the radio. Her stories about the songs ("Autumn Leaves," "I'm in the Mood for Love") and songwriters (Jacques Prevert, Carolyn Leigh) she told mostly in French, but even if you understand (like me) only un petit peu, you laughed as much (or more) from her untranslatable comic timing. Or else she'd be deeply dramatic, like when she'd stop, as if in amber, her hand reaching for a love always out of reach. "Killing Time" was hauntingly still. "Love Is Like a Cigarette" was seductively smoky.

    Nellie McKay appeared in a flowery orange dress, looking like a suburban mom on a summer patio. She played piano with witty counterpoints to her songs. She played ukelele with surreal sweetness -- sweetness with a razor lurking. She spoke in a schoolgirl French, mostly whimsically, but often with surprisingly angry asides about the absurdities of life, love, politics. When she sang the country song "One's on the Way," about a woman unhappily pregnant, she observed "I like single women and married men. That's why I'm for gay marriage."

    Photo by David Tallacksen
    Photo by David Tallacksen

    When she sang the Beatles song "So Tired," she screamed "I'd give you everything I've got for a little peace of mind!" She sang with a British accent a medley of British songs, complete with an upbeat "Georgy Girl." And even a sing-along with the audience was delightfully...sideways: a call-and-response of gibberish, as Cab's "Hi-De-Ho' might've sounded after a stroke.

    When asked what concerts I wanted to attend, I said everything at 10:30 in the Gesu. " Jazz dans la nuit," as the concerts are called, have been booked mostly by long-time programmer Johanne Bougie. (One of my favorite moments every jazzfest is seeing Johanne's red hair coming through the crowd. One of my favorite moments this jazzfest was being greeted by the smile of Johanne's daughter Rose, receptionist of the Salle de Presse MB.) Even if I've never heard of the artists, I know that whoever plays the Jesus Room will be cool.

    And so they all were: the multi-culti World Kora Trio ... lung-busting solo saxophonist Colin Stetson ... the electro-bop quartet Get The Blessing ... beautiful piano duets of Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes ... spontaneous piano duets of Joey Calderazzo and Aaron Parks ... trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire ... the Cedar Walton trio ... the Lorraine Desmarais trio. So many highlights ...

    Photo by Denis Alix
    Photo by Denis Alix

    Colin Stetson played alto or bass sax. He'd lean back as if about to throw a fastball and then, keening back and forth, with circular breathing, music powerfully gushed like fountains from his horns. Without apparent electronic loops or other devices, he'd somehow criss-cross motifs, sometimes playing rhythms with his fingers clicking and clacking the sax keys. One piece was inspired by a whale that's been recorded around the earth singing -- but out of tune with its species, its songs unanswered.

    Stetson's "Loneliest Whale" was heartbreaking, and, marveling how he sustains storms of sound, Stetson's performance was emotionally and almost physically (even for us listening) exhausting. I also especially enjoyed Bill and Renee playing an exquisite "Last Time I Saw Paris," Joey and Aaron abstracting "The Meaning of The Blues," the Woody-like freshness of Ambrose Akinmusire, and Cedar's upbeat "Lush Life."

    Photo by Denis Alix

    While countless thousands loudly danced to Chromeo as a festival finale, I was a block away as Lorraine Desmarais played much more intimately in the Gesu. I've been delighted by Lorraine's piano all of my 20 years at FIJM, the interplay of her trio, the punch of her big band, her solos lively and lovely, her melodies so romantic, her playing always swinging. I brought back a tower of CD's from the festival, and Lorraine's newest trio album, "Couleurs de Lune," is the best.

    Every year in Montreal, the jazzfest is actually, blatantly, impossibly, bigger. Place des Arts, already the biggest arts complex in Canada, somehow squeezed in an enormous new symphony hall, and it's gorgeous. Wood paneling, brown and blond. Seats more than 2000 -- with serious leg room. And great acoustics.

    I didn't get to Maison Symphonique de Montreal until the last evening. One of the festival's best (and, as I like to say, "very Montreal") discoveries, Catalonian 5-string bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons, first played solo.

    Pizzicato, his fingers dancing. Arco, his bow swift as a violin's. And then he bounces his bow rhythmically on the strings. After hooking himself into electronic pedals, he sometimes played loops, or Bach-like fugues, counterpointing himself, echoing himself, amazing and (especially after passing paper through the strings for a buzz) amusing all of us.

    Photo by Denis Alix
    Photo by Denis Alix

    Andalusian flamenco pianist Dorantes also played solo, his fingers darting and stomping like flamenco feet. And then came Bulgarian flute player Theodosii Spassov -- although, really, it only looks like a flute.
    Spassov's kaval is played through what looks like a mouthpiece at one end -- except when he's blowing in the sounding holes.

    When he played a solo, he'd sometimes sing (or moan) through the horn, his voice other-worldly. Though the group was called The Free Flamenco Trio, they were, with a drummer, a quartet -- but free, yes. They abstracted flamenco melodies and rhythms -- nonetheless with the music's passion.

    One last blast happened on Sunday in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, the festival's annual Battle of the Bands. Andre Menard, the festival's artistic director, in previous years brought back a showdown with ghost bands. Last year: Artie Shaw vs Glenn Miller. This year: Count Basie vs Duke Ellington.

    Working bands year-round, pianist Tommy James was leading the Ellington band, drummer Dennis Mackrel was leading the Basie band -- with Steve Johns at the drums.

    "We flipped a coin. We get to go first," said James and kicked off "Take the A Train." To students of the music's history, Mackrel said "This IS history" and answered with "April in Paris." Early on, the Ellington soloists looked younger and played hungrier. If these bands are machines, Duke's band was running on high octane -- but then Count's band shifted into overdrive.

    John Williams, Basie's baritone saxist more than 40 years, was featured. Doug Lawrence, Basie's tenor saxist, became the band's best battler, especially horn-to-horn with Ellingtonian Mark Gross.

    One expected the classics from the Basie/Ellington "For the First Time" album, but "To You" sounded sluggish, as if neither band ever plays it. "Segue in C" became a much more animated showdown. Judges for the Battle -- bandleader Vic Vogel, hockey announcer Dick Irvin, and aerodynamically-curved singer Florence K -- voted the Basie band the winner. "If we get to vote," said Mackrel, "we vote for the lady."

    "The real winner," said Mackrel, "was the music." He'd played drums with the band in Basie's last years, and Mackrel said that Count Basie so greatly loved Duke Ellington that, on Basie's behalf, he presented the Battle trophy to Duke's band. And as a finale, Lester leaped in.

    Duke Ellington Orchestra saxophonist Mark Gross

    I've never been around the festival on the day after. A little sad, it is. A little eerie, it is. All around Place des Arts, the stages and tents and kiosks and grills were coming down. And even Salle de Presse Michael Bourne was closed.

    A la prochaine ...

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