Bourne's Montreal: Le Quartier des Spectacles
July 11, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.
Montreal is sometimes called City of Festivals, and all through the summer, events happen on the Quartier des Spectacles.
Having come to the jazzfest for 20 years, I remember the street scene back before the award-winning (for urban and commercial architectural design) changes. Jeanne-Mance, the avenue alongside Place des Arts, once was bordered by an enormous grassy knoll. Montreal levelled (more like sloped) the hill, and now in the street, fountains festively appear.
Montreal was hot during the jazzfest, and kids (also some overheated grown-ups) danced in the water spouts. Stilt-walkers giraffed among the crowds, and (as if trying out for the city's Cirque du Soleil) a pretty girl acrobatically whirled about on a steel hoop.
Battles of the Bands also happen on the Quartier, and I especially enjoy when the hippie-looking band Streetnix plays at one end while the NOLA-looking band Swing Tonique plays at the other. They'll each play a half hour far enough away (Jeanne-Mance is a long avenue) that the crowds around either can't hear the other. And then they march to the middle, playing as the crowds dance along, finally meeting in a middle like the marching bands of Charles Ives, playing their own tunes until they all somehow segue into the same trad jazz classics. "Basin Street Blues" was a frequent fusion.
WBGO's David Tallacksen recorded Streetnix in the street for our festival broadcast. You can hear them during my interview with Streetnix saxophonist Jennifer Bell.
Free concerts also happen on the Scene TD, a large stage (sponsored by the festival's prime presenter, TD Bank) at one end of the Quartier. In the daylight, you'll hear some of the Canadian jazz groups vying for this year's TD Grand Prix. In the evenings, as many as 100,000 attend "Grandes Evenements" on the Quartier -- dancing, drinking, and I've never seen trouble.
This summer's "Big Shows" kicked off with Montreal singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. ("I heard Liza Minelli was in town," he laughed, sparkling in his cherry-red spangled shirt. "Game on!") Escort, a retro-disco troupe from Brooklyn, played a mid-fest spectacular, and the fest's finale also rocked the Quartier, the electro-funk twosome Chromeo, joined by sexy strings and singers.
I was curious about Mr Ho's Orchestrotica, a 22-piece "lounge" orchestra dedicated to the exotica of Esquivel. Back at the turn of the 60's, when stereo was first phenomenal, Esquivel played with sound and musically criss-crossed steel guitars with bass flute, bass trombone, marimbas and other breezy percussion, playing songs as if in a tropical dive -- albeit a swanky dive. Brian O'Neill, leader at the vibes, transcribed Esquivel's arrangements of "Frenesi," "Night and Day," an island "A Train." "Esquivel didn't like lyrics," said O'Neill, so the singers mostly coo'd or sang syllables. O'Neill even re-created Esquivel's fascination with stereo ping-pong. And at the jazzfest, it didn't work. Not on a big in-the-street stage like the Scene TD. O'Neill's Orchestrotica didn't have enough show biz flash, and Mr Ho's exquisite bagatelles got lost outdoors in the night.
If not on the Scene TD, Canadian jazzers playing for the Grand Prix TD also performed on the smaller and more intimate (but much noisier) CBC Radio stage nearby. Winners get a $5K grant from TD Bank, 50 hours of studio time, a licensing deal for an album on the label Effendi, and gigs: at the jazzfest in Zacatecas in central Mexico, at the jazzfest in Rimouski on an eastern waterway in Quebec, and at FIJM.
I was again a judge, and most of us have adjudicated for years. We used to be seated right near the front of the stage, and all the players could see us scribbling notes. Now we're within the crowd, and the musicians can't see when, after no more than 30 minutes, our delightful handler, Genevieve Venne, gathers all of our scribbles and we walk out.
Sometimes we hear 3, 4, or more groups before we hear a group prizeworthy. We often have argued about the best, but usually we all know when we hear "One" that can win. We ritualistically look at each other with an index finger up, and my long-time fellow judge, Martin Roussel of Festi Jazz Rimouski, smiles and says "We have ONE!" And for the judges, that's the band that all the groups thereafter have to beat. This year's grand prize was won by our "One," the trio of pianist Robi Bitos, a disciple of Oscar Peterson from Ontario.
We also vote for a best composition, and the winner gets $5K from the Canadian satellite system Galaxie. Martin and I always have been friendly adversaries, but this year, for the first time, Martin and I both voted not only for the same group but also for the same composition. One of the pieces composed by Robi Bitos, "Unanswered," opened with him tapping the piano strings, sounding to me like the hammered zither of "The Third Man."
What followed was what I felt was the most beautiful melody of the competition, but the other judges, including my favorite Quebecoise musician, pianist Lorraine Desmarais, and Galaxie prize-giver Pierre-Jean Lavigne, outvoted us. "Backbone," a more straightahead Blue Note-ish tune won the Galaxie grant for composer Don Scott of another group from Ontario, Peripheral Vision.
© 2012 WBGO
Note: These comment boards are available to the general public. Statements expressed in the comment boards do not necessarily reflect WBGO's views. The inclusion of any links does not necessarily imply a recommendation or endorsement of the views expressed within them. For more information, please read our Terms of Service.