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
I've never seen a ghost.
Walking along the corridors, the Mohonk Mountain House looks (and feels spooky) like "The Shining" -- and I've heard that Stephen King was inspired (or spooked) by the hotel. I've been a regular at the "Jazz on the Mountain" festival every (Martin Luther) King weekend since 2000, first as a storyteller, then as a host and performer, now as an artistic consultant -- or something to that effect. Next weekend, the 18th-21st, will be my 9th jazzfest.
Until they invited me, I never knew about the jazzfest. I only knew about the murders...
When I came to New York for real in 1984, I happened to be staying up the block from Murder Ink, the mystery bookstore, back then on West 86th. I'd become friends with the owner, Carol Brener. I'd been a long-time customer, back when I addictively read detective novels. One afternoon, when she needed someone to man the store while she ran errands, Carol called me. I was not busy, and I knew the books enough to answers questions from the customers. I was not working full-time at WBGO yet, and I said okay when she asked me to come work part-time at the store.
Murder Ink was one of the first business supporters to offer discounts to WBGO members. Sy Oliver, the great composer and arranger for Lunceford and Goodman, was a mystery reader. I also got to meet some of my favorite mystery authors, especially Ed McBain and Donald Westlake. I've read more than 60 books by both of them by now. Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, and Gahan Wilson also came for book signings. I was especially amused meeting Sara Caudwell, a British barrister and author of a series of novels about an amateur sleuth, a British barrister named Hilary whose gender is never apparent. I remember many arguments in the store about Hilary's sex. I felt that she was a lesbian. Sara herself seemed somewhat asexual and smoked a pipe. Sara also was the daughter of the real-life singer in Berlin who inspired the character of Sally Bowles in the Isherwood stories that became the musical "Cabaret" -- or so Carol said.
My favorite customer was a woman who said "I'm going on a scientific project in Antarctica. Could you pick six months worth of mystery books for me?" I could, and I enjoyed doing so, but working in a bookstore was not why I came to New York. There were weeks when I'd jock an overnight shift at WBGO, get back in time to sleep 2-3 hours, then be at the store, and then go back to Newark. I quit working at Murder Ink only when I started working much more on the radio.
I'd only heard of Mohonk back then when someone called the store, at least once a week, wanting to know about the Mohonk mystery weekend. Murder Ink was not involved, but the original owner of the store was one of the mystery lovers who started the weekend. Virtually a live game of Clue, someone gets "murdered" and everyone becomes detectives looking for evidence and interviewing suspects until one of them unmasks whodunit at the climax.
They still have the mystery weekend, upcoming March 14-16 at the hotel, which is on a lake up the mountain from New Paltz. They also have weekends about ice skating, swing dancing, Latin dancing, being Scottish, yoga and meditation, theatre readings, and, among plenty of other delights during the year, an entire weekend about eating chocolate. Andrew Meyer, please note that the latter will be happening February 22-24.
I was first invited to come talk about jazz in January 1999, but I couldn't come until the following year. Since it was soon after Y2K, I was asked to answer the question "Where is jazz going in the Millenium?" My immediate conclusion was "I don't know, but wherever jazz goes is cool." Then I started telling jazz stories, mostly about Dizzy Gillespie, especially about smoking reefer with Dizzy while watching a soap opera. I was apparently a hit and was asked back the next year.
Being on stage like that, getting laughs again from an audience, awakened the dormant actor in me, and rather than talk about the music, I came back to tell stories about my jazz travels. The first year I performed something like a monologue about all the weirdness that happened to me on a WBGO trip to Brazil, including almost drowning in a riptide at Ipanema and getting exorcised by a candomble priest in Bahia. The second year I talked about being there as the world changed in quantum leaps over four years during the jazzfest in Berlin, first going through the Wall and feeling as if I were in a spy novel. Then came glasnost. Then, a few days after we could hear a million people in the streets on the other side of the Wall shouting "Freiheit!" -- "Freedom!" -- the Wall fell, and I still have a chunk of it. Then, one more year later, it was as if the Wall never existed. All the while, the music played on at the jazzfest.
Getting so turned on performing again, I wanted to do something I'd never done. I didn't even know what it could be, but I knew that I wanted to do it with Michael Carvin. He's way more than a great drummer. He's a life force. I called him and said "I have this idea of doing --" and he said "I'm in!" I said "I don't know what it --" and he said "I'm in!" We created what I usually call Duets for Actor and Drummer. I performed songs of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim but like an actor, not actually singing, although often in tempo with Michael's drums. Songs also from the musical "Kismet" and of Jacques Brel, poems of Stephen Crane, even some Shakespeare. Andrew Meyer and his wife Page came up to see us, and, after all these years of my being a critic on the WBGO Journal, I was finally reviewed myself, by Andrew, on the WBGO website, and a good notice it was. We called our act M2 (Michael Squared) -- which became M2+H when we were joined for several pieces by one of my favorite singers, Hilary Kole, including our performing a scene of Bogart & Bacall.
Hilary and Michael both played several of the jazzfests. I've always booked artists that I like, and I've always brought back artists who've been hits with the audience. One of my favorite years featured all singers, including Roseanna Vitro, Catherine Dupuis, Giacomo Gates, and Mark Murphy. Others who've come over the years have included Eric Reed, Bill Mays, Tom Lellis, Marion Cowings, Renee Manning and Earl McIntyre, Chris Brubeck, Randy Sandke, Sheryl Bailey, and The Drummonds.
Returning this year is Steven Bernstein with the Millenial Territory Orchestra. He's one of the most imaginative musicians I know, and the MTO is always fun. Erik Lawrence plays baritone sax in the MTO and also fronts a group called Hipmotism, which includes Steven playing trumpet. Marya Lawrence will sing with Erik again this year. They're kids of saxophonist Arnie Lawrence and are way talented like their father. I've known them most of their lives, since Marya was 2. Arnie was like a brother to me, so Marya and Erik are my virtual niece and nephew.
We'll also have again this year Dena DeRose and some first-timers, singer Kendra Shank and guitarist Frank Vignola. I booked vibraharpist Joe Locke several years ago, but he came, he played, and he couldn't stay. We like when the artists bring the family and enjoy the whole weekend at Mohonk. This year he'll have his own group and I'll have him also perform with other groups all weekend. We'll end the jazzfest on Monday morning with what I call Parlor Games. All the gigs happen in a parlor, and on the farewell morning I like to mix and match musicians.
We'll kick off the festival Friday evening with The Brazilian Trio (Helio Alves, Nilson Matta, Duduka da Fonseca) and singer Maucha Adnet. I kicked off 2008 with Nilson, Duduka, and Maucha live at The Jazz Standard on the WBGO/NPR New Year's Eve Toast of the Nation. I don't know what the weather will be like over the weekend, but usually it's cold on the mountain. I thought that since it's summer in Rio, opening the festival with musical sunlight from Brazil was ideal.
Being freezing most of the years I've been there, I don't like going outside during the jazzfest. Mohonk is a beautiful castle-like hotel, built in the 19th Century by the same Quaker family that owns it all today. I brought a sketchbook one year and drew it all -- until the ink froze. I much prefer looking outside from the inside. If you have a room facing the lake, you see mostly the mountain, with a little castle at the top. Except for the skating rink, you see pretty much no other signs of civilization. And since the rooms don't have TVs, you really get the feeling of an escape. They also didn't have a bar until a year or so ago, unheard of at a jazz festival, so there's usually some BYOB among the jazzers.
While they have a new spa and oodles of activities beyond the jazzfest, when I'm not listening to music or eating, I'm damn near a pyromaniac. I've never lived anywhere with a fireplace, and I love building the firewood into downright artistic sculptures, then watching everything blaze.