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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 ...
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."
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.
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.
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 ...
WBGO's Michael Bourne says "Montreal," and everything the city encompasses -- its people, music, and culture -- makes his "life worth living." For 20 years, Jazz88's celebrity DJ has been treated there like royalty. And this year was no different. The festival decided to rename its famous pressroom "Salle de Presse Michael Bourne." On this special radio show, WBGO's Simon Rentner interviews Bourne about his fondest memories over the last two decades: the beautiful Montreal press women fawning over him, gorging himself on creative pies from Pizzadelic, watching Cirque Du Soleil dancers swing from 40-story buildings, and having his "mind blown" with music he's never heard before.
Plus, Michael Bourne shares with us exclusive concert recordings of Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock and others from Montreal's Jazz Festival's vault, courtesy of Serge Lafortune at Equipespectra.
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.
Pianists Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap stopped by to discuss what it's like for the husband-and-wife team to play duos together.
Hugo and Zoe of Paris-based French Electro swing and Gypsy Jazz band Caravan Palace explained how they no longer have to hire dancers because they've learned the moves themselves.
Our own Simon Rentner spoke with the UK-based jazz rock quartet Get the Blessing.
Belgian pianist Jeff Neve composed the score to the movie "The Artist," but here in Montreal he's playing with his trio.
Organist and Miles Davis-alum Joey DeFrancesco happend by our broadcast booth so we pulled him in to talk all things Miles.
Playing with Joey in a Miles Davis tribute concert is another Miles alum, guitarist Larry Coryell.
Despite a two hour flight delay, All-Star Bassist Ron Carter came straight to our broadcast booth to talk about teaching the next generation of bassists.
Perennial favorite street band Streetnix again is featured in the street scene of Montreal, and Jennifer Bell stopped by to chat with Michael Bourne.
BONUS: Click here for some photos of their street perfomance. And here is audio from the performance:
It's All Over Now
Let the Good Times Roll
And pianist Taurey Butler - born and raised in East Orange, NJ but now making his home in Montreal - is a rising star that we expect to see more of in the future.
Pianist Aaron Parks has never played with pianist Joey Calderazzo, but here at the Festival the two will meet for a night of improvised duos. Parks talked to Michael Bourne on what - if anything - they were planning.
Later Joey Calderazzo stopped by. Michael Bourne needled him about the performance, and talked to Joey about the dynamics of playing with Branford Marsalis.
Vocalist Carmen Lundy is playing the Festival in support of her new album, "Changes." She talks about what it's like to write all your own material.
Kneebody is a New York-based quintet featuring Ben Wendel and Shane Endsley. Simon rentner spoke with them.
The street scene is replete with horn bands, but it's not often you find one at an inside venue. Claude St. Jean is the leader of L'orchestra des pas perdue - The Lost Steps Orchestra.
The Montreal Jazz Festival has got to be one of the most wide-ranging music festivals, with straight-ahead jazz trios to jazz rock and electronica. Laurent Saulnier, a programmer for the Festival, helps push that "edge."
Brazilian singer/guitarist Marcio Faraco explains to Michael Bourne how intertwined speech and musical styles are.
Pianist Oliver Jones is the godfather of the Montreal Jazz Scene. Michael Bourne spoke to him about his singular lesson with another Great, Canadian Pianist Oscar Peterson.
The Acoustic Guitar duo Strunz and Farah are originally from Costa Rica and Iran, respectively. Their sound is worldly and eclectic.
It's been more than a decade since pianist Aaron Goldberg has played the Montreal Jazz Festival. But he told Michael Bourne he's still amazed at the atmosphere of the Festival.
Festival Artistic Director Andre Menard talks about going to Heavy Metal music festivals.
Colin Vallon talks about working with Manfred Eicher on his ECM debut.
Montreal native bassist Adrian Vedady met American pianist Marc Copeland through an exchange of emails, and now they make up an international trio.
Harmonica Quartet D'Harmo play live and show Michael Bourne the challenges of playing a two-foot long harmonica.
Dawn Taylor Watson calls Paul Deslauriers her "musical mari" - her musical husband. They play live and talk to Michael Bourne.
James Carter reminisced about filming "Kansas City."
Pianist Lorraine Desmarais talks with fellow judge Michael Bourne about the hot competition for the Jazz TD Award.
Blues singer Miche Braden portrays Bessie Smith at this year's Festival.
Superstar International Press Handler Vincent Lefebvre makes everything happen for WBGO.
Our first interview of the day was delta blues and jazz guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps.
Bassist Stanley Clarke was honored with an Invitation Series this year - the opportunity to play four nights in groups of his choosing. These include an acoustic evening with jazz pianist Hiromi, a concert with this Harlem String Quartet, a bass extravaganza with SMV aka Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten and a final evening with the Stanley Clarke Band.
A duo of Canadian vocalists stopped by. Dorothee Berryman is both a stage and screen actress as well as a singer with two releases.
Sonia Johnson won a Juno - the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy - for her album Le Carré de Nos Amours.
And bassist Victor Wooten - perhaps best known for his work with Bela Fleck - is playing the Festival with his own group.
Burn down the "Jesus Room." That doesn't sound good, but that's exactly what Joey Calderazzo and Aaron Parks accomplished at Montreal's Gesu Centre de Creativite on Gershwin's “Liza,” the last tune of the evening. These two pianists -- unfamiliar with each other and separated by two generations -- started a bit more mild, warming up on Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way." But immediately the natural chemistry was there. Ten fingers on 176 keys can often be a handful on the ears. But they avoided the pitfalls of playing over each other, avoiding any chaotic clutter. Instead, they coalesced into one sound, a single expression. They even hummed together. It's these moments where the magic of jazz can be so spellbinding. Two virtuosos came together for random interplay, left their egos behind, and created beautiful, unselfish music. Calderazzo humbly bragged that they only rehearsed once together, only 45 minutes before show time. Despite these straining odds, they were able to find moments of relaxation, pause, and space during the concert. They shared their common interest in the music of Keith Jarrett ("Rainbows”). But the high point of the show for me was Aaron Parks playing solo on Duke Ellington's "Melancholia." That's the moment my heart skipped and a small tear crept in my eye.
WBGO’S Simon Rentner concludes his broadcast coverage of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal by asking a simple question: Why Montreal? Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director André Ménard and Vice President of Programming Laurent Saulnier have their answers. Plus, Canadian musicians Peter Appleyard and Claude St-Jean chime in.
WBGO's Simon Rentner, reporting from the last day from Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, asks: Does Canadian Jazz Have A Sound? Artistic Director and Jazz Festival co-founder André Ménard (above), Canadian singer Sonia Johnson, and our own Michael Bourne answer that question.