Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(MONTREAL) – Diversity and eclecticism run rampant at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which takes the term “jazz” in its widest and broadest context, such that in one evening a listener could hear a tribute to a former sideman of Dizzy Gillespie featuring a straight-ahead saxophone star playing Seventies-style jazz-rock; an acoustic foursome recreating and reinvigorating the style of Gypsy jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt; hard bop played by a regional band as if it were 1956; Cuban folk music; and an iconic British reggae band.
Such was my evening last night, which culminated with a concert by England’s Steel Pulse. The 35-year-old group, founded and still led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter David Hinds, has lost none of the power or urgency that defined them from the outset. They still sing against political and social oppression and Black nationalism (Marcus Garvey was invoked from the outset) and adhere to their Rastafarian beliefs.
Ernest Ranglin and the Rub-a-Dub Rebels from Jamaica warmed up the crowd for Steel Pulse. Ranglin, who turned 79 last week, is often considered the inventor of the “scratching” sound of guitar that characterizes ska and reggae – he was a session player at the famed Studio One – but last night he seemed more like the B.B. King of Jamaican music, playing long, single-note leads in front of a horn-heavy little big band. Indeed, Charlie Christian was his greatest influence, and Ranglin has often fused jazz and reggae, as he did, appropriately enough, last night given the context of his performance at the jazz festival.
Les Doigts de L’Homme – “the man’s fingers” – is the apt name of the foursome celebrating the tradition of Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy swing. Reinhardt’s playing is always noted for his lightning-fast runs, and these guys have those but they also bring something else to the music, which I’ve always found a bit too precious and stuck in the 1930s. This quartet has a fun and relaxed quality, which, with no sacrifice at all to virtuosity, struck me more like a bluegrass group than a Gypsy jazz re-creation.
The Ernesto Cervini Quartet, from Ottawa, swung hard, powered by Cervini’s Gene Krupa-like drumming on steroids. Featuring saxophone, piano and bass, these young musicians displayed great group interplay and musical conversation and dynamics. This was a tightly wound outfit that could – and often did – stop and start and turn on a dime.
Performing on an outdoor stage, the Sexteto Tabala De Palenque performed a hundred-year-old style of Cuban call-and-response vocals and percussion, combining Columbian, African and European influences.
My evening began with a touching tribute to Canadian reedman Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr, featuring his sons Nasyr on drums and Muhammad on trombone. Al-Khabyyr, who has suffered several debilitating strokes over the last decade, was in the audience to be treated to the honor, which was given added import by the participation of saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who happens to be married to Al-Khabyyr’s daughter.
While the sound was wide-ranging, reflecting Al-Khabyyr’s long career as a bandleader, session man, sideman, teacher, composer, and soloist, much of the music was rooted in the 1970s jazz-rock, the DNA of today’s jam-band music, except played here by musicians with real jazz chops. You could hear how groups like the Grateful Dead, Santana, Chicago, Frank Zappa and Steely Dan borrowed from this sound, which touched down in Latin and psychedelia often.
A short video recounting Al-Khabyyr’s life and career was shown, and Al-Khabyyr and his wife were brought to the stage in a heartfelt scene of thanks and gratitude, celebrating a hometown legend. Montreal International Jazz, after all, is about both – Montreal, and International – and while Al-Khabyyr himself embodies both, this was a touching moment to honor the provincial.
Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic and the author of The Essential Klezmer and Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet.