Montreal International Jazz Festival
June 27-28, 2011
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(MONTREAL) – I am only being slightly facetious when I say that whenever I heard anything that sounded remotely like jazz over the last four days at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, I quickly fled in the opposite direction.
Music emanates from all over the festival grounds. There are a dozen or so outdoor stages, ranging from huge mega-stages in plazas that can hold 20,000 concertgoers, to mini-stages that invite more intimate give-and-take between onlookers and musicians, and mostly stages in between, where a few hundred or a thousand listeners can gather freely and soak in the eclectic sounds of this perennially well-programmed festival of all kinds of music from around the world and around the corner in Montreal.
In addition to the official groups performing on the free outdoor stages and in ticketed shows that take place in every conceivable venue within a square mile – old converted nightclubs and movie palaces, former discotheques, ballrooms, church auditoriums, and more formal concert halls – the festival, as these things will, invite the unexpected: street musicians pop up here and there playing Hendrix-like electric guitar riffs or plaintive violin. And the festival is of course more than just about music – there are other entertainments, including acrobatics, stilt walkers, mimes, and magicians walking the grounds. I even saw a yogini roll out her mat and practice her considerably supple sun salutations. How many of these are officially approved festival performers, and how many just set up shop in the hopes of passing the hat, remains unknown to me, but it certainly adds to the festive nature of the festival, which, considering the thousands it attracts every day – and the fact that the festival grounds themselves, at least over the past four years I’ve been attending, seem in a perpetual state of reconstruction – is an incredibly laid-back, low-key affair, almost always friendly, safe, welcoming, and with very little attitude.
This is as much a tribute to the top-down management style that seems to cultivate what is a deceptively tight-run ship as it is to the people of Montreal and the thousands of visitors of all ages who flock to central Montreal at the beginning of each summer to soak in sounds from South Africa to Australia, from the Balkans to Brooklyn, from Jamaica to London to Bern to Toronto to Texas to Colombia and more.
Oh yeah, and then there’s jazz.
There are certain outdoor stages set aside for what most laypeople would consider jazz if they heard it, and honestly I did listen to some of it (but not much), and I couldn’t help but pass by these stages and every time I did, with one ear attuned to what was coming off the stage, I noted how remarkable the playing was, at least virtuosically, if not always originally. But for the most part there was something unique and exciting even about the most straight ahead jazz I heard – Ernesto Cervini’s wild, Gene Krupa-on-steroids drumming with his hard-bop ensemble (Krupa, of course, already sounded like he was on steroids before anyone had ever heard of them). A particularly blowsy trombonist in a New Orleans-styled ensemble. Or a mellifluous pianist in the style of Oscar Peterson. Yes, there was plenty to please jazz fans, and these were just sounds that came from the free stages.
I did hear some great jazz playing indoors, too – Kenny Garrett’s tribute to his father-in-law, reedman Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr, featured some great ensemble playing and soloing, and Effendi JazzLab was a tight group if somewhat academic in its approach.
But jazz as Montreal seems to define it is a much broader term. Jazz is and was to be found, of course, in the exciting proto-Afrobeat of Hugh Masakela, the icon of Afropop perhaps known best for his horn playing but who showed himself to be a consummate entertainer and incredible vocalist, drawing upon traditional African vocal traditions to mimic sounds of nature and man-made creations like a railroad, and borrowing from the griot tradition in delivering a story-song about coal miners.
There was an obvious connection between what someone like Masakela was doing and what Southside Johnny did with the latest incarnation of the Asbury Jukes. While somewhat justly regarded as the Bruce Springsteen who never made it big (he came out of the same scene as the Boss, shared musicians early on, and much of his early body of work were some of Springsteen’s greatest castoff numbers, which Johnny Lyons generously peppered throughout his set). While rooted in the blues and especially early 1960s white New Tork R&B, Johnny’s music is powered by tight ensemble horn lines, which couldn’t help but be heard as a tribute to the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died just a few weeks ago. Lyons’s saxophonist, in particular, would be a more-than-worthy replacement for the Big Man, if the Boss were to be so inclined (not a good idea, in my book); his economical fills and quick solos were as good or better than Clemons’s.
Johnny himself is a mixed bag. While he put on a great show on Tuesday night, and while his style of barroom white soul is forgiving of the ravages of aging (think Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Tom Waits – the more gravelly your voice, the better, and just because you don’t look as attractive as you used to – if you ever did – this is working man’s music, not pretty boy stuff), there is something a little unnerving or unsettled about Lyons’s personality that is off-putting – a hint of a vicious streak, perhaps a chip on his shoulder. He worked as hard or harder than all the younger members of his band, but he still came across as a second-rate personality, competent and impassioned, yes, but broken and embittered, too. It was poignant for me especially, as I enjoyed multiple shows by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in their heyday, which I suppose was 1977-1980, and they seemed to show up everywhere.
Marc Ribot’s Caged Funk Ensemble had more to do with the Caged than with the funk. The Cage in question was John Cage, and that can be rough hoeing, as it was judging by the slow but steady trickle of concertgoers that left the theater during the show after each song. Ribot and his terrific ensemble, featuring famed keyboardist Bernie Worrell (who played a few very recognizable, Worrellian licks on keyboard, which any Talking Heads fan would have recognized) before moving over to the more Cage-ian prepared piano. DJ Logic was on hand to scratch, mix, and sample, and Brad Jones, who seems to be the downtown bassist of the moment, kept the bottom going. Ribot, of course, is a visionary, bandleader, and a musician who uses the guitar (to call him a guitarist, which he can be if he wants to, is to minimize what he does), and while his interest in resetting Cage works like his Sonata for Two Voices and Imaginary Landscape #1 may have seemed like a fun and challenging project – and one that indeed had its moments of transcendence and revelation, such as on the latter number, when seemingly random sounds coalesced and revealed an inner rhythm and logic as highly ordered as anything by Bach — ultimately this was an intellectual exercise heavy on the Cage and virtually non-existent with the funk.
The antidote, overlapping with Ribot’s show, was the New Orleans-based jazz-rock outfit Galactic, which provided a party soundtrack on the main plaza’s outdoor stage that drew from a huge breadth of influences, including its hometown jazz and brass, Rolling Stones-ish rock, soul and hip-hop, and even klezmer modalities – several members of Galactic formerly belonged to the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, and they have absorbed the funkier side and intriguing melodic possibilities of that music, too.
While vocalist Alejandra Ribera may not be ready for prime-time, she boasts a big, versatile voice, ranging from full-throated flamenco to vibrato-laden Billie Holiday. A native of Toronto of mixed Argentinian-Scottish heritage, the fusion shone through in her performance as she leapt from Latin pop to French chanson to Norah Jones-style jazz. Ghanaian-American Blitz the Ambassador led a wild and crazy live hip-hop band with a three-man horn section boasting synchronized dance moves and his own overpowering charisma and considerable chops as a rapper, blending the showmanship and style of James Brown and the JBs with a deep appreciation for AfroBeat roots music of soukous, hi-life and Miriam Makeba.
South African ensemble Freshlyground was an intriguing blend of Ani DiFranco-like feminist songwriting with colorful, upbeat African-influenced pop and rock. Instrumentation included flute, saxophone, guitar, keys, violin, bass, and drums, and the lead singer was a compelling frontwoman who knew how to entertain, much like DiFranco, while singing numbers of emotional and political anguish. Tuesday night’s featured performer on the main plaza stage, Misteur Valaire, a huge pop-electronica ensemble – more like a corporation or a Las Vegas stage show than a band – proved that even Canada can up with worse pop hybrids than the U.S. The best you can say for this spectacle of light, sound, dance, and pre-programmed music and beats featuring a huge corps of dancers, male and female vocalists taking turns as if it were an episode of American Idol (at least I think so, having never seen the show), is that apparently the mastermind behind it all has heard of the Beastie Boys and the Cars. The worst is the group lacks any coherence whatsoever, and if this is what 20,000 listeners came to hear, thinking this is the coolest music of the moment, well, not to begrudge them their fun. I hope they got their money’s worth. (That’s a joke, as the concert was free.)
The trio Bomata, featuring clarinet, percussion, and bass, played music from the crossroads between the Balkans and Turkey, where klezmer rubbed up against the maqam, where Gypsy music danced with Arabic sounds. In a funny way, this was as jazzy as anything, just a different kind of jazz, which in the end is what Montreal International Jazz Festival seems to celebrate and stand for, and what makes it a perennial pleasure for so many.
Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic, editor of The Rogovoy Report, and author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet and The Essential Klezmer.