Reflections on The 29th Festival International De Jazz De Montreal 2008

By Kris King

The Montreal International Jazz Festival has to rank as my personal favorite festival of the year – ANY year. The world’s largest musical event transforms the heart of Montreal into Festival central for 11 days and nights with so many concerts my head was spinning just trying to see as much as humanly possible in the six days that I was there. Truth be told, I wish I could be there for every minute of the 11 day festival.

What makes this festival one of the worlds largest and most brilliant programming events is the cooperation of the city of Montreal. Every year for 29 years Montreal throws its doors wide open and shakes off the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands of people who cram into the many indoor and outdoor concerts on schedule. Several main arteries in a large section of downtown Montreal are closed off, allowing for the kind of staging and pedestrian traffic that comes with an event of this magnitude.

The 29th edition dedicated to the late, great Oscar Peterson who passed away the previous December featured Peterson contemporaries Hank Jones, McCoy Tyner and Dave Brubeck in a special series sponsored by Rio Tinto Alcan along with Brad Mehldau and Oliver Jones. A humungous portrait of Peterson hung above the entrance to Place des Arts, where many of the concerts were held indoors in the numerous theatres inside and overlooked the crowds and stages outside.

Our first night brought us to the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier theatre in Place des Arts to see Lizz Wright who opened for headliner Al Green. Her understated stage persona serves her musical style well. Dressed in a stylish print dress and barefoot as always, Wright began her set with a version of Neil Young’s ‘Old Man Look at My Life’, followed by a deep and soulful ‘Hit the Ground’ co-written with two other songwriters. Changing up the tempo for ‘Walk With Me Lord’ a slow funk, with funky piano solo brought her beautiful vocals to a crest. Moving into the ethereal ‘Stop’ (Tell me Everything But Don’t Tell Me To Stop) her arm and hand gestures were as soft as feathers floating on the wind. Ending her set with signature song Salt from her debut CD brought the audience to their feet in a rousing encore to perform the Led Zepplin ballad ‘Thank You’ from her 2008 release Orchard, this time even her band received a standing ovation.

As mellow and serene as Wright’s set was, the Al Green show began with a nine- piece band, backup singers and a couple of young male dancers working it out to ‘I Just Can’t Stop’. Green has never sounded better. When he addressed the audience, he told them “the people in Toronto told me to tell you to ‘get it on’” before moving into the old Isley Brothers hit ‘Take Me in Your Arms’. Green took off his jacket as the first notes of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ began bringing the entire audience to their feet. ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ took Green into the audience where he walked around hugging the women and shaking hands with the men before bounding back to the stage. ‘Here I Am Baby’ erupted as Green enthused “I feel the love here in Montreal and I am going to stand up here and sing them all for you” as he continued to pass out more roses to the audience.

“Let me do some more songs that helped shaped me since I was knee-high to a duck.” Green launched into a medley of ‘I Can’t Help Myself’, ‘My Girl’, ‘Bring It On Home’, ‘Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay’, ‘I’ve Been Loving’ You Too Long’, ‘You Are Everything’, ‘I’m So Tired of Bein’ Alone’

“We had for real music,” said Green. When Green sang the songs of others, he sounded exactly like the artist who had the hit. I waited all night to hear ‘Love and Happiness’ but when it finally came at the very end of his set, the heavy thumping beat, the background vocals just didn’t hit the mark for me, even when he brought the horns to the front of stage while throwing more roses with big goodbyes and “I love you Montreal.” Regardless, Al Green is still quite possibly the best R&B singer today.

Cuban pianist, composer and arranger Roberto Fonseca’s first performance at a jazz festival was at the age of 15 at the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival, he toured with Cuban greats Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo and followed in the footsteps of Ruben Gonzalaz as pianist in the famed Buena Vista Social Club. Father Roberto senior is a drummer and mother Mercedes Cortes Alfaro a singer currently featured on Fonseca’s ‘Zamazu’ CD. Roberto’s early music career started with drums and percussion that is obvious in his playing.

In his first visit to the Festival International Jazz De Montreal, Fonseca performed songs from his most recent CD ‘Zamazu’ under a spotlight, in the otherwise dimly lit Theatre Jean-Duceppe. Head thrown back, right knee lifted high, fingers flying across the keys at times with lightening speed, Fonseca took us on a tour of his unique compositions that featured son, afro-Cuban, Turkish, Middle Eastern, jazz, soul, R&B and funk flavors. He exposed softer more sorrowful voices in Suspiro, Llego Cachaito and Dime Que No.

Omara Portuondo often called the ‘voice of Cuba’ in a career that has spanned more than 60 years, from dancer in the famed Tropicana Club in 1945, to a solo career to joining Ibrahim Ferrer in the Buena Vista Social Club in 1996. Omara Portuondo has established legendary renown not only in Cuba but also throughout the world.

At 78 years old, Portuondo stepped gracefully onto the stage at Theatre Maisonneuve de la Place des Arts’ in front of a sold-out crowd to unveil material from ‘Gracias’, a recording of songs that hold special meaning to Portuondo and celebrates her 60th anniversary in music. Dressed in a flattering coral pink dress with matching scarf tied around her head, it was clear that Omara continues to enjoy performing. Keeping a steady hand on the music stand for balance and a lyric book close by, Portuondo’s soulful voice soared on songs such as Adios Felicidad, Yo Vi, O Que Sera, Cachita, Cuento Para Un Nino, and Amame Como Soy. It was a great pleasure to see Cuba’s national treasure perform compositions from Silvio Rodrigues, Jorge Drexler and my personal favorite, Pablo Milanes with such vocal dexterity and passion. Her busy schedule continues throughout 2009 as she once again tours the world.

I dropped in to catch some photographs of Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band next. It is not often that you see a major filmmaker headlining a major jazz festival, one of the world’s best jazz festivals. This was a major, long awaited event. Although Allen has been invited to perform at the MIFJ in the past, filmmaking has made that impossible until now. The audience was pumped, their excitement palpable.

Allen, along with his band mates Jerry Zigmont, music director Eddy Davis, and Simon Wettenhall walked onstage, took their seats and started to play without saying a word. One might think that someone like Allen, who has been playing the clarinet since he was 15, (he is now in his seventies) would, in that amount of time, be a the top of his clarinet game, but that is not the case, at least in this outing. There were times I was not sure if he slept through the other’s solos, or his own for that matter. What matters, I suppose, is that they were having fun playing the music they love and perhaps even some in the audience loved it too. Allen was just one of the guys showing no ego star turns onstage.

Once we walked outside, we were caught up in a giant street party reveling in the pulsing reggae/R&B beats of Jamaica to Toronto. Thousands of people crammed the street and over-flowed into every nook and cranny available to hear the group that included some of the best reggae, ska, soul and rocksteady recording artists who came from the West Indies in the early sixties and seventies. Frontman and lead singer Jay Douglas was kicking out old school jams while Pablo ‘Everton’ Paul kept pace on the drums.

There was so much music to see and hear at the festival that we did our best to catch as many shows indoors and out. Outdoor stages were set up all over the perimeter of the downtown core; some of the highlights were the Mario Allard Quintet, Mayra Andrade, young guitarist Ricky Paquette, Chicha Libre, Naturally 7, Scott Kettner’s Nation Beat, Shakura S’Aida, Laila Biali Trio, Pappa Groove and the electrifying NOJAZZ from France.

At the clubs, we saw Melody Gardot and Miguel Zenon Quartet for a late night set.

Back in the Place de Arts many theatre Dianne Reeves marveled at the size of the Oscar Peterson photograph mounted outside the theatre before launching into ‘Social Call’, ‘One for My Baby, One More for the Road’. Reeves was dancing and singing with African rhythms on ‘This Child of Mine’ along with other songs from her latest CD ‘When You Know’, released in May.

Reeves is always at the top of her game in vocal phrasing spinning unique interpretations to standards as well as her own compositions in a way that is reminiscent of jazz queens Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday. She loves to tell stories and weave them into her songs, on this night she spoke of her 84-year-old mother – as 84 years young. “She said to say grace, so I don’t have to get grace – anyway, this is her groove” as she began singing the up-tempo ‘Today Will Be a Good Day’. “I don’t think my mother ever thought she would see the day that someone like Barack Obama could possibly become President, it’s an amazing time in our lives” as she segued into ‘If I Could Help Somebody” accepella. A guitar/vocal samba version of ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ was followed by the title track from her CD, ‘When You Know’ to close the show.

It is safe to say that pianist Hank Jones is a national treasure; he has been awarded with the National Endowment of the Arts NEA Jazz Master Award, the ASCAP Living Legend Award, the National Medal of Arts award, a Jazz Journalist Award, an International Jazz Hallof Fame award and five Grammy nominations. Hank’s illustrious career has spanned over 7 decades, produced over 500 recordings and given him an opportunity to play with just about every major jazz artist that ever lived. He is the older brother of Thad and Elvin - an interesting bit of trivia; he was the pianist that backed Marilyn Monroe when she sang a special Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy.

A month shy of his 90th birthday Jones took the stage at Theatre Jean-Duceppe de la Place des Arts with careful steps and a big smile. He began the set solo with ‘Monk’s Mood’ followed by ‘Lonely Woman’ before bringing out bassist Charlie Haden to join him. Theirs was a comfortable pairing as Haden affectionately patted Jones on the shoulder before taking his place on stage. They started with a small hitch in the tempo on ‘My Love and I’ before rebounding in almost perfect timing on ‘Alone Together’. I expected to hear more from their ‘Steal Away’ CD recorded in 1995, but in this outing they stuck to standards such as ‘Body and Soul’, “It took four men to write that song” said Jones, ‘We’ll Be Together Again’, ‘My Old Flame...”in the key of G”, ‘Moose Mooch’ and ‘Au Privave’ by Charlie Parker. Performing only one song from the Steal Away CD, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ in a set that lasted for over and hour and a half, ending with an encore of ‘Blue Monk’.

A highlight in the festival among many was Aretha Franklin’s performance. I attended as a photographer; we were allotted two songs to take photographs during her set up from the original one. Beginning with ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ followed by ‘Natural Woman’. Franklin’s vocals soared throughout the auditorium, incredibly strong and powerful. She was unusually gracious to the many photographers who lined both sides of the stage, playing to us, looking at us, and giving us all a chance to get those important performance photos within that two-song period. That is almost unheard of, particularly by an artist of her stature.

McCoy Tyner seemed a bit fragile as he walked onto the stage but once he sat down at the piano his fingers sailed across the keys in animated energy. There was an easy connection between Tyner, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Erik Kamau Gravatt. Tyner introduced Ravi Coltrane saying “I’ve known him since he was a child. His father was my teacher.” Their special bond, a mutual fondness and respect for each other was evident in their playing. They goaded each other like brothers in a playful musical challenge throughout their short set that ended with two encores.

77 year-old singer, songwriter, actor, painter and activist Abbey Lincoln was thinner and noticeably frail as she stepped onto the stage at Theatre Maisonneuve, wearing a smile, her signature wide brimmed hat, her hair in braids. Although Lincoln started out rough in the beginning phrases of ‘Music Is the Magic’ she quickly found the strength to belt out the lyrics in her uniquely soulful voice. A chair was set-aside for Lincoln to sit down and she took advantage of it when the band took their solos. She sat smiling, completely engrossed in the music until it was her turn back at the mike.

The opportunity to see Hank Jones, McCoy Tyner, Aretha Franklin, Dianne Reeves, Al Green, Omara Portuondo, Woody Allen, Lizz Wright, Roberto Fonseca, Richard Galliano and Steely Dan, in the concert halls inside Place des Arts that had the right lightening, the right acoustics and great sound ensures that the audience enjoys the best possible concert experience, I know I did.

The many outdoor concerts such as Jully Black, Mario Allard Quintet, Shakura S’Aida, Nojazz, Scott Kettner’s Nation Beat, Papa Groove, Laila Biali, Mayra Andrade, Chicha Libre, Naturally 7, Ricky Paquette and Jamaica to Toronto provided a youthful diversity of genres, from R&B, Soul, Fusion, Dub, Latin and Rock, featured music to satisfy every musical taste.

I look forward to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival with my husband on our 40th anniversary…there’s no place I’d rather be than enjoying the worlds’ best jazz festival in one of the most romantic cities in North America.

The 30th Anniversary of Festival International de Jazz de Montreal June 30-July 12, 2009

For more festival information, updates and schedules visit: http://montrealjazzfest.com

For more information on Montreal visit: http://www.tourisme-montreal.org

To view more photographs of the festival visit: www.kriskingphoto.com

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Kris King