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Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Charlie Haden took a moment at the start of his Montreal International Jazz Festival concert to recite the evening’s set list–including his choice of encore. When the audience twittered at this presumption, the bassist seemed stranded for a moment, but then spread his arms imploringly. “What can I do?” he shrugged. “This is Montreal. You guys have made yourselves the most predictable audience in the world.” At this, the Theatre Maisonneuve de la Place des Arts filled with appreciative laughter that rippled into applause. Montreal fans are well aware of their reputation for enthusiasm and erudition, but they don’t mind having it confirmed every once in a while.

The extravagant warmth of the crowds is just one distinguishing feature of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. Another is the setting–a network of concert halls, ballrooms and clubs in the heart of downtown, with a central four-block radius closed to vehicular traffic. Ten outdoor stages offer free concerts on a staggered schedule, and a number of bands log additional time in the streets; I slowed my pace on the arterial Rue Sainte Catherine more than once for an outfit from Marseilles called Accoules Sax (six saxophones, two marching drummers, and an ample if unsubtle sense of groove). Concertgoers walking from one ticketed venue to another confront many such diversions–an alleged 350 outdoor concerts altogether–and yet the festival site never takes more than ten or fifteen minutes to traverse. The seamlessness of the experience is a credit to the festival’s workforce, which surely rivals any special event staff on the planet for efficiency and industry. Their mostly invisible efforts imbue the proceedings with an impression of homeostatic order; after a while it no longer seems remarkable that the flow of pedestrians never clogs and the concerts begin and end on time.

The concerts, of course, are the central facet in the festival’s dazzling success. Montreal routinely manages some serious programming–including what’s now known as the “Invitation” series, which showcases an artist in a multitude of musical environments. Haden was the first to receive this treatment officially, in 1989; the previous year, guitarist Pat Metheny had presaged the tradition with a passel of guest appearances. Metheny got his own Invitation this year, appearing on five indoor concerts–in trio, in dialogue with Haden, in a reunited Gary Burton Quartet, in a version of his 80/81 group with Dewey Redman, and with an all-star aggregate with Me’shell Ndegeocello–as well as a festival-capping outdoor show by the exhaustively traveled Pat Metheny Group. Unfortunately, my visit had to end before this gauntlet of shows; the only taste of Metheny in Montreal, for me, was a press conference on the Fourth of July. “It is a unique culture,” Metheny mused there, alluding to the “true bilingual structure” of the Quebecois city. “That awareness and sensitivity [to language] translates to the feeling you get as a performer. There’s an intensity to the way people listen here.”

The process Metheny described–capricious, unforced cultural exchange–had already been brilliantly enacted by Montreal’s other Invitation honoree, Zakir Hussain. The tabla master performed four concerts in as many days, beginning with traditional North Indian classical settings and delving into contemporary fusions. The third concert in the series matched Hussain with multi-reedist Charles Lloyd and drummer Eric Harland; the two Westerners, having played a gripping concert the previous evening with Lloyd’s quartet, struck an even more meditative note here, riding ostinatos that freely and organically evolved. The spirited percussive dialogue between Hussain and Harland provided the fulcrum of the performance, although Lloyd’s tenor saxophone and alto flute brought a crucial humanizing touch. Hussain was more willfully explosive on the following night’s concert, which reunited him with the guitarist John McLaughlin; the former Shakti brethren share an offhanded virtuosity that occasionally threatened to dominate the show. Fortunately, the two musicians also have keen lyrical sensibilities, and Hussain had the good sense to bring in Sultan Khan on sarangi (a violin-like instrument well suited to keening cries) and Selva Ganesh and Bhavani Shankar on percussion (khanjira and pakhawaj, two species of hand drum). The unannounced guests had formally appeared on the first two days of this series, and their rapport with Hussain was deeply etched. The resulting music was both traditional and radical, an indisputable festival highlight.

In the interest of seeking out the unknown, I chose to miss a number of top-shelf artists I’ve seen in recent months, or will be seeing again soon. Among these were such popular offerings as Lizz Wright, Madeleine Peyroux, the Bill Charlap Trio, and Bill Frisell’s Intercontinental Band. I had planned on violating my rule for the Dave Holland Big Band, but inclement weather delayed my incoming flight, and I missed it. I did manage to make an exception for Medeski Martin & Wood, whose characteristically groovy show featured guitarist Marc Ribot in an occasionally riveting solo spotlight. Ribot also opened with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, in a group called The Young Philadelphians; their set offered glints of creative vision but an oppressively heavy rhythmic foundation, along with some tuneless sung-shouted vocals. Still, the concert was energizing; the same cavernous Spectrum club was packed with café tables a few nights later for the Neville Brothers, and while the arrangement suited an older audience, it also relegated the few intrepid booty-shakers to the fire exits and side aisles.

This was never a problem at the late-night hang Club Soda, where shows began at midnight and leaned heavy on danceable rhythms. I wasn’t in town for Brazilian Girls and DJ Maüs on opening night, but I did catch Bugge Wesseltoft, who swayed mantis-like over his keyboards while a live drummer complemented a battery of suave electronic beats. Although deeply indebted to early-’70s fusion–Wesseltoft’s Fender Rhodes was persistently and carefully fuzzed out, like a pair of distressed designer jeans–the grooves were ultramodern, and rougher around the edges live than on record. At any rate, it was unquestionably a more thoughtful hybrid than the one presented the following night by Holy Fuck, a Toronto-based analog industrial band about as subtle and tasteful as the name suggests.

Subtlety and taste were ubiquitous on Haden’s concert, a setting of his Grammy-winning album Land of the Sun (Verve). The performance suffered overall from a numbing sameness in tempo and mood, but there were a couple of electrifying moments. One came early: Miguel Zenon’s brilliantly assured alto saxophone solo on Jose Sabre Marroquin’s lullaby “Fuiste Tu.” A few tunes later, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby embroidered another ballad with inventions at once graceful and exploratory, lyrical and beseeching. The ensemble was proficient and courtly throughout, and clearly comfortable with the luminous arrangements of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, with whom Haden shares a piece of festival lore. (It was on that first Invitation series that Haden introduced the Cuban piano phenom to the world; consult the Verve CD The Montreal Tapes.)

Naturally there were a few small disappointments: Dr. John’s strangely wan Theatre Maisonneuve performance; a bouncy but glib Los Amigos Invisibles set; and a stiff, vaguely Third Stream concert by the Montreal drummer-bandleader Bernard Primeau, who received this festival’s Oscar Peterson Award. But there were many more modest pleasures, like one particularly rollicking, Mingus-inspired number by the Enrico Rava Quintet, and a breezy outdoor show by the singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne. The biggest treat, of course, was the festival at large, and the extent to which the entire city falls under its spell. During my final hours in Montreal, I occupied a table in the Hyatt Regency lounge where the festival’s official jam session was underway. At a nearby table were the members of Frisell’s band, enjoying a post-show libation; onstage was the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who had galvanized an outdoor set that afternoon by the Matthias Lupri Group. I sat and nursed a drink until well into the morning hours. When I left, the music was still going strong.

Originally Published