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Montreal International Jazz Festival

Montreal, Quebec, Canada; June 30-July 12, 2009

Lee Konitz

To mark its 30th anniversary, the Montreal Jazz Festival-a favorite among critics and musicians alike-got a significant facelift. Most conspicuous is the Maison du Festival, a new permanent headquarters for the festival that contains the press room, an audio-visual archive (containing 30,000 albums, 300,000 photographs and high-definition videos of past festival performances), a gallery-exhibit space (where photographer Herman Leonard had a show up of his jazz portraits from the ’40s and ’50s), a ground floor restaurant and adjoining terrace, rehearsal rooms for bands and an intimate 350-seat cabaret-style venue called L’Astral. A major multi-million-dollar renovation project, this seven-story facility, housed in the historic Blumenthal Building, is located in the heart of the downtown entertainment district (Quartier des Spectacles), just steps away from the festival grounds.

Another new addition this year is the impressive Place des Festival, a sprawling new plaza that was inaugurated on opening night by Stevie Wonder in a free outdoor concert that drew upwards of 150,000 people. All of this recent expansion represents a dramatic new leap in the continued growth the festival has experienced since its inception in 1980. “These significant gestures were made in order to protect and preserve the festival in its place so we can organize the events there forever,” said festival artistic director Andre Menard. “So we are very happy that the government agreed to help us.”

Wonder’s performance on opening night was joyful and just a bit bizarre. Throngs of fans stood in a steady rain-some with umbrellas, most just soaking up the inclement weather while dancing in the streets-to see the American music icon perform a tsunami of hit songs from “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” to “Sir Duke,” the gorgeous ballad “My Cherie Amour,” the reggae-fueled “Master Blaster,” the catchy “Do I Do,” an energized “For Once in My Life,” the ultra-funky “Superstition” and a dozen or so others (but sadly, no “Living in the City,” perhaps his most emotionally stirring masterpiece in his staggering repertoire). Due to the tragic passing of Michael Jackson, Wonder’s two-hour set, normally a very tightly choreographed and professionally executed show, was uncharacteristically loose and brimming with emotion.

The concert began with Wonder strolling out onstage with his daughter Aisha to eulogize the King of Pop while tossing in a few choice words for “the vampires who are going to be coming out with their books and things about Michael.” Throughout his set, Wonder would strangely halt his band, sometimes in the middle of a song, and cue the soundman to pump a particular Michael Jackson tune through the PA system as the soul icon sat by and clapped along to “The Way You Make Me Feel” or “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” and others. This continued through Wonder’s set, which made it feel like part live concert, part CD-listening party. And at times while singing his own tunes, Wonder would insert Jackson’s name into the lyrics, as on his genuinely moving rendition of “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

The biggest surprises of the evening came when Wonder’s crack 14-piece ensemble turned in faithful renditions of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (with Stevie starting on harmonica before switching to a persuasively swinging piano solo). The marathon set ended with the entire band lining up along the edge of the stage to clap along to recordings of the Jackson Five’s “ABC” and “I’ll Be There,” along with Michael signatures like “We Are the World” and “Man in the Mirror.” On that latter tune, a tear could be detected (on the massive HD screens set up onstage and throughout the festival grounds) trickling down Stevie’s cheek as he sang and clapped along with the crowd in the rain.

On the jazzy side of the tracks, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz turned in a revelatory set with the experimental Brooklyn-based trio Minsarah (pianist Florian Weber, bassist Jeff Denson and drummer Ziv Ravitz). Together they turned in loose yet telepathic renditions of the same vehicles that the 81-year-old alto sax master has been improvising on for more than half a century-“How Deep Is the Ocean?,” “Stella by Starlight,” “All the Things You Are” (which he has dubbed “Thingin'”) and his own “Subconscious Lee” (a chops-busting variation on “What Is This Thing Called Love?”). After one of three stream-of-consciousness extrapolations on a familiar theme, Konitz and company received a wild ovation, to which he mischievously responded, “Thank you very much. You have great taste.”

Wayne Shorter’s Quartet hit an ecstatic peak in a rousing set with Geoff Keezer subbing for regular pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade summoning up his usual thunder alongside rhythm-mate John Patitucci on bass.

French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, the Invitation Series guest for the first week of the festival, performed on three consecutive nights in the intimate Gesu space (the festival’s best-sounding venue) with three wildly different ensembles. The bands commemorated the recent and simultaneous release of three new CDs on Blue Note/EMI, each recorded in a different part of the world and bearing the name of the city where it was recorded. The first night featured the gifted trumpeter in the Zen-like calm of his Indian-flavored Benares band. With Apurba Mukherjee on tablas, Malcolm Braff on piano and special guest vocalist Indrani Mukherjee adding an exotic color to the mix, Truffaz created a delectable fusion of East and West with a decidedly ambient feel to the proceedings. The second night, Truffaz appeared in an atmospheric though somewhat more provocative setting with Mexican electronica artist Fernando Conaro (a.k.a. Murcof). This collaboration, from their CD Mexico, was technologically hip though fairly sedate, tending toward smooth-jazz sonically while being imbued with far more upstart ideas in the mix. The third night was the charm. With powerhouse drummer Philipe Garcia (from Truffaz’s dynamic fusion quartet) and the incredible human beatbox Sly Johnson, Truffaz tapped deeply into his electric Miles side with a trickbag of effects on his trumpet, including distortion, wah-wah and various looping devices. Johnson was not only a marvel at creating walking basslines and accurately imitating turntable DJs with his deeply resonant voice, but also proved to be a profoundly soulful singer, as he demonstrated on persuasive renditions of “Come Together” and “Nature Boy.” But the real sparks flew when Johnson went toe-to-toe with Garcia on some intense drum exchanges, with Sly perfectly emulating the kit with just his voice and a handheld mic. Amazing!

Another highlight of the festival was the Miles From India extravaganza in the spacious Theatre Maisonneuve. With alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa acting as master of ceremonies for the evening (“I was appointed the spokesman because I’m the only one in the band who can pronounce all the Indian names,” he professed), this sprawling East meets West ensemble tackled several tunes in the Miles Davis canon (a concept devised by producer Bob Belden, who was conspicuously absent, for last year’s Grammy-nominated Miles From India on the Times Square label). Also conspicuously absent was guitarist and Miles alumni Pete Cosey, who had played with a scaled-down version of the group the previous month for a weeklong engagement at the Iridium nightclub in midtown Manhattan. In fact, there was no guitar at all, an odd choice given the importance of that instrument (and John McLaughlin’s slashing presence in particular) on such electric Miles landmarks as In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and Live-Evil. A battery of three powerhouse drummers-Lenny White, Ndugu Chancler and Vince Wilburn-propelled the proceedings while saxophonists Mahanthappa and Bill Evans and trumpeter Nicholas Payton brought the jazz quotient. Electric mandolin marvel U. Shrinivas and khanjira master V. Selvaganesh (both from Remember Shakti) elevated the proceedings with their dazzling virtuosity while tabla master Badal Roy (who originally appeared on 1972’s On the Corner), electric sitarist Hidayat Khan and flutist V.K. Raman brought the sub-continental flavor. The twin keyboards of John Beasley and Miles alumni Robert Irving III helped shaped the set, which included such Miles staples as “It’s About That Time,” “All Blues,” “Blue in Green,” “Spanish Key” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”

An all-star aggregation led by bassist-composer Dave Holland and featuring tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Eric Harland provided some more highpoints of the festival in their concert at Theater Maisonneuve. Their dynamic set, which included brilliant renditions of Holland’s “Step to It” and “Veil of Tears” along with Potter’s “Minotaur,” Harland’s “Treachery” and Rubalcaba’s “Otra Mirada,” also marked Rubalcaba’s last appearance with the group (the piano chair was subsequently taken over by Jason Moran).

The two-tenor lineup of Joshua Redman and Lovano backed by bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and pianist Sam Yahel created their own fireworks in Gesu with exhilarating renditions of Lennie Tristano’s “Wow” and the rousing “Blues Up and Down,” an earthy two-tenor battle made famous nearly 50 years ago by Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. They also turned in a tender rendition of Ornette Coleman’s gorgeous ballad “Kathelin Gray” and encored with a profoundly moving interpretation of the Coleman Hawkins tenor sax anthem, “Body and Soul.”

Another treat was the solo guitar performance by Russell Malone as part of the festival’s Guitarissimo series at Cinquieme Salle. Malone blew through a set of standards with typical finesse and remarkable facility, revealing touches of Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass and Chet Atkins along the way. He then surprised all the guitar aficionados in the house with a sweet vocal rendition of “Someone’s Rockin’ My Dreamboat,” which was originally recorded in 1941 by the Ink Spots (though Malone attributed the number to a Bugs Bunny cartoon he remembers watching as a kid growing up in Albany, Ga).

One sad note to report on this year’s festivities was the sudden passing of Len Dobbin, Montreal’s most knowledgeable and passionate jazz expert, who had been a ubiquitous figure at the festival since its inception. The writer, radio personality (notably with CKUT) and keeper of the flame suffered a fatal stroke at the Upstairs jazz club, which he often referred to as “the office.” His business card read “Len Dobbin, Friend to Jazz since 1948.” He was precisely that, and more. Just two days before he passed on July 8, Dobbin had shared with me a copy of an article he had published a few years back in Menz, a Canadian men’s magazine. It was a 10-page photo spread of shots that a much younger Dobbins had taken in the ’50s and ’60s of Art Blakey, Carla Bley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Sheila Jordan and others at such Montreal clubs as Casa Loma’s Jazz Hot Room, the Penthouse, Tete de l’Art and Monument National. The article, entitled “The View From Cool,” contained Dobbin’s own recollections of meeting and photographing these great jazz artists back in the day. He was understandably proud of the piece and circulated copies to interested parties. I was pleased that he autographed my copy and I’ll cherish it now along with memories of hanging out with Len in the pressroom and talking about the music we both love.

Originally Published