There aren’t many days that reach 90 degrees in Montreal, and Monday, 27 June 2011, my second day at the 32nd Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, was such a day…completely sunny and in the mid-80’s at least…one of those days that Montreal residents dream of in the dead of winter. Well, for anyone on a day like this you can certainly use something cool, and with the music I took in at Monday’s festival there was plenty of cool and an explosion at the end that brought the heat at midnight and blew up the town. Let me explain…
After roaming around the festival grounds with is in essence the city center, taking in the sights and sounds of musicians and the street performers (this is the home of Cirque du Soleil you may know and the history runs deep) and consuming one of these great spicy hot dogs (I call them “fire dogs!”) that you get on the street here (gotta win some kind of award for “world’s best street fare”) I made my way to what just may be my favorite venue over the years here at the festival, the Gesu, to hear the wonderful pianist Geri Allen & her great band Timeline at 6 PM. I’ve seen Geri a number of times and she can get fiery for certain. I’ve remember her under the trees by the river in her hometown of Detroit tearing it up, but on this evening the mood was cool as she started with the trio including bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Kassa Overall playing some beautiful, lyrical chamber jazz. There were sweet, melodic Geri Allen compositions, a standard thrown in for good measure and peace reigned supreme inside the Gesu. Then, the trio became a quartet as young tap dancing master Maurice Chestnut hit the stage adding his rhythmic feet to the package. Geri Allen has presented a very unique blending of dance and music and investigated the union of these two not so disparate disciplines for a few years now and the crowd was thrilled. Let me just say that the only person on stage who broke a sweat was Maurice. Cool Geri, very cool!
Then I was off to hear guitarist Marc Ribot doing his “Caged Funk” thing at the Theatre Jean-Duceppe, the last of his three separately themed shows at the festival this year, and by all accounts one of the kings of the “downtown scene” in New York for years saved his most interesting for last. As Marc said from the stage during the performance, the band “juxtaposed themselves between, beside, inside and around the music of John Cage!” The great 20th century composer was known for his adventurous music and was a king of minimalism among other things and when Marc Ribot and his fellow guitarist Marco Cappelli first played Cage’s “Sonata For Two Voices” they had felt inspired to find a way to turn it on its ear with some selected jazz-oriented musicians. This is what they did indeed and when I entered the hall and found an organ-piano setup, a massive turntable setup, lot’s of percussion including a huge gong on stage I knew some high jinks were in the offing. I also discovered that DJ Logic would be behind the turntables and Bernie Worrell would be behind the keyboards. Knowing how funky Marc Ribot can play as well as Logic and Mr. Worrell I figured I was in for a funky good time.
Aux contraire mon frère…this was not your normal funk, far from it, as this was John Cage music and backbeat was not the beat of the day so to speak. This was experimental in every way and just the kind of performance that one can see at a downtown NYC club or one of the stages of Montreal, where the artists know they can stretch into areas they don’t normally go. It’s exciting to see something unlike you’ve ever seen and the artists obviously loved the challenge and the crowd showed great appreciation. I had to hit the road just at show’s end because that’s the way it is sometimes at the Montreal festival, there’s so much music and the shows can overlap and you better have your running shoes on to catch the next show.
When the Grammy people handed the “Best New Artist of 2010” award to Esperanza Spalding instead of Justin Bieber, the jazz world rejoiced. I mean at last an exciting, new jazz artist with unique style and charisma had gotten the attention of the voters this time over another cutesy singer of pop. Well in a gala show at the beautiful Theatre Maisonneuve, Esperanza certainly showed off her uniqueness and charisma as well as her extra large hairstyle and high-waisted pleated pants with suspenders to go along with an ebullient spirit, soaring voice and considerable chops on her instrument of choice, a stand-up bass fully a foot taller than she! She’s certainly a sight to see and hear and with her performance accompanied by a trio of violinists, keyboardist (who I would love to have heard more from) and drummer she filled the hall with uplifting chamber jazz which leaned more on the chamber than the jazz as she played the music of her latest release Chamber Music Society to a thrilled, packed house.
Esperanza is so much about spirit in her performances and her voice is how she conveys so much of the message. She did not speak or sing a word for the first thirty minutes of the show but she had plenty to say with expressive, wordless vocal. Esperanza is a small physical package that packs a big, energetic wallop and the crowd loved it wanting more all the way to the end! I’d been indoors for about 6 hours and it was time to get out into the warm Montreal night. Little did I know an explosion was about the hit the festival grounds that would shake the city…shake being the operative term!
The biggest of the many free shows of the day featured one of the world’s greatest jazzy jam bands, those 6 masters from New Orleans, Galactic, who played sets at 9 and 11 PM on the huge Scene TD stage. Now we all know that Stanton Moore is one of the greatest drummers in MOJA and in the history of New Orleans music, but I have never heard him in a physical situation like this with a huge sound system positioned to project the sound down a long canyon between tall buildings as the Scene TD stage is set up and with his drums mixed and mic’ed to maximum power settings. Stanton Moore is a monster but this night he was a monster on steroids and the rest of the guys in Galactic came with the power too. There’s the whole package with Galactic…the NOLA beat, soul, rock, funk, jamming, soloing, hip hop, pure jazz and any other ingredient you can throw in to make their magical gumbo. Come ready to shake your money maker or stay home when Galactic plays and tens of thousands of Montrealers and visitors stayed till after midnight to do just that on a “school night!” I mean these folks don’t get that many warms nights to hit the streets in shorts and t-shirts so this may have been one of the finest nights of the whole year and I sure feel privileged to have shared it with them. What a great end to one hot day in Montreal!
Russ Davis is host of MOJA radio.