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Happy 61st Birthday Stanley Clarke!: Day Three of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

Russ Davis of MOJA Radio on performances on Day Three of the noted festival

On Friday, the 30th of June, the Montreal Jazz Festival celebrated the third day of its 33rd year and the master bassist, composer, bandleader, innovator and award-winner Stanley Clarke celebrated his 61st birthday with a few of his best musical friends with a grand party attended by hundreds of his ardent supporters and admirers, me among them. A large part of why I chose the first four days of this years festival to attend was to catch the entire “Invitation Series” as put together by Stanley and be there to celebrate his birthday with him. It’s difficult to choose the “best” four days out of the 10 of the festival run each year but this helped me and I think I make a good choice. Stanley’s shows have been varied and highly entertaining and of course masterfully executed and I could have not asked for more. His performance with old friends and fellow bass-playing legends Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten was a delight that I’ll tell you more about later. First I’d like to recount some of the other events of the day to give you a more complete picture of the wonders of another grand day at the 33rd Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

One of the more unique and intriguing artists in jazz today is the Swiss-born harmonica player Gregoire Maret who has made his name as a sideman for well over a decade now and is celebrating his own great solo release these days and his first chance to lead his own band at a major festival like Montreal with his performance at the new Club L’Astral. I caught up with him for a quick interview in the afternoon and found the young guy to be open and entertaining with his stories of how he made contact with a varied array of artists to work with in New York after his educational experience at The New School in Manhattan. Everyone from vocalists Jimmy Scott and Cassandra Wilson to masters like Jacky Terrasson, Charlie Hunter, Marcus Miller, Mike Stern and many more have utilized his unique talent to enhance their efforts. I first noticed him for his contribution to the brilliant Pat Metheny Group release The Way Up and the tour that followed in 2005. It’s always great to make contact with an artist whose star is rising. Such is the case with young mister Maret.

One of the joys of Montreal’s festival is discovery of new and exciting artists you just happen upon by roaming around the city centre where all the free shows happen on stages set up everywhere and within walking distance to one another. One such discovery for me was the band from Brooklyn known as The Sway Machinery that somehow has escaped me, until now that is! They are a six-man band featuring multiple horns and a front man, Jeremiah Lockwood, on guitar and vocals who keeps the energy going as he leads the group of young-bloods, all dressed as bankers in snazzy suits, jumping and jiving to a constant, driving beat of a jazz, rock and world music mix that is hard to explain but impossible to ignore. They were having a blast and transferred that energy to the hundreds who gathered before the stage to soak up the sounds and excitement. I grabbed up their three releases on CD, including one recorded at The Festival In The Desert in Timbuktu, Mali in 2010, that features collaborations with some of Mali’s great music masters. The Sway Machinery was a surprise indeed.

There was an American blues band, Jamiah On Fire & The Red Machine, to enjoy for free along with a beautiful vocalist from Ontario by way of Brazil, Maria Farinha and her band, cranking out non-stop classic samba and bossa nova for the swaying audience. Meanwhile inside Club Soda, the brilliant Eliane Elias from Sao Paulo was showing off her latest quartet and the music from what has been called her most popular release ever, her latest titled Light My Fire. Her husband and musical collaborator, bassist Marc Johnson, told me that he had impressed upon Eliane that though she is revered as one of the finest pianists in jazz today, and rightfully so, she should focus more on what makes her so unique and appealing, her vocal work. It was a stroke of genius by Marc and no stretch for Eliane at all as she’s well known as a vocalist of course. Her command of established songs like the Doors classic that gives the album its title, and other modern standards by Stevie Wonder and Dave Brubeck together with her own great compositions make this album a winning collection and a perfect set list for any show, including this one at the Montreal Festival that was a sold out performance long before the festival began.

At 9:30 PM it was time to attend the birthday party for Stanley Clarke at the Theatre Maisonneuve in The Place des Artes. From the beginning the trio of bass wizards known as SMV (Stanley with Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten) served notice that there would be some thunder filling the hall on this night as the show began with all three on electric basses playing the song that kicks off the sequence of their 2008 album Thunder, the song “Maestros de Las Frecuencias Bajas.” Once again, Stanley chose his current bandmates Ronald Bruner, Jr. to play drums and Ruslan Sirota to man the keyboards. For the first time in the three shows to date at the festival he held an electric bass in his hands instead of the double bass he’d played the previous two nights. Anyone who might think that a bass is a bass is a bass would receive an education on this night, as the three players controlling the distinctly different instruments could not have exhibited better examples of the variety of the bass in one setting. This would not be a night of constantly thundering thumping by the thumbs, though that was part of the mix, but instead the packed house of bass-lovers received the full spectrum of bass sound and frequency all night. Each man had a chance to show how the bass has become a major lead instrument, taking turns in the spotlight while one of the others turned to the drums to keep the rhythm section going. There were references to songs like “Jean Pierre,” “Tutu,” “Quiet Afternoon,” and other familiar melodies during the two hours of the set. The familiar songs included “Happy Birthday To You,” in honor of Stanley Clarke’s 61st birthday complete with the presentation of a birthday cake with sparklers and a mass singing of the song by the whole crowd later in the night. Halfway through the set Stanley turned to the acoustic bass to lend even more variety to the night of music and completion of the exhibition of the complete spectrum of what the bass represents. There was plenty of lead-taking by each as well as the three in tandem, most perfectly exhibited on the encore presentation of “School Days,” which brought this celebratory night to a fitting close.

There was much more to enjoy musically on this night in Montreal including guitar masters Larry Coryell and Terje Rypdal and electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, yes those guys from decades ago, and the acid jazz-electronica veterans from England known as London Elektricity but one cannot be everywhere at all times. Luckily, there is tomorrow. To find out more about what’s happening at the 33rd Festival International de Jazz de Montreal just visit the festival website. From Montreal, Russ Davis here…over and out for now.

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio’s website.

Originally Published