Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite mesmerized fans at the 35th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, combining their sizable talents in ways that left mouths agape. The duo’s powerful set of acoustic and electric blues numbers was arguably the definitive highlight of day three (June 28) of the festival. The day’s other top offerings included vocalist Stacey Kent, the all-star trio of pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci, and-yes, once again-Harry Manx, who has thrilled crowds on each of the festival’s first three days.
Harper is a longtime friend of the festival, having made his debut at the event way back in 1996; he also performed a free outdoor show for the festival’s 30th anniversary. His set with Musselwhite will only further endear him to music lovers in Montreal. The lap steel guitar guru, who also excels at a number of other instruments, has found the perfect partner in blues harmonica master Musselwhite. The two acclaimed musicians, who were born a quarter century apart, are currently doing some of the best work of their careers. And that’s really saying something, especially for Musselwhite, who is finally getting some much deserved attention from the general public due to this project.
The dynamic duo used the set to showcase last year’s joint effort Get Up! and underscore exactly why it was such a worthy selection to win the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Blues Album. They also wowed fans with other material, such as the glorious gospel number “Jesus on the Mainline” (which many know from Ry Cooder’s recording) and the longtime Musselwhite fan favorite “The Blues Overtook Me.”
Kent also delighted during her sold-out show, singing sparkling jazz numbers to the solid accompaniment of multi-instrumentalist Jim Tomlinson, keyboardist Graham Harvey, bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Josh Morrison. Kent has been extremely busy of late, having performed in 26 countries in seven months, but she still had plenty of spark left for the sold-out crowd in Montreal. The show was big on bossa nova and showcased the vocalist’s exquisitely soft touch on Brazilian music, which can also be heard on Kent’s latest album, The Changing Lights.
It was also great to get to see Perez, Patitucci and Blade, a trio that is best known as three-fourths of Wayne Shorter’s great quartet. They did fantastic work, even without Shorter in attendance, delighting listeners with a cerebral yet heartfelt 90-minute set. The synergy between the players was exceptional, even by jazz standards. The group performed music from Perez’s most recent offering, Panama 500, which features Blade, Patitucci and other musicians.
One other memorable moment of day three came courtesy of Manx, who has earned a regular place in our coverage of the festival thus far. The blues-folk multi-instrumentalist was finishing up his three-part “Guitar Bazaar” series, which featured Manx performing with a different guitarist on each night. It began with Charlie Hunter, continued with Kevin Breit and concluded in fine fashion with the immensely talented David Lindley.
It was fascinating to see how the songs transformed as Manx’s accompanists changed over the three days, with each axe-slinger leaving his distinctive mark on the music. The one constant was Manx’s sense of humor. His wit is a good as his slide guitar work. His best line of the series, which he used on all three nights, came prior to playing the blues. “We’re not happy until you’re not happy,” he deadpanned.
Everyone expected that Diana Krall would draw a large crowd to her free outdoor concert on day four (June 29) of the 35th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival. And did she ever. The turnout was massive-by far, the biggest gathering this critic has ever seen for a jazz concert-as some 100,000 fans filled the streets in downtown Montreal to see the current queen of jazz. It was a thundering testament to both Krall’s popularity and her deep relationship with this festival, which has supported the jazz star basically from the very start of her career.
It was billed as the festival’s “Grand Event,” and it certainly lived up to that title. Festival-goers will probably be talking about this night for years to come. Krall was in excellent form, handling the big moment with purpose and poise. She crooned to a crowd that could fill the Rose Bowl, yet she did so with the same ease and confidence that she exhibits in a theater setting. She was chatty and funny, drawing laughs on several occasions, such as when she spoke about her tour earlier this year with Neil Young. “A lot of flannel shirts out there,” the vocalist-pianist remarked of Young’s audiences.
As always, the 49-year-old British Columbia native was backed by a superb band. She’s been touring with bassist Dennis Crouch, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan, drummer Karriem Riggins and keyboardist Patrick Warren. In Montreal, she added special guest Marc Ribot, a fantastic guitarist who had a dramatic impact on the set.
The show was the last performance of the tour in support of 2012’s Glad Rag Doll, the T Bone Burnett-produced outing that features Krall performing mostly songs from the 1920s and ’30s. Montreal was a fitting place for a finale, given that the album concept was originally inspired by three solo concerts that Krall delivered at the 2011 festival.
She opened the show with five straight “Glad Rag Doll” cuts-“When the Curtain Comes Down,” “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears,” “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” “Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain” and “You Know-I Know Ev’rything’s Made for Love”-before moving on to more contemporary material.
One of the major highlights of the night was Krall’s sultry take on Tom Waits’ “Temptation,” which featured volcanic leads by both Ribot and Duncan (on violin for that song). She then turned to the songbook of fellow Canadian Young and performed solo piano versions of “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Heart of Gold,” both of which hail from Young’s classic 1972 album Harvest.
Earlier in the evening, Krall’s husband, Elvis Costello, also performed at the festival. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer delighted a capacity crowd at the lovely Montreal Symphony House with a 90-minute solo show. The set list focused mainly on deep-album cuts, obscurities and whatnots, but he did play a few of his hits, including “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”
During the concert, Costello was presented with the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award, which is intended to underline “a popular artist’s extraordinary contribution to the musical world.” He’s the eighth artist to receive the award, joining past recipients James Taylor (2012), Robert Plant (2011), Smokey Robinson (2010), Stevie Wonder (2009), Leonard Cohen (2008), Bob Dylan (2007) and Paul Simon (2006).