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Review: The Montréal International Jazz Festival 2012

More than 800 concerts by artists from dozens of nations

Corey Harris and the Rasta Blues Experience, Montreal Jazz Festival, 2012
James Carter Organ Trio, Montreal Jazz Festival 2012
Ninety Miles, Montreal Jazz Festival 2012
Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, Montreal Jazz Festival 2012
Sidi Toure, Montreal Jazz Festival 2012
Tom Harrell Quartet, Montreal Jazz Festival 2012

The 33rd edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal-still the largest festival in the world-presented over 800 concerts from June 28-July 7, nearly half of them free, outdoor performances. Yes, native son Rufus Wainwright delivered its mega-concert opening night; and yes, it also featured Seal, Liza Minnelli and other diverse musical offerings. But, as always, the festival also offered a plethora of jazz in its various incarnations, including a number of heavy hitters, up-and-comers and Quebecois/Canadian artists. And so, once again, there was (more than) something for everyone.

Day 1 was as multicultural and multinational as the entire festival and the city it lives in, featuring artists hailing from Senegal, Cuba, Venezuela and Mali; Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Hoy; and a bunch of jazz, including Bill Frisell, Stanley Clarke, Spectrum Road (read about it in the August issue, as well as here) and Montréal’s bassist-in-demand, Fraser Hollins, with special guests Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd, with fellow Montréaler, saxophonist Joel Miller.

Bass Galore!

There was quite a bit of bass on the scene, Ron Carter receiving the Miles Davis Award prior to his sold-out concert at Club Soda; Stanley Clarke hosting one of the festival’s traditional two Invitation Series (Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen led the other); SMV-the Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten bass summit; and Grammy-winning Esperanza Spalding packing the Métropolis. July 1st-Canada Day-featured three very different bass virtuosos. First up was Victor Wooten’s septet, then the Stanley Clarke Band, and finally MeShell Ndegéocello. This was Clarke’s final Invitation engagement, performing with his working band of Ruslan Sirota (piano), Charles Altura (guitar) and Ronald Bruner (drums). Playing upright bass, Clarke led his young, spirited unit through Chick Corea’s “No Mystery,” Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus,” the swinging “Three Wrong Notes” (changes admittedly “stolen” from a Charlie Parker tune) and “Song to John,” receiving a number of standing ovations throughout. Ndegéocello’s mercurial set highlighted her singer-songwriter qualities, as does her latest recording, Weather. The dimness permeating the room matched the dark sonic landscape as she sang, with and without her bass, delivering material old and new (“Grace,” the heart-wrenching “Oysters” and the hard-hitting “Dead End”), as well as Nina Simone’s “Four Women” (a new recording of Nina Simone covers is reportedly slated for the fall).

Finger on the Pulse

While offering big-name concerts, festival programmers booked several rising stars, such as soul-jazz vocalist Gregory Porter; the aforementioned Spalding; singer Rebecca Martin, with husband and bassist Larry Grenadier; and singer-composer-guitar/charango/ukulele player Becca Stevens. Trumpeter and Monk competition winner Ambrose Akinmusire entranced the audience with an accessible yet exploratory set including the stirring “Regret (No More)” from his critically acclaimed When the Heart Emerges Glistening, as well as new tunes: the blazing “Richard” and the gorgeous “Take Me,” inspired by Joni Mitchell. With technical pyrotechnics and remarkable breath control, the highly emotive trumpeter drew the deepest of sentiments from his horn. Gifted pianist Aaron Parks shared the stage with Joey Calderazzo for a stunning piano summit, following a very different four-handed piano dialogue at the Gesù the previous night with Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes. “If any of you were here last night, this is the complete opposite; we’re not married, and we’ve never done a record,” quipped Calderazzo. “This is the first time we’ve ever played together,” he added-an astonishing fact, given the fluid amalgamation of their diverse styles. Cuban-born, Montréal-based Rafael Zaldivar, whose second recording, Drawing (2012), features mighty sax player Greg Osby, delivered his progressive signature sound blending cultures, rhythms and styles, from his native Cuba (check his arrangement of Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan”) to Monk and beyond. Following a poignant duet with conguero Eugenio “Kiko” Osorio of Ernesto Lecuona’s “La Comparsa,” Zaldivar invited Osby onstage for the second set, closing with imaginative, agile Quebecoise violinist Lisanne Trembley on Osby’s “Vertical Hold,” Monk’s “Ask Me Now” and his own “Rule of Third.”

World Beats

In keeping with the festival’s tradition of harnessing talent from around the world, a multitude of rhythms and voices from 30 countries were represented, from the nine-piece Hungarian folk outfit Besh o droM, to the powerhouse Benin-based Orchestre Poly-Rythmo to Mexico’s Lila Downs; Algerian vocalist Souad Massi; Montreal-based Haitian guitar phenom Wesli and his brand of Afrobeat mixed with reggae and Caribbean flavors; transfixing Malian bluesman Sidi Touré; and Senegalese (now Quebecer) singer-percussionist Élage Diouf.


Canadian talent was, characteristically, prominently featured, with Quebec artists (Parc X trio; vocalists Ranee Lee, Dorothée Berryman; pianists Lorraine Desmarais, Steve Amirault, Julie Lamontagne, John Roney, Jérôme Beaulieu; saxophonists Chet Doxas, Samuel Blais, Remi Bolduc; harmonica kings D’Harmo; and the legendary Vic Vogel) as well as musicians from around the country (Toronto vocalist Molly Johnson; Gypsophilia-the Django Reinhardt-meets-klezmer/funk/rock unit from Halifax; inventive drummer Ernesto Cervini; Hungarian-born, Toronto-based pianist Robi Botos, winner of the TD Grand Prix). L’Orkestre des Pas Perdus (the Orchestra of Lost Steps)-an eclectic, energetic brass band led by trombonist, composer and arranger Claude St-Jean-delivered a rousing set at L’Astral, with imaginatively arranged originals meshing sonorities and textures. The multi-talented Kalmunity collective drew large crowds, stirring things up at the Savoy’s midnight gig for the festival’s last three nights.

The British Are Coming!

Two alluring U.K. bands ignited L’Astral: Get the Blessing, with drummer Clive Deamer and bassist Jim Barr (both of Portishead), saxophonist Jake McMurchie and trumpeter Peter Judge, had a strong impact. Uniformly dressed in black suits (but no bags on their heads), the band delivered its beguiling jazz-rock hybrid, as heard on the new album, OC DC. Deamer’s vigorous rock/hip hop beats accompanied the horns’ looping electronics and stunning harmonies, Barr introducing the tunes and the cinematic stories behind them with wry humor, drawing inspiration from Mozart, motorcycles and beavers. Neil Cowley and his trio thrilled with a dynamic set, tackling the jazz-rock divide in a different, yet equally engaging fashion. Captivating melodies marked by intricate time signatures and catchy hooks were delivered with a hard-hitting urgency (check the new The Face of Mount Molehill).

Assorted Treats

No MJF coverage would be complete without mention of the inimitable Wayne Shorter Quartet, performing a concert of sublime improvisation. The Ninety Miles project, led by Stefon Harris on vibes and marimba, Nicholas Payton (replacing Christian Scott on trumpet) and David Sánchez on tenor sax, packed Club Soda, presenting its compelling mix of jazz and blues with Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The World Kora Trio with American cellist Eric Longsworth, Malian kora player Chérif Soumano and French singer-percussionist Jean-Luc Di Fraya offered an evening of poly-cultural creativity and exploration and profound, skilled collaboration. Corey Harris and his Rasta Blues Experience lit the blues stage on fire.

Miles Smiles-the seemingly inevitable Miles Davis tribute (oh, how the festival loves Miles) featured electric bassist Daryl Jones, monster drummer Omar Hakim, saxophonist Bill Evans, keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco and fusion guitarist Larry Coryell, with trumpeter Wallace Roney taking command of the trumpet chair. Hakim and Jones were at the heart of it all, and the entire electric band tore it up. Heading out, everyone seemed to be humming/singing what might be Davis’ most memorable late-era tune, “Jean Pierre.”

Angelo Parra’s musical production The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith ran for five consecutive nights, with Miche Braden in the lead, bringing “The Empress of the Blues” to life through her strong vocals and stage presence (Braden also appeared as a guest in James Carter’s Organ Trio).

Consummate piano veteran Cedar Walton and his trio (Willie Jones III on drums, David Williams on bass) offered the opportunity to hear a reverent, yet fresh take on standards like “My One and Only Love and “Young and Foolish,” with a few penned by Walton: “Firm Roots” (featuring the superb Jones), “Newest Blues” and the burning “Ojos de Rojo.”

Trumpeter Tom Harrell’s fine (pianoless) quartet played two nights at the Upstairs jazz club, which hosted its own excellent series. With Ugonna Okwego laying solid lines on bass, the great Billy Drummond on drums, and Wayne Escoffery shining on tenor saxophone, his bold soloing approach matching Harrell’s, this engaging unit stretched the music, negotiating the line between straight-ahead and progressive. Harrell’s playing was infused with verve and heart, riveting both on uptempo numbers and ballads. His affective bass duet with Okwego on “When I Fall in Love” was simply breathtaking.

So yes, it was another great edition. À la prochaine!

Originally Published