Montreal Jazz Festival is a family affair, two thirds of the 500-plus shows take place outside in often purpose-built public spaces where the massed crowds are frequently infiltrated by entertainers of every stripe. One mid-afternoon, a marauding march-step battalion of zombie-clown Napoleons terrorised the little ones on rue Sainte Catherine Ouest, no doubt a Francophile riff on the Montreal’s 375th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, (though historically Anglophones controlled business and finance in Montreal, the city is now the second primarily Francophone city in the world, outside Paris). With the local Cirque Du Soleil an international export, such antics – jugglers, acrobats and wildly-dressed individuals – are de rigueur in and around the Place des Arts, keeping families who can’t afford or can’t get tickets for les concerts interieurs, amused.
Meanwhile there was plenty of familial presence and hereditary talent hanging mid air, with marquee acts like Joshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane (above) reflecting on the legacy of their fathers. Redman began his set at the majestic Maison Symphonique with a dramatic, gravelly a cappella that seemed like a beseechment to antecedents, deploying Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade to rekindle the flame of the Old and New Dreams quartet that included his dad Dewey, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell. There seemed a lot at stake for Redman with this project, by contrast I was chatting casually with opener Danilo Perez (below) in a packed elevator at the Hyatt moments before his hit. Not unlike the Bulls’ mascot Benny at Chicago’s United Center (who gets shot through some secret cannon to appear elsewhere in the crowd), Perez appeared onstage moments later. A long-time cultural ambassador for his homeland of Panama and UNESCO artist for peace, Perez has the enviable ability of making everyone feel special at the same time, yet he’s not devoid of edge. He marvelled to the audience how in Montreal culture impacts the economy, lamenting the same couldn’t be said of the US currently. Perez’ initial approach to the piano betrayed a classical touch, possibly inspired by the legit vibe of the venue, but it wasn’t long before he began injecting a composition for his daughter Daniela with the percussive attack that is the hallmark of his style. Spontaneity reigns with Perez and he opined that politicians could learn a lot from jazz, the blues, the clave, the montuno. “Sometimes they try to improvise, but they don’t do so well,” he smiled, knowing we knew who he was referring to, “And maybe they don’t come back to the right key.” Perez himself revels in peregrinations of his own – one piece titled ‘Expedition’ was new to the group and he congratulated his ‘dear brothers’ in the band for navigating the tempo changes with aplomb. Desirous to uplift, he introduced Stevie Wonder’s ‘Overjoyed’ because “that’s how we need to be in our lives”.
Like Fred Hersch, Perez routinely includes a Monk composition in each set and was eager to celebrate Thelonious’ 100th birthday with a medley that fell together like several jumbled jigsaws until, despite offbeat chording, it flowed in much less Spartan manner than its source. A landmark recording of Perez’ – ‘Panamonk’ (Impulse! 1996) – explored Monk’s oeuvre, and Perez rollicked – romantic classicism interspersed with rhythmic exclamations egged by Adam Cruz at his most feisty – engulfed in the boom of Ben Street‘s (somewhat overloud) bass, capping proceedings with an abrupt elbow thump to the ivories, which drew wild applause. He really roused the crowd earlier, however, on an unannounced, swaggering latin dance piece, that smelted the urbane mastery of Reuben Gonzalez with the fire of Chucho Valdes. Here he brought the backs of his hands into the fray, smearing the keys with knuckles, interspersing trills and intervallic hops. Rather than play the perfunctory pianistic trope of a resonating low note at the end of pieces, Perez concluded with unresolved chords in the middle register which suggested a blunt irony, which he’s otherwise too candid to countenance.
Latin artists triumphed at Montreal, including Majorca/Miami’s Concha Buika, Arturo Sandoval (above, scatting one of his inimitable arco bass lines) and piano sensation Harold Lopez-Nussa. Buika’s entrance was prepped by dynamic flamenco duo Rosalia and Raül Renfree, but not so steadily by festival godfather Andre Menard (below with Buika), who had issues presenting the 14th Antonio Carlos Jobim Award to the headliner, when the globe header of the impressive gong disengaged at presentation time. Buika herself, as ever, performed at 200 per cent capacity and described how she had been kicked out of the choir (in which she was the only woman of colour) when she was young, told she had “a voice like a dog”. Salient in her show – which cast her raspy, explosive tonsils in the versatile context of a sextet with electric and acoustic guitar, cajon plus kit and refreshingly, lone trombone (which suited the reggae-fied settings to a tee) – was a song about the legend of a deadly Italian spider. A suggested remedy for the bite of the spider was prolonged dancing to sweat out the poison, which Buika attempted to demonstrate to the crowd’s delight.
Since mentioning Jobim, the festival boasted a clutch of celebrated grandsons as well as sons, (Cab Calloway’s grandson led the fray during the ninth edition of Battle of the Bands which pitched the CC Orchestra against the Xavier Cugat team, by the by), two of the most anticipated being the appearance of Daniel Jobim and Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazzolla both appearing the same day at Salle de Gesu. Jobim guested with Invitation Series resident John Pizzarelli (below), who I feared might prove too ‘nice’ for me during his run, which explored the music of McCartney, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Sinatra and, of course, Jobim with help from singers Catherine Russell and Jessica Molaskey. I did catch his lovely call-and-response vocal duo with Jobim on ‘Agua de Beber’ and his impressively fleet, George Benson-like unison scat-play. Talking of family shows, Pizzarelli also had his wife and daughter in the band.
With a similarly zippy name, Daniel Piazzolla, despite the dark neuvo tangos with such themes as ‘Oblivion’ penned by his pioneering granddad, proved entirely the bon viveur. A renowned jazz drummer in Buenos Aires, Piazzolla recounted leisurely how he watched seven movies in the two days it took to get to Montreal from Argentina and then how the group (including long-serving members pianist Nicolas Guerschberg, bassist Mariano Sivori and the woodwinds of Damian Fogiel, Gustavo Musso and bass clarinetist Martin Pantyrer) updated arrangements to make them more suitable for saxophone rather than bandoneon articulation.
Guesting with spellbinding drama was vocalist Elena Roger who seemed to telegraph all her great roles on Broadway and the West End, including Eva Peron, Edith Piaf and Fantine from Les Miserables, into electrifying renditions of Piazzolla classics, including the inevitable ‘Libertango’ with its apposite lyric “Mi libertad me absuelve si alguna vez la pierdo/Por cosas de la vida que a comprender no acierto,” aka “My liberty pardons me if I lose it once in a while/On account of those things in life that we can never really understand.”
Losing it once in a while might readily describe the volatile comic genius of Arturo Sandoval, who had a go at everyone at his concert at Theatre Maissoneuve on 5 July, including the festival organisers (for not booking him back quickly enough), the lighting technicians (for giving an old man too much spotlight), folk in the front row (for not smiling in the posh seats) and even Kanye West (for being Kanye West). Though he did his damnedest to portray himself proudly as an ossified bebop throwback, rap-scat-mumbling in the various hilarious voices of heroes Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Charlie Parker, it was supremely difficult not to get ants-in-pants when he suddenly kicked the razor-sharp band into a James Brown groove or even the compulsory ‘El Manisero’, a son-pregón that dates back to 1927, for cripes’ sake. Sandoval likes to begin his version of ‘The Peanut Vendor’ as if it was being tackled by Weather Report, replete with Zawinul-like synth parps, gasps and blips (he’s no mean pianist himself, though he clowns), then he’ll play the theme on trumpet, transposing to a stratospheric register just to re-stake his claim in the ozone, then crack out the timbales. Despite his herculean horn chops (still in evidence, if delivered as an afterthought at this point), Sandoval frequently milks his talent for bathos. One can’t deny the serious-as-your-life sincerity of his love poem to Dizzy Gillespie which ends with the line, “You saved my life and set me free” (Sandoval had a legendary ding-dong with John Faddis at Gillespie’s funeral over who was the bop progenitor’s rightful heir), yet one also can’t deny his taste for the glutinous. Browbeating the audience to vow they would download what he was about to sing after the show, Sandoval walked offstage into the stalls and delivered Charlie Chaplin’s tearjerker ‘Smile’ with an attitude somewhere between contempt for the mere mortals that paid to see him and adoration for the family of man.
The following night on the same stage Lisa Simone offered with more trepidation her mother’s ‘If You Knew’, the deep personal significance of which we could but guess at, given what was allegedly a tempestuous relationship. “My mother was a classical artist,” said Simone with caveat, as if posthumously scripted by the high priestess of soul, then added “and she could be a bit puffy”. Lisa wondered what Nina would make of her only child’s rendition of the suffocating, achingly lonely song, but awarded herself credit for having her own ‘new generation beat’. Though in her 50s, Simone Jnr completely belied her age, performing original material with beguiling abandon, genetically transmuted fearlessness, yet more playfulness.
Another artist with a hod-load of historical bricks on his back, perhaps the heaviest load in jazz, was Ravi Coltrane. A duo with brilliant young Cuban pianist David Virelles (pictured top with Ravi) commenced Coltrane’s three night Invitation series at Gesu, which would later include his quartet with Adam Rogers, then his sextet The Void with Robin Eubanks and Jason Palmer. They began with a lugubrious ballad, named for the address in Long Island where his parents used to live, ‘Candelwood Path’. Unrushed by the tenor, the piece witnessed sporadic thunder from the piano, which had its hammers compromised by Virelles, who offered the occasional sheets of sound more readily associated with Coltrane pere.
Ravi is a fine player, with a nice sound, great taste and technique yet leaves me somewhat tepid, a predictable symptom of the appalling expectations to which he’s naturally subjected. He doesn’t sound like his dad, but inevitably there are syntactical things, flutters and ornaments, that bear resemblance. To placate he offered balm-like dustings of ‘Expressions’ and ‘Crescent’, also played some Monk, some sopranino, Virelles’ ‘Blankoméko’ and an ‘Untitled New Piece’, which made things feel rather workmanlike. The encore was his mother Alice’s ‘Jagadishwar’ on which Ravi performed on her last studio recording (Translinear Light, Impulse! 2004). Though this set was just fine and beautiful it couldn’t compare with the fire of my final listening experience at Montreal, in the same acoustic crypt at Gesu with another Cuban pianist, the joyously explosive Harold López-Nussa. Some kind of Ahmad Jamal on steroids, the 30-something Lopez-Nussa has so much rhythmical swagger as to render better-known pianists at the fest insipid.
Typical of the Cubans he marries classical training with larger than life musical showmanship and knows how to support as well as showboat (he toured for three years with Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo). I’m still not sure why the Cubans insist on hitting us over the head with ‘The Peanut Vendor’, Gonzalo Rubalcaba rolled it out last year too, it seems like some kind of cultural lightning rod. Given that, ‘Autumn Leaves’ in the US, or maybe ‘The Floral Dance’ in the UK admittedly don’t incite the same level of rhythmic excitement. Lopez-Nussa has that thing that Jean-Michael Pilc or Jackie Terrasson has, a love rumble with the keys. A fabulous familial highlight occurred however, when drum dynamo and petite frere Adrián Ruy López-Nussa joined big bruv on the piano bench as if we were in their childhood home during the holidays when their mother, piano teacher Mayra Torres, was still alive. Switching positions and spasmodically drumming together for comic effect on the top of the piano in perfect time, the two communicated a level of joy and brilliance in shared music-making that knocked my Montreal Jazz Festival experience out of the park.
Despite my fondness for the tweaked latin tinge however, one cannot neglect to mention the significant and growing British presence at the world’s biggest jazz fest! The one writ in large red letters was King Crimson, who put on the most marathon perf at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier, extending past three hours, powered by three drummers – Jeremy Stacey, Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison. During a press conference with saxist Mel Collins and singer/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk (Robert Fripp declines interviews on tour), the latter professed astonishment at how Harrison had meticulously orchestrated the drum parts so they didn’t just create cacophony. Such was less evident for the compulsory encore of medieval balderdash ‘The Court of the Crimson King’, with its rather unjazzy synth swathes but impressively to the fore on the closer, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, a signature hit for Crimson from their 1969 debut which was dedicated to corrupt Vice- President Spiro Agnew during the Vietnam War era, hence such lines as, “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Collins added the band were never thrilled with the prog-rock tag and really the themes in several Crimson songs have more in common with death metal. Linking Fripp’s guitar conception with the late Alan Holdsworth and Gary Moore (who later worked with original Crimson vocalist Greg Lake) is a thought for more inquiry, but there’s no doubting the band’s influence on jazz musicians. In a Dialogic Workshop the following morning piano wizard Gwilym Simcock discussed the Crimson influence via his five year tenure with Bill Bruford and at his solo concert at Salle Ludger-Duvernay (neé Monument-National) he dedicated the ‘chunky groove’ of his ‘Kind of Red’ to Fripp’s octet who were playing round the corner.
Aside from debut showings by the exploratory duo of saxophonist Binker and drummer Moses and later Portico Quartet at Club Soda, several of the Brits are now repeat invitees to Montreal: Neil Cowley Trio has played before, and Phronesis announced this was their fourth visit. The latter were heard to better effect, by these embattled lugs, following Simcock in a concert hall rather than in the distracting cabaret vibe of L’Astral where I last saw them. A pre-recorded announcement intro-ed Gwilym before their set (he’d already left to catch Crimson) and much ribaldry was made by Ivo Neame and Jasper Høiby about the blood the formidable Bangor-born pianist might have left on the keys. They started with ‘67000mph’ from their sixth album Parallax (the incumbent one from 2017 is The Behemoth), which whiffs of Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ in passing, then treated us to a generous helping from their fat back and current catalogue (the trio formed in 2005). Høiby was clearly relaxed and enjoying himself as he laid down his huge elasticated sound, while Neame hunkered down with intensely layered lines that recalled Herbie Hancock in their dense intelligence and there again Randy Weston at melodic intervals. Most captivating however was Swedish drummer Anton Eger (above), who’s preposterous hairstyle with a rapunzel-long extension amid otherwise shaven scalp, interfered with his ability to see properly as he head-banged to his own intricately metallic, superbly detailed beats.
– Michael Jackson