Montreal Jazz Fest: Scintillating if Sweaty — Herbie, Kamasi, Medeski, more.

montreal fest poster 2018

By now, you’ve probably heard about the heat wave that landed in Quebec, just in time for the 39th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, which in some years has attracted an attendance estimated at two million. It was a scorcher of historic proportions, with temps rising into the high 90s during the day and not dropping below the mid-80s on some evenings.

The cool vibes of the fest, which ran for 10 days in mid-summer and featured performances by 3,000 musicians from 300 countries at 500 indoor and outdoor shows, nevertheless made a soothing balm for that extended bout of steam heat.

For  my fifth visit (if I’m counting correctly), I enjoyed what felt like a year’s worth of great shows in a short period — four days’ and nights’ worth of memorable concerts, from Friday, June 29  through Monday, July 2.

Montreal Fest overview

Montreal’s jazz fest, unlike some others, which, say, focus on smooth jazz or have turned into predictable affairs dominated by nostalgic hitmaking acts, successfully programs several varieties of jazz, and also incorporates other genres — notably blues, world music, Americana, and new and classic pop, rock, and hip-hop.

Most importantly, for jazz fans, the fest continues to bring in high-caliber artists playing acoustic/straightahead jazz, fusion, Latin jazz, avant/outside, and other varieties variously influenced by funk, soul, and rock.

The fest’s multiple series of “Invitation” shows, held in the cool, comfortable Gesu, an intimate theater beneath an historic stone church, are always a treat. I have fond memories of Cuban piano monster Gonzalo Rubalcaba‘s series at the fest, way back in 2002 (During Rubalcaba’s stint, I interviewed him for downbeat).

This year was no exception: John Medeski, the gifted pianist, organist and keyboardist in the long-running trio Medeski Martin and Wood, over three nights offered close-up views of his eclectic musical passions.

Medeski’s most accessible performance was with Mad Skillet, a group generally inspired by New Orleans rhythms and textures. The quartet included guitarist Will Bernard; NOLA tuba wizard and Dirty Dozen Brass Band co-founder Kirk Joseph, who spiced his tuba ministrations with special effects; and drummer Julian Addison. NOLA funk was the operating groove, and a color-shifting take on Sun Ra’s “Golden Lady” was one of several gems the band played on June 30.

Mad Skillet sounded more confident and more open to taking chances with their arrangements and their repertoire than when I heard them in January 2017 at the GroundUp Music Festival in Miami, with Terence Higgins on drums (I reviewed the fest for JazzTimes).

Medeski and Marc

For a June 29 trio set with guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer J.T. Lewis (above), Medeski held forth on B3 organ, and gave lots of space to Ribot’s bluesy, bent six-string excursions. The three mostly dug into into jazz-funk for the likes of Horace Silver’s “Strollin’ ” and an imaginative version of Steppenwolf’s “Sookie Sookie.”

Night 3 (July 1) was all about nearly nonstop electroacoustic improvisations, with Medeski joined by a pair of drummers — MMW bandmate Chris Wood, and Mark Guiliana — and the three collectively generating multicolor sounds and funk, rock, hip-hop, and EDM rhythms via a large arsenal of keyboards and percussion instruments. (The Medeski series was followed by two others — by Guiliana, overlapping with his show with Medeski, and Dr. Lonnie Smith).

There was much more to hear and see, of course, as hundreds of thousands of concertgoers flooded onto the streets around the Place des Arts performing arts complex. My review of the fest’s first few days for JazzTimes, which the mag combined with Sharonne Cohen‘s overview of the second half, is available here.

A quick look at some of the other jazz-oriented shows I caught in Montreal:

Herbie

  • Herbie Hancock, above, at the beautifully appointed Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier theater, led a quartet with guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus, and drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. They offered 100 minutes of high-energy fusion and funk. Pulling out his keytar at one point, the jazz legend aired out some new tunes, along with the likes of “Come Running to Me,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Actual Proof,” “Watermelon Man,” and the closing “Chameleon.” Six-string bass guitar virtuoso Thundercat applied his falsetto vocals and speedy solos to a blast of soulful next-gen fusion. Kamasi
  • Kamasi Washington, above, the widely celebrated L.A. tenor saxophonist and unofficial leader of a newfangled, school of soul-rooted, R&B-influenced jazz, was garbed in a yellow-and-purple robe for his ecstatically received, SRO set at the huge Mtelus nightclub. Joined by his father, Rickey Washington, on soprano sax, trombonist Ryan Porter, bassist Miles Mosley, singer Patrice Quinn, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, and drummers Robert Miller and Tony Austin, he turned in soaring, spiritually minded anthems, deep funk grooves, and occasional detours into hard bop, partly imbued with a cosmic black-power vibe. Those musical and visual references to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Sun Ra? Yes, they were organic, but also intentional. The set, drawn from this year’s “Heaven and Earth” album, last year’s “Harmony of Difference” EP and 2015’s breakthrough “The Epic” album: “Street Fighter Mas,” “The Rhythm Changes,” Giant Feelings,” drums feature “Bobby and Tony’s Day Off,” “Space Travelers Lullaby,” and “Fists of Fury.”
  • Cory Henry, the former Snarky Puppy keyboardist, cranked up his synthesizer and amped up the jazz-funk at the MTelus on “Love Will Find a Way,” a raucous cover of “Proud Mary,” and “Send Me a Sign,” among other crowd favorites.
  • Jose James, opening for Henry, offered smartly arranged, perfectly calibrated versions of Bill Withers‘ old-school R&B classics: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Who is He (and What is He to You),” “Use Me,” and “Lean on Me,” the last one complete with a call-and-response section with the crowd and a statement of faith: “This is my religion .. diversity and unity,” he said. Backed by a group including the top-shelf rhythm section of bassist Ben Williams and drummer Nate Smith, James also brought out “Kissing My Love,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “A Lovely Day.” Most or all of those tunes will be heard on James’ forthcoming Withers tribute album, “Lean on Me.”

(My review of Americana hero Ry Cooder‘s set will be published in a forthcoming issue of Relix magazine.)

Vincent Herring, Hard Times (CD review)

Vincent Herring“Is this disc’s title an apropos description of the current era, with its semi-permanent malaise, and anger seemingly just below the surface of all public discourse? Maybe,” I wrote, in my review for JazzTimes.Vincent Herring’s response: Gather like-minded musicians and make a joyful noise with a set of muscular blues-tinted jazz.”

Read the complete review here.

Fun fact: Back in 2000, I played the Nat Adderley memorial concert at Florida Southern College’s Branscomb Auditorium, in Lakeland, my hometown. Nat lived there for many decades after relocating from New Jersey; at FSC, he was artist-in-residence, and, with FSC music prof Larry Burke, he launched the (now-defunct) Child of the Sun Jazz Festival.

How’d I wind up playing that show, alongside former Adderley musical associates and friends, including drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianists Larry Willis and Rob Bargad, saxophonists Vincent Herring and Antonio Hart, and trumpeter Longineau Parsons, among others?

Here’s how it happened: Burke had asked me to lend my upright bass to Walter Booker for the performance, which I was happy to do. I’d previously let another NYC bassist, Santi Debriano, borrow my bass when he played one of the editions of the Child of the Sun fest. About three hours before the show was slated to start, Burke called me, told me that Bookie was ailing (an asthma attack) and unable to play, and asked if I’d fill in.

I couldn’t ever have actually properly filled in for Booker, who died in 2006, but I had a (slightly nervous) blast playing the gig — won’t ever forget that performance.

I’d had a chance to get to know Nat a little bit some years early, when I interviewed him for an extended feature in one of the first issues of Jazziz magazine; I was a part of that mag from the start, beginning with exploratory meetings at the condo of Michael Fagien, who was then a med student (or a resident?) at UF. I recall discussing what the mag should be named — I wasn’t in favor of “Jazziz.” What did  I know? 🙂

And that’s … almost the rest of the story 🙂

BTW — had a chance on Saturday to talk with Debriano after one of his sets at Smalls in NYC. He was leading a great quartet with Craig Handy on tenor, Bill O’Connell on piano, and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun.

Debriano said he hopes to soon record with that group.

Montreal Jazz Fest — Wishing I was there

I’ve had some incredible experiences hearing great performances and soaking up the other jazz happenings at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Not to mention getting a chance to enjoy the cosmopolitan culture of one of North America’s most beautiful and most historic cities.

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Last summer’s festival was again jam-packed with great music, some of which I wrote about for JazzTimes, and in several posts on this blog.

Sadly, I can’t make it for the 38th edition of the fest, which runs June 28-July 8.

But if I WERE headed to Montreal at the end of this month, I’d do my best to catch the following jazz, blues and pop/rock artists (some of whom are playing in bands with others on the list):

Ambrose Akinmusire, Arturo Sandoval, The Bad Plus, Ben Street, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Buddy Guy, Carla Bley, Charles Bradley, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Musselwhite, Curtis Lundy, Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Diana Krall, Donny McCaslin, E.J. Strickland, Eric Harland, Essiet Essiet, George Cables, Gerald Clayton, Ingrid Jensen, Jack DeJohnette, Jacob Collier, Jane Bunnett, Jeremy Pelt, Jesse Cook, John Hollenbeck, John Medeski, John Pizzarelli, John Scofield, Joshua Redman, Joss Stone, King Crimson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Larry Grenadier, Michael Blake, Nicholas Payton, Reuben Rogers, Robert Glasper, Robin Eubanks, Scott Colley, Stanley Clarke, UZEB, and Wallace Roney.

Headed to Montreal? Let me know your thoughts on what you hear.

As for me — better luck next year.

 

 

Montreal Jazz Fest Diary: Kenny Barron & more

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(I’ll go into more detail in my review for a jazz mag; stay tuned).

It’s always a pleasure returning to the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (Montreal Jazz Festival), an amazingly well-organized affair marked by high-caliber jazz, world music, blues, hip-hop, rock and other genres. The fest seems to take over the entire Quartier des spectacles, in the city’s downtown core.

Traffic from the area — bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard and De Bleury Street from east to west, and Ste. Catherine Street and President-Kennedy Avenue from north to south — is blocked off for the 10 days of the event. Crowds can be enormous, particularly on weekend days, but security is visibly present, and pleasant, and I’ve never witnessed any unruly behavior.

This year’s fest began June 29, and after a long day of travel from Florida, I arrived at my hotel late afternoon Tuesday. Folks were already milling around the fest district, sipping cool drinks and enjoying the summer warmth — pleasantly sunny, but a far cry from the steam heat I left behind in the Sunshine State.

The first stop on my Montreal Jazz Fest itinerary: Gesu (below), a gorgeous, comfortable acoustically pristine theater in the basement of a 19th Century Catholic Church on Bleaury Street. It’s a beautiful venue, and the stage was artfully lit, with blue shades splashed onto the stone columns.

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In previous years at the fest, I’ve seen brilliant high-end jazz performances in the same venue by the likes of saxophonist Chris Potter. Last night’s concert featured the Kenny Barron Trio, led by the well-traveled jazz master who this year received the fest’s Miles Davis Award; it was the third of his three-night stand at Gesu, following his performances in a duo with guitarist Lionel Loueke, and in a concert with singer/flutist Elena Pinderhughes.

Barron was joined by a fellow Philadelphia native, drummer Johnathan Blake, and Japanese-born bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa for a set that handily demonstrated the creative possibilities of piano-trio jazz. Opening with the standard “How Deep is the Ocean,” the trio thrived on a balance between the blues-streaked bebop intensity of Barron, and the more aggressive, hyper-rhythmic approach of Blake (son of famed jazz violinist John Blake), with Kitagawa’s casual virtuosity and heartbeat-steady lines gluing it all together.

The set, oft entrancing, also included “I Hear a Rhapsody”; a bossa by Gal Costa; “Nightfall,” an affecting ballad that Barron played with its composer, the late Charlie Haden (also a Montreal Jazz Fest regular);  Barron originals “New York Attitude” and “Concentric Circles”; and a calypso number. Also on offer was a solo-piano version of an underappreciated Monk gem, “Light Blue,” incorporating stride rhythms and as angular, quirky, and playful as might be expected.

Next stop was the nightclub-style venue, L’Astral, for a fusion of jazz and electronic music from Norwegian trumpeter-composer Nils Petter Molvaer. Alone on stage except for a sound man and someone manning a laptop, he presented a sometimes hypnotic blend of beautiful long tones, thumping rhythms and exotic textures, feeding his horn through a variety of octavers, harmonizers and other special effects.

Later, the Campbell Brothers, a family band featuring twin pedal-steel guitar players, turned in a set centered on a sprawling, energetic version of Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme.” The group incorporated Hendrix-style rock sounds with gospel rhythms (drawing from the musicians’ origins in the sacred steel tradition) and an often overly heavy drums attack on the traditional “Wade in the Water,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and several originals.

Tonight: Marcus Miller and more.

 

 

 

 

Jazz in Montreal

The Festival International De Jazz De Montreal — aka the Montreal Jazz Festival — remains one of the best and largest events of its kind in the world.

Hundreds of jazz, pop, blues and world-music artists from North America, Europe and beyond will play indoor and outdoor shows from June 29 through July 9 in venues throughout the city’s downtown district.

I love the international flavor of the fest, the welcoming nature of Montreal and its people, the high-quality musical fare, and the beautifully appointed, comfortable venues.

The fest, by the numbers:

  • Visitors: 2 million
  • Concerts and activities: 1,000 (two-thirds are free)
  • Musicians: 3,000
  • Countries represented: 30
  • Indoor concert halls: 15
  • Outdoor venues: 10
  • Accredited journalists: 400

I’m really excited to be headed back to Montreal this summer to take in some of the creme de la creme of the jazz world, as well as artists from several other genres.

I’ll be covering the fest for a four-day sprint beginning July 5. As usual, there’s a cornucopia of great performances to pick from, including evening concerts featuring:

TUESDAY, JULY 5

  • Veteran pianist Kenny Barron‘s Trio
  • Rising-star guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld, best known for her stint with jeff Beck
  • Ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and guitarist Tommy Emanuel
  • B3 organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith (below), just named a new NEA Jazz Master, and touring for “Evolution,” his return to the Blue Note label after 45 years
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  • Singer Lauryn Hill, formerly of the Fugees
  • Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and Five Elements 
  • Sacred steel gospel family band The Campbell Brothers, playing Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”
  • Pianist Fred Hersch, solo (I caught his trio’s superb performance last year at the Chicago Jazz Fest)

 

WEDNESDAY, JULY 6

  • Roy Hargrove Quintet
  • Lauryn Hill
  • The Wainwright Sisters, “Songs in the Dark”
  • Veteran fusion guitar master Larry Coryell’s (below) Eleventh House featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker and drummer Alphonse Mouzon
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  • Bass guitar master Marcus Miller
  • Bilal

 

THURSDAY, JULY 7

  • (Montreal trumpeter) Ron Di Lauro, “My Funny Valentine”
  • Roy Hargrove Quintet
  • Brian Wilson Presents “Pet Sounds,” celebrating the 50th anniversary, with special guests Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin (of the Beach Boys)
  • The Wainwright Sisters, “Songs in the Dark”
  • (B3 organ master) Joey DeFrancesco
  • Volcan Trio: Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba (below), drummer Horacio “El Negro” Gonzalez, and bassist Armando Gola
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  • Swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
  • Roy Hargrove Quintet
  • Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, touring in support of their acclaimed duo project “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke” (ECM)

 

FRIDAY, JULY 8—————

  • Singer Jose James featuring Takuya Kuroda, “Chet Baker Sings”
  • Italian-born singer Roberta Gambarini, “Homage a Len Dobbin”
  • The London Souls
  • The Wainwright Sisters, “Songs in the Dark”
  • (French trumpeter) Erik Truffaz Quartet
  • Brandi Carlisle
  • Ron Di Lauro Sextet, “Kind of Blue, Hommage a Miles Davis”
  • Roberta Gambarini (below)
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  • Swedish indie pop/rockers Peter Bjorn and John

For complete information on the Montreal Jazz Fest, click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Holland, Dr. Lonnie Smith Named NEA Jazz Masters

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Big congrats to the newly anointed 2017 NEA Jazz Masters: Singer Dee Bridgewater; Bassist Dave Holland, who cut his teeth with Miles Davis; jazz-funk B3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith; pianist Dick Hyman, probably best known for his work scoring Woody Allen films, and jazz journalist, historian and advocate Ira Gitler.

These jazz luminaries will be honored by the National Endowment of the Arts in ceremonies during a concert April 3, 2017 at the Kennedy Center. The proceedings will be streamed live.

I’ve had the privilege of getting performances by Bridgewater, Holland, and Smith several times over the decades — most recently, I heard the singer at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, which I reviewed for JazzTimes (here). Not long before that, I caught her at the Straz Center in Tampa. Smith’s latest, “Evolution,” marked his return to the Blue Note label after 45 years (my review here).

Bridgewater boasts the distinction of being one of only 19 women named a Jazz Master, among a field of 145, according to the Associated Press. “I’ve fought long and hard to preserve my musical integrity, to garner respect in this male-dominated jazz world,” she said in a statement distributed by the NEA.

A $25,000 award will go to each Jazz Master.

For more information on this year’s winners, and the NEA Jazz Masters program, click here.

 

 

 

Child of the Sun Music Festival: Skipping a Year; How Can Music Fests Survive?

What does it take for a jazz festival, or a more eclectic music festival, to survive, and thrive?

For starters, a strong vision (what’s this fest’s focus?), strong funding (civic, corporate, otherwise), a strong promotional effort (get the message out to the right people, by any means necessary) and a strong commitment to the fest’s immediate viability and long-term survival.

The Child of the Sun Jazz Festival in Lakeland once boasted some of that. Remember the days when the late Nat Adderley (below), legendary trumpeter and longtime artist in residence at Florida Southern College, brought all of his top-shelf NYC bandmates, and some of their associates, to play the fest at FSC?

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Thankfully, I had several opportunities to play my hometown’s fest, with some bands under my name, as well as my Acme Jazz Garage and Trio Vibe groups, and the FSC faculty jazz group (I wasn’t a faculty member but they invited me anyway).

FSC music prof Larry Burke did a great job organizing the fest, and making it a first class event. It was a feather in the cap for the college, a free admission fest offering folks the chance to see world-class jazz artists as well as good local players. The Child of the Sun Fest was unique for the area, as there was (and still is) nothing else like it in Lakeland or Polk County.

Jazz fans all over the region, and some from around the state, showed up to take in the music, which was played on an elevated stage in a beautiful setting on a lawn in front of the library on the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus. Sunny days turned into cool nights, and attendees often brought along their own picnics.

The crowds would have been larger, I think, had the college offered more appreciation and more support for a great event, right in front of FSC’s eyes. Maybe the powers-that-be didn’t get it? The promotional effort was less than robust, to say the least. I can’t tell you how many times Bob Seymour, the jazz director at WUSF (who sometimes attended the fest and talked about it on air) asked me why he hadn’t heard anything yet about any given year’s event — the lineup or even the date.

Sadly, after Nat passed away, FSC’s support for the fest began to dwindle.

If I recall correctly, the fest didn’t happen for a couple of years. But then it was revived in 2011, under the auspices of the Lakeland Rotary Club. The organization did a nice job with the fest at the start, but then began tinkering with the programming, foregoing national artists, taking “jazz” out of the title and making it the Child of the Sun Music Festival and 5K Run.

This year, the fest was scheduled to take place on April 2, and you can still find it listed online.

But earlier this week, organizers announced that the fest is going on hiatus, taking “a pause” for a year because the sponsoring organization wants to put its efforts into a “bigger” fundraising opportunity, a concert at Joker Marchant Stadium with Three Dog Night and America, or what’s left of those bands. Does it need to be said that rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia bands are a dime a dozen, and you can see those types of shows anywhere, anytime? Does it need to be added that, if big money comes in from the oldies concert, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to bring back the smaller event?

Fest organizers have announced that they’re just taking a year off. But anyone who knows anything about festivals (music or otherwise) knows that dropping the ball for a year absolutely destroys the forward momentum of a fest. You can’t do it halfway.

So … maybe it’s not fair to blame the sponsoring group. They have their own goals, and if reaching those goals requires another type of an event, more of a sure-fire money making opportunity, then, you know, more power to them. The Lakeland Rotary Club, and Rotary clubs throughout Lakeland, and elsewhere, typically support plenty of worthwhile, civic-minded causes.

Music festival management isn’t for everyone. Tough job. But if Rotary is serious about putting on a good music festival then, you know, make a real commitment to it.

Bring in some musicians and/or other music folks to advise on the programming, secure some sponsorship dollars from the City of Lakeland and/or major companies or wealthy individuals based in the area, and promote the heck out of the thing. If you build it properly, they will come.

(I have loads of experience attending and covering music festivals around the world, and working in communications, so I’d happily provide input and advice, whether it comes to the programming or the PR/media side).

If not, then … there’s an opening for other organizations or individuals to make it happen. Any takers?