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.)

Dr. Lonnie Smith Returns to Blue Note: The Groove is the Thing

lonnie smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith, Evolution (Blue Note) — Lonnie Smith forever has been all about celebrating and tweaking the classic ’60s B3 organ-combo sound. The turbaned one effectively sticks to that strategy with the Don Was-produced Evolution, his first album for Blue Note in 45 years.

His funk-alicious rhythms undergird a marathon 14-minute reworking of old favorite “Play It Back,” bolstered by Robert Glasper’s contrasting acoustic piano and solo turns from tenor saxophonist John Ellis and trumpeter Keyon Harrold. Saxophonist Joe Lovano guests on soprano on the trippy, wah-edged “Afrodesia” and tenor on the slow-burning “For Heaven’s Sake”; he turns in fruitful solos, but seems a bit underused.

The disc’s core trio — Smith, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake — is featured on a reharmonized “Straight No Chaser” and an extended, rambling version of “My Favorite Things” that opens with a long, slow build before moving to a full gallop.

Dr. Lonnie’s latest is less about extraordinary improvising or, as the album’s title might suggest, taking his chosen form in new directions. But his medicine still tastes good — occasional experimental edges, odd electronic touches, stray trombone blasts (“African Suite”) and all.

(Side note: “Play It Back” has long been in the repertoire of my band Acme Jazz Garage)

 

JazzTimes Critics’ Poll: Vijay Iyer’s “Accelerando” Takes Top Honors

vijay iyeCritical consensus says that Vijay Iyer‘s “Accelerando” (ACT) is one of last year’s finest jazz recordings: The CD, with the pianist joined by bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, just topped the JazzTimes critic poll.

Also making the Top Ten, as selected by a large group of JazzTimes writers (I voted):

2. Branford Marsalis Quartet, “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” (Marsalis Music)

3. Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul, “Reunion: Live in New York” (Pi)

4. Ryan Truesdell, “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” (ArtistShare)

5. Ravi Coltrane, “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note)

6. Gregory Porter, “Be Good” (Motema)

7. Henry Threadgill Zooid, “Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp” (Pi)

8. Wadada Leo Smith, “Ten Freedom Summers” (Cuneiform)

9. Tim Berne, “Snakeoil” (ECM)

10. Brad Mehldau Trio, “Ode” (Nonesuch)

Check the January/February print edition of JazzTimes for the full list of the year’s Top 50 jazz releases.

Wanna see the individual ballots (including mine)? Click here.

Various Artists, “The New Universe Music Festival 2010” (CD review)

(Recently reviewed for Jazz Times; direct link)

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Various Artists, The New Universe Music Festival 2010 (Abstract Logix)

It must have felt like fusion heaven last November, when the sometimes maligned music’s big names and relative newcomers gathered for two days of performances in Raleigh, N.C. Fourteen tunes by seven of the acts, variously blending jazz, rock, world music and jam-band strains, are heard on The New Universe Music Festival 2010. Yes, direct and indirect references to fusion’s old-school—Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report—are abundant here. But those long susceptible to the myriad pleasures of the genre won’t be disappointed, and first-timers may become converts via the intensity, high energy, creativity and displays of instrumental virtuosity contained on this two-CD set.

Several genuine fusion stars are on hand. John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension, with bassist Etienne M’Bappe, drummer Mark Mondesir and keyboardist/second drummer Gary Husband, serves up the speed riffing of “Recovery” and hooks up with the guitarist’s old Shakti partner, tabla legend Zakir Hussain, for the stretching, pulsating “Mother Tongues.” RTF drummer Lenny White leads a quintet with guitarist Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic, the Dead, Allman Brothers) on the blues-tinted “Door #3” and Joe Henderson’s tricky-riffing “Gazelle.”

Herring and a Project Z bandmate, drummer Jeff Sipe, head a quartet with bassist Neil Fountain and keyboardist Matt Slocum on the alternately meditative and rowdy “Rainbow,” moody ballad “Gray Day” and a pleasantly trippy, sliding and bending stroll through George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You.” There’s more mixing and matching throughout, as Sipe and Fountain team with guitarist Alex Machacek for the candy-colored lines of “Strafe” and the initially meditative “Very Sad.” Guitarist Wayne Krantz is heard in two bands, both with monster bassists: Matthew Garrison on “Vignesh” and “Origin” and Anthony Jackson on “Why.” And Garrison and Joe Zawinul-loving keyboardist Scott Kinsey also put in multiple appearances. Fusion lives.