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.)

The Unstoppable Christian McBride — Remembering His Vanguard Show

Huge tone, impeccable technique, compositional acumen, big personality, ambition — just a few of the traits that have driven bassist Christian McBride’s success as a recording artist, bandleader and, lately, NPR show host.

In coming weeks and months, he’s leading his trio — with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. — at venues all around the United States, and taking his big band to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a weeklong stint at the end of March.

It’s unlikely that I’ll make any of those shows, but I’m still feeling the afterglow of the McBride performance I caught last month at the Village Vanguard in New York. I caught the late show on Tuesday, Dec. 2, a cold and rainy Manhattan night, and the first evening of McBride’s week there with his Inside Straight group, to be followed by another week with his trio.

Here’s what I wrote about the show, for Relix magazine (click here to go straight to the mag), along with the iPhone pic I shot that night:

“It’s been quite some time since we’ve played together,” Christian McBride said, on opening night of the bassist’s weeklong stint with his reunited Inside Straight band. “It’s like putting on your favorite shoes.” Whether walking his upright or leaning in the direction of funk or Latin grooves, McBride led saxophonist Steve Wilson, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Peter Martin and drummer Carl Allen through an engaging set that indeed sounded like they picked up right where they had left off before turning their attention to other projects.

The quintet, playing for a packed house of reverential listeners at the Village Vanguard, the holiest of the holiest of New York jazz venues, largely drew from the group’s sophomore CD, People Music, released in 2013. Alto saxophone and vibes sounded the melody of McBride-penned opener “Listen to the Heroes Cry,” with Wolf, during his solo, throwing in a reference to Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” and the bassist alternating short bluesy stabs with speedy runs; the tune closed with a long outro, group improv and fade out.

McBride and Allen excelled at crafting dynamic rhythmic sculptures that drove the band on two other pieces from the 2013 release — Wolf’s churning “Gang Gang,” featuring barn-burning vibes and drums turns, and Wilson’s delicate, soprano-led ballad “Ms. Angelou.”

The set’s second half ventured in some different directions, starting with the Caribbean and New Orleans grooves of a piece with vibes and alto on the front line. McBride played a bowed solo on a relaxed, expansive version of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” and the five turned up the intensity on Freddie Hubbard’s “Theme for Kareem” (heard on the group’s 2009 Kind of Brown CD), with the leader shifting into full doghouse-bass mode at the song’s start. McBride, also leader of a trio and big band, and host of NPR’s “Jazz Night in America,” shines regardless of the setting.

 

 

 

Best Jazz of 2014: Tom Harrell, Chick Corea, Frank Kimbrough, Snarky Puppy & more

In 2014, Jazz meant a profusion of intriguing and sometimes provocative releases by veterans (Tom Harrell) and young stars (Ambrose Akinmusire) alike, the music as the nominal subject and/or driving force of the score in several films (“Whiplash,” “Low Down,” “Birdman”), and several unfunny satires of jazzers, followed by dust-ups in the jazz community (the Sonny Rollins “interview” in the The New Yorker, etc.).

Full-time institutions of jazz — namely Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and SFJAZZ in San Francisco — continued to flourish, with many, varied events, as did several competitions (Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Piano Competition), and a profusion of festivals in the United States and abroad, although some of the festivals continued to lean heavy in the pop/rock direction while de-emphasizing their middle name.

Jazz clubs in NYC are still going strong, and still at the heart of the jazz world, as I was reminded during visits to the venerable Village Vanguard (for Christian McBride’s Inside Straight quintet; see my review) and Birdland (for Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, with my friend and former bandmate Jonathan Powell on trumpet; see my review). There are dozens more great venues, of course, in NYC.

More great jazz was released than one person could hear, of course. Here are 10 stand-outs, in a list I was asked to contribute to JazzTimes, NPR Music, the Jazz Journalists Association. and elsewhere.

TOP 10

tom harrell trip

1. Tom Harrell, “Trip” (HighNote)

2. Chick Corea, “Trilogy” (Concord)

3. Frank Kimbrough, “Quartet” (Palmetto)

4. Snarky Puppy, “We Like It Here” (Ropeadope)

5. Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9, “Viper’s Drag” (Impulse)

6. Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, “Landmarks” (Blue Note)

7. Ambrose Akinmusire, “The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint” (Blue Note)

8. Stanton Moore, “Conversations” (The Royal Potato Family)

9. Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood, “Juice” (Indirecto)

10. Keith Jarrett-Charlie Haden, “Last Dance” (ECM)

HISTORICAL/REISSUES

1. Charlie Haden and Jim Hall, “Charlie Haden-Jim Hall” (Impulse)

2. John Coltrane, “Offering: Live at Temple University” (Impulse)

3. Miles Davis, “Miles at the Fillmore — Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3” (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period! The Criteria Sessions” (Omnivore)

5. Thelonious Monk, “Paris 1969” (Blue Note)

VOCAL

  • Tierney Sutton,  “Paris Sessions” (BFM Jazz)

DEBUT

  • Ben Flocks, “Battle Mountain” (West Cliff)

LATIN

  • Arturo O’Farrill, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motema)

 

Amos Lee, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

Amos Lee, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (Blue Note)

Soulful Americana, with smart folk and jazz shadings, is Amos Lee’s thing, and he keeps to that path with the first album recorded by producer Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris) at his new East Nashville studio housed in a former church.

The home-brewed sound of these tales of nostalgia, longing and love benefit from the guests, with Griffin providing harmonies on the reflective, mellow title track, inspired by the singer/songwriter’s trip to play Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble, and Alison Krauss’ appearance on “Chill in the Air,” further blessed with Jerry Douglas’ handy dobro work.

There’s also the swamp funk of “The Man Who Wants You,” with its clavinets, chicken-picking guitars and honky keys, and the banjo and thumping upright bass of “Scamps,” a story of tricksters, hucksters and crooked politicians.