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.)

Takuya Kuroda, “Rising Son” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

Takuya Kuroda, “Rising Son” (Blue Note)

Neo-electro-funk is the dominant flavor on Takuya Kuroda’s Rising Son, the major-label debut for the Brooklyn-based, Japanese-born trumpeter, who is best known for his work with singer Jose James.

James produces, lends his band for the session and sings on a soulful, chill-out version of Roy Ayers’ slinky “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Elsewhere, it’s mostly about Kuroda, whose music hints at the likes of ‘70s Miles and Donald Byrd, with blues-edged playing sometimes suggesting Lee Morgan.

Fender Rhodes skronk, hand claps, swirling synthesizers, rolling percussion, deep bass synth and Nate Smith’s sticky drum-kit funk set the stage for Kuroda and trombonist Corey King on the title track, and guest guitarist Lionel Loueke amps the Afrobeat textures of “Afro Blues.” The acoustic “Mala” and mellow closer “Call” are among other standout numbers.

Disc of the Day: Lionel Loueke, “Mwaliko” (CD review)

Lionel Louke, Mwaliko (Blue Note)

It seems like just a minute or two ago that Benin native Lionel Loueke was making his first splash on the global jazz scene. He provided gorgeous West African-flavored flourishes for trumpeter Terence Blanchard‘s mid-’00s groups and made key contributions to performances and recordings by bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Herbie Hancock (including a stellar show with the latter at Jazz Fest in New Orleans).

Several indie releases and two Blue Note discs later, the guitarist, educated in Africa, France, and at Berklee College and the Thelonious Monk Institute, is more than fulfilling the promise of those early appearances. Mwaliko has Loueke joined by instrumentalists and singers from Africa and the U.S. for a variety of originals, a traditional from Benin, and a slippery, brightly interactive duet with drummer Marcus Gilmore on Wayne Shorter‘s “Nefertiti.”

That tune, like nearly everything else on the recording, suggests a real musical intimacy between Loueke and his collaborators. Clearly, there’s some wavelength-sharing going on here, including beautiful, bouncy exchanges between his guitar lines and mouth sounds, and longtime Benin-born friend Angelique Kidjo‘s singing, on the opening, joyful “Ami O” and the pensive “Vi Ma Yon,” a Beninese folk song.

Loueke, bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth — AKA the guitarist’s touring band, known as Gilfema –sound like three of a perfect pair, so attuned they are to each other, on Loueke’s searching, vocals-showered “Griot,” Nemeth’s haunting ballad-to-groover “L.L.” (which feels a bit Methenyesque) and Biolcati’s rhythm-tricked “Shazoo.”

Two other bassist-vocalists team with Loueke to great effect.

Young upright phenom Esperanza Spalding joins in on the pretty, lilting “Twins,” and the aptly named, funk-edged “Flying,” both written by Loueke and both suggesting that these musicians’ singing and instrumental talents are made for each other.

Cameroon-born electric bassist Richard Bona is aboard for the floaty “Wishes” and the closing, insistently percolating “Hide Life,” as sunny and intoxicating a piece of African-infused jazz as you’re likely to hear this year.

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For more on Lionel Loueke, check out Steve Hochman’s interview with the guitarist, online at Spinner.

Jazz for Haiti: Benefits in NYC and Elsewhere; Why Not Florida?

Pop stars aren’t the only ones offering their talents to help raise funds to aid those devastated by the Haitian earthquake.

Jazz musicians are putting their horns where their hearts are, too, starting with tonight’s performance by Groove Collective at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan. The funky acid-jazz outfit will be joined by special guests including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Vijay Iyer, turntable wizard DJ Logic, P-Funk/Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell, a trio led by organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarist Lionel Loueke and bassist Richard Bona, Yatande Bwakaiman Vodou Drums, and Swiss Chris.

That’s according to a report published online at Jazz Times, a blog post by Howard Mandel, and the venue’s own site.

Mandel also has rounded up info on several other upcoming jazz benefits around the U.S., including a citywide event Wednesday night in Seattle, and a St. Louis concert on Feb. 9. He also offers a brief but insightful analysis of jazz’s kinship with Haitian music, along with a clip of great bassist Charles Mingus‘s “Haitian Fight Song.”   Click hear to read Mandel’s post.

So where’ s the response to the crisis by jazz musicians in Miami, or by those in other cities around Florida, the U.S. state in closest proximity to Haiti, with the largest population of Haitian-Americans?

Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is probably the natural focal point for such a benefit concert in Miami. Sandoval heads to New York this weekend for a four-date stand at the Blue Note, but he has no other dates scheduled until Feb. 26, according to his web site. Sounds like opportunity knocking…

(Other artists in Miami are responding with major concerts, including this weekend’s two-day festival at Bayfront Park headed by popular compas group The Dixie Band; and these other events).

Best Jazz CDs of the Year?

It’s always one of a music critic’s toughest jobs.

How do you pick out the “best” recordings, of any genre, for any given year?

And, given the volume of CDs that continue to be unleashed, who – anywhere – has the time and wherewithal to listen to all the good, or even great, stuff that’s out there?

I never feel like I get it quite right – as soon as one of my year-ender pieces is published, I feel like I ought to go back and sub one of the discs for another that I’ve decided is more deserving.

At any rate, with the certainty that I’m leaving out one or two, or a dozen or more, great recordings, below is my “working” list of the year’s best jazz CDs.

This, of course, doesn’t include my favorites from other genres, a list that would include Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Lucinda Williams’ Little Honey, and the self-titled debut from The Steeldrivers.

An expanded version of my jazz list, with teensy descriptions of each disc, will soon be published elsewhere. When that happens, I’ll link to it.

The Best Jazz Discs of 2008 (in alphabetical order)

  • Brian Blade Fellowship, Season of Changes (Verve)
  • Anat Cohen, Notes From the Village (Anzic)
  • Chick Corea & Gary Burton, The New Crystal Silence (Concord)
  • John Ellis, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow (Hyena)
  • Lionel Loueke, Karibu (Blue Note)metheny
  • Pat Metheny, Day Trip (Nonesuch)
  • Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy)
  • Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza (Heads Up)
  • Robert Walter, Cure All (Palmetto)
  • Cassandra Wilson, Loverly (Blue Note)

Best Jazz CDs of 2008? Down Beat Looks Back

Down Beat’s official critics poll, which isn’t hinged to the calendar year, won’t arrive until August.

But the January issue of the magazine (to which I’m a longtime contributor) offers a list of the jazz CDs that notched the best reviews – highest star ratings – in 2008.

The five-star releases, although all deserving of high praise, may or may not deserve to be called “New Masterpieces”; a decade from now, will these recordings still resonate? Still, I was particularly impressed by the Caine, Haden, and McLaughlin discs. Here’s the list:

  • Gunther Schuller, Journey Into Jazz (BMOP Sound)
  • Uri Caine Ensemble, The Othello Syndrome (Winter & Winter)Uri Caine - The Othello Syndrome
  • Otis Taylor, Recapturing the Banjo (Telarc)
  • John McLaughlin, Floating Point (Abstract Logix)
  • Charlie Haden Family and Friends, Rambling Boy (Decca)

A step down are the 4.5-star releases, including several of my ’08 favorites – Clark, Corea/Burton, Herwig, and Frisell.

Here’s that list:

  • Anthony Braxton, Trio (Victoriaville)
  • Mike Clark, Blueprints of Jazz Volume 1 (Talking House)
  • Chick Corea and Gary Burton, The New Crystal Silence (Concord)
  • Marilyn Crispell, Vignettes (ECM)
  • Prieto Dafnis Sextet, Taking the Soul for a Walk (Dafnison Music)
  • Die Enttauschung, Die Enttauschung (Intakt)
  • Bill Frisell, History, Mystery (Nonesuch)
  • Mike Garson, Conversations With My Family (Resonance)
  • Jon Gordon, Within Words (ArtistShare)
  • Conrad Herwig, The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter (Half Note)Chick Corea & Gary Burton, The New Crystal Silence
  • Grace Kelly and Lee Konitz, GRACEfulLee (Pazz)
  • Moss, Moss (Sunnyside)
  • Rosa Passos, Romance (Telarc)
  • Mario Pavone, Trio Arc (Playscape)
  • Herb Robertson and the NY Downtown Allstars, Real Aberration (Clean Feed)
  • Wadada Leo Smith and the Golden Quartet, Tabligh (Cueniform)
  • Gebhard Ullmann, New Basement Research (Soul Note)
  • Norma Winstone, Distances (ECM)

It’s interesting to note that the music deemed among the best jazz of the year is spread out on nearly as many labels as there are releases. The exceptions – two are on ECM, and two are on Telarc.

The next level down, the four-star CDs, features 124 releases, including several, below, that struck me as particularly outstanding (and in some cases, deserving of higher star ratings):

  • Brian Blade, Season of Changes (Verve)
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama, Down in New Orleans (TimeLife)
  • Anat Cohen, Notes From the Village (Anzic)
  • John Ellis and Double-Wide, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow (Hyena)
  • Drew Gress, The Irrational Numbers (Premonition)
  • Lionel Loueke, Karibu (Blue Note)
  • Pat Metheny, Day Trip (Nonesuch)Pat Metheny, Day Trip
  • Radiohead, In Rainbows (ATO) – not jazz, I know, but how could this CD NOT be on anyone’s best-of list?
  • Josh Roseman, New Constellations (Accurate)
  • Kurt Rosenwinkel Group, The Remedy: Live at the Village Vanguard (ArtistShare)
  • Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza (Heads Up)
  • Susan Tedeschi, Back to the River (Verve Forecast)

Yes, I’ll be getting around to submitting my Top 10 CD list(s) to one or more publications. But not quite yet.