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.)

Just Around the Corner: The Montreal International Jazz Fest

It’s that time of year again: I get to take in the announcements of world-class artists playing amazing summer jazz festivals, some in the United States but mostly in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere around the world.

So many festivals, so little time. But mainly, so little $$ to get there. Still, we can all revel in the fact that jazz is alive and well, at least on the fest circuit, and that so many first-rate players are keeping busy playing these events.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend The Montreal International Jazz Festival three times over the last 14 years, and it’s one of my favorites — loads of high-caliber jazz, world music, blues, pop/rock, and “other” acts, all playing gorgeous indoor theaters, intimate nightclubs, and sprawling outdoor stages. Did I mention that everything is extremely well organized?

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Montreal is an unusually clean and attractive city, and easy to get around via walking and public transportation. In addition to checking out all the amazing music, it was great wandering around the Old Town area, observing Canada Day festivities, savoring the Euro-cosmopolitanism of Montreal and having several outstanding meals, including one at the Stash Cafe, a superb Polish restaurant. Back when, I even had the chance to spend some time there hanging out with my old friend, WUSF’s Bob Seymour and his wife Marian. And it’s always nice running into jazz-journalist colleagues.

Most recently, in 2012, I covered the fest for Relix & Jambands.com — check out my fest overview, and my reviews of Esperanza Spalding (see my video clip, above); SMV (Stanley Clarke/Marcus Miller/Victor Wooten), the Stanley Clarke Band, and Victor Wooten’s group; and Bill Frisell. I also interviewed Stanley for a preview of his multiple Montreal appearances, for a story that ran in Bass Player mag.

Back in 2002, I reviewed the fest for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and in 2001, my coverage appeared at jazzhouse.org (and elsewhere).

This year’s fest, its 35th, takes place June 26 to July 5, and two acts on the bill are really whetting my appetite: The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman, and Snarky Puppy. I’ve seen both bands — The Bad Plus at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and the Clearwater, Fla venue now called the Capitol Theatre; Snarky Puppy just recently at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg — although I’ve never seen Redman with The Bad Plus. Both groups play jazz-oriented music that is deeply creative and often falls on the side of edgy/innovative. These guys are players, and both bands up up to a kind of music that travels beyond typical jazz confines while still honoring the tradition(s).

Also appealing to me: Bebel Gilberto, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, Richard Galliano, Abdullah Ibrahim (solo and with various ensembles), Madeleine Peyroux, Dee Dee Bridgewater with Irvin Mayfield and the NOJO, and Eliane Elias,

So … maybe I’ll get back this year, maybe I won’t. If you get the chance, go. For all the details, click here

Threadhead Records: New Susan Cowsill Project Kicks Off in January

Threadhead Records, a recently launched fan-supported label organized by devotees of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (and NOLA music, in general), is now accepting contributions to fund the new CD from Susan Cowsill.

Singer-songwriter Cowsill, most recently of the Continental Drifters, and most famously the youngest member of late ’60s family band the Cowsills (inspiration for television’s “Partridge Family”), is headed to the studio in January to record her second solo album. Susan Cowsill, on stage at the Louisiana Music Factory

Her first solo release, Just Believe It, recorded shortly after Hurricane Katrina, is being remixed and remastered for a January release on Threadhead Records. That 2005 disc, featuring guest appearances by Lucinda Williams, Vicki Peterson, and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, generated loads of critical acclaim.

According to Cowsill’s entry in the All Music Guide: “Quite simply, debut albums are rarely as moving, as revealing, or as accomplished as Just Believe It, and while it may have taken Susan Cowsill nearly 35 years to get to this point in her career, the results are more than worth it — this is masterful music from a major talent.”

Threadhead Records is already home to new recordings by Paul Sanchez, John Boutte, and Glen David Andrews, and several others are in the works.

For more information on how to support Cowsill’s recording, or how to participate in other Threadhead Records artist projects, click here.

And check out the recent feature on the label in New Orleans music monthly Offbeat.

Jazzfest Grids: New Year’s Eve Edition

The Threadheads (Jazz Fest fans) behind Jazzfest Grids, THE guide to nightclub music during Jazz Fest, have assembled a handy guide to music around NOLA happening on and around New Year’s Eve.

Here it is.

If I were headed to the Crescent City for the occasion, on NYE I’d be seriously torn: Galactic featuring Shamarr Allen, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, are at Tipitina’s; and Astral Project is at Snug Harbor.

And for pre-NYE jamming, I’d head to the Maple Leaf, for the Rebirth Brass Band’s traditional Tuesday night gig.

New Year’s Day? Johnny Vidacovich (Astral Project) is at the Maple Leaf, and Kermit Ruffins is doing his regular Thursday night show (and barbecue?) at Vaughan’s.

Also at the JazzFest Grids site is the ever-intriguing list of artists rumored to play JazzFest. Scheduled to play so far, according to the list: Wynton Marsalis; rising-star jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding (My feature on her was the cover story for the June issue of Bass Player mag);  legendary soul singer Solomon Burke; Juke Joint Duo (Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcom); and the O’Jays.

Bear Creek: The Afterglow

I’m still feeling the extra-sensory afterglow of the great music – and serene outdoors setting – I experienced at the Bear Creek Music & Art Festival, last month at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park near Live Oak.

One of the stars of the fest was a guy who wasn’t even officially on the bill. I’m talking about north Florida homeboy Derek Trucks. I’ve been watching and listening to the slide-guitar wizard since he was all of 11 years old or so, and making semi-regular treks from Jacksonville (with his dad/manager chaperoning) to play Skipper’s Smokehouse. Back then, I interviewed Derek several times for the Tampa Tribune, and I wrote a short feature on the six-string wunderkind for Guitar World magazine.

Was that the first story on Derek in a national mag? Not sure. But I do remember being very annoyed at how heavily the piece was edited. GW turned my story, on Derek and his music, into an extremely puffy piece about how “cute” it was to see such a little fellow carrying around that big guitar. Note to Derek: Don’t blame me for that.

At any rate … Word was that Derek was going to make a guest appearance or two, and I saw him pull up to one of the stages late Saturday afternoon. As it turned out, he applied those trademark sweet-and-stinging slide lines to several pieces during three sets – by jazzy soul/R&B outfit Lettuce, New Orleans keyboardist Ivan Neville and his Dumpstaphunk outfit, and high-energy organ trio Soulive. My pix of Derek, on this post, are from his performance with Lettuce. So is the above YouTube video.

The guy is a natural, of course. Not that we need reminders after all the great work he’s done leading his own band, and playing with the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Susan Tedeschi – Derek’s wife and an impressive blues guitarist and singer in her own right (more about her in a forthcoming post).

The Robert Walter Trio, led by the former Greyboy Allstars B3 organist/keyboardist, played one of my other favorite sets at Bear Creek. Walter, with great New Orleans bassist James Singleton (Astral Project) and new NOLA drummer Simon Lott, dug deep into various strains of jazz, funk, and, of course, Crescent City rhythms (check out my pix of Walter and Singleton).

The tunes were drawn, in part, from Walter’s new Cure All, with Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich, the other half of Astral Project’s rhythm section. I caught the group playing an evening set at Preservation Hall during Jazz Fest week this year (saxophonist Donald Harrison sat in), and I recently covered the CD for Las Vegas City Life. Click here to read the review.

I spoke with Singleton after the set, and in addition to gifting me with his gorgeous sounding string-quartet CD, Gold Bug Crawl, he told me that he is in the process of moving back to New Orleans, after a long post-Katrina residency in Los Angeles. It will be great to have such a vital part of the NOLA music scene back in the mix there.

Sunday morning, my friend Lennie and I ran into Walter near one of the concession stands, and he told us how big a fan he is of Derek – the musician, and the man. I’m guessing that it’s something of a mutual-admiration society.

As mentioned in an earlier post, my full review of Bear Creek will be published in the coming months in Relix magazine.

Meanwhile, check out these other reviews of the fest:

Jambase

Jambands.com