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.)

Acme Jazz Garage — Ascending?

I seldom write about my own projects here, but thought I’d throw out a quick note about the CD recently released by my band, Acme Jazz Garage, on my Solar Grooves label.

relix review

Acme Jazz Garage is gaining momentum via national jazz-radio airplay, and good reviews in magazines and newspapers.

A few updates:

RADIO :

  • Our CD is in its fifth week of airplay on jazz stations across the US (check its progress on the JazzWeek chart).
  • It has aired on Tampa’s WUSF and WMNF; WFCF in St. Augustine, FL; KEWU in Cheney/Spokane, WA; WCLK in Atlanta, Ga.; WAER in Syracuse, NY; KSDS in San Diego, CA; Jazz From Gallery 41 in Berkeley, CA; WTJU in Charlottesville, Va.; WSHA in Raleigh, NC; WWSP in Stephens Point, WI; KRTU in San Antonio, TX; KCCK in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and KRFC in Fort Collins, CO, among other stations.

PRESS:

  •   Relix magazine critic Wayan Zoey calls the CD “a solid collection of revivalist funk and swing … influences are rooted in ’70s fusion, and the various contemporary pop styles that surrounded it … a much more enjoyable experience than your average ‘trad jazz’ album … a capable excursion through one of the most playful eras of America’s cultural history.”
  • Creative Loafing/Tampa just gave us a four-star review: “The 10-track set is not only fun but a rather excellent demonstration of what four vet musicians can accomplish with some quality time in the studio and a little help from their friends.”
  • Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association and a contributor to NPR, says the CD “mixes the best bits of the Meters, Santana, Robben Ford, Grover Washington, Anita O’Day, Joe Sample, Roy Ayers and Marcus Miller into a refreshingly breezy sound.”
  • “Some funky R&B, and straight-ahead jazz, and it coule be one of the outstanding local releases of 2016,” says Randy Wind, program director at WMNF in Tampa.
  • ” ‘Resonance’ immediately made me think of Steely Dan,” says Louis Maistros, New Orleans singer/songwriter and acclaimed novelist. “And (I hear) hints of the Crusaders. The rest felt like its own thing. This is really a hot little combo. Mission accomplished. It’s a damn fine record. Bravo!”

Acme Jazz Garage, the band’s debut full-length set of original compositions, features an eclectic mix of original jazz compositions played by the core quartet (Matt Swenson, guitar; Bryan Lewis, keys; Tim Diehl, drums; me on bass) plus special guests.

We were joined by conga master Gumbi Ortiz; who tours with Al Di Meola; singer Whitney James; saxophonists Jeremy Powell (Arturo O’Farrell Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra), Rick Runion and Austin Vickrey; vibraphonist Sam Koppelman; and trumpeter Ron Wilder. The music was recorded and engineered by John Stephan at his Springs Theatre studio in Tampa, and mixed in L.A. by Ruairi O’Flaherty.

The tracks:

^  “Mongo Strut” (Booth) — Latin-edged funk spiked with congas

^ “Resonance” (Lewis) — multipart contemporary fusion (some folks hear Steely Dan)

^ “Sandprints” (Booth) — a 5/4 piece inspired by Wayne Shorter, featuring Powell on soprano sax

^  “Last Call” (Booth) — a retro vocal tune (Manhattan-romance theme) with vocals, trumpet and vibes

^  “Acmefied” (Booth) — straight-up jazz funk

^  “Zag” (Booth) — straightahead, swinging jazz with two tenor saxes (Vickrey and Runion) and vibraphone

^  “Mr. G.P.” (Booth) — New Orleans-style R&B named for Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., with a tpt-tenor-bari horn section

^  “Rubberman” (Booth) — jammy-leaning jazz with flute (Vickrey) and tenor (Runion)

^ A bluesy version of “America the Beautiful” (arr. by Lewis) — think Ray Charles; perfect for airplay on the July 4 weekend.

To get your very own copy of the CD, as a physical disc or download, click here

For more information on the band, visit us on Facebook; go to our web site; or stop by Solar Grooves. Twitter: @acmejazzgarage