Saturday‚ July 4
Festivals are always an embarrassment of riches‚ a multi-day dilemma of trying to see as much music as possible without missing anything important. No‚ really‚ that's the problem: with so much talent in one place‚ there are inevitably two or three shows booked at the same time that you can't live without.
Montreal Jazz Fest is no exception to the festival dilemma‚ but it has an uncommon spin: it's an urban festival that delights locals by spreading the performances out over three weeks instead of packing it all into a weekend. Plus‚ the biggest names-Stevie Wonder‚ Ornette Coleman‚ Pat Metheny-play only in the evening. That means you can spend your days in the city‚ wandering around Old Montreal‚ visiting museums‚ eating everything from bagels to foie gras and then hitting the town at night. Try doing any of that at Bonnaroo.
No disrespect to the folks in Tennessee. I spent four days at Bonnaroo this summer‚ and with the amount of music crammed into those four days‚ there couldn't be time for leisurely art walks and feasting at Au Pied du Couchon. We're talking about a festival that books Nine Inch Nails‚ but also and Merle Haggard. Bruce Springsteen and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Phish and Snoop Dogg. (No‚ not together. But you get the point.) And Montreal was no different. The first night I was there‚ July 4‚ I stepped out of a Joshua Redman Quartet performance-a confident and intellectually bracing set of music-into the beautiful‚ old-world streets of Montreal. I crossed through a colorful gate into the main grounds of the festival‚ and as I entered the nearest throng in front of a small stage‚ I thought‚ "Wait‚ is that That 1 Guy?" And it was. I had just seen one of the most prolific‚ talented American alto saxophonists of the last twenty years‚ and within moments I had joined hundreds of other music fans fascinated by a guy whose instrument is a system of pipes he plays with sticks‚ his hands‚ and a violin bow. It's something between a percussion instrument and a synthesizer with plenty of personalized bells and whistles. He builds beats‚ creates melodies‚ shifts pitches-and entertains a huge crowd.
I met up with my girlfriend‚ who insisted that we had to go see a woman called Chocolate Thunder later that night. She admitted that she almost skipped Thunder's early evening set due to an over-the-top‚ clichéd press bio-big surprise-but the woman's voice pulled her in and sealed the deal. (Through all of this‚ plus the street crowd‚ I could still hear Redman's encore in my head.)
As we talked‚ we made our way through the crowds to the Theatre Jean-Duceppe to catch Kenny Garrett and his quartet. Though That 1 Guy following Joshua Redman helped me put things in perspective‚ Garrett's performance really helped me understand what Montreal Jazz Fest is all about. Garrett and Redman are wildly talented‚ widely respected titans of contemporary jazz. But that doesn't mean they sound anything alike.
Garrett's show‚ billed as Sketches of MD-one of three Miles Davis tributes the Festival hosted this year-was a showy fusion blowout. Where Redman's compositions were long and considered-and written out‚ as the music stands in front of each player illustrated-Garrett's pieces were often open-ended opportunities for dramatic solos‚ especially from the leader‚ who belted out series of sax screams again and again‚ whipping his crowd into a fury of applause and cheering.
Where Garrett's drummers insisted on pointing out to everyone where the beat was-oh‚ YEAH‚ right‚ THERE-Redman's rhythm section played around it‚ like a rolling ball you can't touch‚ percolating and syncopating… And when they wanted to be funky‚ you didn't have to be told where the beat was.
These are very different artists-and that's not news to people in the know. Redman's contemplative‚ ambitious performance was deeper and more satisfying to the listener looking for subtlety; Garrett's crowd was bigger‚ louder‚ and was ready for a guy who exclaimed over and over‚ "Where the happy people at?" Like a good funk bandleader‚ Garrett's pieces relied on insistent‚ funk-rock rhythms and dramatic soloists‚ often pushing the same musical button over and over-the screams‚ crescendos‚ egging on the crowd-to make his point. And the crowd‚ especially on the almost uncomfortably long encore‚ raised the roof with applause and cheers. And you couldn't blame them-the guy knows how to put on a show.
After Garrett's encore‚ we walked out of the theatre into a crowd of thousands packing the streets for Lily Frost and the Debonairs‚ who were doing a Billie Holiday tribute. After seeing a band whose main purpose seemed to be to fill the room with as much sound as possible‚ it was easy on the ears to hear an ensemble that worked together to support a singer's delicate delivery. And you can't touch the songs. Sure‚ she didn't come close to Lady Day‚ but who does? And the crowd was having a great time‚ pouring out onto every street corner and leaning up against every wall. Eating‚ drinking‚ talking‚ and applauding. Ah‚ Montreal.
Sunday‚ July 5
After a long day of wandering around Old Montreal-eating crepes‚ lounging in a park‚ reading and taking photos like good tourists-we checked our tickets and headed a double bill featuring African legends King Sunny Ade and Femi Kuti & The Positive Force. The Metropolis‚ on St. Catherine‚ was the perfect venue for each bandleader's version of positive‚ funky motivationals. Though we had to miss Femi Kuti‚ what we did enjoy was the layers of deep‚ warm African harmonies that King Sunny and his band drape over the light‚ often swaying beats his 11-piece band create from bass‚ drums‚ guitars‚ and percussion. But it wasn't all swaying beats: towards the end of his set‚ King Sunny had some female dancers come out and literally shake their asses for the crowd. I know‚ I know‚ I'm sure there is a name for this style of dance‚ but I'm telling you that each dancer essentially put her full‚ ample booty on display and shaked and shimmied until it looked like there was an ass earthquake happening. And we know that's what this music is about-fun‚ dancing‚ and everything that happens late night after the show. As for the band‚ the smiles on their faces were so wide that it was hard not to appreciate their directness: "We love watching women shake their asses‚ and we know you do too! Thank you Montreal!"
We were torn about leaving before Femi Kuti and his band hit the stage‚ but we had tickets for Stanley Jordan. We didn't know what to expect‚ even with the description in the festival program: "…the sound-and sight!-of this wizard‚ his fingers speedily‚ deftly flying on the strings while his two hands run up and down the neck of his electric guitar must be experienced to be believed: he's a staggering and hypnotic performer!…" I think you get the point. But you know what? It is impossible to understand what it's like to see Jordan until you see him.
The Cinquieme de Salle de la Place des Arts‚ where Jordan performed‚ was an intimate black box theater seating only a few hundred people. When the lights went down‚ Jordan stepped up to the front of the stage‚ wearing a dark suit and tie and an electric guitar. He said‚ very simply in French‚ that he was happy to be in Montreal. Then he started playing: his fingers moved across the guitar in ways most people aren't used to: he was tapping‚ plucking strings‚ using his fingertips on the fretboard in a way that looked more like piano playing than what guitarists usually do. It was much like the enthusiastic description above‚ except that there was such a range of emotion‚ technique and subtlety-his playing was not simply "virtuosic" or "staggering" or "hypnotic"-that it was nearly impossible to do justice with words. It was the experience of seeing one of those rare artists who has spent his life figuring out how to get as much out of the guitar as possible‚ creating his own way of playing in order to get the sounds that he heard in his head. I nearly laughed in amazement when he went so far as to lean in and strike his low E string with his chin a few times while his hands were otherwise engaged.