Essay

IN A MONTREAL GROOVE

The city’s Jazz festival satisfies all tastes, from populist to esoteric

PAUL WELLS July 14 2003
Essay

IN A MONTREAL GROOVE

The city’s Jazz festival satisfies all tastes, from populist to esoteric

PAUL WELLS July 14 2003

IN A MONTREAL GROOVE

Essay

The city’s Jazz festival satisfies all tastes, from populist to esoteric

PAUL WELLS

THE POSTER for the 24th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival was illustrated with a painting of musicians whose bodies, through a play of shadows, form a map of the world. Nice trick. What was even more impressive was a festival so inclusive that its scope suggested the same kind of global reach. Yet in Montreal, that kind of epic scale has become—expected.

I was going to say “routine,” but Montreal keeps avoiding that fate. Since next year marks the first quarter-century of Canada’s largest jazz festival, I was going to skip this year’s edition (June 26 to July 6) and visit some other city’s worthy jazz party, probably Vancouver’s. But one look at the programs made Montreal impossible to miss. With 2,000 musicians playing in 500 concerts, most free on outdoor stages, and an $ 18-million budget, Montreal is juggernaut enough to satisfy any taste, from the most populist to the most esoteric.

Are you, like the record-buying public these days, sweet on crooners? Grammy darling Norah Jones was here. So was Holly Cole, for four nights running, and a raff of newcomers, from Peter Cincotti to Lizz Wright to Vancouver’s Michael Bublé. Jazz isn’t your thing? You could see Elvis Costello, Gino Vannelli, Ben Harper or Daniel Lanois.

Even the two groups that unfailingly complain the Montreal festival is letting them down—fringe enthusiasts who listen only to avant-garde experimentation, and Montreal musicians themselves—have less and less to complain about. Strange new sounds dominated a smartly programmed series at the Contemporary Art Museum. Montreal bands were given their own series, too, where the pianist Jean Beaudet gave a joyful, tightly logical performance that should mark a return to the prominence he enjoyed in the late 1980s. But the locals kept popping up in other venues, too, usually to excellent effect. I find the success of the Montreal bossanova duo Bet.e & Stef inexplicable, but they

filled the cavernous Metropolis club two nights running, so more power to them.

The other shows by Montrealers, almost all in smaller venues than the Metropolis, captured a local scene more vigorous than it’s been in ages. Much of that ferment revolves around the husband-and-wife team of Joel Miller and Christine Jensen, who met in the saxophone section ofMcGill’s jazz orchestra a decade ago. Jensen, who’s touring several Canadian festivals this summer, is a serious composer whose ambitions are pushing her to write for ever-larger ensembles. Miller’s shyness hides an impish spirit, but never for long. I caught the first of his two shows last week—a club date that wasn’t formally part of the festival—and he led a sharp new band through some of the freshest, most engaging tunes I’ve heard all year.

But what struck me at this festival was the contribution of jazz’s elder statesmen. If the festivals of the early 1990s marked an era ofYoung Lions, twentysomething kids wear-

IF YOUNG LIONS in stiff suits and playing stiff swing dominated the early 1990s, this year was owned by Grey Lions, jazz’s elder statesmen

ing stiff suits and playing stiff swing, this year’s edition was owned by Grey Lions. Wayne Shorter, who turns 70 in August, is first among this distinguished lot. The mighty saxophonist and composer, who played in Miles Davis’s quintet in the 1960s, is in the third summer of an astonishing late-career comeback. For a decade his live concerts were shambling affairs with pickup bands of outmatched funk musicians. Two years ago he built a far more serious group around the explosive Louisiana drummer Brian Blade, with John Patitucci on bass and the Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez.

The band is all implication and intuition. Shorter’s long, detailed compositions become jumping-off points for almost shocking reinvention. Blade might play nothing for bars, then jump in with a crash and, literally, a scream; suddenly there’s a rocksteady groove where none existed. The most exciting thing about Shorter’s Montreal show, the third I’ve seen from this band in as many years, was that the saxophonist refused to rest on his new-found laurels. He’s still pushing his young charges into odd corners. His concert featured charging funk tunes from his late ’80s album Joy Ryder, as well as a standard ballad, The Very Thought of You, played nearly straight. At the beginning of the night, Shorter was playing hardly at all. By the end his cavernous tenor saxophone was swallowing every idea the kids threw at him and spitting back three more. It was glorious.

It is also, apparently, a spur to at least one other survivor from Miles Davis’s best days. I cannot imagine that Herbie Hancock, who played piano with Davis when Shorter was on saxophone, would have brought as ferocious a band to Montreal if he hadn’t been hearing about Shorter’s exploits. Hancock’s band is also built around a drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington, slightly older than Blade and more content to let a groove evolve instead of blowing it up after a few bars. As a result, Hancock’s concert had an obsessive, brooding feel to it. Hancock and bassist Scott Colley added successive layers of implication to a few brief original ideas. Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, another 1960s veteran, seemed ill at ease with the others’ rhythmic games. But whenever they handed him some open room to run, he unreeled an extravagantly intricate solo.

Unlike Hancock and Shorter, Martial Solal had nothing to prove, no doubts to dispel. The 75-year-old pianist, a legend in France, was a first-call sideman to every visiting American jazzman in the 1950s, and the depth of his knowledge has been matched,

over the years, by the depth of his cheerful eccentricity. He played the second half of a double bill with his countryman Baptiste Trotignon, a 29-year-old who is the most recent winner of the Martial Solal piano competition. So the concert became a seminar on the relative merits of youth and wisdom. Wisdom won, as it generally should. Trotignon has all kinds of fresh insights into keyboard harmony, which he puts to the service of lyrical melody. But he plays so many notes they all wind up taking on the same significance, which isn’t much. Solal, in contrast, would visibly pause at the end

of each spiky, avuncular chorus to consider whether he had much to say in the next. If he didn’t, he’d simply stop cold. So his tunes went on for half as long as Trotignon’s and said twice as much. There’s nothing the younger man can do about it but grow. No doubt he will, but one is grateful Solal is around to make the wait bearable.

Old men didn’t own the week entirely. The Bad Plus, a Generation X piano trio who do jazz the way Penn and Teller do magic, couldn’t quite mask their skill with hilarity, although they tried their damnedest. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a crack out-

fit of session men from the New York salsa wars, brought grace and fire to the festival’s traditional halftime show, a free outdoor concert for 100,000 or more.

But as Montreal’s annual jazz party heads toward its quarter-century anniversary, it seems to be taking its best cues from men who’ve seen the most. “We all have to work really hard to get to the deeper meaning of things,” bassist Charlie Haden, 65, said during his own dignified, elegiac concert. Haden and his peers have been digging for a lifetime. The truth they’ve found is available for us all to hear.