Let me give you more of my experiences enjoyed at the 36th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal after I remind you to go to the festival website at www.fijm.com and get all the details of the wonderful array of events that are what has to be the greatest jazz festival in the world. My first stop took me inside the friendly confines of the two-tiered Club Soda to hear one of Canada’s greatest vocalists, now and ever, Molly Johnson. Ms. Johnson has recently released her salute to the 100th birthday of Billie Holiday titled Because of Billie and dare I say hers, among the many from some of the most famous singers working today, is my personal favorite. She does not in any way attempt to imitate the Billie Holiday style. She’s just sings in her natural way in a style that’s helped establish herself as one of the current greats, and it lends itself to singing Holiday classics just perfectly. The three musicians she worked with on this night were old friends and after a few tunes everyone inside Club Soda was a friend as well. We learned intimate details delivered in such a lighthearted, friendly and sly way that pretty soon one felt as if they were sitting in Molly’s living room, having some drinks and conversation while she entertained us with some songs. I can’t remember a more pleasant vocal performance in years.
My next stop was a short walk across Saint Laurent Street to a grand hall that had not hosted a Montreal Jazz Festival in a decade, but has certainly housed an event or two over the century plus of its existence. The beautiful Monument National was the site of many important artistic and political-cultural events over the decades with the latest being the performance by Grammy-winning keyboardist Robert Glasper and his acoustic trio featuring Vicente Archer on bass and drummer Damon Reid. They’ve just released a new acoustic album of versions of other people’s music. Thus the title Covered. The set began with a song that Mr. Glasper announced had not made the cut on the album due to legal reasons, Prince’s “Sign Of The Times.” In fact Robert began the set with a 2-3 minute comedy routine that made me remember how difficult it must be to “be funny.” It also made me want to remind Robert to stay with his day job as he’s really good at that. He’s one heck of a piano player and proved it throughout the set. I must say that there were times when the spacial, minimalistic approach featuring repetitive phrases played over a modern, funky rhythm as a bed for improvisation gets a little tired no matter how high level the improvising is. I got the sense that Mr. Glasper is still working things out with this new arrangement and he certainly has all the skills to make it a success.
My next stop would take me inside the intimate setting of the old church that became a “down-under” concert space, the Gesu, to hear guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel in one of three performances at the festival this year. This show was with his new quartet featuring keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Allan Mednard. When I noticed that Aaron Parks was working with Mr. Rosenwinkel I felt it was certain that he’d bring out the gentler side of Kurt’s musical personality and from the beginning it seemed to be true as the first piece began in a softer vein but rose in intensity as the piece progressed. There was plenty of spice in this set, if that is actually what variety is made of in life as well as music, as there were moments of hard, driving, pure swing and songs filled with a soaring quality as the band cranked out a collection of improvised, original hymns and anthems. Kurt added wordless vocal to most of the tunes as he wore a wireless microphone under his signature military style cap and matched his clean guitar lines with his voice. At times Mr. Parks matched Kurt’s guitar with electric piano lines as well as acoustic piano and I closed my eyes and seemed to hear the classic sound of 20th century Pat Metheny Group music with those great South American vocalists joining with Pat’s guitar, Lyle Mays’s piano and Steve Rodby’s bass lines. Wait a minute…this was Kurt, Aaron and Eric Revis I was listening to! Whatever the case, it was a fine and pleasing set played by some of the current masters of jazz in this century!
I returned to the Theatre Maisonneuve to take in the first few tunes of the set by the John Scofield-Joe Lovano quartet featuring Bill Stewart on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass or, as I call the band, “Two Beards and The Boys!” John and Joe had famously been together back in the 20th century in the John Scofield Quartet. It was a decidedly funkier style then as John led the band with his funky, buzzing guitar out front. In the case of what I heard on this night in Montreal it seems both gentlemen are out front, trading composing duties and presenting a much more traditional approach. I heard three songs to start the set that showed the guys swinging hard and Mr. Lovano channeling his inner Coltrane while Mr. Scofield played with a cleaner sound and channeled his inner Kenny Burrell. It appears that this is what we can expect from their coming release, apparently on the way in the autumn. All in all the set of music was very professional and most pleasing.
The next chapter of my Montreal 2015 journey begins with a question. When was the last time the world was invaded by an army from Norway? Well that band of electro-acoustic vandals known as Jaga Jazzist invaded Club Soda and took it by storm. I was there to witness it and somehow survived. I’ll tell you that story in my next installment.
<I>Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting <A HREF=http://www.mojaradio.com>MOJA Radio’s website</a>.</I>