Andre Menard & Alain Simard, the guys who started it all with the 1980 Montreal Jazz Fest, here with MOJA's Russ Davis

Andre Menard & Alain Simard, the guys who started it all with the 1980 Montreal Jazz Fest, here with MOJA’s Russ Davis

Snarky Puppy represents the new wave of Modern Jazz at this year's festival in Montreal!

Snarky Puppy represents the new wave of Modern Jazz at this year’s festival in Montreal!

The legendary Wayne Shorter, just one of the jazz greats playing this year's Montreal Jazz Festival!

The legendary Wayne Shorter, just one of the jazz greats playing this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival!

Montreal_logo_2011

Back in the late 1970’s a couple of young friends, Andre Menard and Alain Simard, were sitting around in the beautiful city of Montreal, Quebec and dreaming of putting together a grand jazz festival that would do justice to their hometown that people around the world now call “The City of Festivals,” As I prepare for the 36th edition of The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, and my 11th straight trip there, I’d like to give you a quick view of what 2015 festival goers can look forward to during the 10 days of this glorious event that runs from the 26th of June through July 5th. I certainly won’t take the time and space to list all the performances that will take place, you can go to the festival website at www.fijm.com and get all the details, but I am always astounded at the variety and depth of styles exhibited in the massive lineup that truly presents something for everyone. The festival features plenty of jazz to qualify the name of the gathering but there’s a decidedly international flavor with artists from all over the globe exhibiting the sound of their respective regions. There’s also rock, pop, techno, hip-hop, soul and blues aplenty to keep anyone looking for variety happy and busy as they run from stage to stage soaking up the music in the dozens of free shows that accompany the paid performances in Montreal’s beautiful indoor venues.

As with many festivals, especially one with the scope and expense involved with an event like this one, major sponsors and big-ticket pop artists pay the bills for the lesser known acts. It’s the former that brings in the bucks and the crowds and the latter that gets my attention. I’m looking for the artists from around the world that I may have heard of but never seen and/or the ones I’ve never heard of that will be that one, big surprise that makes my festival experience complete. This year pop artists like Steve Miller, Huey Lewis & The News, Erykah Badu & Joss Stone will bring in the crowds and pay the bills and with the passing of legendary blues giant B.B. King, who played the festival in 2014, the last day of the event will feature a host of Quebec’s finest blues performers in a grand celebration of Mr. King in a free outdoor show in the center of the city.

Now, let’s talk Jazz. The biggest names in jazz will also pack the beautiful indoor venues around the Place des Arts, the city center where the festival events happen, all within walking distance of one another. During the 10 days of the festival one can see jazz legends like Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Addullah Ibrahim, Harold Maybern, Buster Williams with Gary Bartz and Canadian treasures Oliver Jones and Vic Vogel. From the current generation of established jazz stars playing Montreal this year take your pick of performances from the likes of Al Di Meola, playing electric this year and the recipient of the festival’s “Miles Davis Award” as well, John Scofield with Joe Lovano, The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman, Eliane Elias, Stanley Clarke, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Medeski playing solo piano, Patricia Barber, John Pizzarelli, Russell Malone, Avishai Cohen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Renee Rosnes, Stanley Jordan with Charnett Moffett & Jeff “Tain” Watts, Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas…well you get the idea.

And if there is anyone out there who still thinks that jazz is a stagnant art form with no emerging stars, then all you need to do is either start paying better attention, come to my home and listen to all the incredible new music that comes my way every week and/or come to Montreal this year to hear the likes of Theo Croker, Christian Scott, Robert Glasper in a trio setting, Vijay Iyer, Julian Lage with Nels Cline, Marc Carey, and the current darlings of jazz who’ve won Grammys and thrilled crowds from Newport to The Netherlands, Snarky Puppy. And just to prove that this is truly a local festival you’re invited to take in some of the fantastic Canadian talent on the festival lineup including the incredible vocalist Molly Johnson in her salute to Billie Holiday, Jane Bunnett & her band filled with Cubans called Maqueque, singer Ranee Lee, Jesse Cook, Alain Caron with John Roney and the Moutin twins and their Moutin Factory Quintet to name a few of many, many more!

Then there’s that international element that sets Montreal apart from most every festival out there. I’ve always said that visiting Montreal is like going to Europe without leaving North America, but during festival time it’s more like traveling the musical world while staying in one place. Festival co-founder and director Andre Menard told me last year that 37 countries were represented in the list of artists who made their way to Montreal to play. I dare say that there may be even more this year. There’s a healthy representation from Africa including Richard Bona, vocalist Somi performing music from her album The Lagos Music Salon. Israel is well represented with the likes of Gilad Hekselman and the aforementioned Avishai Cohen. From Norway comes my current favorite electro-acoustic large ensemble Jaga Jazzist and vocalist Sondre Lerche. England’s soulful singer and pianist Jamie Cullum is on the bill. The Mexican duo of Rodriguo Y Gabriela, who began life in a Mexico City thrash metal band then broke away to form their duo to busk on the streets of Europe, then record with a Havana big band will bring their big sound to Montreal. Speaking of Cuba, pianist Alfredo Rodriquez is well established and promises to put on a fabulous show in Montreal. From France there’s Richard Galliano & Sylvain Luc and many, many more that promise to reward festival attendees with surprising performances filled with international flavor.

So you see, there’s much to enjoy at the 36th Montreal Jazz Festival. To give you a taste of what to expect you can hear my preview in my 2-hour show Jazz America that I produce for the U.S. Government service Voice of America. I’ve posted it on my MOJA Radio website, as I do each week. It will be available for free listening on demand now through Sunday, June 21st at www.russdavismoja.com/voice-america-2/.

As you can see I’m pretty excited about my eleventh trip in a row to Montreal for this great event, but the bad part is that I just can’t be there for all 10 days. I suppose I’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation and see a dozen shows or so in the time I do have. I guess I can enjoy a meal in a few of their world-class restaurants, take my daily walk through the city streets and up Mount Royal to take in the breath-taking view of the city below from the top. I guess I just have to try and enjoy the company of the charming inhabitants of this most livable and beautiful city for a while. Oh well, it’s a tough task but I think I can live through it one more time!

Russ Davis

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 MOJA Radio’s website.

Posted by: russdavis | May 9, 2015

MOJA RADIO IS NOW 6 YEARS OLD!!!!!

Russ & Michelle back in the day at XM when Beyond Jazz (and thus MOJA) began!

Russ & Michelle back in the day at XM when Beyond Jazz (and thus MOJA) began!

MOJA Began with FUSION and FUSION began with MILES DAVIS!

MOJA Began with FUSION and FUSION began with MILES DAVIS!

MOJA logo (CP)CompressedRuss Davis Reflects on MOJA Radio’s 6th Anniversary!

I just came across some statistical information from the service Live365 on which we first listed MOJA Radio, the online service I call “The World’s MOdern JAzz Radio Channel,” that told me that we began operation on the 1st of April in 2009. That would make us 6 years old now and it gave me another chance to take stock of where we came from, where we’ve been, where we are and where we will go as we proceed in the ever-evolving arena of jazz in the 21st century as heard in cyber-world. When Michelle Sammartino and I were told by our superiors at XM Satellite Radio, just before the company was taken over by our competitor sirius, that our channel Beyond Jazz would not be remaining in the lineup and that we would be leaving with it we decided to put out the word to the 400,000 estimated weekly listeners and see if they’d be interested in following us wherever we might go? We got a large and positive response so we decided to put our personal funds, time, creativity and effort into building the online version of the channel called MOJA Radio (MO for MOdern, JA for JAzz)!

As I mentioned earlier, we decided to place it on the multi-channel service Live365 so folks could listen for free for a while until we decided how to pay for keeping the service going. We garnered tens of thousands of regular listeners in a few months and then switched it over to the stand-alone, subscription service that it is today. Later on Michelle had to move to greener pastures, more on that later, and I’ve carried on as a one-man-operation but I am certainly not alone. MOJA Radio has become MOJA Nation with a host of folks we call MOJANS contributing everything from blog material with concert reviews to sending me rare music, to making programming suggestions, to actually lending up technical expertise as in the case of MOJAN David Black who volunteered to create our new FREE MOJA MOBILE APPS which are available for all subscribing MOJANS to download and enjoy! To simply be actively involved in programming and presenting this area of jazz and still be thriving is pretty astounding. I sometimes feel like a jazz musician who has chosen to express himself in a personal way and just let the chips fall where they may as opposed to crafting something that might get me more work in the jazz arena as it exists today. It isn’t that brave an endeavor really. I’m simply doing what I know how to do and building on something that began for me way back in the 20th century.  I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell this story.

The beginning was 1978 in Atlanta where my bosses at WQXI-FM (AKA 94-Q) commissioned me to create a Sunday night (7 PM-Midnight) “jazz” show to complement the album rock format that the station presented the rest of the time. I was a bit confused as I told them I wasn’t a “Jazz expert” and not very conversant with the more straight-ahead forms like bop, hard bop, free and other related genres. My mother had raised me listening to the big bands she loved in the 30’s & 40’s and that was cool, but a bit out of date and the sound quality was not up to par with what could be programmed on the air. Plus I couldn’t quote chapter and verse on that music either. At this point in jazz history the Fusion Era was in full swing and this was a music I knew and loved. I remember hearing Miles Davis’s “Right Off” from the album Jack Johnson, the electric shuffle featuring John McLaughlin’s chunky guitar and Herbie Hancock on organ, and thinking “if this is jazz today then I’m a Jazzer!” Contemporary jazz artists like David Sanborn, George Benson, Joe Sample and the Crusaders, Bob James, Pat Metheny and others were starting to move the music toward a more mass appeal and accessible sound and style. My bosses simply said “Do Something!” So the program Jazz Flavours was born with a blend of fusion and contemporary that seemed to strike a chord with the Atlanta audience. For 10 great years the program flourished, expanding to a nightly show and achieving great ratings. Anyone who knows about jazz from 1978-1988 will remember how Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Herbie, Metheny, Sanborn and so many others were hitting their stride and leading the way in creating an engaging and popular form of improvised music.

The format we’d created in Atlanta was noticed elsewhere and in 1988 I was offered the job of programming the startup of a new contemporary jazz radio station in New York City owned by The Tribune Company. They were flipping the pop station WPIX-FM to WQCD-FM (CD 101.9 it would be called) and I accepted immediately but asked that I be given the title of Music Director instead of Program Director as I wanted to spend my time with on air work and music programming instead of with administrative duties. We assembled an all-star, powerhouse staff with a unified vision and a wealth of new music to present that filled an obvious void for a jazz-hungry audience in the world’s jazz capital, New York. Not only did regular programming please the audience but our special programming including my interview program Words & Music, our New Age and Traditional Jazz shows as well as occasional live performances from venues as varied as The World Trade Center Plaza, The Bottom Line, JVC Jazz Festival shows from Houston via satellite and many more added extra spice to the programming. We were playing the music of the established stars and developing new ones with each passing week and expanding our playlist to include new trends like Acid Jazz, the fun and funky style born in the dance clubs of England. Jazz purists might not have heard a lot of what they loved but what people thought of as a new kind of cool jazz was certainly a hit in New York.

For almost a decade we rolled along, achieving ratings and sales figures far beyond the original projections. All was fine until in the mid 1990’s deregulation of broadcasting was made law followed by a group of researchers, consultants, gold-diggers and snake oil salesmen who came along to talk our general manager, and obviously the GM’s of a lot of stations around the country, into abandoning a more adventurous way of programming for one that was totally formulated, predictable (by design) and constrained to include only the music that qualified by achieving a certain score in what was called “auditorium testing.” The methodology for this was placing a number of people in a room for a couple of hours, listening to 8-10 second “hooks” of a few hundred songs. As each segment played they were asked to turn a dial to the right if they liked the song and to the left if they did not like it. Or was that to the left if they liked it and to the right if they didn’t? I can’t seem to remember and I have a feeling neither could the participants. Ear fatigue would set in pretty quickly for many people. Another problem with this testing was that we were not only testing the supposedly most important segments of instrumental pieces but also songs by the likes of Rod Stewart, The Doobie Brothers, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder ballads, Anita Baker…you get the idea.

I remember asking the guy who brought this into our station whether or not we could test “The National Anthem?” I figured that would get a good rating and we could start every hour with it. He didn’t like that idea and I’m sure he could see I wasn’t on board. We were instructed to take the results and implement the findings into our programming immediately by taking out anything similar to whatever tested badly and put more in of the style that did. What happened was that the Contemporary Jazz format that we had established and with which we had been having such great success was changed overnight to one called “Smooth Jazz,” a name I always thought would be great for a laxative. Our contemporary jazz format was dead on the spot and though these guys would argue that their new format flourished and had great ratings success I ask you where is that format now? I rest my case. I had been keeping my creative chops going with syndicated programs including versions of my original Jazz Flavours show for the Atlanta market and in other cities around the country as well as my interview show that I called Conversations. I had also been hired to do weekly shows overseas, Cool Cuts for Bay FM 78 in Tokyo and New York Jazz Week for England’s Jazz FM, but after a decade of fun, games and success at CD 101.9 I was ready to leave and when Tribune sold the station to a Midwestern radio conglomerate, they were apparently ready for me to leave too.

Luckily satellite radio was starting up and I was hired in 1998 to create two channels for what was then called CD Radio, later to be named Sirius. One channel would be a true contemporary jazz channel and the other more of what would be, for lack of a better term, a smooth jazz channel. This was my first chance to actually delve into the conscious difference in the two formats and to actually formulate the lines of demarcation between them. For a couple of years I worked with a great group of programmers as we did the preparatory work for one of the largest technical rollouts in broadcasting history. We created the formats from scratch and tested them out on the in-house system. Sirius had the philosophy that satellite radio would basically be a music streaming service with minimal interruption only for short bits of identifying audio. The original programming heads had been hired from the Music Choice service so they were doing what they knew how to do, create a form of muzak for satellite transmission instead of cable delivery. I remember one day the staff was called into a meeting to discuss the most recently revealed activities of our competition, XM Satellite Radio, which had just posted their programming intentions online. As we listened and viewed the announcement of what they would be doing it was clear that they were going to “re-invent radio.” It was also clear that this would include real, live people talking about the music, special programming and all the trappings of what people-to-people radio has been about since the very beginning. Drats! Sirius would now have to create “real radio” too! Not long thereafter I found myself at odds with my immediate superior and packed up my things and found the door in 2000.

I was not lacking a creative outlet though as in 1999 I had been hired by the U. S. Government service Voice of America to program and present a 2-hour weekly show that we would call Jazz America. My superior, John Stevenson, told me that I was following the legendary Willis Conover who had presented the only jazz show on VOA for over 40 years. His time on VOA had spanned the years of the Cold War and he’d had a very special relationship with and impact on listeners around the world, but most especially on those behind the Iron Curtain. His form of jazz was almost totally traditional or straight ahead and his personal relationships with artists included the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I had by this time developed similarly solid  relationships with Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and many others from the more modern side of things and I wondered why John had chosen me over the many other presenters who might have been more qualified to pick up where Willis had left off with a completely traditional jazz approach? He told me that Willis simply would not program the more modern forms of jazz and that this was precisely why he hired me. He knew of my background and that a blending of the new and the old was what he wanted.  Well this was thrilling to me and now, sixteen years later, I continue to present what I term “The best of jazz, past and present, and conversation with the music makers” on Jazz America. I find this work completely satisfying as I have had the luxury of learning about and presenting as much as I want from the glorious past that jazz has created in over a century of evolution while keeping up with all the trends as they’ve emerged. Seeing how all of these styles can blend together seamlessly has been, and still is, a great thrill and learning experience for me and I hope for the listeners around the world.

While I was embarking on the beginnings of my work at VOA and finishing up my work at Sirius I was given another great opportunity, to continue my work in satellite radio and to create a one-of-a-kind radio channel that could define what modern jazz is for the 21st century. I was hired to create the channel Beyond Jazz for XM Satellite Radio. About a week after leaving Sirius I received a call from and took a meeting with Dave Logan, the VP of operations at XM and one of the most brilliant, driven, hard-working and charismatic leaders I’ve ever met in all my years of broadcasting. He asked if I would be interested in creating two channels for XM, a new age music channel called Audio Visions, and a jazz channel that would occupy the space between smooth and traditional jazz called Beyond Jazz. My answer was quickly an affirmative and though the seeds for what would become MOJA Radio had been planted with Jazz Flavours in Atlanta, CD 101.9 in New York and at Sirius, the plant began to grow and reach for the sun with Beyond Jazz.

One of the earliest promotional phrases used to describe the service was “Beyond AM…Beyond FM…XM Satellite Radio!” So when Lee Abrams, the mad scientist and VP of Programming for XM, decided on the name of my channel he envisioned a jazz channel that would be more than jazz and one that would, like other channels in other musical genres on the XM lineup, re-define the genre, just as XM would redefine radio. With Dave Logan giving the staff all the facilities, materials and motivation we’d need and Lee Abrams giving us all the direction and inspiration we’d need there was no way we’d create anything other than radio that was, if not brilliant, at least interesting and different from what had come before. I dare say few people in any field are given a more inspiring commission! Lee Abrams would stage what he called “Bootcamps” for the programming staff at which he’d present his inspirational pep talks with suggestions like “tap into your George Martin gene!” References like this were not lost on anyone who understood how producer Martin had transformed what would have possibly been only a regionally popular little skiffle, rock & roll band from Liverpool into a world-wide phenomenon by redefining the sound and style of what they recorded that was beyond comparison with even the most talented competition. The more ground breaking and creative we could be the better. With my new age channel I could create a meditative, flowing channel that was fashioned to please listeners musically while simultaneously “casting a spell” under which they would be until they turned off the channel. With Beyond Jazz I had something a bit different in mind.

It seems to me that the turn of the century was a perfect time to create a new, re-defining channel for modern jazz. Though Free Jazz, Hard Bop and Soul Jazz had certainly marked a shift from straight swing, the Fusion Era had opened up things in an entirely different way, in that it had introduced electric instruments, most especially electric guitar, piano and violin, synthesizers and assorted other devices, into the mix of improvised music. With that came the new rhythms and energy taken from rock and the infusion of world music…thank you George Harrison & Ravi Shankar and all you Brazilians and Africans out there! Contemporary jazz had learned a lot from the soul music of Motown, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Disco was the bane of the existence of many a jazzer and rocker but dance music and it’s electronic percussion and rhythms were having an effect on the younger generation of improvisers, most especially in Europe and other parts of the world outside of America. Americans would eventually catch up with Drum & Bass, Techno, Jazztronica, Jungle and other forms emerging over the years. For about a decade the movement of fun, up, funky danceable music called Acid Jazz, born in the English clubs concert halls and off-shore pirate radio stations, had swept across the globe capturing a whole new generation of listeners, dancers, music lovers and consumers who may have never thought they’d like jazz. The same can be said for the fans of another America movement called Jambands who took their lead from the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and Phish. When greats like Branford Marsalis and John Scofield began collaborating with these guys the jazz world knew something was up and that is was not to be ignored. Many may have thought that Hip Hop would come and go and that it would certainly bypass jazz, but when Miles Davis’s last recorded effort Doo Bop embraced the style and legends like Clark Terry recorded with Digable Planets while Greg Osby and Russell Gunn took Hip Hop head on then you knew it was here to stay, in pop music AND in jazz.  All these musical elements, and many more, came into the mix as I created Beyond Jazz. In addition I plugged in specials programs to highlight certain aspects of the movement. They included the all-day Saturday interview special Words & Music, the one-hour focus on one artist or group called Monday with the Masters, This Is Acid Jazz, Jammin’ Jazz-Jazz For The New Generation, hosted by my associate Michelle Sammartino (more on Michelle later), the one-hour live show staged at an “imaginary modern jazz club” called Live @ BJ’s, and the all-day special If It’s Friday, This Must Be Fusion. I also created a four-hour special documentary, The History of Fusion that aired twice each year on the 4th of July and New Year’s Day.

From the time that XM Satellite Radio launched in late 2001 to 2008 when Sirius took over and did away with many of the channels and people of the original XM lineup, Beyond Jazz and yours truly included, the service attracted over 9 million subscribers. Of that number internal metrics indicated that Beyond Jazz had gathered an audience of about 400,000 regular listeners, fewer than the smooth and straight ahead jazz channels as well as the pop music channels, but still a substantial audience for what was in essence a new, never-before-heard jazz entity. And, probably most importantly, the people who loved it REALLY loved it! Those who “got it” REALLY “got it!” They loved not only hearing the artists they’d known and loved from the Fusion Era and beyond, but all the new artists they were discovering at the same time I was discovering and presenting them on the air. There were no “auditorium tests” needed here. The Beyond Jazz listener was a music lover who was hungry to learn and hear more all the time and they told me so in hundreds of emails I received and saved over the 7-year run of the channel while on XM. Plus, the ARTISTS “got it” too. They knew that for many of them this was their best outlet to get out their musical message, and for some their ONLY outlet. When we got the word that Sirius would be taking over in what was billed as a “merger of equals” but was in essence the creation of a monopoly, in total disregard for the original agreement set up by the government, I began to put the word out on the air that I was appreciative of the support the listeners had given me during the past 7 years. I began to receive urgent messages from listeners who were angry and confused about what I meant and said if I were leaving they would follow me to keep getting the music and special programs they loved. A plan to create the next phase of Beyond Jazz was in the works at that time.

Early in the life of Beyond Jazz I received contact from an XM employee in the Miami office where designs of the XM units and designing of all kinds were done. Her name was Michelle Sammartino and she introduced herself by telling me she couldn’t believe there was an XM channel where she could hear the Jambands and Frank Zappa! I asked her point blank if she’d ever done on air work and if she’d be willing to volunteer to produce a show of her own creation for the channel. Though our plans were big at XM our budget for adding headcount was small if not non-existent so there was lots of volunteering going on among the channels, a testament to the strong, collegial attitude of the staff in general. Michelle had indeed been on the air in San Francisco and began to produce the weekly show Jammin’ Jazz-Jazz For The New Generation that became an instant hit! Her personal connection to the main artists in the genre from Karl Denson to Will Bernard to Skerik to Dr. Lonnie Smith to all the great artists from New Orleans to Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and many more was invaluable. Plus Michelle was a design and web specialist so when we were both “downsized” in the Sirius takeover we plotted to take the channel to the web as soon as we could get it together. If not for Michelle and all the hard work she did on the web side, MOJA Radio could not have been created. Though Michelle left a few years ago to pursue other work she left an indelible impression and her memory lives on in the spirit of MOJA Radio. She even returns from time to time on the air with a special presentation. While she put together the pieces for the website and continued to work on the programming of Jammin’ Jazz, I assembled the audio and technical elements we’d need to put the channel on the air. We did all the tedious work of acquiring the hardware, scheduling and automation software, setting up the streaming, web-hosting and domain name accounts, affiliate programs and social media accounts and licensing agreements with BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and Sound Exchange. Once all this was done and our business was registered as MOJA Radio LLC we were open for business, but how would be pay for all of this?

I was opposed from the beginning to playing constant advertisements on the air as I wouldn’t listen to that myself. We decided to see if the folks who were so upset when XM gave up and let Sirius call the shots, would really follow us in large enough numbers as subscribers to pay the bills and give us a chance to truly create, maintain and grow “The World’s Modern Jazz Radio Channel.” The answer is that they did and we have. Folks pay about a quarter a day to hear the stream. The name MOJA is not really a flippant moniker. Yes, it is a bit of a silly anagram that is constructed from MO for MOdern and JA for JAzz but people in the past six years of the life of the channel have now come to call this blending of all these many sub-genres of jazz MOJA without any hesitation. Sometimes I’ll get together with subscriber/listeners and we’ll listen to music and say to one another…”that’s definitely MOJA” or “that’s definitely NOT MOJA!” When you live with this music you just simply KNOW. In addition to serving up the constant variety of MOJA over these six years we’ve continued to present the special programs that have become a big part of what the service is all about. A couple of years ago I was joined by an old friend from New York radio days at CD 101.9, Carolyn Bednarski, who loves the vocal side of things and now programs and presents the special show “The New Jazz Singers with Carolyn Bednarski” each month. One member of MOJA Nation wrote me an email once that included the following, “if citizens of America are Americans then we citizens of MOJA Nation must be MOJANS.” The name stuck and even artists like Randy Brecker calls himself a MOJAN now as he did backstage in an interview at The Blue Note not long ago.

In conclusion, I must say how proud I am of what we have created, a platform to present the work of the artists that I believe are the most creative in jazz today. I must say how inspired I am each time I read a message from one of my fellow MOJANS who tells me how they couldn’t go through a day without listening because this is “their music.” A true music lover knows the music that helps him or her define themselves TO themselves, and this is no small thing. Communicating with citizens of the MOJA Nation may be the single most fulfilling thing about doing this work for me. That is besides, of course, the fact that I get to continue my relationship with all of these brilliant, creative musical creatures who come up with the newest forms of jazz, a music that has been around for over a century and refuses to stand still, much less die! When I get a new CD or download a file that presents me with some new pianist from Eastern Europe, a new guitarist from Indonesia, a band from Sweden, a vocalist from Brazil or India, or some funky new group from Texas, a player from Chicago or San Francisco that’s doing something completely different with a horn, some musician with a new idea that I discover walking into one of New York’s many clubs then I know that when you hear talk about how jazz is dead or dying it’s coming from people who just aren’t interested or are not paying attention. I know this multi-culti, electro-acoustic, genre-bending, multi-faceted music I call MOJA is alive and well and that for six glorious years it’s been living and thriving in the home I built for it, online at MOJA Radio!

Russ Davis

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 MOJA Radio’s website.

MOJA's Russ Davis with Amina Figarova, Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride & Edward Simon at the 2015 APA Jazz Fellowship Awards in INDY!

MOJA’s Russ Davis with Amina Figarova, Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride & Edward Simon at the 2015 APA Jazz Fellowship Awards in INDY!

MOJA's Russ Davis hanging out with the elegant Dianne Reeves!

MOJA’s Russ Davis hanging out with the elegant Dianne Reeves!

Sullivan Fortner receives the award from APA President Joel Harrison with the judges in the far background.

Sullivan Fortner receives the award from APA President Joel Harrison with the judges in the far background.

The 5 brilliant finalists for the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship for jazz pianists from the APA...Christian Sands, Zach Lapidus, Emmet Cohen, Kris Bowers and Sullivan Fortner

The 5 brilliant finalists for the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship for jazz pianists from the APA…Christian Sands, Zach Lapidus, Emmet Cohen, Kris Bowers and Sullivan Fortner

On Saturday night, March 28th, inside the beautiful Hilbert Circle Theatre in the center of downtown Indianapolis, young Mr. Sullivan Fortner was named the winner of the Cole Porter Fellowship for 2015 by the American Pianists Association. He won the amazing prize valued at $100,000 including $50,000 in cash, two years of artistic support and the offer of a recording contract with Mack Avenue Records. The announcement came after a year filled with various live performances as well as civic and educational activities that placed the five young pianists between the ages of 18 and 30 years of age in competition with one another. The five gentlemen, Kris Bowers, Emmet Cohen, Zach Lapidus, Christian Sands and the aforementioned Mr. Fortner were more like a band of brothers than competitors. Each one of the finalists is equally talented and, as I’ll explain, deserving of admiration, acclaim and future success. As was said many times by many people over the course of the 3+ days of Finals activities all of the guys were winners and the task of the 5 judges was an almost impossible one. Joel Harrison, the President and CEO of the APA, his staff , the APA board and seemingly the entire city of Indianapolis worked long and hard hours to make this event, the premier competition in the world for jazz pianists, amazing for all concerned.

 

Having served as the emcee of the 2011 edition of the awards and having turned that task over to the esteemed and award winning bassist, composer, bandleader, educator and broadcaster Christian McBride (quite an improvement if I do say so myself) I was instead free to do other fun things. I spent the time mingling with everyone involved, engaging in conversation with the great pianists chosen to be judges (Amina Figarova, Billy Childs, Bill Charlap and Edward Simon) as well as Mr. McBride and the featured vocalist who performed with the lads during the competition, the elegant Dianne Reeves. You can hear those conversations on my Voice of America and MOJA Radio programs. In other words I was able to enjoy one of the greatest hangs I can remember in years. I kept thinking it was akin to a jazz festival and like the greatest family reunion you’ve ever attended but without that loudmouth aunt or drunken uncle that might show up.

 

Everyone was in great spirits, the events were entertaining and conversation among the 5 finalists and all the other musicians gathered was like attending something that was part history lesson-part comedy performance. The laughs and meaningful, interesting tidbits of jazz history were more than plentiful. In case you didn’t already know, most jazz musicians are fun loving, positive people. So during meals, in breaks between events or in transit from one venue to another I was treated to hours filled with these great players exchanging reminiscences of old times together, stories of how something crazy or extremely meaningful happened to them in the past and, of course, the occasional joking jab from one to another…all in good fun.

 

Dianne Reeves and Billy Childs played together in the early stages of both of their careers and remembered that fondly. They also explained how they had both won Grammys this year with similar projects that brought many all-star singers and players from various musical genres together to perform songs not usually heard in jazz projects with excellent results. Christian McBride, obviously embracing his work as a broadcaster, asked a wonderful question of some of the pianists sitting together in the hotel lobby. He asked what gig other than jazz would they most like to have had. Bill Charlap, known as the master of “The Great American Songbook” and jazz from a more traditional approach quickly answered that he’d have loved to work with Frank Zappa, equating him with any jazz or classical master. Bill took advantage of a classic piano that was sitting in the lobby of our hotel that once belonged to the legendary Hoagy Carmichael. Bill brought the ancient instrument to life several times during the weekend with songs that Mr. Carmichael himself probably played and would have been proud to hear.

 

Mr. McBride also told some delightful stories about lessons learned from the great Ray Brown and how working with George Duke was thrilling and exhausting in a recording session for the song “10 Mile Jog” that went on non-stop for 30 minutes. Amina Figarova, joined by her husband and musical partner the great flute player Bart Platteau, explained all about their recent move from lower Manhattan to their new home in Harlem and how she and Bart had become their own renovation contractors. She also said we should look forward to her forthcoming project with a new sextet. Bart cleared something up for me that’s been a bother for a long time. He explained that he plays flute, not “flaut,” and has never understood why anyone would be called a flautist? If he wants to be called a flutist not a flautist then I’ll go with what the professional says thank you very much!

 

Edward Simon may be the quietest of the group but when he speaks it’s clear and meaningful. I enjoyed my first interview with him and found that though he left Venezuela, the land of his birth, many years ago and now calls America his home, he has not lost a musical connection with his homeland. His latest work, the brilliant Venezuelan Suite, is proof of that. He covers the four major styles of music born in Venezuela in the recording. His work in the New York scene from the time he as about 20 with the likes of Bobby Watson, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Terence Blanchard and many more, in addition to his own work as a leader, have helped establish him as one of the finest players and composers of his generation. He has new group and hopefully a solo piano work coming in the future he told me.

 

Returning to the APA Cole Porter Fellowship competition events, the first performances happened at the legendary Jazz Kitchen club where each of the gentlemen played three songs with the same rhythm section, a terrific local bassist and drummer. They played one solo piece as well as two with the trio. The performances were aired live on local FM station WFYI and the packed house was ecstatic. The house was cleared and a second audience filled Jazz Kitchen for another set of new songs with equal results. It was obvious to me that none of these five young pianists was head and shoulders above the others and in fact my estimation of them changed from song to song and set to set. I was, like many others in attendance, extremely glad I was not on the jury of judges.

 

The following night took us to the stately Hilbert Circle Theatre for The Finals which were webcast on the APA website and broadcast live on local FM station WICR. The night began with each gentleman performing in a duo setting with the brilliant vocalist Dianne Reeves, who announced that she had just returned from Europe and was a bit jet-lagged. It’s obvious after hearing her performance that Dianne is one of those artists who, at her worst, would be better than most at their best. She was showing no signs of jet lag whatsoever and was thrilling from the first note to the last. She chose a series of 5 jazz standards to perform with the lads but the songs were assigned randomly to each pianist. Again, there seemed to be no obvious leader in this setting. The large ensemble from Indianapolis, The Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Brent Wallarab, took the stage and accompanied the five finalists in the performance of classic songs by Monk, Chick Corea, Billy Strayhorn, Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” and the modern standard “Nature Boy.” There was another set of songs including some originals and more standards and by the end of the night I remained completely stumped as to who would or should win. If any of these young men had won it would have been worth celebrating. Each took away a cash prize and the admiration of everyone in attendance. I heard more than once from the stage and in conversation everywhere the same statement. “The future of jazz piano is in good hands!” Yes, indeed it is and be sure to look for the names of Emmet Cohen, Christian Sands, Kris Bowers, Zach Lapidus and Sullivan Fortner as you follow the development of the next generation of jazz stars!

OLD FRIENDS…NEW JAZZ!

(Russ Davis visits with Mike Stern & Bill Evans between sets at NYC’s Birdland)

 

Bill Evans, Russ Davis, Tom Kennedy, Steve Smith & Mike Stern backstage at NYC's Birdland!

Bill Evans, Russ Davis, Tom Kennedy, Steve Smith & Mike Stern backstage at NYC’s Birdland!

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor another frickin’ snowstorm during the winter of 2015 would stay this intrepid music-lover from making my way to the place billed as “The Jazz Corner Of The World,’ Birdland in midtown Manhattan. My plan was to spend some time with two of the finest people and players, as well as some of the greatest musicians of their generation, Mike Stern and Bill Evans, and their musical compatriots, drummer Steve Smith and bassist Tom Kennedy. Mike and Bill have great stories and make wonderful music. There would be plenty of both on this frozen night in New York.

 

Mike Stern and Bill Evans were already mature, established players when they met at various gigs in Boston and other nearby locations and then, in 1981, worked together as members of the Miles Davis band that marked his return to the public world of jazz. They’d talked even then about doing a project together and they finally got around to putting a band together some years ago and, luckily for us, they’ve taken time among the many, varied projects they are both constantly involved in to bring this great project to the people. Steve Smith, the leader of the great modern fusion group Vital Information and the drummer of the rock band Journey, as well as with other jazz projects such as Steps Ahead added his brilliant varied percussion and vocal expertise to the mix. To complete the rhythm section, and I use that term only because of the traditional designation of the drummer and bassist as such, was Tom Kennedy. Tom also played with Steps Ahead as well as with the likes of Joe Sample and David Sanborn and brought his distinctive six-sting bass to the party with great results in a supportive as well as lead role.

 

Mike Stern & Bill Evans on stage (2 old friends just having fun!)

Mike Stern & Bill Evans on stage (2 old friends just having fun!)

The set began with a defining piece, “Out Of The Blue” from Mike’s brilliant album All Over The Place. I say “defining” because the ten-minute treatment of this song displayed every element of what this set would be about. From the beginning they went about the business of making what new jazz (I call it MOJA) is all about at this point in the music’s history. I believe an artist must address the current state of the world around them if they are to be completely successful. The presentation of this first song did exactly that.

 

There is a rhythm of the world at present that was reflected in the first segment of “Out Of The Blue” with the fiery, double-time, astounding speed with which Mike Stern goes about his business on guitar. While he was playing I flashed on Charlie Parker and imagined him blowing those same notes and blowing the minds of his listeners, just as Mike was at this moment, just in a different century. The song progressed with Bill Evans chiming in on tenor sax and the rhythm changed to a soulful, bluesy shuffle before returning to that modern rhythm again all the way to the end. Bill brought the soul to the song (he IS after all the leader of SOULGrass and a member of the SOUL Bop band with Randy Brecker) and there were more fast-paced moments in his performance that conjured the Charlie Parker image all over again. Mike and Bill hooked up with some amazing simultaneous lines that would portend what the remainder of the set would deliver.

 

I could have left satisfied at this point but there was a more than satisfying hour of music still to come. The set included Steve Smith on drums and out-of-this-world wordless vocals and the sometimes subtle, sometimes out front, always tasteful and essential 6-string bass work of the great Tom Kennedy. These are four virtuoso players who seemed like old friends just having a party. Wait, they ARE old friends and they were most certainly having a party. It all seemed so effortless and relaxed as the between song banter exhibited. The set list was a rotation of Stern then Evans compositions that left lots of room for the individual statements of each man. A splendid time was had by all.

 

Miles with Bill Evans & Marcus Miller Live!

Miles with Bill Evans & Marcus Miller Live!

After the set the fun began for me all over again as I had a chance to talk to the gentlemen and cover some ground I’d not had a chance to in previous interviews. I asked Mike and Bill to talk between themselves in response to a few things I’d always wanted to know including how and when they first met and how they felt about being such a big part of helping Miles Davis make his grand return to the public jazz scene after his 7-year layoff that ended in 1981 with albums like The Man With The Horn, We Want Miles and Star People, all of which Mike and Bill contributed to. They confirmed what I had imagined, that they knew that this was an important contribution they were making beyond helping Miles specifically. They were aware that they were helping jazz in general reclaim a prodigal son who was important to have active for as long as he could. In this case it would be another decade.

 

Conversation turned to how they had decided to take time away from their many projects to make time for this band specifically, how much they enjoyed the work and being with one another and the rest of their band mates and how inspiring the music was to perform. They acknowledged how much respect they have for one another as composers, musicians and men. We spent some time talking, as I often do these days, about the strange state of things in the world of the arts that appear to benefit someone but not always the artists. Rather than dwell on this the guys, to their undying credit, prefer to simply stay creative, remain positive and keep playing. Reflecting on that statement I will close by saying that on this night at Birdland, Mike Stern, Bill Evans, Steve Smith and Tom Kennedy gave us a set that was creative, positive, performed at the highest level and a perfect example of what jazz in the 21st century sounds like played by old friends who just happen to be some of the best in the world at what they do! They’ll be taking this spirit and musical message to other parts of the world in the near future and you’ll be lucky should you have the chance to hang with the Mike Stern & Bill Evans Band!

Detroit Jazz Fest Logo

Detroit Jazz Festival 2014 Preview: Moving Straight Ahead In The 21st Century

From Friday, September 29th through Labor Day, Monday, September 1st, the jazz world will gather in Detroit to celebrate it’s wonderful heritage and the present state of the music in a grand event that’s been called “The World’s Biggest FREE Jazz Festival. On four stages that are all in walking distance from the banks of the Detroit River to the Main Stage placed among the beautiful classic buildings of the downtown area fans of jazz will be able to sample a variety of styles leaning mostly on the traditional side of things with a special emphasis on the heritage of Detroit jazz as presented by many of those who call The Motor City their home.

 

As many festivals do, Detroit features multiple performances by a yearly “Artist In Residence.” This year in Detroit it’s the esteemed saxophonist, composer and bandleader Joshua Redman, who’ll kick off the proceedings on Friday night in a performance with that always surprising and unique piano trio The Bad Plus. There is no telling what these four will come up with but I’d pay good money to see that show. Nice thing is that in Detroit I won’t have to pay for the pleasure. Later that night Kevin Mahogany and other vocalists take the stage with David Berger’s NYC Big Band to present a show they call “A Night at the Apollo.”

 

Big %22D%22 over DetroitIf you are a fan of big band and large ensemble jazz you’ll be in heaven, as each day begins with some of that presented by local colleges such as Michigan State, The University of Michigan, Central Michigan and a number of local high school ensembles. Plus there’s the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note Big Band and a number of large ensembles mainly comprised of active native Detroit players as well as the Mack Avenue SuperBand that features artists on the Detroit-based record label of the same name.

 

If you come to Detroit looking for the great, veteran players who carry on the jazz tradition then you’ll be in the right place with performances by Phil Woods, Barry Harris, Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, Al Foster, John Pizzarelli joined by his father Bucky, Tom Harrell and Ron Carter in a tribute to Jim Hall. The memories of the greats of the past are never far away in Detroit as there will be a number of other tribute shows. Wallace Roney and Nicholas Payton will present two separate tributes to Miles Davis. There will be a salute to Nat King Cole featuring Ramsey Lewis and the aforementioned John Pizzarelli, Steve March-Torme with a salute to his father Mel Torme. Cyrus Chestnut pays homage to Dave Brubeck, while local hero Marcus Belgrave and New Orleans’ own Nicholas Payton join together to celebrate the legacy of Louis Armstrong. In the tradition indeed!

 

If it’s singers you want you’ll hear the aforementioned Misters Torme and Mahogany as well as newcomer Cyrille Aimee, the award-winning Diane Schuur with an orchestra and Detroit pop legend-turned jazz singer Freda Payne with the USAF Airmen of Note Big Band. If you need a shot of Hammond B3 organ groove you’ll be treated to the likes of Dr. Lonnie Smith presenting his recent In The Beginning: Volumes 1 & 2 release, two shows featuring Joey DeFrancesco and the Lou Donaldson Organ Quartet.

 

Detroit Jazz Fest 2010You’ll get a great survey of the variety of recent projects by some of the finest players in modern jazz as Detroiter Regina Carter presents her Southern Comfort release live, along with the newest work of Gary Burton with a quintet, saxophonist Bill Evans and his Soulgrass project, The Mike Stern Band, Christian McBride’s trio and what may be the hottest, funkiest show of all, Stanley Clarke presenting his classic School Days and music from his soon to be released album titled UP. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, AKA NARAS, folks who hand out the Grammy Awards each year, have once again asked me to conduct a panel discussion at the festival this year and it will feature a panel of two, as I get to have a conversation with Stanley Clarke and field questions from the audience. It’s just another nice feature of the Detroit Jazz Fest.

 

In addition to the great array of artists I’ve already mentioned the crowds will gather to hear the likes of Orrin Evans performing music from his new release Liberation Blues, Rodney Whitaker, Tim Ries, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Sean Jones, Pedrito Martinez and so many more. So if you’re free for the Labor Day weekend and have a few extra coins in your pocket come to Detroit for a jazz celebration in a beautiful setting that features plenty of delicious food, arts & crafts, music and cool festival merchandise to purchase, family events to take in, lots of informative “Jazz-Talk” presentations with the artists and all those wonderful performances by some of the greats of jazz from Detroit and all over the world. It’s the wonders of Jazz for four glorious days and you won’t even need a ticket!

 

<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>

Dave Holland & Russ (Newport 2014)

Dave Holland takes time to visit with Russ Davis after his performance at the 2014 Newport Jazz Fest!

David Sanborn & Joey DeFrancesco swinging it bluesy at the 2014 Newport Jazz Fest!

David Sanborn & Joey DeFrancesco swinging it bluesy at the 2014 Newport Jazz Fest!

Snarky Puppy grooves Newport 2014!

Snarky Puppy grooves Newport 2014!

Donald Harrison & Russ (Newport 2014)

New Orleans legend, saxman Donald Harrison, & Russ Davis off stage at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival!

Newport Jazz Festival @ 60: Jazz Reigns Supreme for 3 Glorious Days!

The forecast for the first three days of August, 2014 called for cloudy skies with a 100% chance of incredible jazz performances in Newport, Rhode Island, the site of the 60th edition of “The Grandfather of All Jazz Festivals.” The cloudy skies proved to be fully capable of delivering sometimes torrential rain that may have kept the crowds down in number. But the incredible lineup of artists were more than capable of delivering what those hearty festival-goers came for…jazz with great variety performed at the highest level. The extra day of music was icing on the cake in celebration of this momentous time in Newport Jazz Fest history with shows from 11 AM to 7 PM each day at the Fort Adams State Park with the added attraction of Friday night’s performances by Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Dee Dee Bridgewater with her salute to Billie Holiday. No rain was going to put a on damper the spirits of the festival attendees or the performers. There was less talk of weather and more buzz on who to see and how inspired the performances were. Spirits were high for the entire three days and I’d like to share some quick reflections on some of what I saw and heard.

Friday began for me with the great honor of introducing the group that is possibly the most inventive big band making jazz in the genre today. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society thrilled the crowd in front of the largest stage, the Ertegun Fort Stage, with their modern rhythm and instrumentation that is helping define big band for the 21st century. Darcy is a fountain of new compositions and presented a number of new works along with some of his earlier, award-winning pieces. I caught a bit of another horn-dominated performance by the quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing with special guest Steven Bernstein and visited with Steven for a quick off-stage interview covering the power of horn bands including his own Sex Mob and their latest project celebrating music inspired by master filmmaker Frederico Fellini. Steven is never lacking in energy and creative ideas and shared plenty with the Newport crowd on this day.

Friday continued with a mad dash to hear the hottest young female vocalist around these days, Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose performance seemed to me to have been as appropriate for the Broadway stage as a jazz club or the Newport stage. Then it was off to hear Rudresh Mahanthapa in celebration of another pretty good alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker. Rudresh presented a spirited performance with his signature Mahanthapa free-jazz style in a set filled with original music inspired by Charlie Parker solos and famous songs instead of a set list of songs played by Parker. I took in a portion of John Zorn’s famed Masada Marathon during which he spent 2 ½ hours performing Zorn music with an ever-changing lineup. Everything from duos to large ensembles and from all acoustic to electro-acoustic played Zorn’s original compositions, all with that uniquely Jewish tinge.

Friday ended with the groove of New Orleans’ spirited bandleader Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human giving the crowd in front of the Fort stage plenty of rhythm to get up and shake their money-makers! The last set of the afternoon featured Snarky Puppy, that outrageous young sextet from all over the USA who got together at the music factory that is North Texas University in Denton, Texas. They look like they might still be taking classes somewhere but instead they’ve been recording like crazy, touring the world and winning Grammy awards in the past few years. I shared some of the shows I saw with my friends Michael Gengras and his son Graeme, who is by the way a great, young pianist who seems to be coming into his own and may share his talents with the Newport audience some day. Graeme was apparently more fired up about seeing Snarky Puppy than he was most any other act at the festival. He’s 19 and as the show began and the groove hit the crowd I could see a number of the younger members of the audience of his generation bobbing heads and shaking as one. Then I noticed the older generation doing the same with their own unique way of bobbing and swaying. I was catching a glimpse of how the generations were being united with one style of music and how a new generation of music lovers might be brought more into the jazz fold. Pretty exciting stuff on many levels!

Saturday began with a steady rain that honestly did little to dampen spirits at Newport 2014, day two. The all-star SF Jazz Collective jammed under the cover of the Quad stage while Robert Glasper brought his Experiment to the outdoor audience in front of the Fort stage. The crowd never missed a bit of Robert’s blend of funk, hip hop, groove and jazz, jamming with umbrellas in hand. Over on the Harbor stage the fans of the more traditional side of things got the legendary Dick Hyman and one of his great drummer-less trios with Howard Alden on guitar and Jay Leonhart on bass. The set was a funny and entertaining as it was swinging and the crowd loved it. I had a quick chat with Mr. Hyman and enjoyed some of his quick wit.

The man of the moment when it comes to male jazz vocalists these days, Gregory Porter, was holding court on the Fort stage but I was commissioned to introduce Kurt Rosenwinkel on the Harbor stage and found his live performance even more impressive than his recordings. To me the unique, human quality of sound created with his many devices through which he plays in his smooth, gliding style sets him apart from any other guitarist at work today. Seeing him perform live lets you know that he is totally locked in as he plays exhibiting a trance-like state. For something completely different I made my way to the Fort stage for some of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra. Wynton is pretty amazing in that a man with so many accolades and achievements just sits in the back of the orchestra and calls out the tunes then communicates every detail of the piece and his fellow orchestra members who are featured. Wynton is the consummate professional and this is a swinging band that is in business to DO business!

Wynton’s performance would be followed on the Fort stage by his fellow New Orleans native Troy Andrews, AKA Trombone Shorty, and his funky Orleans Avenue band to close out the day. But I was on my way to the Quad stage to see a band I had promised myself to hear live since their astounding album was released in 2013. Dave Holland had put together a new band featuring an old friend, Kevin Eubanks, with whom he’d worked in the 20th century to electrify the sound of the new band and release titled Prism. Dave has led small groups, large ensembles and a big band of all-acoustic projects so it was a treat to hear him electrify his sound and to present his own compositions and those of his band mates pianist Craig Taborn, drummer Eric Harland and Mr. Eubanks. I am always looking for new statements in jazz composition and presentation and Dave Holland and Prism did not disappoint. A quick conversation with the always intelligent and open Mr. Holland topped off the day and I look forward to sharing some of that interview with listeners on MOJA Radio and Voice of America as well as this brilliant, forward-thinking music.

Sunday, the last day of the 60th edition of The Newport Jazz Festival, began cloudy and cool but not as threatening as far as rain was concerned and though there were some sprinkles from time to time not a single disparaging word was heard as far as I could hear the entire day. It was simply a celebration of wonderful music and this great event!

The day began with the sons of Dave Brubeck, The Brubeck Brothers Band, conjuring images of their late, great father who’d played as recently as just a few years ago and not long before his passing. You just knew that he was smiling down from on high and justly proud of his talented sons playing Newport. Across the way the all-star band known as The Cookers were swinging the morning into the early afternoon and I caught up with New Orleans saxman Donald Harrison afterwards to check in on his activities as of late including his work with this fine band of swingers.

I caught a bit of another saxophone legend, Lee Konitz, who thrilled the crowd with is historical recollections between songs, his fine playing and ability to swing. He brought on one of the young lionesses of jazz, saxophonist Grace Kelly, who traded licks with the master in a fine way. The unique pianist Vijay Iyer was leading a great sextet at the Quad stage and I caught a lot of his set as he continues to grow his considerable legend as a player and composer of the highest order. If you like your jazz well constructed but with elements of free jazz in the mix then Vijay is your piano player. I hit the Fort stage to hear a bit of The Mingus Big Band and happened to catch up with trombonist, composer, arranger and leader Conrad Herwig, who’d just played with the MBB, and we had a long-overdue conversation about his various activities. He revealed that there will be a new edition of his series “The Latin Side Of…” this one featuring the music of Joe Henderson. After enjoying his “Latinization” of the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, this should be another fine moment to look forward to in the future.

I was on my way to hear a bit of The Newport All Stars featuring Randy Brecker and a number of luminaries including THE MAN himself, George Wein, who started this whole festival thing back in 1954. He would be playing piano with this hand picked group of stars. But before the set, who should I run into but the lovely Ada Rovatti and her beautiful, little daughter Stella Brecker? Ada is, of course, Randy Brecker’s tremendous saxophone-playing wife and musical partner in The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion project. I sat down with Ada to talk about her wonderful, new release Disguise. I look forward to sharing this with my listeners soon and would have loved to hear her performing this music live at Newport. Maybe next year… Randy represented the family well with his performance and I had a chance to talk to my “MOJA Man of The Year” in 2013 about all of the many projects he’s been called upon to be a part of. He’s just a guy who can’t say no, thank goodness, and is in my opinion the premier trumpeter in jazz today.

Two more of the greats of their instruments for all time, vibes master Gary Burton and saxophonist David Sanborn, were still to come on this final day and I was on my way to the Fort stage to introduce Mr. Sanborn and company when I ran into Gary on the run and got a quick word from him on what we’d hear with the latest edition of his New Quartet, turned into a quintet on this day with the addition of a pianist. The crowd was treated to music from the band’s latest release, Guided Tour, and some earlier work that featured the always masterful Julian Lage on guitar. One sad note on the day was the fact that Dr. John, who was to play the Fort stage with his band The Nite Trippers, had taken ill and had to cancel not only his performance the day before in New York’s Central Park, but also this day in Newport. That meant that the two acts that would have followed him would just get some extra time to play. Again, no worries no matter the situation in Newport. After the crowds who’d seen John Coltrane’s son Ravi and the legendary bassist Ron Carter made their way to the Fort stage it was time for some saxophone-trumpet-hammond B3 organ-vibes groove to fill the air.

I had been asked by the festival folks to pick some shows I wanted to introduce and one of the first I thought of was the David Sanborn-Joey DeFrancesco performance. I spoke to Joey before the show and he was fired up to play with David who had called him some time ago to do some work together. They’d collaborated with the vibes master Bobby Hutcherson on the recent release Enjoy The View and judging by the style of this album I had a good idea that we were in for a mostly swinging good time. Mr. Hutcherson could not appear so Dave and Joey brought in young vibes master Warren Wolf and he never missed a beat. Speaking of the beat, the legendary drummer Billy Hart was on stage as he had been in the studio for this new album. That might have been enough to top off the day at Newport 2014 but there was one more event to enjoy. The man they call “The Voice,” Bobby McFerrin, took the Fort stage crowd to church on this Sunday afternoon with his latest work, Spirityouall! His one-of-a-kind vocal sound and presentation, a top-notch supporting cast and the mix of classic gospel tunes turned into jazz, funk and blues was just enough to thrill the crowd. When Bobby, refusing to be kept from his original plans, made his way from the stage with wireless microphone in hand to walk among the audience the day was truly complete. He had the Newport congregation screaming “AMEN!” as the last notes of the 60th edition of “The Grandfather of All Jazz Festivals” filled the air.

I may not be around to witness another 60 years of this Newport Jazz Festival but I am not betting against there being a 120th edition in 2074. Neither rain, nor whatever may come, will dampen the strong spirit of this marvelous event. See you next year!

Russ Davis

<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>

 

MOJA's Russ Davis on stage @ the Newport Jazz Festival

MOJA’s Russ Davis on stage @ the Newport Jazz Festival

Dee Dee Bridgewater, here with MOJA's Russ Davis, just may be THE star of this years Newport Jazz Festival!

Dee Dee Bridgewater, here with MOJA’s Russ Davis, just may be THE star of this years Newport Jazz Festival!

Newport Jazz Festival LogoBack in the late 1980’s in the heyday of what was then called “Contemporary Jazz” the Los Angeles-based pianist Rob Mullins released one of his most popular albums. He titled it Jazz Jazz. For anyone who might have been confused by that title it seemed to be an obvious reference to his intent, to make an acoustic record that had one foot in traditional jazz and the other firmly in the modern world of what was then a very accessible form of improvised music that was dominating the airwaves at the time. He wanted there to be no mistake. This WAS a JAZZ recording. This year, as “The Grandfather of all Jazz Festivals,” the Newport Jazz Festival, turns 60 years old there’s plenty of “Jazz Jazz” on the lineup and everything else one might imagine in a 21st century jazz festival from world jazz to hip hop jazz to big band jazz to vocal jazz to jamband jazz and more!

 

60 years ago when George Wein and his associates were cruising around the lovely seaside village of Newport, Rhode Island and deciding that this would be a perfect place to stage a grand celebration of jazz it was pretty certain what the performance schedule would look like in 1954. It was a dream lineup of some of the greats of all time including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Horace Silver, The Modern Jazz Quartet and many more. Some of those original participants will be playing this year, including saxophone legend Lee Konitz who will invite a youngster from the new generation of traditionalist saxophonists, Ms. Grace Kelly, to join him on stage.

 

Others artists who’ll be there to carry on the tradition include Ron Carter with Russell Malone and Donald Vega, Dick Hyman with Howard Alden & Jay Leonhart, and that band of all-star swingers, The Cookers, will make sure no one forgets that if you want to play “Jazz Jazz” you have to hit on the ones and the threes! Plus there will those who arrive with the intent to pay homage to those who’ve come before as Chris, Darius and The Brubeck Brothers will surely conjure images of father Dave taking the stage at Newport. The award-winning alto sax man Rudresh Mahanthapa unleashes the world premiere of his Charlie Parker Project, while the son of John Coltrane, Ravi, will bring his own formidable chops to the scene along with the spirit of his fabulous father.

 

Just so no one gets lost in the joys of being in one of the most pleasing scenes anyone could be to hear jazz, the beautiful setting of Fort Adams State Park, and forget the place where jazz was born, there will be plenty of the sound of New Orleans filling the air in Newport this year. NOLA fans will enjoy Mr. Troy Andrews, AKA Trombone Shorty, playing with his group Orleans Avenue. Jon Batiste & Stay Human carry on the Crescent City tradition with their Friday evening set. None other that Mac Rebbenack, the legendary Dr. John himself, will bring a little of The Jazz & Heritage Festival to Newport too, and the man, or should I say THE MAN, Wynton Marsalis, of the NEA Jazz Master first family of jazz plays two sets during the weekend with his incredible Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra.

 

And speaking of big bands, the setting in Newport is out of doors with the Newport Harbor all around and a big sky up above, so a BIG band is especially great to hear in such a place where a large sound goes a long way. Besides Wynton and company, fans of large ensembles and big bands will have plenty to enjoy including the not to be missed modern take on big band from the brilliant Canadian via Brooklyn, Darcy James Argue and his Secret Society. There’s Brian Blades & The Fellowship Band, The SF JAZZ Collective, The Mingus Big Band, The Django Festival All-Stars and other groups. Plus, the Newport @ 60 All-Star band including greats like Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen, Mark Whitfield, Clarence Penn, Lew Tabackin, Howard Alden, Karrin Allyson and even Mr. George Wein himself will play two sets during the weekend.

 

One of the dominant trends in jazz today is being called “World Jazz” or music played not only by Americans creating music with a foreign flavor but international artists giving the world their take on improvised music that addresses their own cultural roots. Among those serving up this style at Newport this year will be Panama’s great pianist and composer Danilo Perez presenting his Panama 500 project, The Amir ElSaffar Quintet, John Zorn and a cast of thousands with his 2 1/2 hour Masada Marathon, Stefano Bollani & Hamilton de Holanda presented by Italy’s Umbria Jazz, Puerto Rico’s great saxman Miguel Zenon and rising Latin music percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his group, among others.

 

If it’s vocalists you want then you’ll keep yourself busy running from stage to stage to hear the likes of Bobby McFerrin, performing his latest project Spirityouall, or to catch one of two sets by maybe the hottest young singer to come along in years, Cecile McLorin Salvant. Joe Williams isn’t with us anymore but many think that young Mr. Gregory Porter is filling in just fine and I’ve mentioned Karrin Allyson and Dr. John who will most certainly thrill those coming to hear vocal jazz. But the best of them all, in my humble opinion, will take the stage at the International Tennis Hall Of Fame site at the Newport Casino where Friday’s opening night event happens with Wynton Marsalis and company along with the lady who to me is the reigning queen of jazz vocalists, the great Dee Dee Bridgewater. Dee Dee will bring her fabulous celebration of Billie Holiday, To Billie With Love, to Newport after a wonderful run off-Broadway in New York. This Grammy-winning musician, Tony-winning actress, Jazz Journalists Association award winning broadcaster, singing, composing, acting renaissance woman just added “Producer” to her line of credits. She discovered trumpeter Theo Croker in her band while playing in China a few years ago and he’ll join her on stage in Newport. And by the way, she produced his brilliant debut album Afrophysicist which is as fine a statement of modern jazz as you’re likely to hear in 2014.

Speaking of the modern side of things, including the “Jammin’ Jazz” I mentioned earlier, the reigning stars of jazz today will line up and play Newport to celebrate the 60th year. There are no bigger names than Gary Burton, playing with his latest New Quartet, Dave Holland and his new electric group Prism, David Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco leading a grooving quartet, innovative guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, award-winning pianist Vijay Iyer leading an all-star sextet and the Texas-born pianist Robert Glasper, who’ll play Newport for the second year in a row and is doing as much as anyone these days to marry the traditions of jazz with the most modern of musical styles from country to hip hop. Then, for something completely different, there are two bands from New York, though originally from other places, who stretch the boundaries of jazz while playing the same instruments that the bands at the 1954 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival might have played. Mostly Other People Do The Killing (don’t be afraid, they won’t harm you) is a quartet led by bassist Moppa Elliot that will expand their usual setup to an octet including that inventive master of the slide trumpet, Steve Bernstein of Sex Mob and Millennial Territory Orchestra fame, to please the more adventurous festival goers on Friday just after noon. To close out the first day at the fort new Grammy-winners Snarky Puppy from Brooklyn via Texas will jazz-funk-rock-jam things up nicely.

If variety is truly the spice of life then “make mine extra spicy, waiter, and take me to the 60th edition of The Newport Jazz Festival!” What more can I say? How about “See you in NEWPORT!”

Russ Davis

<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>

To Denmark, Armenia, Zimbabwe & New Orleans…July 3rd 2014 @ The Montreal Jazz Fest!

 

Question…how does one travel to Denmark, Armenia, Zimbabwe and New Orleans in one day and never go farther than one square mile? The answer is by attending the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 3rd 2014 and have your handy festival guide in hand and your walking shoes on! On this, my third full day at the festival, I set out to get a taste of some of the international offerings at the 35th Montreal Jazz Fest, always one of my primary intentions when attending this event, and I began with a visit with three funky dudes from Denmark known as Ibrahim Electric.

 

Denmark's IBRAHIM ELECTRIC grooving the crowd at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Fest!

Denmark’s IBRAHIM ELECTRIC grooving the crowd at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Fest!

Guitarist Niclas Knudsen, drummer Stefan Pasborg and organist Jeppe Tuxen have been at it for a decade now making a name for themselves in Europe for the most part. But news of their eclectic mix of funk, jazz, rock and world music has most certainly reached these shores. I had somehow found a copy of their 2006 release Absinthe a few years ago and wondered what else these guys were up to. Well, after hearing one of their two sets at the festival, their first appearance here, I now know. These guys are not just a fun-time, grooving, party band, though they certainly had heads bopping, feet tapping and booties shaking during their show, they have a wealth of styles that blend in such an inventive way there is simply no way to pigeonhole them.

 

The set began with a groove that would have pleased Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Robert Walter or John Medeski. Just when I thought I might have them figured out the next song began with a Middle Eastern tinge that morphed into something that seemed like a theme to an imaginary spy movie. Songs followed that incorporated a bit of this and that and exhibited how many different sounds one can squeeze from a Telecaster guitar, a set of drums and a Hammond B3 organ. Can you say “inventive?” I know these guys can. I spoke with guitarist Nicklas Knudsen and got some information on the group, plus three more of their albums I’ll be sharing with you soon. Nicklas told me that they play a lot in Scandinavia but have been to North America a bit and that their main source of inspiration comes from American music from the ‘60s & ‘70s though he has been to Africa, is heavily influenced by the music from the continent, and also feels connected to the Euro-jazz scene by playing electric, improvised music but also dabbling in electronic music too. You’ll hear more from these guys if I have anything to say about it…and I DO…so stay tuned.

 

Young piano master TIGRAN HAMASYAN with MOJA's Russ Davis at the Montreal Jazz Fest!

Young piano master TIGRAN HAMASYAN with MOJA’s Russ Davis at the Montreal Jazz Fest!

I left Niclas and Ibrahim Electric to their own devices and made my way to The Gesu Theatre for another trip to another part of the world to hear the young Armenian-born piano master Tigran Hamasyan who now goes simply by the single name Tigran. After winning the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition a few years ago he’s made such a name for himself that the Montreal Jazz Festival gave him three spot-light shows this year. He set up shop in the Gesu to play duet shows with Ambrose Akinmusire, then Brad Mehldau and on this night with his own quintet to perform the music of his latest work titled Shadow Theater. I’d spoken to Tigran at the 2011 Montreal Jazz Fest and found that his musical vision comes from a few varied sources including classic rock as well as classic jazz, the traditional music of his homeland, Armenia, which includes folk and classical traditions.

 

He mentioned that jazz was not a foreign sound or style to him growing up as there was a true jazz tradition in Armenia from the 1930’s and beyond. You learn something every time you talk to an artist and this was certainly something I never imagined. Tigran is creating his own tradition and exhibited this in his performance as he took the stage alone to play some solo piano with some electronic embellishments. As the piece continued he was joined by his quintet and the music developed nicely to present Tigran’s complete stylistic intent. Instead of continuous improvisation by himself and his band mates Tigran primarily established rhythmic patterns to convey the musical message in this performance. There is a modern jazz-rock timbre to the sound and it’s decidedly electro-acoustic as well. I heard a lot of classical influence too with an operatic tone that came from the vocal work of Tigran and the female member of his band. There were Eastern overtones too that obviously come from Armenian folk. Tigran is an artist that is sure to develop wonderfully and that I’m sure to follow.

 

I was on my way to my next stop, the beautiful Theatre Maisonneuve to hear Terence Blanchard, a great side trip would be to Africa, Zimbabwe to be specific, to hear the energetic sextet Mokoomba. These guys were playing the second of two free shows outdoors and by all accounts had become one of the sensations of the festivals many free offerings. Their blend of world-jazz coming from the Tonga rhythms of their homeland, modern hip hop, rock and blues was a pleasing mix for the festival audience who couldn’t stop moving to the groove. Their latest album, Rising Tide, was recorded in Belgium and features not only their great vocalizing and the band’s fine percussion, keyboard and guitar work but a large horn section too. If you wonder what might have inspired Hip Hop look no further than a place like Zimbabwe and a group like this one. I always seem to discover a unique African band or artist when I come to Montreal and this year it was Mokoomba.

 

Trumpet master TERENCE BLANCHARD played 2 cool sets on July 3rd at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Fest!

Trumpet master TERENCE BLANCHARD played 2 cool sets on July 3rd at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Fest!

Off to Maisonneuve I went to settle in for two sets featuring the trumpet master from New Orleans, Terence Blanchard to close out the day. Terence would perform first with his own quintet and then with L’Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal led by their local musical treasure composer, bandleader and saxophonist Christine Jensen. Christine would be directing the Orchestra on this evening in the second set, but to begin the evening Andre Menard, the esteemed co-founder and director of the Montreal Jazz Festival for these 35 grand years took the stage to present Mr. Blanchard with the 21st Miles Davis Award. It was a touching and entertaining presentation as Terence told a personal story of how Miles had complemented him for his work and been a friend since the early 1980’s when Terence was only a young gun coming into his own. That being done, it was time for the music.

 

Terence and his quintet played a set primarily from his latest release Magnetic. If you came to the hall on this evening to hear “When The Saints Go Marching In” or a salute to Louis Armstrong you were in the wrong place. No traditional New Orleans music and not much straight swing would be coming in this set. There was plenty of high-level improvisation from Mr. Blanchard and most especially saxophonist Brice Winston and young Cuban-born piano discovery Fabian Almazan, but the music came from a free and dreamy place and stayed there for the most part. Terence has spent a lot of his time writing soundtracks and arranging music for large ensembles so the craft is strong for him and it seems that even with a small group the orchestration and composition is a major focus. Combine that with his awesome ability to emote via his instrument and you’ve got a real treat.

 

After a short break the quintet took the stage again along with the members of Montreal’s Jazz Orchestra with Ms. Jensen directing. Terence made a major point in the beginning of stating that when he began composing for film, and that was back in 1992 with the soundtrack for Malcolm X, he was sometimes told in meetings that jazz didn’t work in film soundtracks. He begged to differ and in his career, as well as on this night, went about the business of proving them wrong. He reached back into his 1999 release Jazz In Film to bring on the theme from “Taxi Driver” and other pieces. He then gave the spotlight to Christine Jensen and her large aggregation. This is indeed an Orchestra, not a jazz big band, so there was not much hint of swing to be found in the next four tunes, all written and arranged by Ms. Jensen. There was a dreamy, jazzy spirit conjured by most of the music as if the soundtrack for the film titled July 3rd at the Montreal Jazz Fest was being performed. The show ended with one last piece of evidence being presented my Mr. Blanchard to prove his case of the fact that jazz and films DO match. The performance of Duke Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder” was a perfectly, sweetly swinging end to the set and to a night of “jazz as high art” and to my third day at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival!

 

Russ Davis

 

<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>

Two Pianos & A Zappa-2 July 14 At The Montreal Jazz Fest!

Monty Alexander spends some time with MOJA's Russ Davis at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival

Monty Alexander spends some time with MOJA’s Russ Davis at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival

If you consider yourself a lover of great jazz piano then you would have been in heaven and in the grips of a delightful dilemma on the seventh day of the 35th Montreal Jazz Festival! There were more great pianists than you could possibly see and hear on this day, along with guitarists, singers, saxophonists…you get the idea. But the keyboardists were certainly in the spotlight as Brad Mehldau did double duty with two shows, one in a duo with Tigran Hamasyan and the other with his latest recording project with drummer Mark Guiliana as Mehliana. Then there was the legendary Randy Weston and local favorite, young Mr. John Roney, who we discovered at last year’s festival, and the versatile pianist and vocalist Laila Biali who thrilled the crowd in front of the large outdoor stage in the plaza of the Place des Arts. But I chose to seek out a young Cuban pianist I’d never seen and a legendary Jamaican I’d seen but never spoken to. I’m talking about Rafael Zaldivar and Monty Alexander. Oh yeah, I thought I’d throw a little Zappa into the mix just for variety!

After my daily trek up to the top of the peak that gives this beautiful city its name, Mount Royal, I made my way to the Maison du Festival, the building that houses the press and media center as well as the offices and archives of this marvelous festival, to spend some time in conversation with the brilliant pianist from Kingston, Jamaica’s national jazz treasure Monty Alexander. I’d seen and briefly met Monty at a performance at Dizzy’s, the club in New York’s Jazz @ Lincoln Center complex that’s become an important location for some of his latest and greatest performances and recordings, but I’d never had a chance for a conversation on the record. I knew Monty to be a warm and animated person and he was all of that and more in our half hour chat.

Mr. Alexander had just turned 70 on June 6th and he looks and appears to be many years younger. A life in the arts can keep one young it seems and it’s certainly the case with Monty. I learned of his beginnings in music and the encouragement of his father who put him in front a piano at a very early age. One touch of the instrument and he was hooked. He was surrounded by many styles of music and interestingly never divided the things he heard into categories. It was all simply music to him so from the beginning it wasn’t bebop or reggae or classical or rock…it was just music. From the department of “first cut is the deepest” comes the reason for his facility to blend various styles so easily. I’d witness that fact in his performance at the Gesu later in the day.

After a delightful 30 minute interview with Monty Alexander, which I will be sharing with my audience on Voice of America and MOJA Radio soon, I was off to the intimate club on the street level of the Maison du Festival, Club L’Astral, to hear a young Cuban-born pianist, Rafael Zaldivar, who has made quite a name for himself in the Montreal jazz scene since coming North a few years ago. It didn’t take long for Canadians to notice his considerable talent and he has two recordings and numerous awards under his belt to prove that fact. He led a tightly knit quartet of Cuban and Quebecois musicians through an energetic hour of music under the title Afro Cuban Revival. There is plenty of African and Cuban influence in his music that features powerful and rhythmic grooves accentuated by his percussive piano playing in connection with his forceful drummer and conga player, but there is no denying a decidedly classical influence too. In my earlier conversation with Monty Alexander we had spoken of the various influences in the “jazz music” that emanates from the islands of the Caribbean and he made a point of stating that there was a serious classical influence in Cuban music that stems from their culture of music education and the emphasis on classical study there. Certainly young Mr. Zaldivar had done his homework. He’s a talent to be watched for years to come.

Dweezil & Frank...two guitar masters!

Dweezil & Frank…two guitar masters!

I’d return later to my piano appreciation tour on this day in Montreal but it was now time for a detour into the world of rock and jazz with the performance by Dweezil Zappa and his outrageous sextet Zappa Plays Zappa at the cavernous venue Metropolis. Frank may not have done his children any favors with the names Moon Unit and Dweezil, but he certainly gave his son some great genetic gifts when it comes to music and specifically guitar playing. Just as his father was, Dweezil is a guitar monster, squeezing overwhelming sound out of various electric guitars with an ease that only a master can. The packed house was filled with an air of electric anticipation and excitement. The hall was populated with old hippies in Zappa t-shirts and tie-dye as well as youngsters who have probably followed Dweezil and his band over the years, seeing some of his shows in Montreal. Since 2006 when he began this project of keeping his dad’s music alive he’s done over 500 shows all over the world, so the Canadian crowd is well acquainted with his work.

I’d seen the band a few years ago in Austin, Texas when they led on for Return To Forever IV and a highlight of the performance was a jam with Jean-Luc Ponty on the classic “King Kong,” but that was a short set for a crowd that had come to hear Chick, Stanley, Lenny and company. This was a two set evening with Zappa music and nothing but Zappa music so the intent was to give the people what they came for. Before the live performance began there was a 10-12 minute jazz-rock instrumental to warm up the crowd. As soon as the lights came up and Dweezil and company took the stage to a thunderous roar the game was on as rock married jazz with the Zappa classic “Zombie Woof” highlighted not only by those humorous lyrics but by trumpet and saxophone.

Dweezil is a man of few words compared to his father’s famous satirical banter between songs. He lets the music do the talking for the most part, but he let the crowd know that since this was a festival and a special occasion he wanted to give them lots of the most popular and familiar of Zappa classics. As the set progressed it appeared the performance might be more of a comedy-rock act, albeit with superior musicianship sans jazz, but when Dweezil and his saxophonist Shelia Gonzalez traded licks in a lengthy exchange I knew jazz was never far from the mind of young Mr. Zappa as he presented the brilliantly entertaining music of his famous and much-missed father. I got what I came for and I dare say so did the rest of this packed house of Zappa freaks.

Out into the steamy Montreal night I went for my last stop of the day and one more taste of piano jazz with a world-music flavor. Inside the intimate setting of what is probably my favorite venue in Montreal, the Gesu Centre De Creativite, a mature crowd of music lovers gathered to hear masterful piano playing and to soak up some Jamaican rhythm at the same time. They would not be disappointed. Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express is a versatile sextet that features two drummers and two bassists as well as an electric guitarist and his acoustic piano. As Mr. Alexander had explained in our conversation earlier in the day he grew up musically loving both bebop piano and the music of his heritage. He has one foot in Jamaica with a nod to Africa and the other in Harlem where he played the famous club Minton’s early on in his jazz career. He’s played with Dizzy Gillespie as well as his countryman Ernest Ranglin so variety is indeed the spice of his life and his music.

From the beginning of his set Monty employed both his acoustic and electric bassists along with the drummers and electric guitarist to bring on the Jamaican side of things. In the middle of the piece the electric instruments dropped out to let the acoustic, swinging side emerge for a while until he was ready to turn on the electricity again to bring that Kingston rhythm back. As we had both agreed during our interview in the afternoon, if that reggae rhythm doesn’t make you move you had better have someone check your pulse as you may have moved on to the next phase! Monty Alexander’s ebullient spirit and engaging music made for a wonderful set of music and a fitting end to another marvelous day at the 35th Montreal Jazz Festival!

Russ Davis

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 MOJA Radio’s website.

Kenny Garrett, with MOJA's Russ Davis, representing the USA nicely at the 35th Montreal Jazz Fest!

Kenny Garrett, with MOJA’s Russ Davis, representing the USA nicely at the 35th Montreal Jazz Fest!

Bass Master Marcus Miller give the Montreal Crowd "Renaissance" and more!

Bass Master Marcus Miller give the Montreal Crowd “Renaissance” and more!

American Jazz Royalty on Canada Day at 35th Montreal Jazz Festival!

 

By the time I landed in the beautiful city of Montreal to begin my visit to the 35th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal the festival was already in full swing. You can go to the festival website at www.fijm.com to see what you and I missed in the past few days and also what we can see and hear if you make a quick trip to take in the festival which ends on July 6th. Everyone, and I’m talking the locals, remarked that this was the single hottest, muggiest day they could EVER remember. Not exactly the days they dream of in the dead of winter, as the temperature was in the low 30’s, and we’re talking Celsius people!

 

After a quick check in and a walk through the city streets I was ready to head inside and hear what was on the festival menu for July 1st, Canada Day! I already began to soak up some pretty fine music including some rockin’ blues, a totally authentic New Orleans Dixieland Band and two street musicians who weren’t even part of the official festival including some sweet saxophone improv and the absolutely most unique sitar playing with electric beats I’ve ever heard (hey festival programmers…book this guy next year!)

 

Everyone seems to be talking about the young jazz prince from Armenia, Tigran Hamasyan, who was performing on this evening in the first of his three shows at the festival this year, this one in a duo with another young prince of jazz, Bay-area trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. But this day most certainly belonged to some of the American jazz royalty. It’s the least we could get on the day the USA got knocked out of the World Cup by Belgium! The night began with piano great Brad Mehldau in a solo piano performance in the grand Symphony Hall followed by a man who needs no introduction ladies and gentlemen…50 years singing the standards and more…Mr. Tony Bennett! Mr. Bennett may have left his heart somewhere on the West Coast of the USA but by all accounts he stole hearts in Montreal on this night inside the long sold out Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

 

My first live performance of the night took me inside the Place des Arts, the beautiful complex that is a collection of fantastic venues inside the city center. I was there to hear the master bassist Marcus Miller but leading on in a rare first set was a trio of young bloods from Montreal, Parc X Trio, who acquitted themselves nicely with a combination of tightly arranged compositions that sounded like a rock set without a singer. Parc X Trio is a stripped down, minimalistic band with electro-acoustic groove, and features a forceful drummer, electric bass and electric piano with various sound-generating devices. I’d seen a few sets like this at various venues in Europe recently and I’ve always felt like going to Montreal was like going to Europe, so I rest my case.

 

After a quick set change set change Marcus Miller and crew bounded on stage to give the mostly baby-boomer crowd what they came for…THE FUNK and plenty of it! There was certainly more than a little gray hair in the crowd inside Theatre Maisonneuve as they probably remembered Marcus from “back in the day” as the guy they first came to know as a collaborator with and protégé of Miles Davis. Marcus did not disappoint as the first song of the set featured his powerful, penetrating bass sound that shook the walls of the hall and sent every chest cavity in the place vibrating! The set was not all power-funk though as there were moments of full-blown swing, ballads and a chance for every member of the band that included sax, trumpet, guitar, keyboards and drums to shine.

 

Marcus Miller, wearing that signature black hat, smiled his way through a completely satisfying set that included much of the music from this latest release Renaissance. One of the songs from the album is titled “Detroit” which just happens to be the home town of another member of current American jazz royalty, Kenny Garrett, who was playing just next door at the Theatre Jean-Duceppe. He’s another “cat in a hat” as Kenny took the stage in his familiar multi-colored skullcap leading a quintet that brought an air of a band that was there to do some serious business.

 

The man who speaks fluent Japanese, and proved that fact with his introduction from the stage at the International Jazz Day Concert in Osaka earlier this year, also speaks fluent jazz with an African tinge as his first song of the set proved perfectly. Kenny’s quintet is all acoustic but there was no lack of electricity in this set of music. He’s a man who never stops moving and his band of professionals were in sync with their leader throughout. Kenny and pianist Vernell Brown were the primary soloists but everyone got plenty of the spotlight.

 

Much of the set featured the delightful stream of consciousness flow of the music from Kenny’s latest release Pushing The World Away. There were moments of straight swing including a alto piece right out of the Charlie Parker playbook, to soprano pieces with a Middle-Eastern feel that reminded me of A Love Supreme. I imagined Kenny as Coltrane walking across the North African desert while playing. Put that together with chants and vocal refrains as the music flowed and you’ve got an idea of the spirit being conjured in the hall on this evening. The set ended, though, with Kenny Garrett’s rousing funk anthem “Happy People” complete with a invocation for the audience to join in with clapping, singing and dancing to end the night.

 

The last member of the current class of America jazz royalty to play Montreal on this night was bassist Christian McBride and his trio. Is there anyone busier these days than the ubiquitous Mr. McBride? The man from Philadelphia no doubt charmed the crowd at the intimate setting of the Gesu and brought another wonderful night at the 35th Montreal Jazz Festival to a close. The world comes to Montreal every year to hear the best of what jazz has to offer and I’m proud to say that so much of it still comes from the place where it was born…the good ol’ USA!

 

Russ Davis

 

<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>

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