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>

Posted by: russdavis | June 23, 2014

2014 MONTREAL JAZZ FESTIVAL PREVIEW!

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2014 Montreal Jazz Festival Preview!

It seems to me that there is a good and a bad side to most everything in life. As I prepare for my 10th consecutive visit to the beautiful city of Montreal, Quebec for the 35th edition of The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal there is plenty good to look forward to. The bad side is that I can’t stay for all 11 days of this glorious event that runs from the 26th of June through July 6th.

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.” 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 legendary pop artists like Diana Ross, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire and Rickie Lee Jones will bring in the crowds and pay the bills. 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 11 days of the festival one can see everyone from Christian McBride to Keith Jarrett to Kenny Garrett to Brad Mehldau to Joe Lovano to Dr. Lonnie Smith to Mike Stern with Bill Evans to Jack DeJohnette to…well you get the idea. But to me, it’s the unknown that is as big a lure as anything and this year the list of artists that will perform in the free outdoor and indoor shows is as alluring and impressive as any time in the past decade that I’ve been attending the festival. 

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. This year one can see artists from all over the USA and Canada as well as every other continent on the globe. Festival co-founder and director Andre Menard told me recently that 37 countries are represented in the list of artists who’ll make their way to Montreal to play this year. There’s Ester Rada and Mulatu Astatke, the father of “Ethio-Jazz,” from Ethiopia, Australia’s Melbourne Ska Ensemble, Mokoomba from Zimbabwe, Denmark’s Ibrahim Electric, Jean Jean Roosevelt from Haiti, the quartet Partisans from England and many, many more that promise to reward festival attendees with surprising performances. 

I’ve been looking at the lineups for many of the festivals happening in the Spring and Summer this year and I’ve noticed that there are not as many jazz vocalists featured as I would imagine. That is not the case with the 35th Montreal Jazz Fest as one might take their pick of the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Stacy Kent, Jose James, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Angelique Kidjo, the legendary Tony Bennett and three of Canada’s greatest, Michael Buble, Nikki Yanofsky and Diana Krall, who’ll play a free show on the giant stage outdoors in the Place des Artes. 

There will be dozens more free shows outdoors on stages all in walking distance of one another with performances each day from afternoon to midnight. One might see some of the local jazzers or some funky American blues or a little something for the fans of the jazzy jambands with acts like J.J. Grey and Mofro. The paid performances happen inside concert spaces as varied as the converted church called the Gesu that is now an intimate performance space, and my personal favorite by the way, to the newest and largest, the magnificent Maison Symphonique that will feature everything from solo piano performances by Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra program titled Gershwin Legacy and the now legendary “Battle of the Big Bands” featuring the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras. 

There are three clubs of different sizes including Le Club L’Astral, the newest and most intimate space, where one might see newcomer Kris Bowers or Brad Mehldau’s new electric project Mehliana, with Mark Guiliana. Just off St. Catherine Street is Club Soda, the medium sized but large, two-level club that reminds one of the old Spectrum. There you can see and hear the likes of Rickie Lee Jones, Jose James or Mulatu Astatke. In the giant of the three clubs, the Metropolis, the crowd will be moving to the sound of New Orleans with Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, or the son of Frank Zappa, Dweezil, bringing the music of his father to life with his band Zappa Plays Zappa.

I’ve mentioned a number of shows that have peaked my interest but a few others that stand out as “must see” personal favorites are Regina Carter performing music from her latest release, Southern Comfort, rock legend, drummer Ginger Baker, and his Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion with funky sax legend Pee Wee Ellis, the son of Jaco, Felix Pastorius leading his own band, and any of the three performances by the young Armenian-born pianist Tigran Hamasyan. He’ll play two duo performances, one with fellow young gun of modern jazz, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the other with Brad Mehldau. Then he’ll lead his own band in performance of his latest release, the brilliant Shadow Theatre

So you see, there’s much to enjoy at the 35th 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 through Sunday, June 29th at www.russdavismoja.com/voice-america-2/

As you can see I’m pretty excited about my tenth trip in a row to Montreal for this great event, but the bad part is that I just can’t be there for all 11 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 

<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>

Amina Figarova & husband Bart Platteau...a Jazz Power Couple!

Amina Figarova & husband Bart Platteau…a Jazz Power Couple!

On my way to hear pianist Amina Figarova and her sextet at the club Dizzy’s at the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Complex, and please, someone tell me of a more beautiful and impressive site to hear jazz, an old phrase popped into my head that we’ve probably all heard at some time in our lives. That old adage is “The family that plays together, stays together.” I am not going to take the time to Google the person who coined that phrase or when it was created but I’ve known it all my life and it was stuck in my head as I made my way to Dizzy’s to hear Amina and her wonderful band that includes, on flute, her husband Bart Platteau.

Jazz history is full of instances of husband-wife partnerships like Marian McPartland who came to America to be with husband Jimmy, Shirley Scott on organ and husband Stanley Turrentine on sax, and others. Then there’s the current group of musical-marital partnerships like Eliane Elias and bassist Marc Johnson and the great Randy Brecker and his talented saxophone-playing wife Ada Rovatti who share the stage and studio in the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion. There are undoubtedly others but none more brilliant and creative than Amina and Bart. The work they have created together in a past that borders on two decades now is some of the finest in jazz today. That’s what I set out to hear on this frozen night in New York that fell, as Amina reminded the audience during the performance, between snowstorms during this bitter winter. I also set out to get the inside scoop on how this “Jazz Power Couple” got together and how they work so effectively.

How do two people, musicians or otherwise, meet and start a collaboration/romance when one is from Azerbaijan and the other from Belgium? Well, all one has to do is go to Rotterdam in The Netherlands to study jazz. That’s where Amina was working on a student project and needed a trumpet player. She was all ready to record but the trumpeter never showed up. She called someone for suggestions and was referred to a certain musician who could so the job but she was told he not only didn’t play trumpet but he played a weird instrument, an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). On top of that he was a guy who was always busy and might not be readily available. Amina took the number and tried calling over and over, finally catching him when he was home for only about an hour break between his travels and he agreed to do the session. That guy was Bart Platteau and, as Amina tells it, he came to do the project and never left.

Bart Platteau is a man of few words but though he speaks softly, he carries a powerful stick, his flute, which he plays exclusively on Amina’s music. I asked if he’d care to play the EWI again (it’s an instrument I especially love to hear) but he said he’d sold it and it didn’t appear that he’d be replacing it any time soon. Bart has established himself as one of the current greats of jazz flute, with good reason, having garnered attention in the polls of one of the most prestigious publications in jazz. Amina is quick to heap great praise on her talented husband explaining that his sound belongs only to him and with that recognizable sound comes true power that she says impressed her from the beginning as he could easily be heard right alongside the trumpet and tenor sax in the front line of horns she loves to employ.

Russ Davis backstage at Dizzy's with Amina & Bart!

Russ Davis backstage at Dizzy’s with Amina & Bart!

I was speaking to Amina and Bart before their performance and they were graciously giving me time that they needed to prepare for the show but I wanted to cover two more topics. I wondered how they established and maintain compatibility musically and personally and how they felt about having worked the “Magic Trick” that so many international jazz musicians would like to work, that being making the permanent move to New York City. They briefly stated that musically they felt like they made music together easily from the start and that the reason this was never an issue was that when it comes to the music Amina is almost completely in charge. There seem to be no controversies as she simply calls the shots and, as Bart explained, when they are on stage or in the studio he is simply another of the guys in the band, albeit a very valuable guy with a personal attachment to the bandleader. When it comes to the business of their collective enterprise Bart is in charge and this simple division of duties, if you will, makes things run smoothly. They respect the space that each occupies in the operation and all’s well in Amina Figarova’s musical world. Would that the rest of the world would take note of this art of compromise and division of duties for the common good!

As for the move to New York, that seemed totally natural by all accounts. Here are two erudite, worldly, talented, intelligent and confident people who’ve come from Europe and found a way to make the entire USA their musical playground and work space. They spent time in Boston, attending The Berklee College of Music, and established and maintained relationships with cities like New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Few Americans can say they have worked and/or travelled as extensively as these two. Since jazz is their trade New York, with its openness and acceptance of any and all people and styles, was the ultimate goal and they made the move some time ago. Since arriving Bart has made his mark with the previously mentioned poll position as one of the top flutists in jazz and Amina’s recordings are always well-received and reviewed and she even performed as an honored and requested artist at the recent celebration of the NEA Jazz Masters induction ceremony in January at the Jazz @ Lincoln Center complex. Speaking of performing, it was time to end my conversation and head to the beautiful interior of Dizzy’s to hear the band.

FIGAROVA-twelve-COVER-kleinAmina placed music from her latest release, Twelve, on exhibition along with some new music she’s been working on for an upcoming project. The band featured Bart on flutes of course alongside Marc Mommaas on tenor sax, Alex Pope Norris on trumpet, Luques Curtis on bass and Jason Brown on drums. The band was swinging to start things and the set included cuts like “NYCST,” dedicated to their adopted home of New York, “Leila” dedicated to Amina’s beloved grandmother, a 3-song suite inspired by Amina’s love of the ocean and including one of my personal favorite pieces from Twelve, the spirited “Sneaky Seagulls,” and a fun and rhythmic piece that is still to be recorded and released titled “Toxic Dance.”  All through the set the wonderful sense of dynamics that Amina possesses was on display featuring her powerful then sensitive moments on piano along with the three gentlemen on horns and woodwinds who thrilled with powerful horn section blasts and individual moments of brilliance. One that specifically stood out for me was the sax lead on the poignant “Back To New Orleans,” inspired by Amina’s first visit to The Crescent City after Katrina, that simply brought tears to my eyes. 

There was no doubt that the set was created by a group of musicians at the top of their game led by a pianist/composer who is at the top of jazz at this point in history. If you want to catch Amina Figarova and Bart Platteau in concert, or just to chat for a minute or two, you better get busy because these two are always on the go. Their schedule finds them, as usual, travelling from coast to coast in the USA and Canada with many stops along the way, and that’s just in the next month! This is truly one impressive “Jazz Couple” literally and figuratively “On The Go!”

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>

Posted by: russdavis | September 27, 2013

Dee Dee & Billie (Bridgewater & Holiday)…Two Of A Kind!

Dee Dee & Billie (Bridgewater & Holiday)…Two Of A Kind!

Dee Dee Bridgewater & MOJA's Russ Davis

Dee Dee Bridgewater & MOJA’s Russ Davis

After living in New York City for 25 years now I’ve learned to avoid going to Times Square. There are too many people clogging the sidewalks and not much to lure me there, as I don’t require anything from souvenir shops and franchise restaurants. I was drawn there recently though by the chance to spend some time with one of the most talented and charming figures in jazz, the award-winning vocalist, actress, producer and broadcaster Dee Dee Bridgewater, who plays Billie Holiday in the newest incarnation of the musical Lady Day at the Little Shubert Theatre on West 42nd Street. I met with Dee Dee in the Eugenia Room above the legendary restaurant Sardi’s for a delightful 30 minutes of conversation about this new project that is in essence a continuation of her relationship with the late Eleanor Fagan, AKA Billie Holiday, that began years ago. 

Having spent some time with Dee Dee in various settings over the years, and knowing her to be one of the most engaging and personable spirits in jazz, we seemed able to pick up where we had left off over a few years ago. My first thought was that the mysterious Billie Holiday, who certainly possessed some pretty obvious demons that were known to all, was a deep and talented person. Anyone who would attempt to play such a person in any form of depiction be it a musical performance, play or recording would have to possess similar depth and talent. Dee Dee Bridgewater is exactly that person. She’s an international star of the highest order with multiple Grammy Awards, A Tony Award for her previous work on the Broadway musical The Wiz, and a nomination for London’s Olivier Award for her work in an earlier incarnation of Lady Day that was also presented in Paris, both in the late 1980’s.

Dee Dee sings BillieAfter having paid homage to Billie Holiday on stage in those European productions decades ago, Dee Dee created a true masterwork with the Grammy-winning recording in 2010, Eleanor Fagan (1915-1959) To Billie With Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater. The title itself indicates a depth of understanding of and reverence for the real person Billie Holiday. The performances on the album, created with the stellar cast of long-time associate, pianist Edsel Gomez, along with bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist James Carter and master drummer Lewis Nash, exhibit the depth and range of Holiday material and, of course, the incredible scope of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s talent as well. There are all the swinging standards and many shades of blues all presented with Dee Dee’s own stamp in honor of Billie Holiday’s ground breaking and distinctive style.

But the song on the album that seems to set the stage for what Dee Dee will bring to the theatre performance is her deeply personal and heart felt delivery of “Strange Fruit,” the famous protest song from 1939 that pointed out the horrors of lynching and the terrible injustice that seemed to be tolerated by a country about to go through a social change that would mark one of the most turbulent times in history. In Dee Dee’s voice you hear real pain. True heartache. You hear a deep understanding of the essence of the soul of Billie Holiday that few of us could ever understand. Dee Dee Bridgewater certainly seems to understand. She may not have been a street urchin, rape victim or abandoned child like Billie Holiday. She may not have suffered the taunts from racist audiences or daily disrespect from the racist society in which she was one of the greatest artists of the day, but Dee Dee Bridgewater knows, truly KNOWS, these things in her soul. With the talent and personal power that she possesses Dee Dee will surely bring these truths to the stage in her performance in Lady Day.

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The musical Lady Day, previews began on September 19th with the opening on October 3rd, is not a complete survey of the life and times of Eleanora Fagan. One assumes that most people in the audience will have a basic idea of what Billie’s life was like leading up to the point in time that the play covers. The performance takes us backstage as Billie, in the later stages of her life and career, is attempting a final comeback. The first act sets the stage and tells the story of Billie’s struggle to recapture another moment of public greatness while battling all her inner trials and torments. The second act features the live performance of over twenty-five Billie Holiday standards. It promises to be another moment of Broadway magic that will truly make an historical figure come to life. She told me that she considers Billie Holiday the most important jazz singer of all time, above Ella, Sarah, etc. This is serious business for Dee Dee and she seems dedicated to “getting this right” for all time.

When I asked her what she wanted the audience to take away from the show, Dee Dee was quick to say that she would be disappointed if they remembered it as “Dee Dee Bridgewater in a great performance as Billie Holiday.” Instead she wants the audience to leave “knowing the real Billie Holiday,” with all her faults and triumphs, the elegant fighter. Dee Dee’s own, personal note from the Eleanor Fagan CD insert explains perfectly her intention to teach a lesson with this performance. It reads…“Young people take note of this woman’s life, this woman’s bravery, so you too can learn to stand up, and not be afraid to speak in your own voice. Children, stand tall and dare to be a Billie Holiday.” 

As I was walking through Times Square on my way to speak to Dee Dee Bridgewater I had the thought that if someone were to attempt to portray Dee Dee Bridgewater they’d need to have great beauty and charm, immense musical talent, great intelligence and strength of spirit and character. Only someone with all of these qualities can effectively and completely portray Billie Holiday and truly bring this woman back to life. Dee Dee Bridgewater is exactly that person.

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>

Russ Davis here, my fellow MOJANS, and one of our own, the esteemed writer and jazz-fan supreme, Kenneth Nero, contributes another great piece of writing as he attended the recent Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition at Washington, DC’s beautiful Kenedy Center. I was unable to attend and I asked Ken if he’d be willing to blog for us and here you go. Ken has a great way to “take us there” when he sees shows and this one was very special, as you’ll understand as you read on! ENJOY…and thanks again Ken!

Jazz Saxophone Competition Gets Two Thumbs Up

ImageI will remember this concert forever.  It was a clear blue sky with a hint of fall in the air on Sunday, September 15, 2013 in our Nation’s Capitol. And I had a decision to make.  Should I sit back on the couch, watch some NFL shenanigans, and gorge myself on an in-house party platter for one? Or, skip the 21st century gladiators and go hear 13 saxophonists from around the world vie for the top spot in the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition Semifinals at the Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History? If you are addicted to jazz, and modern jazz in particular, there was nothing to think about. I passed on the comfort of home and bolted downtown to hear the future legends of MOJA! 

The Semifinals

Tickets were passed out one hour before the 1:00 pm start. It’s a good thing I didn’t procrastinate because at noon the line was longer than I expected. There were clearly more fans of jazz than I gave my hometown credit for. Once I got a ticket, a calm settled over me because I knew this was going to be a memorable afternoon. When the doors to the auditorium opened, I got seat as close as possible to the stage. In addition to the pull of jazz, I knew this concert was a must-see because my cousin, Braxton Cook, was one of the semifinalists.

ImageThe concert was hosted by Thelonious Monk, Jr. and Billy Dee Williams. Who knew that Billy Dee loved jazz and was an artist whose art graced the program? There was going to be plenty of discovery ahead! The distinguished judging panel consisted of Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, and Bobby Watson. The players were supported by a competition band that had Carl Allen on drums, Reginald Thomas on piano, and Rodney Whitaker on bass. The rules for the semifinalist were simple. They get 14 minutes to play three songs and one must be a Thelonious Monk tune. I could only imagine the innumerable hours of hard work and dedication these musicians put in to prepare for this competition. It was clear from the brief biographies that these were serious musicians. All began playing saxophone at an early age. Some began as young as 6 and no older than 14. The list of artists and groups who the semifinalists have played with or learned seemed like a Who’s Who of major MOJA players. Here’s a sampling: Bob Mintzer, Stanley Clarke, Wallace Roney Orchestra, Terrance Blanchard, Danilo Perez, Joe Lovano, Snarky Puppy, Joshua Redman, and Ron Blake.

As I listened to the players, one thing became readily apparent. The competitors exceeded my expectations. Actually, didn’t know what to expect. But as the afternoon progressed to the end, it was clear that these young cats could play and had no hesitation about letting it rip from the giddyup. With all this solid music filling up the air at Baird, I began to wonder who’s going to be selected as the top three finalists. I didn’t envy the judges’ job. They had some impressive musicians to evaluate.  Everyone was treated to a range of songs and interpretations. My ears perked up when an artist introduced their own composition or I detected some hint that this artist was not going to play it safe, but expand the boundaries of jazz. Last but not least, I tip my hat off to the trio supporting the players. Like a good boxing referee, they never interrupted the action. Each  sax player had free range to express their art without worry about whether the backup trio was going to drown their sound. The communication between soloist and trio was a picture of improvisation and hours of practice. At the end of the competition, the judges selected three finalists: Tivon Pennicott, 27. of Marietta, Georgia; Godwin Louis, 28, of Harlem, New York; and Melissa Aldana, 24, of Santiago, Chile. At stake was $100,000 in scholarship prizes.

Now I was forced to make another decision about Monday night. Is it going to be Monday night football or an evening of more saxophone competition at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? The Monday program promised more delicious saxophone competition, a Lifetime Achievement Award for the one and only Wayne Shorter, and for icing on the cake, jazz presentations from some of the all-stars of MOJA and members from what could be a virtual MOJA Hall of Fame. And, for more magic, a tribute was planned for the late great George Duke. It was going to go down at the Kennedy Center in Eisenhower Theater. Monday night football? Monday night football compared to what? Hearing some celestial jazz compared to watching behemoths wrestling in tights. Monday evening promised to be a can’t miss ticket to MOJA Land on the Potomac.

Finals, Lifetime Achievement, Heartfelt Tribute, and Jazz Utopia

The Eisenhower Theater was buzzing and with a very good reason. Monday had a promise of amazing jazz and I had to believe, given the lineup of players, this was a sure bet. We were guided by three knowledgeable hosts: Thelonius Monk, Jr, Herbie Hancock, and Billy Dee Williams. After a rousing welcome from Thelonious Monk, Jr., the night began with set performed by high school jazz musicians. They did not sound like a high school band either. The band was followed by the finalists who had approximately 14 minutes to perform for the judges and the audience. First on stage was Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax.. He delivered a musical conversation via the horn that told many stories and the ensuing applause affirmed my impression. He was followed by Godwin Louis on alto sax. Godwin delighted the crowd with a precise and passionate performance. The finals concluded with Melissa Aldana on tenor sax. She thrilled the audience with authoritative harmonies and like the prior two players, took a conductor’s command of  the competition band. At the conclusion of the three performances, the judges retreated to make a decision that I thought would be close. Before the judges rendered their verdict, however, the remainder of the evening was like an evening in MOJALand on steroids.

ImageFor starters, there were several all-star performances.  and it was the music that put me and the audience under a MOJA spell. On stage at various times, I got to see aggregations Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Beasley (musical director), Terri Lyne Carrington, Vinnie Colaiuta, Kurt Elling, Robben Ford, Cassandra Wilson, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Miller, Ledisi, John Patitucci, Branford Marsailis, T. Monk, Jr., Danilo Perez, Take 6, and Brian Blade. If I forgot anyone, please pardon my oversight. The performers paid tribute to the late George Duke. Herbie Hancock gave informative and inspirational comments on his life, legacy, and the many contributions he made to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. One of the memorable highlights of the evening was Herbie Hancock’s tribute and presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award (LAA) to Wayne Shorter. It was only the second time that the Institute had given the LAA. The first recipient was Quincy Jones. In his acceptance speech, Wayne Shorter spoke from the heart by sharing his insights on creativity. He urged the audience to just create something whether it be writing a book, poetry, or some art of your choosing. His advice exhorted to make the attempt to create what you wish for and how you wish the world to be as we all get ready for eternity. He described creativity as a process of removing the layers of what we think we are and becoming what we really are, eternally. After those brief remarks, the audience gave their roaring approval with a standing ovation. Before I could settled back in my seat, Wayne was surrounded on stage with the rest of his quartet – Brian Blades, John Patitucci, and Danilo Perez – and this quartet proceeded to mesmerize us accordingly. I’m now looking forward to hearing more from their latest CD, Without A Net.

It was a night of jazz and the blues, with a side of pop and gospel, but it was all in the tradition of jazz. The night concluded with many all-stars on stage along with the first place winner of the competition, Melissa Aldana. Tivon Pennicott took second place, and Louis Godwin received third place honors.

What an amazing night of MOJA on the Potomac.

Ken Nero

Posted by: russdavis | August 23, 2013

2013 Detroit Jazz Festival Preview: Motown At Its Best!

ImageWhen, as a child, I filled my plate at family dinnertime with more than I could possibly consume my Father would say, “Son, I think your eyes are bigger than your stomach!” That scenario comes to mind as I look at the impressive lineup of events at “The World’s Biggest Free Jazz Festival” that takes place from Friday, August 30th through Monday, Labor Day, September 2nd in Detroit. With all of this delicious music on the lineup how in the world can one person take in all that he or she wants? It’s a delightful dilemma for sure. 

ImageThe 34th Detroit Jazz Festival begins on Friday evening with two grand performances on the huge Main Stage in the center of the beautiful old buildings of downtown Detroit. After the hard-working people of the Motor City finish the work week they, along with tens of thousands of their fellow jazz lovers from around the world, will gather to begin the celebration with a performance by this year’s “Artist In Residence,” Danilo Perez, who’ll perform with his quintet Panama 500. Following that, saxophonist David Murray leads his Big Band with vocalist Macy Gray to finish day one. As for other highlights for shows on the Main Stage there’s plenty for straight ahead fans with various big bands including those from Michigan State and The University of Michigan, tributes to Teddy Harris, Jr. and Stan Kenton, a “Saxophone Summit” featuring Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane and a massive salute to Dave Brubeck (one of four during the festival) with The Brubeck Brothers Quartet, a string orchestra and a 65 voice choir. 

For those in search of music with a more modern approach the Main Stage will present a Saturday lineup that includes Charles Lloyd and Friends, featuring Bill Frisell in the first of his two performances at the festival. On Sunday there’s modern jazz superstars Yellowjackets (presenting a new lineup that features the son of Jaco, Felix Pastorius, on bass), grooving guitarist John Scofield with his Uberjam Band and new vocal sensation Gregory Porter. On Monday one can hear the blend of hip hop & jazz with Grammy-winner Robert Glasper and what should be a wonderful all-star celebration of Miles Smiles with Wallace Roney playing the part of Miles Davis alongside fellow stars like Larry Coryell and Alphonse Mouzon. As always, there will be a special emphasis on Detroit, it’s jazz legacy and featuring its great musicians. The Main Stage will feature The Robert Hurst Group on Saturday, and Mr. Hurst will be one of 7 Detroiters joining Geri Allen on stage for her “Homecoming Band” on Monday. Others include Dave McMurray, George Bohanon, Karriem Riggins, Shelia Jordan and J.D. Allen.

The Main Stage lineup would probably be enough to thrill the organizer of most any jazz festival in the world, but it’s time to cross Jefferson Street and enter Hart Plaza where three more stages will be filled with the stars of jazz for the Labor Day Weekend, and one of my favorite places ever to see a show is the sunken concrete amphitheatre called the Absopure Pyramid Stage. Next to the Detroit River and down some steep steps lies a stage that puts the artist and the audience literally face to face in an intimate setting. Highlights on the Pyramid Stage include Detroiter J.D. Allen leading his trio, Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway recreating their new project Duke At The Roadhouse, and organ groover Tony Monaco with guitarist Freed Haque on Saturday. On Sunday the lineup includes young vibes master Warren Wolf and a great quartet including pianist Benny Green, the duo of Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach, A Tribute To Don Byas featuring James Carter and that group of swinging all-star vets including Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, Billy Hart, George Cables, Billy Harper and David Weiss known as The Cookers. Monday the Pyramid Stage presents young piano sensation Aaron Diehl, followed by Terell Stafford, the legendary Lee Konitz and one of Detroit’s great players and leaders, Marcus Belgrave. It may be the smallest venue but the lineup is huge!

ImageA short walk through Hart Plaza, passing by the beautiful fountain, great food stalls and various kiosks with enticing displays to peruse and items to purchase, will take you to the always relaxing and inviting Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage. It sits right on the beautiful Detroit River with Windsor, Ontario in view and shady trees overhead, creating a comfortable setting for more music at the Detroit Jazz Fest. This year the Waterfront Stage presents, among others, son of New Orleans Delfeayo Marsalis and his Octet as well as Detroiter George Bohanon in a duo with saxophonist Azar Lawrence on Saturday. Sunday’s lineup includes Joan Belgrave singing Dinah Washington, another salute to Dave Brubeck, Detroiter Karriem Riggins leading his own band and Ravi Coltrane’s Quartet to close out the day. Labor Day brings the legendary vocalist from that famous family, Freddy Cole, to the stage and a taste of “World Jazz” by the great Brazilian band Trio Da Paz with special guests like vibes master Joe Locke re-creating the magic of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz.

ImageThe largest of the stages at the Detroit Jazz Festival is the massive Carhartt Amphitheater Stage where the lineup is equally massive. The stage, that faces the river with the beautiful Detroit skyline in the background, could accomodate two big bands at once without a problem and there will be plenty of that to thrill the crowd in the terraced seating in front of the stage. On Saturday that piano-playing family duo, Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, perform followed by what’s sure to be a rousing performance by the Mack Avenue SuperBand, the lineup of artists who record for the Detroit-based jazz record label. Danilo Perez will appear in that aggregation that will eventually give way to the Brubeck Brothers Quartet in another tribute to their legendary father who I last saw in performance in Detroit a year before his passing.  As if that weren’t enough, another living legend will perform to close out Saturday, the great McCoy Tyner in a trio setting with special guest, Savion Glover, the famous dancer who has been known to join McCoy on stage in the recent past.

 

The Carhartt Amphitheater will host another great wonderful group of jazz stars on Sunday including Bill Frisell bringing his salute to John Lennon featuring Jenny Scheinman on violin, preceded by a 3-baritone salute to local hero and legend Pepper Adams. The Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra will fill the stage next to play new arrangements of Dave Brubeck classics with surprise guest soloists. Then the very busy pianists, Danilo Perez and Geri Allen, perform in a duo followed by Alan Broadbent’s trio with vocalist Shelia Jordan and a string section. There may not be a better way to close out a day than with an incomparable artist who few would want to follow. That artist is legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal who will bring down the curtain on the Sunday lineup in Detroit.

 

Labor Day on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage begins at Noon and ends at 8 PM with big bands and big names. The band Quest, Dave Liebman, Richie Bierach, Ron McClure and Billy Hart, that began working together over 40 years ago, will continue their investigation of where bebop might have gone in the early afternoon, followed by the big sound of the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra taking on the big challenge of the music of Duke Ellington with special guests. Another big band, this one from Wayne State University, will join Danilo Perez for one last blast as they present his Panama Suite with more special guests. To close out the day’s activities Joshua Redman will present music from his latest release, Walking Shadows, with his quartet and strings. The 34th Detroit Jazz Festival promises to be a tasty smorgasbord of treats for any palate no matter what style of jazz activates your appetite. One thing is for sure. No one goes home hungry from Detroit and this is one time over-eating is encouraged! 

Russ Davis

2013 Newport Jazz Festival Preview: Jazzers Invade The Fort!

ImageThere aren’t many reasons to feel sorry for Robert Glasper these days. I mean the guy is talented, handsome, young, engaging and just worked a magic trick that many would like to perform. He brought jazz into the pop categories of the Grammy Awards by winning the 2013 Grammy for Best R&B Album. He and his Robert Glasper Experiment put together one of the most inventive combinations of jazz and hip hop so far in the release Black Radio. So why would I feel sorry for this accomplished young man? Well, he has to take to the Quad Stage on day one at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival at the same time as Wayne Shorter takes the Fort Stage with special guest Herbie Hancock to celebrate Wayne’s 80th birthday! Can you say embarrassment of riches?

Don’t feel too very sorry for Mr. Glasper as he’ll have a large, warm and welcoming crowd, as there will be thousands of eager jazzers filling every foot of historic Fort Adams State Park, just a short ferry ride from Newport, Rhode Island, to take in his and all the performances of the 2013 edition of “The Grandfather of All Jazz Festivals” over the weekend of 3-4 August, 2013.

Day one of this marvelous event that pianist, educator and great jazz impresario George Wein began back in 1954, begins in the late morning with musicians from the world of music education, Boston’s Berklee College of Music and The Rhode Island Music Educators Association and ends with what will surely be a rousing electric jazz performance by bassist Marcus Miller on the huge Fort Stage. Since the last show ends before sunset, it gives everyone time to get back on the ferry to make their way to Newport for a dinner at one of the dockside restaurants or maybe a quick walk at sunset on the famed cliffs at the foot of Gatsby-like mansions overlooking the ocean below. Newport’s a pretty fun hang even when the most famous jazz festival of all time isn’t going on.

The day begins on the medium-sized Quad Stage with New York-based guitarist Mary Halvorson and her quintet blending chamber jazz of a free nature with her other influences including avant-rock and classical. Overlapping with that performance one can enjoy Chicago-born trombonist Ray Anderson, who certainly feels and sounds quite often like a son of New Orleans, bringing on the tradition with his Pocket Brass Band. If you’re quick, and since the stages are all within easy walking distance of one another, you can make your way to the Fort Stage to hear one of the reigning kings of Latin jazz, though he’s always incorporated everything from bebop to classical into his mix, the pianist Michel Camilo and his Sextet. At the same general time you can take your pick of other, varied, musical offerings from Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, blending Eastern and Western elements with his group Two Rivers, while Bill Charlap holds court on the intimate Harbor Stage with his long time associates Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on bass with special guests Anat Cohen and Bob Wilber. If you’re going to Newport to swing, then this is a show you must see!

ImageMid-afternoon Saturday will be dominated by the aforementioned 80th Birthday celebration for Wayne Shorter and if you’re going there looking to witness a set filled with the exact list of songs from his latest quartet offering Without A Net, then think again. This tightrope walker never plays the same song the same way twice so it will simply be music made by great musicians of the highest order, Wayne on saxes, Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums with special guest Herbie Hancock, taking off and landing where they may. At the same time the Robert Glasper Experiment will be building that bridge between hip hop and jazz while on the Harbor Stage one of the most unique guitarists and composers in modern jazz, Rez Abbassi and his trio, build a similar bridge between the worlds of jazz, classical and the East as Mr. Abbassi, born in Pakistan but raised, musically and literally, in California and New York presents his brilliant one-of-a-kind take on jazz guitar. After his performance, the day is only about half done but there’s no time for a break. When you come to Newport you need to come hungry because your plate will be full all day long.

As soon as Wayne Shorter’s set ends Terence Blanchard and his quintet begin on the Quad Stage. The esteemed trumpeter from New Orleans released his latest Blue Note album Magnetic in May to coincide with the release of his first “Opera In Jazz” titled Champion, but neither of these works seem to be what the Newport audience will hear as his quintet is primarily a different cast of characters from the one that created these projects. Terence has such a varied background that it will be exciting to see what he chooses to include in his set. Here is a man who has won more awards than most can dream of, has worked with everyone from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers to Herbie Hancock, composed multiple soundtracks for film, television and stage productions, led the Thelonious Monk Institute for a decade as artistic director and played on bandstands all around the world for decades.

Overlapping with Mr. Blanchard’s set will be two varied presentations, one from THE jazz sensation of the past few years, bassist, vocalist, composer and bandleader Esperanza Spalding, who’ll present her Radio Music Society project to the crowd from the largest venue, the Fort Stage. The other is at a much more intimate setting, The Harbor Stage, for the unique sound of the harp in a jazz setting as played by Colombian-born Edmar Casteneda and his trio with special guest Andres Tierra. Edmar has worked with artists from the Latin world and drawn from traditional folk and other sources such as flamenco while working with jazzers like Joe Locke and John Scofield, so come to his show with an open mind and prepare to be happily stunned.

The last wave of performances for day one of the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival includes one of the most talked about vocalists around today, Gregory Porter, playing the Quad Stage and certainly filling his set with his personal blend of jazz, soul, blues and gospel. After that, you might want to find a spot under the tent in front of the Harbor Stage for what could be the surprise event of the first day, sax and flute legend Lew Tabackin with his old friend and fellow legend, trumpet master Randy Brecker, and a stellar rhythm section including Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. This group will swing, without a doubt, while the closing show featuring Marcus Miller will feature electricity and groove, as he will most probably present some of the music from his latest album Renaissance. If there was ever a more appropriately titled album I can’t remember what that might be, as Marcus is truly a renaissance man, having worked in every idiom one can imagine from rock and pop to blues and every form or jazz. It will most certainly be a rousing end to a marvelously varied day of musical presentations on day one of the festival. If you can get to bed early do so, as you’ll want to arise bright and early for an equally astounding day two at NJF 2013!

Day two of the festival starts with more jazz from academia with The University of Rhode Island Festival Band and the MA Music Educators Association warming up the crowd for what will be a most interesting set by the first small group of the day as Donny McCaslin, playing an ancient saxophone that is over 20 years older than he is, blends electronica influences with jazz in a quartet presentation of his latest album Casting For Gravity. Old merges with the new literally with Donny’s latest project, which I’ve seen live, and can’t endorse enough. Immediately following Mr. McCaslin are three shows that present another delightful dilemma, and your choice may depend on if you’re inclined to hear more sax, some masterful guitar work or modern jazz piano.

The saxophone comes from the great Joshua Redman and his quartet. His latest work included a collaboration with Brad Mehldau and an orchestra on the album Walking Shadows and, since he’ll be presenting a more stripped down setup with a different cast, get ready to focus in on some great tenor-playing by one of the most expressive players of the instrument around today. The guitar playing on the Quad Stage during this mid-day time slot will be led by one of the all-time greats, Jim Hall, joined by the all-star rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash plus special guest guitarist Julian Lage. Julian has established himself as a fine leader as well as member of Gary Burton’s New Quartet and this should be a guitar lover’s treat. The piano comes from NYC-based Jon Batiste and his Stay Human group. Mr. Batiste knows the traditions of jazz piano, he’s curator of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem and has worked with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove, but he’s also collaborated with Prince and Jimmy Buffett so expect the unexpected.

If you’d like to travel to New Orleans without leaving Newport you can simply keep your seat in front of the Harbor Stage after seeing Jon Batiste, because the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band will take that stage next to celebrate their 35th year in existence in that distinctive NOLA way! This is one of those shows that prompts me to sometimes say, “If this doesn’t move you, have someone check your pulse!” The same may be said about the show that overlaps on the neighboring Quad Stage where Chicago’s versatile singer-songwriter Dee Alexander will hold court. Dee states that jazz is the perfect music for her because it can incorporate all her influences from African-laced world music, to neo-soul, R&B, gospel, blues and other boundary defying forms. You can hear a bit of both of these two shows and still catch what may be the jewel of the day, Chick Corea’s latest project, The Vigil.

ImageChick hasn’t won 20 Grammy awards and become an NEA Jazz Master by standing still musically or literally over these many years. He keeps it fresh and forward moving by changing his cast of characters. The Vigil, the name of this latest album and group, includes multi-instrumentalist Tim Garland, guitarist Charles Altura, Roy Haynes’ grandson Marcus Gilmore on drums and bassist Hadrien Feraud from France, known for some fine solo work as well as being a member of one of John McLaughlin’s latest groups. Mr. Feraud is not available for this Newport appearance so Chick has picked up some guy off the street to play bass named McBride, first name Christian. He should fill in just fine from what I’ve heard about Mr. McBride and having heard this new release, that won’t be available until the following week, the performance should be spectacular and uniquely modern Chick Corea music. What else would be expected from this brilliant musical seeker?

If you’re nimble and quick you can dash over to the Harbor Stage after Chick to hear another musical visionary, saxophonist Steve Coleman. After arriving in NYC from his original home in Chicago, Mr. Coleman brought that sense of musical freedom from the “Windy City” with him and set up shop to help create one of the greatest movements the New York scene has known, The M-Base Movement, that helped launch the careers of his fellow artists like Greg Osby, Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson and others. He’ll employ all the variety he has with this rare two-hour performance that will include his Five Elements project, a set with the Talea Ensemble and a duo with David Bryant.

While Steve Coleman goes through the changes you might want to also slip over to the Quad Stage to hear one of the most powerful pianists in jazz today, the astounding young artist from Japan, Hiromi, who’ll present her uplifting combination of classical, rock and jazz with a trio that includes bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Smith. While Hiromi raises the roof, the crowd in front of the Fort Stage will no doubt rise to their feet as they move to the rhythms produced by NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra in another of this year’s festival presentations of one of the essential elements of jazz, Latin music. After all the incredible sets already presented on this final day of Newport 2013 there is still one final wave of shows to be enjoyed before hitting the ferry back to the mainland.

Roy Haynes is a drummer’s drummer, a player’s player, a gentleman’s gentleman, and a fashionable man who has enough style for everyone to get a little for themselves. He also has a philosophy that we can all share in as well. How does one keep going in such a strong and masterful way at the age of 88? Roy once told me the secret is “Just get out of bed every morning!” As I’ve said before in relation to Roy, “Waiter, I’ll have what HE’S having please!” Roy will bring his quartet he calls the Fountain of Youth Band to the Quad Stage and if you’re coming to Newport for some swing and a bit more history then this set is exactly what you came for.

Over on the Harbor Stage you can hear the music of a guitarist with a growing legend, David Gilmore and his band Numerology. If his brilliant latest release recorded live at New York’s famed Jazz Standard is any guide this should be much more than just another set on the list of shows at NJF 2013. Mr. Gilmore is scheduled to be joined by a number of luminaries and solo artists such as Christian McBride, Miguel Zenon, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and vocalist Claudia Acuna. This should be a treat and if you don’t know about David Gilmore, possibly THE surprise show of the festival. The 2013 Newport Jazz Festival just HAS to end with a bang, and so it shall as Paquito D’Rivera leads the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in one, final blast of music unifying the past and the present and raising the energy level just enough to get any of the attendees whose energy has waned out of their seats one more time. What more can I say? How about “See you in NEWPORT!” 

Russ Davis

Abstract Jazz (+ Swing & Groove): Day 8 @ The 34th Montreal Jazz Festival!

ImageThe lineup of the Montreal Jazz Festival on the 5th of July, the 8th full day of this 10-day event, included lots of the tradition of swinging jazz alongside the more modern and world jazz offerings. The great Canadian pianist Oliver Jones, seemingly haven taken the place of Oscar Peterson in the hearts of his jazz-loving countrymen after Peterson’s passing, would play in a solo show. The legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band would be filling the Theatre Jean-Duceppe with the classic sound of New Orleans as they celebrate their 25th year in existence with their new album That’s It! The charming Canadian songbird Nikki Yanofsky, performing music from her new Quincy Jones-produced release The Little Secret, would be singing standards new and old in a totally modern way while proving she’s grown from the teenager who played the festival not long ago into a talented young lady and a true vocal star. American Bill Charlap, known for swinging on the piano, as well as being the lucky guy who’s married to Canadian-born pianist Renee Rosnes, would give fans of the traditional side of things all they’d need. I’d seen all of these greats, except for Mr. Jones, and decided to seek out the more adventurous artists on the lineup and to hear more new stars I’d never heard before this trip to Montreal. 

I began the day, though, in conversation with an artist I’ve been looking to meet for some time, Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, who was performing at the club L’Astral with his trio in celebration of his latest solo work titled Heritage.  I caught up with him in the afternoon after soundcheck and in fifteen minutes uncovered the story of Africa’s current “Prince of Jazz” who feels a strong connection not only to his home continent but to Europe and The United States as well. Many of the listeners to my program Jazz America on Voice of America are in various African countries and I have received numerous email messages instructing me to have Lionel as a guest on the show. I passed this along to Mr. Loueke and he simply smiled. He appears to be a very deep, humble, intelligent and gentle soul who never overreacts to anything. I could tell he was pleased to be loved by his fellow Africans though his connection to Europe and The USA are just as strong, having gone through some profound changes during the times of his studies in Paris, Boston at the Berklee College of Music and New York where he attended the “Jazz University of the Streets.” His talents garnered the attention of the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Esperanza Spalding, Joe Lovano and others. His solo recordings on Blue Note have been well received and life is generally very good for Lionel Loueke. 

I took in his performance later in the night with his trio featuring a Nigerian-born but well-travelled bassist and American drummer. The set began with two pieces that seemed to reflect that gentle side of his soul. I was waiting for the African fire to ignite and only had to wait until the third song of the set. His powerful drummer and that distinctive, thunderous bass of African music were the perfect complement to Lionel’s bright guitar sound. He occasionally embellished the sound inherent in his guitar with simple devices. His voice  is also a major part of his sound and it was presented both clean and sometimes electronically enhanced with great effect. The last song was sung in the Yoruban language, which is not native to him, but he was flawless. There was lots of variety in this show, proving that Lionel Loueke is not just an “African Jazz Musician” but a musician and man of the world in general. One can only imagine how far this fine talent will go.

 Earlier in the evening I took in the first of two shows presenting what I might call “Jazz In The Abstract.” This one, the second of three performances in Vijay Iyer’s Invitation Series, featured the dual pianos of Mr. Iyer and Craig Taborn. Knowing that Craig Taborn has been known to get funky and to electrify his sound I wasn’t sure what we might hear on this night, but upon entering The Gesu I saw two grand pianos arranged in a “yin-yang” formation so it was obvious that this was to be an all-acoustic presentation. Both gentlemen play with great energy as well as with gentle subtlety so anything was possible. Craig Taborn, like many pianists, has recently released a solo piano album so he’s capable of holding his own with any acoustic pianist. As the performance began the mood was quiet and the atmosphere intense in a cerebral way. The two pianists traded passages and overlapped just a bit with the lines they played but mostly seemed to be creating a call and response pattern as well as taking some space for themselves during the extended pieces that had a definite beginning but no logical end. I wondered if there could or should be any preparation for a performance such as this. A couple of thoughts struck me as I took it all in. Firstly, could this be considered jazz? There certainly was improvisation. There was harmony, melody and discord but the rhythm was free and the form seemed shapeless. My second thought was concerning what critics of art thought when painters began to create new works that looked unlike anything that had been done before. What did they think when what had been totally discernable before suddenly looked shockingly abstract and otherworldly? I might call the music made by Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn otherworldly and abstract. A spirit was conjured, no doubt, as these two keyboard masters expressed themselves in a completely personal and spontaneous way. 

John Roney & his TrioOne of the joys of a festival like Montreal is that once you’ve been under the spell of one impressive performance you can suddenly find yourself in another world altogether. I emerged from the dark, inner sanctum of The Gesu to the summery out of doors of the festival grounds where I found myself in front of the Scene CBC/Radio-Canada stage to take in the rousing performance by one of Canada’s rising stars of piano, John Roney, and his young trio performing mostly music from his new release St-Henri. It had been suggested by more than a few people that I see this guy and he did not disappoint. I’d heard that he had become one of the popular purveyors of Post Bop but had now moved into more electric and modern jazz. I don’t have many regrets concerning this year’s festival but one is that I missed the performance by the Canadian 6-string bass wizard Alain Caron. My old friend and radio associate Mark Ruffin had chided me for not seeing that show as he knows my taste in jazz and told me it was right down my alley. He mentioned that John Roney and his drummer were part of the band that backed up Mr. Caron and that they were killing! He also mentioned that John Roney’s band was not to be missed. I always take Mark’s advice and he and I were there in the crowd rocking right along with the powerful bass lines and pounding drums that accompanied John Roney’s multi-keyboard setup. They blazed through a set of Roney’s own tunes as well as a variety of others as diverse as the music of drum & bass artist Squarepusher to a delightfully re-harmonized version of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” The sets are limited to about an hour in the outdoor stages so as to keep to schedule and not overlap with the sound coming from other stages in close proximity but I, and the rest of the audience, could have listened on for as long as Mr. Roney and crew cared to play. 

Tim BerneMy last stop of the night was back inside the Gesu to hear one of the most inventive saxophonists around today, Tim Berne. The show as billed as music from his recent ECM album Snakeoil, but there were a few surprises in store at this performance. From the beginning I could tell that we’d be hearing “serious” music delivered with a light-hearted flair by Mr. Berne and his quartet of young guns, pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Ches Smith and clarinetist Oscar Noriega. Again, if one was looking for great improvised music but not traditional swing you were in the right place. Tim Berne has probably heard a bit of John Cage, Philip Glass, Bela Bartok and Stockhausen over the years I would imagine. When new classical music blends with new jazz a most interesting convergence can occur and in the case of this evening with Tim Berne’s musical presentation that is exactly what transpired and, in my opinion, with delightful results. Montreal audiences are an experienced lot who’ve seen it all and are well versed in hearing most every kind of artistic presentation. This audience was in tune with Mr. Berne and band with every note. They were also listening to every word he had to say between songs which were as entertaining a part of the program as the music. Tim Berne is a FUNNY man who acted as if he was reluctant to speak but because the microphone was there he felt obligated to do so. He mentioned that the band was working on two albums, one that was already finished and the other in the works, and that they’d play music from both. He also mentioned that he was in a “song title slump” and had about 20 titles for each piece and would eventually decide. He then played a song that had the title “Jesus Christ Minibar.” Can you sense the sarcasm? Between each well-crafted piece of abstract Tim Berne jazz that featured stellar performances by this formidable group of musicians came more commentary from Berne as he blasted the “Pirates” who download music for free and the “Pirates” at the record companies who make money while the “Non-Pirates” (the musicians) make much less. The moral of the story according to Tim Berne…invest in the Pirates! At the end of the set the crowd roared for more and he returned to the stage asking them if that was REALLY a request for more or were they just being nice, and didn’t they have a “Law & Order” episode that they could be watching on TV somewhere? The band finished with a beautiful Paul Motian piece and the crowd and the musicians dispersed into the Montreal midnight with stimulated and satisfied minds. Thus my trip to the 34th Festival International de Jazz de Montreal came to a close. I’m already planning for next year!

Russ Davis

Americans Shine on the 4th of July in Montreal: Day 7 @ The 34th Montreal Jazz Festival!

ImageOn the lineup of the Montreal Jazz Festival on this most American of holidays were artists not only from various provinces of Canada but Brazil, Romania, Italy, Japan and Ivory Coast. But topping the bill had to be the two biggest names that just happen to be from the good ol’ USA…pianist Vijay Iyer with his trio and the duo of guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola. I found a way to take in some of the music from those international artists but saved most of my time to hear my fellow countrymen. I began the day with a daily ritual, visiting the massive press area in the festival headquarters, the Maison du Festival, and instead of simply checking in to visit with the wonderful staff of the festival and see what might be special about the day I came with the purpose of sitting down for conversation with two of those aforementioned Americans, Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola. 

Searching for a quiet place for an interview the always more than helpful festival staff placed me in what they call “The Vault,” the huge room where all of the audio and visual recordings of important performances from past festivals are stored. I felt honored and a little intimidated on some level to be sitting in a room with such history. We even had to physically move a film canister that held a Miles Davis performance from an earlier year to find a place to situate ourselves for the conversation. Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola met years ago when both were establishing themselves in the vibrant San Francisco Bay area scene, and have maintained a friendship and musical association over these years. Their latest collaboration has the not-so-flippant title of Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead. Since Charlie’s preceding release was titled Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid I had to ask about his current state of mind and the status of what it’s like being a working musician in his area of jazz at this point in history. Without going into too much detail I’ll tell you it’s tough out there even for players as established, busy and popular as Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola. I asked about the jazz festival circuit and how playing Europe helps play the bills and was told that it isn’t as vibrant and lucrative a scene as one might think, that the economics of staging festivals has hurt the musicians as much as the promoters and travelling overseas is a tough one too. Charlie has chosen to instead return to the way things were done by jazz artists in days gone by, load up the vehicle and go from town to town in his own country, playing whenever and wherever.

My conversation with Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola covered a number of other topics from how each of them composes and how they work together as a duo to create the full sound they produce, to why Charlie switched from his 8-string guitar to his current 7-string instrument and how Scott has put together his own solo works mostly with his old associates from the Bay Area. Sitting among 34 years of Montreal Jazz Festival history I was moved to ask how they see themselves fitting into the history of jazz and improvised music. Charlie has a most interesting attitude about that topic and it’s one that I’ve heard from more than a few artists over the years. Charlie Hunter wouldn’t mind if someone called his music jazz or blues or rock or even country and that labels don’t mean much to him. He stated that jazz probably ended after the period simply known as “The Jazz Age” and at the time that Louis Armstrong switched from trumpet to cornet. At that point jazz began to morph into the many different forms that it would become and that morphing process has never stopped. As I looked around the room at all those tapes, films and videos I was struck with the truth of that statement as I am sure there are dozens of subgenres of jazz represented in the performances captured on those recordings, stored in the Montreal Jazz Festival “Vault.” With that intriguing thought running through my mind I bid Charlie and Scott adieu and looked forward to their 10:30 PM set at the old converted church, The Gesu, later in the night. 

ImageHitting the streets to take in some music I first caught one of the many university big bands that fill the air each day in Place des Artes with that traditional sound to create the atmosphere for those taking in the sights and sounds in the city center. This one was from the Universite Laval from one of Quebec’s largest cities. I was on my way for the first of my two visits to Gesu, this time to hear another great American making jazz for the international audience on Independence Day, award-winning pianist Vijay Iyer. Vijay is proud of his Indian heritage, his parents emigrated from India and he was born in the USA and now lives in New York. He has tremendous talent to go along with that massive brain of his as he has a PHD in cognitive science as well as music. His music is absolutely his own style and on this evening, the first of three in the “Invitation Series” that would include a duo performance with fellow keyboardist Craig Taborn and then a solo performance, it was that blend of free as well as strictly constructed jazz and classical that is absolutely Vijay Iyer jazz. His trio, that includes bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Justin Brown, would perform music taken mostly from their recent efforts titled Historicity and Accelerando.  The music began with a gentle, chamber-jazz style that moved into more up-tempo passages. The Montreal Jazz Festival crowds are some of the most attentive and responsive audiences you’ll ever be among and they were one with Vijay and trio with every nuance. It most certainly must be a large reason that artists love playing here. 

ImageUpon leaving Gesu I found myself passing by the largest of the outdoor stages, Scene TD, where another great pianist and his trio were performing. Hungarian-born but now a resident of Ontario, Robi Botos has established himself quickly as one of Canada’s rising jazz piano stars. Oscar Peterson himself taught Robi and he’s already won awards in Canada for his work. He was finishing his set as I passed by and I heard his two final songs including a very tasty original followed by a most intriguing and surprisingly clever version of the Carpenters’ classic “Close To You.” I’ll be listening for more from young Mr. Botos. I then caught portions of the sets by an Italian aggregation called Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino that plays a unique combination of gypsy jazz, Italian folk style, with 7 pieces utilizing no electric instruments, just percussion, mandolin, accordion, violin and even bagpipes with voices. Then I ran into another Quebec band, this one called Quetango Quartet. As their name might indicate they play the music of Argentina, and feature an Argentine member on cello, but fuse that with jazz and rock. If one is looking for the “something different” in the festival lineup then you would need go nowhere else than the Scene CBC/Radio-Canada stage to hear Quetango Quartet. After these samples of the international side of things it was time to return to The Gesu and support my fellow Americans. 

Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola took the stage before the introduction, setting the stage for a very casual and personal performance in this most intimate of performance halls in Montreal. The Gesu, with its terraced seats in close proximity to the stage, makes one feel as if you are almost on the stage itself and certainly up close and personal with the artists. It’s possibly my favorite venue in Montreal. From the beginning there was a decidedly bluesy vibe to the music and you could tell that these two buddies were keeping things loose. I felt as if I was sitting in on a conversation between the two of them, figuratively and musically at times and literally as well. They talked back and forth as if they were sitting in their living room deciding on what to play next, telling one another what went right or wrong with a song they’d just played, joking about how they should have brought a set list, and occasionally turning to the audience as if they were friends who were hanging out with them to have a quick word about the proceedings. Having enjoyed my half hour of conversation with the guys earlier in the day I felt like it was simply continuing. 

ImageThe music was very different from past Charlie Hunter shows I’ve seen as Charlie now plays the 7-string instead of the 8-string and he uses less, if any, devices to alter the sound of the guitar. In the past his sound was more electronically enhanced with a familiar “chorus” effect that gave what he played kind of an organ sound. Now his lines are cleaner and though he still plays bass, rhythm and lead simultaneously (John Scofield once told me “I don’t know how he does it”) the outstanding feature of his work on this night was his lead playing.  Scott Amendola has as much command of a drum kit as anyone you’ll ever hear and his tasteful contribution was never overdone and the perfect complement to Charlie’s guitar wizardry. The set included some of their latest release Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead, assorted solo compositions, music from a new album they mentioned would be recorded next week and some assorted jams that came from who knows where and included references to various songs like the ‘60’s pop tune “Bus Stop” and a grooving version of “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.”  These two Americans thrilled the Montreal crowd that roared approval and begged for two encores. The audience was not the usual group one might see at a Charlie Hunter show since he’s been attracting the “jamband” fans for some time now. There were a number of middle-aged concert-goers who might have been seeing something surprising. I have a feeling that if more of that age would hear music like this they would love it and expand their tastes into a new area of jazz. It’s a dream I have.

Russ Davis

3 Views of the Blues & The International in Jazz Fest: Day 6 @ The 34th Montreal Jazz Festival!

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It seems to me that one of the primary reasons one attends the Festival INTERNATIONAL de Jazz de Montreal it’s partly because you know you can’t visit all the parts of the world that you’d like to, so you know that if you just situate yourself in one place, in this case the Place des Artes in Montreal’s city center, the world will come to you. On this, my second day attending the 2013 Montreal Jazz Festival, I not only found myself visiting different parts of the world but dong a bit of time travelling too. I’ll try to explain. 

I started the day in search of hard to find recordings that might not be easily obtainable in my home base of New York. I always find rare music when I attend the Montreal festival because there are imports that don’t automatically come to stores in NYC, lots of local music, and self-produced recordings by the artists performing at the festival. Plus, and this is no small point, there are two huge record stores (Archambault and HMV) on St. Catherine Street with massive jazz sections and actual human beings that know the music and will happily help you find what you are looking for. Imagine that! The shop that sells CDs in large volume is almost a thing of the past and I certainly don’t mind downloading music and searching online, but there’s something about that human interaction with a real music lover and expert who knows and loves his local scene and can direct you to find what you want and need. I even got some suggestions on shows I should see during the festival that I might not have known about. With a dozen CD’s and a couple of DVD’s in hand I was off to take in some of that music live. 

I found myself taking a magical tour of what I’ll call “Bluesland,” that netherworld that is the source from which springs most of the music I’ve loved over the years. First I made contact with one of Quebec’s blues treasures, and never doubt that this province LOVES the blues, the veteran of stages around the world for over two decades, Angel Forrest. This lady channels Janis Joplin in a major way and even recorded a live album in Montreal a few years ago that was a tribute to Joplin. In this case she was belting out the tunes from her new album Mother Tongue Blues and taking us all back to the sound of the ‘70’s.  The thousands of fans in front of the Scene Loto-Quebec stage who cheered her on were there for that blues and soul energy and they were not disappointed. After a taste of the blues Quebec-style I was off to hear an artist that could take me back to the very beginning, the absolute source…Mali. 

ImageThe large, two-level venue known as Club Soda is no little juke joint. It’s massive by usual club standards and was packed to the rafters when I entered to take in the show by the son of Malian music legend Ali Farka Toure, Vieux Farka Toure, and his quartet of fellow Malian’s whose message is “Here’s the history of the music you love and would you like to dance to it?” Toure plays a solid body electric alongside another guitarist who plays an acoustic with pick-ups, both set in an open tuning to add to the drone effect. Vieux Farka Toure plays lines that would make Hendrix, McLaughlin, Clapton or Beck proud. The two guitarists were backed by a thunderous electric bass that provided not only the low frequencies, but also much of the percussion that a kick drum might have. And seated on the floor was a percussionist who played a large pod wrapped in tape on which he tapped with two small sticks and his hands, providing all the beat the band would need. To complete the effect the band was dressed in traditional Malian clothes just to reinforce the fact that we were being taken back to the source. Much of the music during the set was from Toure’s latest album Mon Pays but it probably could have been music from over a century ago when the rhythms, melodies, harmonies and soul of the blues was first created with non-electric stringed instruments and percussion in that magical West African region. If anyone ever wondered where the blues, then jazz and rock & roll of course, came from all you need to do is hear the music of Vieux Farka Toure and your questions will be answered.

I was off to hear one more view of the blues by Frenchman Nicolas Repac but along the way I took in some of the set by Quebec’s own Roberto Lopez Afro-Colombian Orchestra, an 8-piece aggregation that brought more of the “International” into this International Jazz Festival with their authentic Latin style. They filled the air with their Juno Award-nominated music from the album Azul. The scene in front of the Scene Bell stage with the city all around and a dancing crowd digging the Latin groove was hard to leave but I didn’t want to miss a minute of the presentation by Nicolas Repac at one of the newest venues in the Place des Artes, the club L’Astral in the Maison du Festival, the building that houses the headquarters of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The Maison du Festival also features a museum with lots of cool displays celebrating major events in the 34-year history of the festival including Ella Fitzgerald’s songlist from a previous show, Pat Metheny’s autographed guitar, a colorful coat that Miles Davis wore on stage in Montreal, pictures and signed items from local heroes like Oscar Peterson and Leonard Cohen and much more. A trip to the museum is time well spent. 

ImageUpon entering the Club L’Astral it was obvious from the stage setup that something different was going to happen. I’d heard that Nicolas Repac’s latest release Black Box addressed the blues in some way, similarly to the way his album Swing Swing had dealt with jazz, so I was intrigued partly because of the title. Indeed, there on stage, was a “Black Box.” How would this come into play we’d see when the show began.  Nicolas Repac strikes me as a man from another planet who simply visits Earth to observe and comment on what he sees. He’s a fine guitarist with rock and blues at the core of his style and a multi-instrumentalist who created all the sound associated with Black Box. When the performance began he took the stage and entered the box which was transformed via video projection into a jail cell. What transpired for the next hour was a musical/visual statement that seemed to address the blues from the perspective of oppressed people down through the ages from all over the world as well as apparently worlds unknown occupied by seemingly lost tribes. I suppose this comes from the department of “you had to be there,” but it all seemed very clear as the performance moved from work songs and field hollers from the American South to the voices of long, lost souls from the Middle East, Africa, The Caribbean, First Nation Americans and who knows who or where to be honest! All of this was interwoven with electro-acoustic grooves pre-recorded by Mr. Repac embellished with his live performance on guitar, percussion and various wind instruments. He emerged from the black box from time to time, altering the configuration of the walls of the chamber to create areas for video, film and still projections that further enhanced the performance. No, this was not a “Jazz” performance, though there was some pretty high level improvisation by Nicolas Repac, but who cares? The fact that jazz sprang from the blues and this show addressed the blues in its most primal sense qualifies for me. If you have any chance to see this performance you MUST see and experience it. I’m not sure how long Nicolas Repac will be visiting the planet so make your move! 

I ended the night once again in the out of doors, joining tens of thousands of my fellow festival goers in front of the huge Scene Rio Tinto Alcan stage on St. Catherine Street where Ontario’s great vocalist Kellylee Evans and an awesome, grooving band were whipping the crowd into a frenzy with her powerful, compelling voice. Kellylee is a vocalist to be reckoned with, as she just may be THE one who can fuse jazz with the dominant styles of today from hip-hop to pop and r&b and create the sound of a new jazz singer. She’s produced a successful project in celebration of Nina Simone simply titled Nina and her latest, I Remember When, addresses what’s up at this point in popular music history with a real jazz sensibility. The fact that she has a great band that features a versatile keyboardist who moves from organ to other keys with equal facility doesn’t hurt.  All in all I can say I travelled the world musically on this, my second day at the 34th Festival International de Jazz de Montreal and never left a one mile radius. 

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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