June 14, 2024

Pleasant Memories
Montreal Int’l Jazz Festival
by Matthew S. Robinson

Montreal Int'l Jazz Festival 2001 It had been a few years since last I had climbed Mount Royal to look over a score of diverse neighboring venues all stocked with some of the best jazz and jazz-derivative sounds available on the planet, and I was raring to get right into the action.

June 28, 2001

Minutes after I was efficiently whisked through the press room, it was off to a special (and arguably historic) 25th anniversary performance by The World Saxophone Quartet. Led by founding member David Murray, the brass octopus known as the WSQ combined Southern Soul with Eastern charms which had the packed crowd snaking in their seats. Veering at times into cacophony where it was oft difficult to follow who was playing what line, the Quartet spent most of its time playing on the solid grounds laid down by low man Hammiet Bluett. Taj Mahal’s “Jamaican Sunrise” was more Kansas City nocturne than island revellie, but Murray’s tongue-slapped compositions left licks that were Justin Time.

Running down St. Catherine, I arrived just in time to see undersung harmonica master Howard Levy completely steal the show from the Greg Armirault Quartet (here a trio). Though his French vocabulary was limited, Levy’s musical lexicon ranged from Charlie Musslewhite to Toots Thielman, with bits of Stevie Wonder and George Benson spat in. Combining polka-fied pyrotechnics with flashy flourishes, Levy led the diminished quartet on harp and keys, both of which he bent to offer string sounds and other musical layers that bounced and flowed along with his coif.

Down at the other end of the street, on the overly-raised GM stage, beat-minded beauty Lulu Hughes offered an even more diverse melange of musical styles which combined Aretha and Brittney and ranged from French to Funk. Though “Rock Steady” did, “You’ve Got to Funktify” was a bit too preachy, though not as much as Hughes’ anti-gun Reggae chant “Here We Go.” An authentically bilingual “Lady Marmalade” took the color out of Pink’s version while keeping the chime of LaBelle clean and clear.

“Feelin’ Alright”? You bet! …And this was only day one!

After a bit of local cuisine (smoked meat is much less dirty and more delicious than it sounds!), it was back out for on emore show. Tonight’s dessert was to be provided by Rockin’ Dopsie, who headlined the Louisiana stage. Though he looked ready to strut with some BBQ, what with his apron and all, for the most part, all the prince of Zydeco could offer was some baste-ardized Pop covers and mush-mouthed two-steps. Given an opportunity to tout his heritage, Dopsie fell back on the safety of familiar numbers, many of which needed more coverage. “Love the One You’re With” was lonesome and “Satisfaction” wasn’t. Though the Bayou’s favorite entertainer’s toot-toot-shakin’ energy was high and kept the crowd on their feet, but at times, even the guitarist seemed tired. Oh well- it had been a long day.

June 29, 2001

The next morning was spent wandering the neighborhood, checking out the myriad souvenir stores and walking PAST the many adult entertainment establishments.

Who needed them when we had Bebel Gilberto at Spectrum? Slender but not Ip-anemic, Gilberto was a pleasure both for the eyes and ears. Traipsing onto the stage direct from a late flight, the feminine heir to the Bossa Nova crown shimmied on and off the stage, combining lyrical Spanish with impressively dictioned transliteration and sticking primarily to the traditions of her father’s style, with only a few techno touches. The one-word samba “Lonely” combined Steely Dan and Herbie Mann with a trial run at body-shaking Spanish rap which led nicely into the set’s funky finale.

Back at the other end of the Festival area at the the cleverly named Club Soda, Nnenna Freelon was putting the spunk back into the Great American Songbook and some more contemporary faves as well. Running easily through multiple metres, Freelon combined Fitzgerald-ed scat with languid intro solos. Her tribute to fallen Jazz heroes silenced the crowd, as did her plaintive and pure take on “Let it Be Me.” A Reggaed “Body and Soul” caught the crowd pleasantly unawares and her “frisky,” rhythm-packed run through “Say a Little Prayer” was simply beautiful.

The true highlight of the Festival, however, was to wait until the next day, when Renaissanced legend Jimmy Scott took the Spectrum stage by storm, with the support of his casually conforming support team The Jazz Expressions. In this week of legends (which would later offer the likes of George Benson, native son Oscar Peterson and TAOAKAP), this was the show to take in. And everyone who was there took it all in. Strutting and snapping around the stage, Scott belied his age by decades, and though his voice wavered during some extensions, the emotion rang through his entire five-foot frame. Filling every corner of the balconied dance club. Even away from the mike, Scott’s effervescent joy peaked the meters and is signature delays brought all ears even closer to catch every experienced nuance. From a syncopated but straight “It Had to Be You” to covers of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and John’s “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” Scott pleased old and young alike and showed that, after 50 years of performing, he still had room to grow.

June 30, 2001

Among the other high points of the Festival were film maestro Michel Legrand’s performance with the chapeaud Phil Woods, some of 2001 Miles Davis Award-Winner Michael Brecker’s varied combos (including an acoustic set with brother Randy), a killer second set featuring Wayne Shorter, Danillo Perez, Jon Patitucci and Brian Blades, Cassandra Wilson’s supports of Terrence Blanchard’s sextet and “next big thing” Jane Monheit’s occasionally over-extended attempts at the title. However, with no fewer than three shows going on at any time from 3 PM to nearly 3 AM, late night jam sessions and the rest of Montreal’s strong performance scene all in full effect (except during the occasional showers which at times developed into flash floods), there was just too much to see.

And when the music became too much (if such quality music ever can), the city beckoned with offerings ranging from the pre-Revolutionary charms of Old Montreal to the aforementioned challenge of Mount Royal (oh those stairs!) to the ill-fated engineering of the Olympic Stadium. Whether there for two days or the full two weeks, the city was an absolute whirl. Speaking of the whirl of the city, most of it came out despite threatening rain to see, or rather experience, the (I mean “Le”) Grand Événtment. Groove Alla Turca combined the traditional Turkish instrumentation of Burban Oçal’s Oriental Istanbul Ensemble with contemporary elements of contemporary Jazz and Funk, ringleadered by bassman Jamaaladeeb Tacuma. It also offered Turkish “Rap,” amateur Hip-Hop dancers and actual Whirling Dervishes whose spiritual spins lasted throughout most of the sight and sound extravaganza.

Especially for those for whom North Sea may not be a viable vacation choice, Montreal is the preeminent Jazz festival. Where else can you find the likes of Joe Lovano, Charlie Haden, John Scofield, Diana Krall, Joao Gilberto, Wynton’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Steel Pulse, Femi Kuti and George Thorogood(?) in the same five-block area in the span of two weeks? And where else can you find these things among one of the world’s most historically diverse metropolitan areas?

Am I gushing? Well it was really that much fun!

At Montreal Jazz, the music may be just the beginning, but it is certainly a solid start.

&Copy; 2001, M. S. Robinson, ARR

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