Herbie Hancock + Terrace Martin, Avishai Cohen and Quincy Jones provide the fireworks at the 50th Montreux Jazz Festival

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Thomas Rees reflects on a festival made in the image of its eccentric and uncompromising founder and on sets from Avishai Cohen, Chico Freeman and Herbie Hancock, with Kendrick Lamar-collaborator Terrace Martin

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I never met Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He died in a skiing accident in 2013, but I feel as though I know him. It would be hard to visit Montreux and not feel that way. There are beaming bespectacled images of him wherever you look. There’s even a street named in his honour, which sounds over the top until you realise what he did for the town. And Montreux is a town. A small one at that, in the crook of the alps at the far end of Lake Geneva, not the sort of place you’d expect to find one of the world’s most celebrated music festivals.

It had a few famous admirers in the days before Montreux Jazz, most of them literary heavyweights. Byron and the Shelleys were fans and Nabokov spent his last years there, living in a suite in the Montreux Palace Hotel, writing and collecting butterflies. The nearby Château de Chillon (a lakeside castle that looks as if it’s been plucked from the pages of children’s book) is a draw and the setting is beautiful.

Sometimes it’s almost too much, so blindingly picturesque you’d think it was staged. When I drew the curtains on the first morning and looked out on a cloudless sky, with the lake a radiant cornflower blue and the mountains shimmering on the skyline, I could have sworn I heard the voice of a director:

“And cue hang-gliders.”

“Can we get that schooner in the shot? Yeah, the absurdly beautiful one with the toffee-coloured wood and the crimson sails.”

“More swifts around the eaves please.”

“Belle Époque paddle steamer arriving in 3, 2, 1 ... ”

montreux jazz festivalPhoto Credit: Arnaud Derib

It’s gentler and more manageable at dusk, when the lake is the dusky blue of tempered steel and the sky is flushed with pink. Then there’s nowhere nicer to be than the waterfront, where the beautiful people are, beneath the palm trees and the willows, watching boats drift on their moorings and wishing one of them belonged to you.

When the festival is in full swing, the town oozes affluence and youthful glamour. They sell bottles of Montreux-branded Taittinger in the gift shop and you’re all but tripping over Lamborghinis. It makes it hard to imagine it the way it looks in archive footage from the 1950s and 1960s when it was a dull place full of dust sheets and empty hotels – somewhere up-tight retirees went to spill soup down themselves in cavernous dining rooms. It could have sunk without a trace. Instead it’s a honeypot and household name, home to the biggest jazz festival in the world save Montreal. Its great friend and patron Quincy Jones calls it ‘the Rolls-Royce’.

Claude-NobsClaude Nobs (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin)

That’s an extraordinary transformation for a town to undergo and it leaves you wondering just how it was possible. But then you visit Claude’s chalet, tucked away in the mountains overlooking the lake, and you talk to people who knew him and you stop wondering altogether. They tell you about Claude turning up to stuffy press conferences on water skis and about his respect for the musicians. How he’d insist on picking them up from Geneva airport himself, driving them to the chalet and cooking them an elaborate dinner. He was the host with the utmost, they say, but he was also a dreamer, passionate and wildly ambitious. Someone who didn’t take no for an answer.

“Nothing was impossible,” said Mathieu Jaton, Claude’s right hand man and the current CEO of the festival, who showed me round the chalet last winter. You get a sense of that from the decor. It feels less like a home and more like a live-in antiques shop or a museum of music industry memorabilia, from the jazz world and beyond. Every available surface is covered with curios and the whole place is bathed in the honeyed glow of around 30 vintage jukeboxes. There are motorbikes and vespa scooters parked in the hallways, model train sets, walls of toy cars and shelves and shelves of vinyl.

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There’s a fireproof room to house the festival’s UNESCO-listed sound and video archives and a cinema room to watch them in. Downstairs is a ‘jam room’ complete with Freddie Mercury’s piano and a guitar played by Paul McCartney, where the names in the guest book include D’Angelo, Robert Plant and John McLaughlin. That’s a self-portrait by David Bowie. Over there are some photos of him and Claude on a skiing trip together. The painting by the door? That’s Snoop Dogg holding a cross and extending the hand of benediction. Why, I’ve no idea.

Mathieu remembers Claude returning from overseas trips with kilos and kilos of stuff in his luggage. “We’d say, ‘where are you going to put all of this?’ Oh just by the wall over here.” He was a hoarder, but a hoarder with style and you can’t help but wonder if programming a festival was, to him, just another form of collecting – an extension of the chalet.

Montreux’s collection is certainly comprehensive. Highlights from the archives, released earlier this year, prove that beyond doubt. You’ll spot Oscar Peterson pouring with sweat, beating all hell out the piano and Miles looking like some jazz rock Dumbledore in a multi-coloured jacket and half-moon spectacles. Ella, Nina, Mingus, Prince, Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Sun Ra and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with a mouth full of saxophones, taking the term multi-instrumentalist quite literally – they’re all there.

1977 oscarpeterson cgeorges braunschweigOscar Peterson (Photo Credit: Georges Braunschweig)

Appropriately, this 50th anniversary edition of Montreux felt as though it were made in Claude’s image. It was bigger and more ambitious than ever, 17 days long with 15 stages (seven of them free) plus jazz cruises and train rides, competitions, workshops, gigs in the Château de Chillon and late night raves by the waterfront. Old friends including Charles Lloyd, who headlined the very first festival, back in 1967, were in town and there were numerous tribute concerts too.

BrasilianDream LionelFlusin 03Brazilian Dream (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin)

Claude loved Brazilian music. He was one of the first to bring it to Swiss audiences and a Brazilian spectacular in the Auditorium Stravinski, the festival’s main concert hall, was a nice touch. The sizeable Brazilian contingent in the crowd really made it, in particular a man dressed like a magnificent Latino buccaneer with waist-length hair, black winkle-pickers and a diamond stud earring, who sambaed and sang and waved a Brazilian flag. On-stage, the highlight was a turn from mandolin-player Hamilton de Holanda whose solos were astonishing – like showers of sparks.

Claude was a harmonica player, so a set from Geneva-born harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret seemed fitting too. It was shamelessly cheesy, but you couldn’t fault the energy. There were soulful grooves and rousing gospel jams, with a guest appearance from UK vocalist Zara McFarlane, and glorious Hammond organ solos from Ondrej Pivec – all filth and holy water.  

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Herbie Hancock with Terrace Martin (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin – MJF)

Montreux always seems to have the latest gadget (another of Claude’s personality traits, I’m told). This year they were premiering a new video sharing app called Cuts, and as always all of the performances were being recorded in HD, which meant I could watch gigs from earlier in the week – things I’d agonised about missing. Top of my list was Herbie Hancock’s set from the opening weekend. Not just because it was Herbie, but because of who he was working with: Terrace Martin, the production visionary behind Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

According to those in the know, it was Martin who introduced Kendrick to jazz. He’s the reason ‘For Free?’ is whipped along by a burning swing feel and the reason Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire appear on the album at all. You may not have heard his name before, but you should remember it. He’s the missing link between jazz and West Coast hip hop, at home in both worlds and uniquely positioned to connect the dots. Along with the likes of Flying Lotus and Thundercat he’s spearheading this LA renaissance.

Herbie knows that, which is why Martin is helping to produce his next album and why he booked him, along with bassist James Genus and drummer Trevor Lawrence for this one-off appearance. Had it not been Montreux’s 50th he wouldn’t have left the studio.

Unfortunately, that also meant most of the new material wasn’t ready and the set wasn’t as fresh as I was hoping it would be. According to Hancock, there were snippets scattered throughout an opening overture, but for the most part the quartet fell back on stock repertoire and Hancock still sidled out of the wings wielding his white keytar to play ‘Chameleon’ as an encore. You really think he’d be bored with that by now.  

But even though I was watching it on a TV screen in a strip-lit subterranean room and listening through tinny headphones, there was still plenty to get excited about. There were bubbling funk and R&B jams, with Martin on synth and vocoder, adding ribbity grooves, murmurs and sighs. He played alto too and the anguish in his sound, which complemented the lyrical thrust of To Pimp A Butterfly so well, was instantly recognisable. On ‘Textures’ Hancock really took off, pouring ice water over the groove with dissonant chords and storming through enough ideas to fill a decade’s worth of jazz harmony classes. It’s too early to say for sure, but this project could be a new lease of life for him. I can’t wait to hear the album.

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Avishai Cohen (Photo Credit: Marc Ducrest – MJF)

Montreux has taken a lot of flack over the years for its line-up, which, as you’ll have guessed from the names in the archive and the trinkets on Claude’s many mantle pieces, goes a way beyond jazz. PJ Harvey, Simply Red, Muse and Grimes were all on this year’s bill, along with the festival’s old friends Deep Purple, who wrote ‘Smoke on the Water’while staying in the town. Even so, there’s plenty here for jazz purists and those who prefer to roam the leftfield, as two outstanding sets in the Montreux Jazz Club proved.

Backlit by cool blue neon, Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen sank the room in shadow with music from his ECM debut Into The Silence, a suite of noirish chamber jazz full of fragile textures and exquisite contrasts. There were gorgeous, delicate moments when it felt as though the music were made of glass, swing feels from bassist Barak Mori that scattered and shipwrecked themselves and piano lines from Yonathan Avishai that drifted like falling leaves and provided glimmers of light amid the gloom. The title track opened with an engrossing introduction from drummer Nasheet Waits in which he ratcheted up the tension with snare drum blurs and tom toms as hollow as war drums, waiting an age before lashing at his cymbals.

There’s a scrappiness to Cohen’s playing that I love. He’s a brawler. A whippet-thin bare-knuckle boxer and a master of the dog-eared phrase. Sometimes his lines are like scribbles or charcoal sketches at others like twists of razor wire, finished with smears and strangled high notes played with hunched shoulders, straight at the floor. Even on the ballads, when the smokiness in his sound comes to the fore, there’s some grit there. An acrid bonfire-y back-note. Just a hint of trouble.

The night before, US saxophonist Chico Freeman and his quartet, who seldom seem to make it to the UK, provided another masterclass in ensemble-playing with a set of surging modal swingers from 2015 release Spoken Into Existence. Dressed all in white, Freeman led from the front with thrusting solos, as the rhythm section ripped the tunes to pieces. Pianist Antonio Faraò added wiry phrases and sledgehammer chords and drummer Michael Baker threw blustery fills into the mix. A series of sunlit hang drum grooves laid down by ‘exotic percussionist’ Reto Weber were the ideal counterpoint – a release from all the superbly-wrought tension. 

QuincyJones LionelFlusin 78Quincy Jones’ 50th Anniversary Celebration (Photo: Lionel Flusin – MJF)

One of this year’s gala jazz gigs was a 50th anniversary celebration curated by Quincy Jones, who visits the festival every year and feels as much a part of the fabric as Claude. It took the form of a variety show, with turns from family members, friends and Jones protégés backed by the pin-point precise Pepe Lienhard Big Band, who’ve worked with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr and swing harder than you’d think possible for an outfit that once placed sixth in Eurovision. There’s a comment in there about Swiss timekeeping, I’m sure of it.

Quincy was in full-on promoter mode. Everyone was “one of the greatest talents he’d ever seen” and “only 21 years old”. Jacob Collier for instance, who kicked off his spell in the limelight with an arrangement of ‘I Wish’, prefaced by richly-harmonised vocoder vocals, and finished up with a straightforward account of ‘Killer Joe’.

New Orleans born pianist/vocalist Jon Batiste proved himself a consummate performer with a soulful take on ‘What a Wonderful World’, full of theatrical pauses, and a stonking Hammond organ blues. Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez brought some latin flair with a funked-up, full fat rendition of ‘Manteca’ and singer Patti Austin (who Quincy describes as his goddaughter) sounded magisterial, paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and scatting through ‘How High The Moon’ at breakneck speed.

The most moving moment in the whole evening though was the reception for Al Jarreau (just 76 years old) who hobbled on with his stick to sing ‘Midnight Sun’ and a Vince Mendoza arrangement of ‘I'm Beginning to See the Light’ to rapturous, heartwarming applause. He was back on after the finale, Quincy’s classic ‘Soul Bossa Nova’, along with a beaming, excitable Mathieu Jaton who kissed Al on the head, gave Quincy a painting and paid tribute to Claude himself. The cheers were deafening. 

And that’s what stays with you. There’s a warmth and a feel good atmosphere about Montreux that makes it unlike any other jazz festival that I’ve been to. It’s vast and rampantly commercial, but it still feels intimate, generous and fun – like a giant pool party or a fortnight-long soirée at Claude’s chalet. Fifty years after the first incarnation, his spirit lives on.

– Thomas Rees