Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock and Tuba Titans kick out the cool at Montreal Jazz Festival


Canadians are patronisingly characterised in the US as 'over-polite' but one wouldn't wish to encounter a Quebecois on the hockey ice. As the recent stands Trudeau has made against Trump on trade and immigration reveal, they are no pushover north of the border. So too the French Canadian audiences in Montreal: impassioned, committed and sometimes, hyper sensitive.

My first show at Gésu was a doozy, a booty-shaking one-off triumvirate of John Medeski, Marc Ribot and funky drummer JT Lewis. Ribot was in town for his own righteously dissident gig the following night dubbed Songs of Resistance. He'd pulled some classic charts – 'Sookie Sookie' was credited onstage to white rockers Steppenwolf but the trio's attack cleaved closer to Grant Green, with Lewis' funky backbeats recalling Don Covay's 1965 original. As maverick as Medeski's sporadically Booker T-esque organ was – his mitts busy like the Muppets' Swedish chef hurling pizza dough from behind the keys – the depth of Ribot's own vintage aesthetic focus was startling (he did once work with Jack McDuff). Though also known for sardonic twanging and abstraction Ribot dug deep with Wes-like octave slashes and urgent vernacular riffing, then bust out like Derek Bailey playing 'Pop Goes The Weasel'. Not so exciting was his singing with the Songs of Resistance quartet (he announced demurely at set's end that the upcoming coincident CD, will feature vocals by Meshell Ndegeocello, Steve Earle and other stars, only two cuts boasting his dulcet tones). More important was the message and Ribot stretched back to the 40s for a song of solidarity 'We Are Soldiers in the Army', thence the civil rights anthem 'We'll Never Turn Back' and the bittersweet 'Bella Ciao,' injecting latin flavours redolent of his Arsenio Rodriguez project Los Cubanos Postizos. Another Rodriguez, saxophonist Jay of Groove Collective fame, superbly blended smooth blues riffs with emotive, even angry, expressionism. Ribot offered a rousing 'Fuck La Migra' which brought the Gésu crowd to its feet, as he name-checked for excoriation such scourges as Scott Pruitt and attorney general Jeff Sessions.


Another revolutionary, a couple of decades Ribot's senior, Archie Shepp, returned to Montreal after a long absence (he was last seen at the long gone Spectrum in 2002) and lit up the Maison Symphonique with his tremblingly intense classic 'Mama Rose'. The references to dreams in the lyric – 'rêves' – riffed with 'revolution', such punning no doubt not lost on Shepp. At 81 the Florida born Philadelphian's gigantic exhortation (seamed with gospel, blues shout or even operatic flourish) to take "This ex-cannibal's kiss" and "Your vagina, split asymmetrically between the east and the west" inspired requisite shivers, especially potent in the resonant, bourgeois hall.

Shepp addressed the audience entirely in French, an oversight of classy young Montreal pianist Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon who opened for Terence Blanchard's E-Collective with her trio at Monument-National. When Gentiane MG announced her compositions the patriotic audience fiercely demanded that she speak 'en francais!' Blanchard on the other hand announced little – the widescreen processed sound of the E-Collective's opening number stretching to forty minutes. Another instance of Canadian socio-political assertion involved a vociferous protest of Robert Lepage and Betty Bonnifassi's SLAV, a 'Theatrical Odyssey based on Slave Songs' which was canned after its initial sold-out performances due to criticism of its all white cast.

US based self-censure in the wake of Mexican border brutality was intimated with some levity by Herbie Hancock (pictured top), who in-joked with drummer Trevor Lawrence that his drums were like weapons at the border, adding "Everybody loves children –no matter what they say – we can't have that", suitably apposite from the composer of 'Tell Me a Bedtime Story,' 'Toys' and 'Speak Like a Child.' Hancock crowd-pleased with 'Chameleon' and 'Actual Proof' by surgically reinventing such hits. The latter was a heavy Rhodes workout with Lawrence munching into the off-kilter rhythms of predecessor Mike Clark, while guitar wizard Lionel Loueke conjured another effects master, Joe Zawinul. When James Genus took a solo, fellow bass ace Thundercat, who'd opened the show attired in orange shorts and flip flops with outrageously gauche pink socks, came from backstage to watch the Hancock show from out front. Another pianist at Monument-National with a more linear but also masterful touch was Monty Alexander, a festival favourite who's trio balanced Jamaican high jinks with jump cut dynamics and dime-edge timing redolent of Ahmad Jamal.


The staunchest instrument during my four-night sampling of Montreal's sprawling menu was perhaps not the piano or the organ however (despite the hurtling energy of Medeski and Cory Henry, the latter slaying Mtelus with his Funk Apostles) nor the saxophone, notwithstanding the mastery of Mark Turner (with guitarist Gilad Hekselman) and Norwegian genius Marius Neset (pictured above) who debuted at Gésu alongside two thirds of Phronesis.


No, it was the ambitious plumbing of tuba and sousaphone. The irrepressible Kirk Joseph regaled with the latter ungainly device plus effects in Medeski's 'Mad Skillet;' Theon Cross's agile tuba sparred with the punchy Shabaka Hutchings in the drum driven Sons of Kemet and last but not least, Lance Loiselle's sousa held down three boisterous, entertaining nights, melding soul, hip-hop and two-tone at the outdoor Casino de Montreal with the unstoppable Chicago based eleven piece he co-founded, The Lowdown Brass Band.

Story and photos by Michael Jackson