It’s always a toss up which weekend to opt for at the mammoth Montréal Jazz Festival. Hanging for the whole shebang would be ideal but an embarrassment of riches. This year the first weekend boasted the meatier line-up and I wasn’t anticipating Tord Gustavsen’s (pictured) four-night run during the Invitation Series with baited breath. Last time I heard the pianist at Gesù in 2007 I was dismissive of the Norwegian ‘gloom school’ affectations – to use a favorite Alan Barnes phrase. However Gustavsen’s run in the sepulchral enclaves of Gesù (a church crypt originally) caused a revision of opinion. The Invitation concept is a highlight in the Montréal program for precisely that reason, since an artist is offered rare opportunity to showcase different facets, fresh or veteran collaborations and win over dissenters, while spoiling diehard fans.
Gustavsen’s doctoral thesis back in the 1990s dwelt on the sensuality of music, specifically ‘The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation’. At the piano he makes Keith Jarrett’s orgiastic touch seem comparatively brutish, for Gustavsen each depression of a key is akin to caressing willow pattern china. His opening ensemble with drummer Jarle Vespestad, bassist Mats Eilertsen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg parlayed high-end Norse smooth jazz, except that Gustavsen’s unravelling melodies and the twilit chamber aesthetic surpass such pejorative. Eilertsen reminded how beautiful the bass can sound when free of the urge to be ostensibly jazzy and over-busy. Brunborg draws obvious comparison with Jan Garbarek, whose influence seems scarcer these days ¬– he doesn’t soar in the upper register in patented Garbarek fashion, staying within the dynamic range of this quartet, respectful of the gentle equilibrium of the leader’s compositions. During the brief Requiem encore, after the jetlagged Gustavsen announced in hushed tones “we are going to bed right now,” Brunborg’s tenor entered with an operatic trill that sounded like a voice from the wings.
This was nothing compared to the following night however, when I was favorably weighing the veteran wiles of Brunborg with younger saxophonist Håkon Kornstad in Gustaven’s trio, just as Kornstad triggered loops of his horn lines and suddenly captivated the crowd with his impressive operatic voice. Gustavsen seized opportunity to introduce Montréal audiences to outstanding musicians from his homeland including, for the final night of his run, poised but passionate singer Solveig Slettahjell. His duo with Slettahjell further demonstrated the pianist’s patient ears and concern for lyric purity, since though the material may have been familiar to them there was no sense of sailing on safe licks.
Other singers at the festival weren’t interested in playing safe either. Norah Jones, who sold out Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier during the height of her Come Away With Me mega-stardom in 2002 and 2003, returned to the festival determined to average the age of her audience closer to her own. With her young band of bassist Josh Lattanzi, guitarist Jason Abraham Roberts, drummer Greg Wieczorek and Pete Remm on keys, and her Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton produced/co-written CD getting attention, Jones slung a Fender Mustang round her neck onstage as often as she noodled behind Fender Rhodes. Despite the lightshow and her smoking band though, Jones’ default is not about rocking out, she’s essentially a mellow miniaturist.
Earlier in the week, versatile superstar of yesteryear, Liza Minnelli put on a brave show. The winner of Tony/Grammy/Emmy and Oscar, Minnelli belongs to an elite club. A dozen years ago she suffered severe encephalitis but has bounced back vigorously. The ostensible jazz tunes in the 66-year old’s repertoire telescoped back to the trad era – ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ (complete with protracted intro) and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. Far more interesting was her rendition of mentor Charles Aznavour’s detailed tribute to the transvestite, ‘What Makes a Man’, and her diva-like halting of the band when she didn’t feel she was making the notes. The latter behavior tested the über professionalism of her musicians, who included trumpeter Ross Konikoff, soprano saxist Charles Wilson and debonair pianist William Streich, the latter joining Minnelli to croon warm harmonies on ‘Our Love is Here To Stay’.
Superb accompanists were also crucial to the performances of Sophie Milman at Club Soda and Molly Johnson at L’Astral. The two talented Toronto-based singers of different generations relied on top draw pianists Paul Shrofel and Robi Botos respectively. Whimsically, the hilarious, gravel voiced Johnson momentarily replaced Oscar Peterson protégé Botos, (who garnered the festival’s ‘talent deserving’ Grand Jazz Award earlier in the day) with an unknown 12-year old kid. Another festival honoree, Serbian bandleader and Renaissance man Emir Kusturica, recipient of the Antônio Carlos Jobim world music award, lit up Metropolis with his ironically titled No Smoking Orchestra on 5 July. Their madcap gypsy-electro-punk show won the packed crowd with the soundtrack cut to Kusturica’s 1998 movie Black Cat, White Cat and the caustic, participatory ‘Fuck You MTV’.
Inevitable scheduling clashes mess with the cherry picking of a evening’s schedule at Montréal. Thankfully a four night run at Cinquième Salle gave chance to catch Miche Braden’s performance as the eponymous red hot mamma in The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. A one-woman tour de force, Braden was aided theatrically with occasional commentary from bass player Jim Hankin, otherwise relying solely on the support of her onstage band, who helped her get “a little sugar in her bowl” with vintage contributions from big toned saxist Keith Loftis. A constant flow of local horn players, rappers and singers, all part of 40-strong collective Kalmunity catered ‘live organic improv’ for night owls at Savoy toward the end of the festival, throwing down impressive freestyle funk and Afro-beats anchored by drummer/ringleader Jahsun.
Another highlight this year was experiencing the astonishing acoustics at the new Maison Symphonique which hosted Richard Galliano, innovative bluesman Harry Manx and also the duo of Patricia Barber and Kenny Werner. Last year Jazzwise donned a hard hat in a dusty construction site in the same location. Though considerably narrower, the resplendent 2,000-seat hall exudes something of the grandeur of Sydney Opera House with its all-light wood interior. A thoughtful addition, like the Albert Hall, is a promenade area in the upper balcony, which made it possible for the peripatetic jazz gourmand to sample the space without irking the seated audience.
With grand finale events now firmly entrenched in the purpose-built Place Des Arts, which hosts the largest of the six outdoor stages, the flow of this phenomenally organized festival has been significantly improved. A chalk-up against that might be that the seventh free stage (eight if you count Savoy), which hosts the jam session at the Hyatt, is less conspicuous since the hotel’s remodelling. Jazzwise was refreshing herself with an exorbitant pint of Rickard’s Red at the Hyatt Bar late one night and scarcely realized that the jumbo screen was feeding a live jam from down the curtained hallway. It used to be a more open-faced proposition. That aside, few complaints!
– Michael Jackson