Monty Alexander, Kenny Garrett and Ginger Baker at stellar Montreal Jazz Festival 2014

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The 35th Montreal Jazz spectacular offered what it always does, opportunity and encouragement to hook up the A-team, whatever project is in the works, show us its optimal incarnation. 

Beyond the blockbuster shows of Diana Krall and newbies Vintage Trouble, this was a boon to several stalwart bandleaders. Perhaps the most genial of these were Dr Lonnie Smith and Monty Alexander. The Turbanator, Dr Smith, fronted a crack octet, with five horns brought together by altoist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, including snakily soulful tenorist/bass clarinettist John Ellis. This organic, yet tight section (no pesky music to read) was anchored by the badass beats of Jonathan Blake and succinct guitarist Ed Cherry, with the doctor handling bass duties with his boots. 

Smith does the minimum to elicit the maximum, is always spontaneous and revels in showcasing his musicians. His double late night set at Gesu crescenodoed with a new schtick, wacking out basslines on his custom slaparoo walking stick whilst prerambulating through the wowed crowd. 

Two nights later at the same venue veteran entertainer Monty Alexander held sway with a similarly ambitious crew. His Harlem-Kingston Express is a unique yoking of jazz and reggae, twinning stylistically respective drummers Obed Calvaire and Karl Wright and acoustic/electric bassists Hassan Shakur and Courtney Panton. At a signal from Alexander at the piano the deftly acoustic cocktail jazz half of the band cut abruptly, letting the reggae boys drop. Alexander was as mercurial as ever but announced bluntly at the end of the set, “That’s all folks!” and hastily walked offstage. Blaming strong Canadian coffee for overpowering him, he eventually returned with “What de hell!” and launched in to a bonus number. Turns out he suffered a mild heart attack and spent the following day in hospital getting checked out, though no-one would have known from his merry yodel of goodbye after the encore. 

The differing feel of jazz and reggae drums is made salient in the Harlem-Kingston Express but veteran Jamaican drummer Wright, who’d otherwise dutifully installed the groove like Monty’s sometime colleague Sly Dunbar, exploded on cue with a solo finale to the evening. Talking of Sly himself, wearing a workman’s hat behind the kit, he and Robbie Shakespeare had opened for Burning Spear the night before at Metropolis, letting frontman (and tour manager) Peter Gayle croon with such fare as Stevie Wonder’s tearjerker ‘Lately’, while they plied trademark riddims in back.

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Ginger performs gingerly

Dropping flamboyant (double flam) beats, with his own health travails, was Ginger Baker, who played a low key yet big scale show with his Jazz Confusion quartet featuring bassist Alec Dankworth at Theatre Maisonneuve. Check Wikipedia for Baker’s copious drum specs and imagine assorted music shops along his tour route amassing his arsenal, as he himself travels light (not a polo pony in sight). Not too much of his impressive rig with requisite twin bass drums was deployed when he took a first solo, and its bombast bore no relevance to the rest of the music, it was as clumsy as a teenager clobbering buckets in the street. However by the end of the concert (notwithstanding a five minute intermission – he kept prefacing the more demanding 12/8 grooves with, “this one is the Baker killer”), Ginger’s synch with Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo became steadily mesmerising.

Those familiar with Tony Palmer’s 1971 documentary Ginger Baker in Africa will dig that the trance like continuum of Fela’s grooves left an indelible stamp on the journeyman drum hero. The legacy of such quintessential experience made trots through ‘Footprints’ and ‘St Thomas’ sound positively bourgeois. Preferable were vehicles that telescoped his African adventures, such as ‘Ain Temouchant’ which Baker told us commemorates a location in the Atlas Mountains where “with, great aplomb, I drove my car at very high speed off the mountain – into an olive tree.”

Pointing a drumstick at Pee Wee Ellis, Baker taunted defiantly “He’ll probably die first!” Ellis, sitting on a stool, proved the perfect compliment to the arthritic Baker. Admirably lean and to the point, the dry James Brown alum took sensible forays into the upper register and, beyond winking gratuities – like slipping in the horn line to ‘Cold Sweat’ – played with more jazzy logic than expected.

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Side-women have it

Sideman saxophonists were notable at this year’s Montreal, and let’s amend that to sidewomen, because Sharel Cassity more than pulled her weight in an allstar (if strangely unscheduled) septet featuring Tommy Campbell, Cyrus Chesnut and Terell Stafford, opening for Aretha Franklin. Multi instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez (above) was also amazing, building her tenor solo with all the soul/virtuosity of Ronnie Laws/Ernie Watts on ‘Peaches in Regalia’ with Dweezil Zappa’s six-piece Zappa Plays Zappa group at Metropolis (she bagged an instrumental Grammy for such a performance in 2009 by the by). 

Another tenor playing sidekick, Timothy McFatter, was exhorted to take it higher by Troy Andrews and duly did during Trombone Shorty (below) and Orleans Avenue’s incendiary ‘Fire and Brimstone’ return engagement at Metropolis. Also, uncredited local ringer Andre Leroux, buried in the ranks of her backing orchestra, blew an outstanding solo behind an appreciative Aretha Franklin. 

Choice gigs at Theatre Jean Duceppe, Cinquieme Salle and Club Soda

Beyond Aretha Franklin's nostalgia fest at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, the most memorable version of 'Say A Little Prayer' was delivered by the superbly athletic Kenny Garrett Quintet. Garrett hypnotised Theatre Jean Duceppe on 1 July, with his whinnying soprano and throat singing-in-tongues mantra ‘Pushing the World Away’, the eponymous cut from his intense Mack Avenue CD, which wins my vote for tune title of the year.

Cinquieme Salle, something of a smaller version of Gesu, that often hosts theatrical asides to the main programming, has been a welcome addition to the serious jazz roster recently and was the ideal room to host Randy Weston in duo with scrappy tenor firebrand Billy Harper. Weston doesn’t like to work too hard – transporting his massive six foot eight frame around at age 88 is surely work enough – but he dispensed fresh sagacities over his well oiled perennials ‘Little Niles’ and ‘High Fly’ as Harper dug for other profundities. It was welcome to hear more expressionistic playing amid all the buttoned up virtuosi prevalent at the festival. 

Though my favorite oasis - because of the venue’s cabaret informality and approximate hit times - schedule clashes dragged me away from Club Soda too early on several occasions. I caught only a smidgin (though enough to get the gist) of Tuareg bluesman Omar “Bombino” Moctar, who was nice to hear without the reverb Dan Auerbach likes to shower over the Nonesuch CDs he produces, and not much more of Jose James, Blue Note’s suspiciously good looking darling whose lyrics – “Come to me baby/Love me tonight/Stay with me angel/Rest of my life” – failed to convince. 

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More compelling were gravel voiced Piedmont blues revisionist Guy Davis, who won over with his crowd pleasing harmonica feature ‘Did You See My Baby?’ and better still, the unclassifiable Benjamin Clementine, who, shrouded in darkness onstage announced “I am alone in a box of stone,” thence delivering his (in attempt to classify) spellbinding phantom-of-the-opera-meets-Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rendition of “Cornerstone.”

Time will tell whether Clementine makes the cut for a return engagement at this festival famed for record breaking attendances, where the basic requirement is that you are not only brilliant, but bums-on-seats brilliant.

– Michael Jackson (Story and photos)