Festival International De Jazz De Montreal: 30 June-12 July 2009 – Montreal

Chin Chin

Every summer, Montreal hosts its enormous annual jazz festival, always with a potent lineup of performers which stretches out over two and a half weeks, thereby ensuring that nobody can ever get enough time off work to cover the whole thing. If only I could have the full two weeks. Here’s what I was lucky enough to see:

The Ruckus Quartet, 10 July at the Scène du Festival: Both the guitarist and bassist were impressive both technically and tastefully, playing badass lines only when badass lines were absolutely necessary. Most of the songs placed slithery sax lines over instrumental beds that didn’t entirely need them; that is, they could fly as a trio, but as a quartet, they’re even better. The drummer’s most sublime moment came when he eased up, played ambiance rather than backbone, and almost seemed to disappear. There’s only one word for that: Magic.

Chin Chin, 9 July at the Scène du Festival: The Brooklyn quintet’s Latin-flavored synth-funk is an outfit fronted singer/keyboardist Wilder Zoby, whose hip-wiggles evoked Ricky Martin when stationary (unfortunate) and a stagger-home drunk Quasimodo when he wasn’t (even more unfortunate), all while wearing suspenders. Presentation aside, I was repeatedly hooked by wonderfully reckless, borderline noise-rock guitar solos with fleeting moments of atonality. It was very danceable, overall, like prime Jamiroquai.

Lyrically they were intolerable, and might actually go down better with mild aphasia. Consider this rhyme scheme: “We’re going to work it out” with “We’re going to let it out,” and then again with “We’re going to scream and shout.” It’s enough to make you want to, well, scream and shout. To be fair, however, if you’re not already too dizzy and sweat-covered to make sense of them, well, that’s your first problem.

Vieux Farka Touré, 9 July at Club Soda: Ali Farka’s son, predictably, channels his late Pops with icy notches of guitar and intricate bouts of authentic Malian hand percussion, but the real treat of the night came from the drum set and the occasional blazing solo: he’s had big shoes to fill ever since his father died in 2006, and he wears them well, but there’s still a rebellious punk-rock teen in there somewhere. Trading the distinguished leather-and-whiskey refinement for horsepower, he’d probably make both SRV and Jimi proud. And definitely dad.

Festival Parade, 10 July on Rue St. Catherine: At the very front of the procession, a furry blue cat-thing leading an array of bizarre instrument contraptions much like what Dr. Seuss might build while playing Mouse Trap. In the middle, white dudes wearing sunglasses and fezes (feece?) and far too many megaphones. At the very end, an attractive dark-haired girl dressed in a giant plush lobster costume that was quite revealing. I still haven’t entirely sorted out my thoughts on that one, but I don’t like where they’re headed.

Bell Orchestre, midnight on 9 July at Club Soda: This seemed to be one of the obligatory non-jazz acts at an ostensibly jazz festival (sadly, I missed Estelle’s set, in which I can only hope she adjusted her central hit “American Boy” appropriately). These guys are perpetually compared to fellow Montreal rockers Arcade Fire even though they don’t really resemble them in anything other than ZIP code, if they even have those up there. The lineup indicated that something wild was about to go down: three horns, a dobro, an upright bass, a drummer, and an adorable little poppet of a violinist as a centerpiece, all of whom kicked off in lockstep on an excellent odd-time riff.

At times it was reminiscent, at least in spirit, of the Youngblood Brass Band — horns going where they just bloody well shouldn’t but working out anyway — but at the end of the day these guys are really unlike anything I might try to compare them to, and one of the most ambitious groups I’ve heard in a very long time, building constructions more complicated in both arrangement and textural depth than the primitive instrumentation should realistically be expected to support. All sat in rapt attention when the sax player started feeding his parts through what I believe was a delay line and a filter circuit, playing new parts along with whatever he just did two bars ago in one of the craziest warpings of a solo instrument I’ve ever heard. Eventually, I realized why it fit the festival: it’s just as engaging for fans of Bitches Brew and the Flecktones as for the peripheral Arcade Fire kids.

George Wein, 10 July at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe: The man responsible for the Newport festivals — both folk and jazz, mind you — is himself a musician, but he seemed a little uncomfortable in the spotlight, graciously complimenting everyone else in sight and also refusing to be photographed without his hat. Bassist Peter Washington was a towering presence both literally and musically and guitarist Howard Alden’s comping was at times innovative enough to draw my focus away from whoever was soloing at the time, but it was definitely drummer Lewis Nash who owned the room. He was a complete master of elasticity throughout, pushing and pulling from one bar to the next, borrowing beats as necessary to make sure he could fit in snare rolls with which he’d otherwise be having too much fun to stop in time for the next downbeat.

“I have the best seat in the house to see Lewis Nash play drums,” laughed Wein halfway through. He meant it; his own solos were entirely competent, even in this formidable company, but quite often he’d stop playing entirely, close his eyes, and just listen to the others. Several times I started to wonder whether he had fallen asleep, as Wein is 83. A lifetime of insider poaching of the crème de la crème de la crème from one of the most important jazz festivals in the world has left him with an absolutely astonishing band. It’s also probably why he’s bald, but there are ways around that.

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