Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

Live Shot

Lenny Cohen
"Lenny" Cohen (Photo by Denis Alix for Festival International De Jazz de Montréal)

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 25-29 (and continuing through July 6)

"I was born like this," sang Leonard Cohen with a shrug. "I had no choice. I was born with a golden voice." A May-to-December voice, from the man for all seasons: oracle of Eros. Over the course of nearly three hours, Cohen's third and final sold-out "prelude" opened the 29th edition of Montreal's Festival International de Jazz in a manner summer rock festivals couldn't possibly match. Bob Dylan – if you could ever understand a single bon mot live – remains rock & roll's bard, but Lenny ("you can't call him that," admonished one woman of a certain age to her senior) still hums Byron.

"I'm so grateful to be here and be from here," bowed the 73-year-old Montreal native, saying the last time he'd played his hometown he was merely a 60-year-old "kid with a crazy dream." Every antidepressant known to man, taken by Cohen during those years, couldn't keep "cheerfulness from breaking through," and if his 32-city world tour includes not one single U.S. venue in the coming months, it's not due to his dour repute. Last Wednesday evening in Montreal couldn't have honored a more cheerful performer.

Bounding onstage to a band conducted by Austinite Roscoe Beck and the bassist's local drummer, Rafael Gayol, Cohen shadowboxed his songs of love and nudity ("so many people you had to meet ... without your clothes"). Hunched forward, hat down low, hands cupping the mic – often crouching at the foot of the guitarist – his whole wiry frame delivered The Essential Leonard Cohen: "Bird on a Wire," "Everybody Knows," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," "Sisters of Mercy," "Famous Blue Raincoat," even "Suzanne." Cohen delivered "Hallelujah" like a rooster, head held high. "I'm Your Man" ("if you want a doctor, I'll examine every precious inch of your body") opened like a "lily in the heat." "A Thousand Kisses Deep" and Cohen's adaptation of Lorca, "Take This Waltz," ended the second set before a third hour of encores, including "So Long, Marianne," "First We Take Manhattan," "Closing Time," and "Whither Thou Goest."

Hank Jones (r) and Montreal Jazz Fest Artistic Director André Ménard
Hank Jones (r) and Montreal Jazz Fest Artistic Director André Ménard (Photo by Raoul Hernandez)

"I love you always," swore Cohen in French one final time. "I'll never forget you."

Any notion that no mortal could top such a bienvenue went out the seventh-story window of my room at the Hyatt (airfare also expensed by the festival) on Thursday, the event's kickoff. A multitude of free outdoor stages and a dozen dream theatres for nighttime headliners cluster the self-contained Place des Arts plaza out front of the hotel. In one of the latter, Dee Dee Bridgewater climbed aboard the evening's unofficial caravan to Mali.

"This is still the best jazz festival around, is it not?" asked Memphis, Tenn.'s long-gone Parisian and now Vegas-dwelling diva. New York's annual JVC drool-a-thon and San Francisco's heavyweight genre contender might well cry foul, but Bridgewater argued the point. 2007's Grammy-nominated Red Earth, "A Malian Journey" authenticated live by native musicians, dug itself higher ground in the singer's 30-year discography and never more so than in Bridgewater recasting her own "Afro Blue" and covering Nina Simone's "Four Women." The disc's title track tapped a deep African groove, and "The Griots (Sakhodougou)," with its gutbucket blues, was crowned by a raucous encore of Eddie Harris funk-out "Compared to What."

There was indeed a griot going on just down Rue Sainte-Catherine, where West African traveling poet/musicians ("griots") Ibrahim "Vieux" Farka Touré and Salif Keita combined for three hours of feet-numbing tribalism. Touré, son of still-grieved-for Niafunké bluesman Ali Farka Touré, surely counted his father's spirit among the full madhouse rightfully frothing at his guitar séance. Imagine Curtis Mayfield caressing a National Steel guitar strung with high-tension wires while cranking the one-drop, prehistoric drone, and syncopated B-boy breakdowns, and you begin approaching his stinging, snaking stomp.

Keita, by contrast, whose lineage traces back to the founders of Mali, began his two-hour set shamanistic and stone-faced, flipping some unseen switch almost 20 minutes later wherein a whirlpool of Afro-pop opened like a black (w)hole. Nine master musicians lit the spotlight one entrancing solo after another, including the electric oud's Jimi Hendrix, culminating in Keita pulling a fiancé proposal out of the audience. By the end of the evening, half the stage front got yanked onstage, including Bridgewater backup Mamani Kéita, who got her start embellishing Salif's keening sermons.

Vieux Farka Touré
Vieux Farka Touré (Photo by Victor Diaz for Festival International De Jazz de Montréal)

Riding down the hotel elevator with an act scheduled to perform in 20 minutes can be somewhat alarming, but Saskatchewan Buffy Sainte-Marie couldn't have been warmer ("I haven't played Austin since the Sixties"). Working Native American chants into coffee-house activism, the spirited 67-year-old Cree has been covered by everyone from Donovan ("Universal Soldier") and Quicksilver Messenger Service ("Codine") to Barbra Streisand and Elvis ("Until It's Time for You to Go"). Her high vibrato beat material from the new Running for the Drum into shrill protest ("Working for the Government"), but vintage folksinger "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" struck pay dirt. Better still, it's not often one gets to see an Oscar-winner perform their 401(k) plan, here An Officer and a Gentleman theme song "Up Where We Belong."

Jazz finally rippled its 88 keys in the kindly personage of Mississippi-to-Detroit pianist Hank Jones, 90 on July 31 and owner of an industrial-strength handshake. (His brother of bash, Elvin, was known for rib-cracking bear hugs.) In a festival dedicated to late Canadian ivory trader Oscar Peterson ("He, like I, was a great follower of Art Tatum," noted Hank at a press conference earlier), jazz's remaining Jones sibling put on four collaborative concerts as a first-weekend grounding. Pianists Oliver Jones (no relation) and Brad Mehldau, bassist Charlie Haden, and Friday's duet with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano elicited shock and awe, 90 minutes here covering Charlie Parker ("Ornithology") and third Jones brother Thad ("Quiet Lady"). Two solo excursions, "The Very Thought of You" and "Oh! Look at Me Now," caressed Jones' deep, rich, life experience through a ruminative touch with an undercurrent of ragtime. Lovano wasn't the only one that couldn't believe his good fortune.

Time-slotted between the Brad Mehldau Trio and Cubanist Gonzalo Rubalcaba's quintet on Saturday, Al Green proved far more tolerable inside a Bass-like concert hall than at field hollers in New Orleans or Austin. His maddening habit of performing only a minute or two of greatest hits ("Tired of Being Alone") flies in the face of an amazingly preserved falsetto, especially given a 10-minute showstopper/set closer on the order of "Love and Happiness." His opener, meanwhile, baby-dreaded Georgian Lizz Wright, dusked more genuine than Corinne Bailey Rae, who guests on Green's new album, Lay It Down, and never more so than on opening and closing covers of Neil Young's "Old Man" and Led Zeppelin's "Thank You." French transplant Martha High & the Shaolin Temple Defenders, on the other hand, belted an alternate version of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' R&B, only led by Aretha Franklin instead of James Brown, for whom High sang.

Mehldau, though, metered out the cerebral inner science of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk to a packed, buzzing house, his few-note limber-up on the Star Trek theme hinting at his band's bold exploration of frontiers new and old. Monk's "Work" and "We See" bedeviled abstraction to the point of thoroughly modern 21st century programming reminiscent of Radiohead, who Mehldau covers. Elvis Costello's "Baby Plays Around," a dead ringer for "Someone to Watch Over Me," luxuriated in familiar classicism with a stunning extended solo from the young pianist.

By contrast, Rubalcaba continues moving away from the technical virtuosity of his earlier work and into a realm of unrestrained emotion. Looking like Billy Strayhorn, the Havana piano physicist's 90-minute set wound airtight tunes around a crack band, whose fiery passion ended in a flurry of interlocking call-and-response. Twenty-five years into his career, Rubalcaba only now uncorks a musical lush life all his own.

Fellow Havana smoker Roberto Fonseca went Rubalcaba one better Sunday, combining the volcanic force of Chucho Valdés with the grandfatherly affection of late Cuban holy man Rubén González. Arching his back while craning his neck skyward as solos moved from hurricanes to tropical depressions, the early-thirtysomething key master staged a musical bullfight, taunting drum dynamo Ramsés Rodriguez with red-cape comps then killing with artery-severing interludes as smooth as a sword through a Cuban sandwich. Woody Allen & His New Orleans Jazz Band naturally avoid such blood-and-guts displays, but the Woodman's Wild Man Blues brought the Chaplinesque Sleeper soundtrack to life on the seasoned bleat of his clarinet, eyes shut, chin on his chest, and singing to himself whenever the rest of his septet got their close-ups. The band's crescendos were anything but sleepy.

Tokyo sprite Satoko Fujii joked that being married to her duo's trumpet player Natsuki Tamura for 21 years means never rehearsing (despite some 50 albums over a dozen years in myriad configurations), but her rolling thunder at the piano and his noir streaks pelted avant-garde. Him: peeled brass legato. Her: string-scratching fortissimo. Together: futuristic lullabies for three-headed electric sheep, including "Spiral Staircase," which chased Bernard Herrmann down a Hitchcockian vortex. That left Sunday evening closers Hank Jones & Charlie Haden soft-shoeing it through a trio of rare Bird calls ("Charlie was the man!" exclaimed Jones), plus "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," from the duo's sacred 1995 prayer, Steal Away.

"Blue Monk" polished off two precious hours' worth of piano/bass Velcro, along with Haden's last words on witnessing a Parker-Jones summit in 1953 backwater Missouri and having his life irrevocably altered. Leonard Cohen's lyrics projected high on the Hyatt facade after Wednesday night's performance spoke to just such a momentous event: "You live your life as if it's real, a thousand kisses deep."

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