Live Shots

Live Shots

Tomasz Stanko
Tomasz Stanko (Photo by Raoul Hernandez)

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 30–July 3

Last year in this corresponding issue, yours truly advocated against traveling for music, the argument being that whether it's Moby Grape at South by Southwest 2010, the Eagles flying in for Austin City Limits this October, or even Hall & Oates' purple rain at the Long Center, all roadshows eventually lead to Austin. All shows that is, except for maybe John Zorn's Masada Marathon. And NYC's Bonnie & Clyde, Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson – in trio with Zorn. Polish trumpet behemoth Tomasz Stanko won't be crisping Emo's anytime soon either.

Beginning June 25 with Lone Star soul man Boz Scaggs, hip-hop's MC blueprint Gil Scott-Heron, and the Commodore himself, Lionel Richie, guesting Mississippi goddamn Cassandra Wilson and continuing with 2009 Bass Concert Hall deconstructionist Sonny Rollins, One World Theatre historical marker Herbie Hancock, and 2010 SXSW keynote speaker and Austin Music Hall revuer Smokey Robinson, not to mention Eric Burdon & the Animals, Ben E. King, and Dave Brubeck (2006 Paramount Theatre marvel), the Montreal Jazz Festival was in full swing by the time Parisian beat-keeper Manu Katché played opposite Bobby McFerrin last Wednesday night.

In soccerese, World Cup parlance, Katché's beautiful game on new ECM brand Third Round rains a quiet storm of tropical spaciousness, meditation, the session leader's late-night minimalism whispering in low tones on Fender Rhodes piano, guitar, and saxophone, one at a time, one on one. ECM's pin-drop manifesto pulses a 1970s West Coast world beat in Katché. For Montreal, in a trio avec Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona and French guitar hero Sylvain Luc, the drummer kept time behind his comrades' interplay on opener "Tequila" and later under the latter's watery Gretsch tones, wherein Katché began hitting his kit forcefully. Taut of person, in his hat and Cuban revolutionary pants, Katché could have been best man at another Manu's wedding – Manu Chao. Cookin' into the 80th minute with the Brazilian-lilted encore, the trio earned its standing ovation on the QT.

The Roots packed Metropolis several blocks down Rue Sainte-Catherine East like they were on television. ?uestlove's Afro bloomed half Buddy Miles, half Grand Canyon part – all ?uestlove, ultimately – and the standing-room-only throng fell into the Philly septet's funk abyss boisterously, though Jimmy Fallon's crew, despite Apollo-esque choreography and freeze-frame tuba bounce, could use more of "The Seed 2.0" in their set. Dave Douglas & Keystone back down at Katché's church, Gesù, scored instead for the big screen on Spark of Being, cinematic soundtrack to filmmaker Bill Morrison's "rumination on the dialogue between humanity and technology," including mother of Frankenstein Mary Shelley. Douglas led a sextet that opened moody, filling emotional gaps with synthetic tech – a DJ offstage – bordering on Frenchman Erik Truffaz's laptop accident in the same venue last year. Marcus Strickland's warm-blooded sax put the electrodes to Douglas, who soon pushed forth Promethean currents on his silver trumpet. The two horns plied a thick and thorny front met by Fender Rhodes scholar Adam Benjamin and the rhythm section's swarm of locusts. Second encore "Fatty Arbuckle's Plucky Pup" barked loose and fun.

Zorn's first trumpet didn't appear in the Masada Marathon until the last set of the first show on Thursday, and when he did, Douglas' Brooklyn Cyclones shirt stamped his performance as he and Zorn stood stage front blowing their horns, the two longtime collaborators looking like graduate school pledge brothers shotgunning post-bop rather than brew. By that point ringmaster Zorn had already thrown everything but Guns n' Roses at Montreal. As a small, lone poster in the city's downtown jazz quadrangle exclaimed among the mad festival bustle, Zornumental!

You can't quite imagine.

NYC's fair-haired wunderkind still, even after four jam-packed decades of outside, inside, sideways musicality, much of it modern jazz, Zorn staged 10 mini sets from what he as master of ceremonies called the "Masada family" over two separate performances, one at 6pm, the second at 9:30pm. Two or three of those individual configurations could've handled all four hours and 20 minutes – divided precisely into two 130-minute spectacles – but the parade of acts marshaled on and off Montreal's opera house stage by field commander Zorn in his camouflage Army pants proved as genuinely ambitious as the human puzzle pieces who followed their bandleader with impromptu precision, good humor, and obvious pride.

Live Shots

During the Arabian Nights open sesame of Zorn's Bar Kokhba sextet, guitar genius Marc Ribot, percussion bordello Cyro Baptista, and the Masada big top's sweet-faced clown, drum dynamo Joey Baron, clustered close to conductor Zorn – across from the string trio of cello, violin, and double bass. Baptista's wide-eyed conga response over his red spectacles to Zorn wiggling his fingers at him while nodding to Baron's Turkish delight thrilled same as Ribot's crown of gray hair and own red bifocals bent down over his red hollow body, proverbial runaway train. Every time Zorn loosed Ribot like a Greyhound race, the maestro sitting at the copy stand next to him would then have to tap the guitarist on the knee to rein him back in to the tightly arranged program. Ribot looked bewildered the first time it happened. By the evening's final set, a Zorn-led septet of double drums, bass, keyboards, laptop, Baptista, and Ribot – P.T. Barnum leading from his acid alto sax – the guitarist came up beaming every time Zorn grazed his knee, the whole Broadway stage production by this point obviously a massive whole next to the axe murderer's individual veins of hellhound blues noir.

Following cellist Erik Friedlander solo, violinist Mark Feldman and piano whisperer Sylvie Courvoisier, "the great Uri Caine" alone on the 88s, the Masada String Trio, and finally, again, Marc Ribot on Taser, the last Marathon set lit up on Zorn's fiery alto checking off into the stringer's burning bed of coals. All aimed for the greatest show on jazz turf, and damned if they didn't blow the toupee off any and all expectations. At the last, elephantine hummers began on 10 with Zorn's brass lash, and heavy metal liquefied at one end-of-the-night number best titled "T. Rex Massacre." Followed by prehistoric bird calls, bursts of metallic blue chaos, and an encore, John Zorn's Masada Marathon equaled a festival in and of itself.

Zorn proved similarly combustible the following evening – Friday – triangulating an improvisational controversy with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. "You won't see this again," Reed had announced at a festival press conference earlier that day, he and forever partner Anderson humoring international journalists in some cases (moi) flown in and put up by the 31-year-old Montreal cultural institution. "[The performance] will be 100 percent improvisational," he stressed. "This is not a 'set,' never has been, never will be. It's not in any known key."

That, of course, was the issue for an inflammatory and extremely vocal rogue portion of the audience in the annual jazz convergence's main hall. Anderson manning a small, electronic console and matching violin; Zorn standing in the middle with his alto, one leg up on a chair; and Reed seated at a bank of gadgets as backed by a row of electric guitars made it through a 20-minute opening blast-off, the fiddler a symphony in one, the saxophonist an orchestra brass section all by his lonesome, and the guitarist corroding moan and reverb. Their church music of the damned – cut with a Moroccan drone – gave way to a second number of skronk (Reed) and squeal (Zorn), Anderson a sonic dive-bomber in slo-mo, while Horatio Hornblower approximated killing a chicken over the guitarist's six-string thunderclaps. That's when a bomb siren of boos went up and patrons by the dozen stormed the exits, one malcontent shouting, "Play some music!"

"If you don't think that's music," shouted Zorn, "get the fuck out of here!"

Reed put up his guitar as Anderson began sawing a Grecian drama to meet Zorn's screech, which at fever pitch was an entire Amazon jungle in brass. Reed's electro cacophony squalled industrialization. When they finished, their shouting-down escalated in violence, hecklers who had left coming back into the hall to bellow some more. This time the cheers rose to meet them, and the threesome's gloriously metal machine music – as channeled through Zorn's lightning-rod sax – proceeded free and apace for another 45 minutes. Seldom do musicians of such caliber step off the performance ledge and allow a ballroom-type audience to participate in the resultant free fall. Houston pianist and part-time comedian Robert Glasper, with guest trumpet Terence Blanchard, put on a far more traditional duet beforehand, while Ahmad Jamal's piano trio with added percussionist pulled off an assured, entirely pleasing demonstration of old-school festival theatrics afterward.

Ditto for ECM backbone Keith Jarrett on Saturday. The pianist's bedrock triumvirate, co-starring bassist Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, took their sweet time over two sets totaling 100 minutes to luxuriate in the all-out splendor of plush velvet grand piano, the leader's face either practically resting on his hands' keyboard ballet, or the 65-year-old inner science titan standing over his raft of melody coaxing deep thought and romance. Only Jarrett's sour grapes at seeing a camera flash on the trio's third encore bow and his subsequent disallowing of any further audience hypnotics tarnished his trio wizardry.

Polish journeyman trumpet and fellow ECM mainstay Tomasz Stanko boasted another four decades of expertise in his hour-and-a-half Saturday headline set, which introduced his new quintet. Stanko's four young backers look more like bookish indie rockers than jazz backing, particularly guitar virtuoso Jakob Bro and Anders Christensen on sleeper hold electric bass, but the half-Finnish, half-Danish foursome's sonorous soloing left only awe, not a shred of doubt. If anything, it's Stanko who hadn't quite integrated his distressed post-Miles horn luminescence into his cutting-edge quintet – live, as opposed to the band's new Dark Eyes disc – though the elfin Pole's trademark trumpet smear mussed an enthralled Gesù sit-in, the venue's standing ovation waiting patiently.

"Many critics write about my Slavic/Polish mood," acknowledged Stanko, leaning forward in the Hyatt bar hours earlier. "Mine is a melancholic mood – not sad, melancholic. Because music is not happy or sad. Music is abstraction. But it can have some kinds of those colors. We have a special light [in Poland], not dark, but gray. A lot of grays. This gray, when you open your eyes, it's the first light you see. You remember that forever."

Sunglasses at night, in Montreal: Mais oui.

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