All That Jazz: A Night in Montreal

Steven J. Chandler


Jazz has a longstanding relationship with the French language and culture -- to the extent that some may say that the American and French jazz traditions are intertwined. Paris after WWII embraced the genre, welcoming throngs of American jazz musicians dissatisfied with the social and artistic climate of the States. For those musicians—particularly those of African-American descent—the appeal initially was the relative racial and social tolerance. Once established in Paris, the expatriates recognized a linguistic parallel between the French language and the language of jazz, uncovering a common depth in both. Today, the symbiosis between jazz and the French language is still prevalent and evidenced most prominently through the Montreal Jazz Festival. When it comes to jazz, the city of Montreal has the right to speak in absolutes. There’s no jazz festival in the French or English-speaking world that is its equal.


French is the official language of the city, but the most frequent language spoken in Montreal during the festival is North American English tinged with a delectable French accent—something akin to serving a hamburger in a brioche bun. Whether it’s French, English or a combination of the two, everything is translatable through the music. Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, George Benson and Joshua Redman, festival polyglots if you will, were among the headliners. Their energy extended beyond the performances. When the evening shows ended, festival goers poured out onto the Montreal streets. For the young, the music was like gasoline and compelled those in the mood to stretch the limits of the night. The bars, they say, close at 3:00 am, but there was no evidence of that.


On the night of June 29th, Wayne Shorter and Joshua Redman were scheduled concurrently. From all accounts, both shows were sold out. Shorter reportedly brought the house down. I can account for Redman’s show. His play elicited three calls for an encore and dashed any hope of rushing across the festival to catch the tail end of the Shorter performance, which started a half an hour later. Redman appreciated his audience’s allegiance (which he recognized may have simply been an inability to obtain Shorter tickets) and in gratitude played a goose-bump-inducing rendition of Shorter’s “Infant Eyes.”


Jazz in a concert hall? It’s a trend and can appear contrived and devoid of the spontaneity that’s the essence of jazz music. This was Redman’s challenge as he and his quartet performed at the Maison Symphonique de Montreal, an acoustically rewarding venue that on most dates is the home of Montreal’s acclaimed Symphony Orchestra. Backed with strings and performing from his latest release, Walking Shadows, Redman’s quartet made use of the acoustics by playing compositions that employed an orchestral landscape.


Measured for the most part but aggressive when appropriate, Redman’s play gave a shot of life to standards such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” With the latter, Redman, his quartet and the strings reached the fragile balance required to recite Strayhorn’s dark, instrumental poem. The tragic hero of Strayhorn’s composition is heard through Redman’s brooding saxophone play. There were notes of desperation and dissatisfaction, a slow, restless piece that reflected the “lush life” unattained.

Redman’s own compositions, such as “Let Me Down Easy,” exemplify the vocal quality of his style of play. Hardly abstract, his music spoke in defined forms, offering tangibility and the “lyrics” necessary to captivate a modern jazz audience. Redman was accompanied by Aaron Goldberg on piano, Greg Hutchinson on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, all accomplished soloist who collectively tempered the cinematic quality which strings can impart into a jazz performance. This live rendition of Redman’s latest album was far more organic than the studio version and played with less melodrama, less escapism. As a whole, the show was mature and sophisticated; but to Redman’s credit, despite the setting, he still managed to encourage the rougher, bluesier play of his bandmates. 


Later that night, pianist Jason Moran conjured the ghost of Fats Waller, his jazz piano hero, at the subterranean Theatre Jean-Duceppe. Donning a cartoonish Fats Waller papier-mâché head fully adorned with porkpie hat, cigarette and Waller’s characteristic grin, Moran’s multifarious presentation piece, entitled “Fats Waller Dance Party,” ambitiously explored the creative potential of jazz. Featuring the vocals of Meshell Ndegeocello, “Fats Waller Dance Party” re-envisioned Waller’s songbook as both concert and visual spectacle.


The show had its detractors. Those expecting a literal interpretation of Waller’s music were challenged by Moran’s jazz-hip-hop-house-funk-Motown-neo-soul approach to Waller’s music. As Ndegeocello implored the crowd during the first set to come on stage and join the band in dance, some took the opportunity to simply leave the theatre with their artistic xenophobia intact. Moran’s performance pointed so definitively toward the future of jazz that those unwilling to keep an open mind were left far behind.


Moran carefully dismantled Waller’s music and from the fragments recreated an utterly engaging sonic mutation. Hardly a direct study of Waller’s work, Moran’s performance piece is probably closer to a chapter in his own musical autobiography.  Throughout, the sounds and movements are pieced together in collage form, intermingling moments of discordance—for the purpose of juxtaposition—with moments of harmony—for sake of melody. Moran’s piano rhythms, Nedgocello’s soulful vocals, the crowd freely dancing in the background and a musical landscape that interchanged between disparate forms, repurposed not only the Waller songbook, but the role of the musician and the audience and the very concept of performance.

The homage to Waller’s music, however, was not lost in the spectacle. Technically proficient, Moran’s stride piano play delivered energetic renditions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “This Joint is Jumpin’.” Ndegeocello’s throaty voice added a soulful depth to lyrics conceptually simplistic. The most direct reference to Waller came from trumpeter and vocalist Leron Thomas. Singing the Hoagy Carmichael tune, “Two Sleepy People,” popularized by Waller, Thomas’ romantic rendition finally arrested a crowd buzzing from the show’s frenetic pace. Those who left initially would have certainly approved.


There were of course other nights and other shows in Montreal. To choose one night to characterize an entire festival may seem limiting. But this particular night gave the sense that jazz is moving forward, whether it be toward the concert hall or the museum space. Attending the preeminent jazz festival in the world is an opportunity to hear the legends of the genre. It’s also an opportunity to glimpse what jazz may have in store for us down the road. Redman touched upon it; Moran hit it directly on the head: jazz’s capacity for expressionism is bound by nothing save the limits it chooses to impose upon itself. 


Author Bio:
Steven Chandler is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Alberto Cabello Mayero (Flickr); Guillaume Laurent (Flickr); JDLasica (Flickr); painting on main page: Debra Hurd. 

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