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Montreal Jazz Fest

by Paul Rapp on July 6, 2011

So, here we go again to the Montreal Jazz Festival. The festival ran for 11 days, and I had four nights to cover it, so I grabbed a few days right in the middle of the schedule. Was this the best choice? Who cares?! The Montreal Jazz Festival is so well put together, so perfectly modulated, and so huge (800-plus concerts inside and out) that there can be no bad choices. I would imagine heaven to be like this, except here there’s better music and food.

Baloji. Photo by Paul Rapp.

Everybody makes snarky comments about the festival programming: A good chunk of what’s presented here ain’t jazz by any stretch. But that’s OK. Jazz today is a genre in severe distress, and if it takes booking Prince or the B-52s to get the numbers up, so be it.

As I mentioned last year, what’s so remarkable about this festival is that it’s so easy. Schedules are everywhere, food is everywhere, drink is everywhere. Shows run on time. There are multiple free shows going all the time on the six outdoor stages and premium shows happening in indoor venues large and small. Despite ongoing construction in and around the festival site and tons of people going every-which-a-way all the time, one can always get from one end of the festival to the other in about five minutes. And then there’s the city itself. You know what I’m sayin’ . . .

This festival will forever resonate for me as the place I discovered Trombone Shorty. How come nobody told me about this guy? Based on his name, I assumed he was a little old dude playing some NOLA second-line stuff on trombone. Ummm, wrong! Trombone Shorty, née Troy Andrews, is hands-down the most incredible individual performer I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a few.

I’d gone to this huge club to see Bootsy Collins and this killer young band comes out and starts laying down the funk. I thought they were dressed a little casually for a Bootsy band, but the sound was right. Then this tall skinny dude comes out waving a trombone and just starts wailing. He also rocked the trumpet. He sang his ass off. He channeled Marvin Gaye, then Louis Armstrong. Completely. His tunes were great. His band was great. Shorty was beyond charming, beyond cool. I was stunned and exhausted at the end of his set. Bootsy came out later and I left after the second song. I didn’t wanna hear it.

I felt like I was seeing someone totally game-changing just as he’s hitting full gallop. Like seeing Springsteen in 1976 or Prince in 1980. And I don’t use these parallels lightly. Go see Trombone Shorty soon, before he slicks up, slows down, or morphs into something else. He may not burn this bright forever.

What else? Marc Ribot’s Caged Funk, who ostensibly played funk versions of John Cage tunes with an all-star band including Bernie Worrell and DJ Logic, were underrehearsed and frustrating. A video posted online of this performance reminded me of those hysterical “Shreds” YouTube videos. Ouch.

Fly, the post-bop trio of saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, cruised with ideas and spark. Ballard is a revelation. International popster Keren Ann was great but needed a drummer, and her opening act Chris Garneau is a budding superstar in the Antony/Rufus Wainwright mold. Very special. Galactic were uneven but mostly mighty, big and bouncy on the huge outdoor stage; Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover helped out on a mind-bending cover of Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.” Oh yeah.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, an 18-piece chamber orchestra, played beautiful and elegant music studded with modern classical references. Montreal roots-rockers Buddy McNeil and the Magic Mirrors played remarkably smart and raw ’50s-’60s garage rock a la the Cramps or our Knyghts of Fuzz. Watching the jazz festival crowd not get them at all was hysterical. The waitresses were all dancing, though.

Montreal pan-Latino group the Roberto Lopez Project were more fun and plugged-in to the source than any Canadian pan-Latino group have a right to be. Lee Fields and the Expressions demonstrated the limits of the Brooklyn neo-soul revival. Not happening.

Wait, there’s more! Apex, featuring alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green, were a study in contrasting virtuosic styles, although hyperactive drummer Damion Reid’s overplaying was distracting. Bluesman Lucky Peterson seemed more intent on weird buffoonery than playing music.

Congolese-Belgian singer Baloji led an arrestingly heavy group that had the grooves of Fela and the attitude of the Clash. Really, very cool. New York heavies La Excelencia failed to create the requisite spark on the big outdoor stage. They might have played the best set of dancehall salsa I’ve ever seen, but a stadium show was called for.

And Peter Frampton performing Frampton Comes Alive on its 35th anniversary was just absolutely fantastic. Shut up.

You can read a ludicrously detailed account of my time at the festival and see lots o’ pics at my blog rapponthis.blog spot.com.