After a two-year absence, I was able to get back to the Montreal Jazz Festival. I was delirious with excitement, as my previous visits had been about the most fun I’ve ever had. This time things were considerably less awesome; I’ll spread the blame among me, the weather, and the festival itself.
First, I took work with me. Worky work. I had no choice, but even so that’s just stupid. Idiotic. Second, it was hot, searingly hot, and I don’t do hot well. (Perversely, these two things worked well together—it was too hot to do much but stay in my room and do work.) Third, for whatever reason, the festival didn’t provide me with press tickets to the small-venue shows, the shows where something resembling jazz was being performed, the shows that make, at least for me, the festival so special. So for the three nights I was there, I had tickets to a couple medium-sized shows, and the rest of the time was left to wander among the numerous outdoor stages in the lovely Place des Arts. Which would have been fine, really, except it was too damn hot.
Anyway, first stop, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion. Words can’t begin to describe what drummer Ginger Baker means to me, having had the Cream albums burned into my DNA during my formative years. If you’ve seen the excellent documentary Beware Of Mr. Baker, you know he’s had a singularly difficult life, is a complex person, arguably a complete prick, and not at all a well man. I saw him play at Iridium in New York City last year and was fearful he wouldn’t make it through the show. He whispered weakly into a microphone onces or twice, took an unscheduled break, and played OK, but without his signature power.
A different Mr. Baker roared into Montreal. He told jokes, he mugged, he spoke fondly of his excellent bandmates: the supremely tasty Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Alec Dankworth on bass, and the superb African percussionist Abass Dodoo. He laughed. Took me a while to realize it; I thought he was grimacing. Nope, Mr. Baker was having himself a time.
The show was, like most of Baker’s solo work, Afro-centric to the core, and featured a bunch of things off his brand new (and excellent) album Why? as well as Afroed-up versions of jazz standards by the likes of Wayne Shorter and Thelonius Monk. Baker played simply, but he played deadly. The crowd, which greeted him like a conquering hero at the start, was bonkers throughout. I’m so glad I saw this.
Night two, Sly and Robbie and Burning Spear at the mammoth club Metropolis, an old movie/vaudeville theater turned nightclub. I just wanted to see legendary drum/bass production duo Sly and Robbie, who have been, since the 1970s, Kingston, Jamaica’s Wrecking Crew and George Martin, responsible for zillions of hits for zillions of artists from reggae stars to No Doubt to Serge Gainsbourg. And they didn’t disappoint. Metropolis’ massive sound system was perfect for their sledge-hammer dub-wise grooves. Sly, wearing a gold-plated hard-hat, simply massacred his drums, playing from his shoulders, not his wrists. Early on he did a simple little snare fill, and when I realized he was mimicking a slightly out-of-time repeating echo, my mind was blown to smithereens. With a cool band (with a horn section), they could have done their thing all night, all week, in all its bass-dropping head-banging goodness. But then they introduced a singer, a tall, slick-looking Rasta fellow in a suit who ran around the stage trying to fire up the ladies and waiving his arms in the air like he didn’t care. I didn’t either. Nighty-night.
Night three started with a nervous and tentative female blues trio better left unmentioned. Then I moseyed over to the international stage to see Mokoomba. From Zimbabwe. From heaven, actually. Thirty seconds in and I was moving briskly toward the stage. There was nothing this band couldn’t do and do well; play, sing (all six of them), move (same). Singer Mathias Muzaza is one of the best pure singers and charismatic frontmen I’ve ever seen, sounding like Sam Cooke one minute, throat-singing multiple tones the next, then peeling off a perfect Steve Perry yowl the next. What do you say to a band who pound a reggaeton beat while the guitarist is copping Dickie Betts licks over the top? Mercy. Heat schmeat, I did something I almost never do. I danced.
‘Til next year Montreal. Please stay cool. Literally.