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Montreal Jazz Festival soars to new heights

Goldmine reports from 2017's Montreal Jazz Festival where King Crimson, Ron Sexsmith, Tigran Hamasyan and others made the event magical.

By Lee Zimmerman
Photos by Alisa B. Cherry

Montreal is amazing. The closest thing to a European metropolis in the whole of North America — Quebec aside — it’s the ideal setting for the Festival International De Jazz De Montreal, easily one of the most amazing and diverse festivals of its kind in the western hemisphere. Now in its 38th year, it’s a stirling showcase for world class music, a grouping of musicians that’s consistently eclectic and of a calibre that’s rarely experienced elsewhere in the world. The singular line-ups featured each year provide enough incentive to lure even those that are less drawn to jazz in its strictest sense, but still revere the experimentation and innovation that the festival’s roster has to offer.

Truth be told, the festival’s organizers are known to take certain liberties with the form. Granted, there are the much deserved kudos accorded artists of a certain stature, including this year’s recipients, Charles Musselwhite and Jack DeJohnette — the former a four-time winner of the prestigious B.B. King Award, and the latter who played the festival as part of his new quartet, Hudson, a group that also includes John Scofield, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier. Indeed, it’s one of the wonderful things about this gathering, the fact that it provides such a clear link from past to present and, by implication, also to the future. Experimentation that’s both adventurous and enticing provides its ultimate attraction.

In his own way, Bob Dylan affirmed that stoic connection. Although he wasn’t part of the official line-up, his performance midway through the festival offered an opportunity to salute a revered heritage that was intermingled with material that once pointed the way forward. Given Dylan’s recent fascination with Sinatra standards and the music so essential to the great American songbook, his performance offered another view of the ties between the classic and contemporary. While Dylan’s concerts often seem rote — there’s no acknowledgement of the audience and he mostly seems interested in getting on and getting off as efficiently as possible — his reverent renditions of “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic” and “Autumn Leaves” fit well with more extemporaneous readings of such catalog offerings as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” the latter of which was tangled up practically beyond recognition. Though the first song, “Things Have Changed,” started out a bit ragged, Dylan was in good voice throughout and his piano playing revealed a vibrancy and distinction that hadn’t been evidenced for several years.

The series of shows we attended the next day illustrated a more diverse dichotomy. It began calmly enough with a performance by the Bad Plus, a melodic jazz trio that supplemented their sets throughout the festival with an array of musical guests. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel appeared on the evening we attended, adding a sooting sound to the group’s otherwise extemporaneous improvisation. At times the music came across as a bit too sedate, but after a day filled with an onslaught of sensory suggestion — there is, after all, no shortage of sights and sounds along the Rue Sainte Catherine — a mellower mood wasn’t unappreciated.

As it turned out, it was best to enjoyed while it lasted. Taking our seats in the grand auditorium of the Festival a la Maison Symphonique, we prepared to be enthralled by sounds befitting the sights accorded by this majestic setting. Consequently, we were startled to witness Colin Stetson’s otherworldly saxophone solos, sounds so strange, dissident and outwardly obtrusive that it was difficult to imagine where the music came from. With his sole accompaniment limited to sampling and aural effects, it was likely best appreciated by those who have the nerve — and the verve — to experience this extreme form of experimentation. Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan followed, restoring a sense of calm, but unable to assuage my senses and shake me out of my stupor.

Nevertheless, variety is the name of the game at the Montreal Jazz Festival and on our third day there, we experienced it all. Canada’s own Ron Sexsmith set the standard that evening, showcasing songs of such a mellow and melodic variety that it’s a wonder that after nearly 30 years, his cascading choruses, willowy melodies and wistful reflection haven’t found a bigger — and more enthusiastic audience.

Sexsmith had played the festival before, and he gives the promoters credit for booking him in the first place. “I’m not a guaranteed draw,” he insisted, displaying his customary modesty. “I never know who will come. I used to play the cabaret and only 20 people would show up. Then for whatever reason, the next time it would be sold out.”

Speaking prior to his show that evening, Sexsmith shared a populist view of what makes Montreal and other festivals of a similar stature successful. “A lot of these jazz festivals can’t just have pure jazz,” he mused. “They have to have a whole range of things just to get people out. It’s weird that they’d call us, but ultimately it’s just a big music festival with a great reputation.”

Sexsmith suggested that taking part in the festival does allow him opportunity to expand his audience. “There always seems to be a bit of an older crowd here, people who are really into music,” he reflected. “It’s an audience that obviously leans towards the kind of music I make. But because it’s a music festival and the fact that I have been around for awhile and maybe have more of a reputation, there probably will be some curious people that check me out.

Sexsmith also acknowledged that there’s a certain amount of jazz in his DNA. “All my favorite singers were people like Bing Crosby, who was the first white guy to really swing around the same time as Louis Armstrong. I always loved Nat King Cole and Chet Baker. Even in some of the songs I write, I can slip into that style. One of my favorite lyricists was Johnny Mercer and sometimes I find myself writing in that way, like a standards sort of thing. I write songs with a conversational sort of style, and that’s what they used to do.”

If Sexsmith was reflecting on archival intentions, then our next performance of the night — an orchestral performance accompanying a showing of “La La Land” brought back memories of an even earlier era, when piano players were employed to provide music to accompany silent movies. In this case, the live symphonic sounds meshed perfectly with the musical segments on screen, adding to the film’s charm and making for a unique experience involving both sights and sounds.

Still, nothing underscored the diversity and drama more than our final concert of the night, a performance by Men Without Hats. While most of the members of the band are relatively new — and all without hats it might be noted -- at age 59, original singer Ivan Doroschuk remains at the helm, his distinctive baritone as effusive as ever, with dance moves that are equally as agile. Not surprisingly, their major hit “Safety Dance” was placed prominently in the set, twice at the beginning due to a false start caused by some technical turmoil, and then later as the final offering prior to the band’s encore. And while much of the material took a similar stance, it was nostalgic in a way to relive the sounds of the ‘80s, when new wave was still new and electronica was truly inventive.

On our final evening at the festival, we were witness to the concert that inevitably proved to be its highlight. King Crimson isn’t part and parcel of the psychedelic ‘60s anymore, but the band’s penchant for progressive music hasn’t diminished either. Still, it would take a score card to keep track of all the members that have come and gone in the nearly 50 years since their start. The current line-up features three drummers across the front of the stage, all so in synch that when one finishes a flourish, another picks it up before passing the duties to the third. There’s nothing superfluous or indicative of excess. Even when all three play at once, each is adding a syncopated rhythm by using different parts of their kits. With founding member Robert Fripp’s unique guitar style and occasional efforts on keys, returning member Mel Collins adding sax and flute, and singer/guitarist Jakko Jaksyk proving himself a worthy successor to former singers Greg Lake and John Wetton, the eight man ensemble was nothing short of spectacular. The blend of mood, melody, ambiance and atmosphere dazzled the audience, which responded with frequent standing ovations. The end of the performance rewarded the faithful with electrifying versions of “Court of the Crimson King, a soaring take on David Bowie’s “Heroes” and a stunning “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a song that now seems more appropriate than ever.

Collins and Jaksyk agreed to sit down for an interview earlier that afternoon prior to a press conference, and both conceded that this was their first time playing the festival although they did allow that it was a good fit. “We did once get very progressive in a jazz way,” said Collins, who originally made his bow as part of the early ‘70s line-up.

“There’s a harmonic thing that’s in the older stuff that’s still in the newer stuff,” Jaksyk noted. “Some of it sounds wildly different, but there’s still a harmonic glue that holds it all together.”

It was Jaksyk’s experience as youngster seeing Crimson in concert during during the time that Collins was with the band which made him realize that making music in that particular way ought to be in his future. “I came away feeling somewhat he changed,” he recalls. “I came away convinced that I wanted to do something like that. It made me want to be a musician. It had that kind of effect. But the idea of working with some of those guys and ending up in the band seemed so preposterous. So to find myself up on stage with Mel and Robert makes it all the more special to me.”

For Collins, it was a 40 year absence between his initial stint and his decision to rejoin in 2013. “It was quite an eye opener when we first put Crimson to bed,” he remarks. “I didn’t think about them. I wasn’t interested.” He eased his way back in courtesy of a Crimson covers band called, appropriately, the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a group consisting entirely of ex members aside from Fripp himself.

“Robert phoned me up and asked me how it was going, and I said ‘horribly in fact,’” Collins complains. “It’s been three of my most miserable weeks as a musician. He said, ‘Yes, I can imagine.’ We were dealing with all the reasons the band split up in the first place, all the same characters. All the same things were happening again. Robert actually apologized to me for all the mean things he had said to me, which at that time had been 30 years before. That was very nice because it did heal things. We had not such a nice time before I left. Robert’s changed and he’s a different man.”

An initial outing by Fripp, Jaksyk and Collins eventually led into a formal reincarnation of the Crimson brand.

Fripp’s initial reluctance to go out on tour eventually gave way to the band being busier than ever in the past five years, and indeed, the consistent roadwork bore fruit that night in Montreal.

Suffice it to say, it’s that kind of occurrence which indeed makes Montreal so magical.