Montreal International Jazz Festival
By Crystal Chan
June 27 – Jazz fests are diversifying their programs, and on opening night, Janelle Monáe was one of Montreal's not-really-jazz performers this year. But in some alternate universe, she's a jazz singer She has the voice, musicality, lack of shyness or hesitation about doing the new and unexpected. In any case, her chosen style, a blend of soul and funk sprinkled with influences from Debussy to Chaplin, allows her to showcase considerable dancing chops. Her ten-piece band played a mix of danceable hits from her 2010 debut album, The ArchAndroid. Covers included Smile, a Nat King Cole favourite, as well as a James Bond theme and songs by The Jackson Five and Prince. She also sang two yet-to-be released songs: "Electric Lady" and—introducing it as "a jazz song"—"Dorothy Dandridge Eyes," a ballad with bluesy lyrics that breaks out into infections, jazz drum shuffle driven sequences. After coming back on stage for her encore, she ended the night with a long, audience-participatory rendition of "Come Alive." A natural entertainer.
June 29 - The crowd was rowdy, excited. Wayne Shorter's appearance on stage set off seemingly unstoppable yells and whistles. Would we even let them get started? Then, we were off. Pianist Danilo Perez played a soft, lilting downward chromatic line and it was remarkable: the rest of the show, the audience was as if in a trance, mesmerized and hushed. This was a show with just a few interjections and little applause, a concentrated set of long pieces (the first was half an hour long) that flowed from one idea to the next so seamlessly that there was even scarce applause for solos. Anyway, it was hard to tell what was solo and what was not. The musicians shuffled through sheet music before each song, but they barely looked at the papers. It all seemed like free group improv. John Patitucci was never without a wide smile, half-dancing around his bass. Brian Blade is an energetic drummer who led the crescendos of upwards progressions that marked the climaxes of each piece. And Shorter is, as expected, a commanding leader. When the saxophonist played, his cutting sound always steered the music towards a different course. Still, he spent a lot of his time just leaning on the piano and carefully listening, signalling to the others with playful, elaborate hand gestures that often got appreciative chuckles. The audience also ate up to the musical comedy of some unusual sounds in "Plaza Real." Perez opens the tune by crunching his water bottle, then gargling. Shorter whistles the tune. He also loved the trick of taking a breath, putting his sax to his lips, and… putting it down, sending a sly grin to the audience. When you're the jazz world's most revered living bandleader, you can play music with a sense of childlike humour. The trick got us every time.
July 2 (runs until July 7) - Having portrayed Billie Holiday, Valaida Snow, and Ma Rainey on stage, Miche Braden's lead role in Angelo Parra's The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith: The Devil's Music sees her tackle "the empress of the blues." The cabaret musical also features Aaron Graves on piano, Jim Hankins on bass, and Keith Loftis on saxophone. Catapulting to fame in the 1920s, Smith was signed to Columbia and became the highest paid black entertainer. A hard drinker with an anger problem, she also suffered from abusive (often mutually so) romantic relationships and was not only a black woman in business but bisexual. Life wasn't easy. Braden tells her story through an unfortunately encyclopedic monologue written by Parra. It's the evening before her death by car accident, and Smith's tipsily telling her life story. The narrative is forced. Every time she refers to death, Smith dramatically suffers a premonitory headache. But Braden and her band make up for the script with ample showmanship. Braden has a big voice and spirit and is a wiz when it comes to getting the audience clapping and singing along.
July 2 – It's a big understatement to say that Miles Davis influenced a lot of people. But there are none more in debt today than musicians he fostered and mentored at the beginning of their careers. Miles Smiles showcased several of those in an electrifying jazz fusion set. As the concert mainly consisted of rotating solos, with little in the way of choruses, we got a taste of the individual styles of trumpet player Wallace Roney, a reincarnation of Davis himself complete with shades, saxophonist Bill Evans, a soloist great with unconventional scales and lines, fast-fingered organist Joey DeFrancesco, and hard-grooving guitarist Larry Coryell. Behind them was a solid rhythm duo with bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Omar Hakim. No solos for them until the end. For those that missed Davis's appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival in the eighties, this was as good an approximation as we're bound to get.