By Mitch Myers
Let me tell you something, no matter where one goes in the world, people love HIGH TIMES! On my latest swing through summer jazz festivals in North America and Europe I’ve found that nothing brings a smile to people’s faces faster than telling them I’m covering all of these cool cultural experiences for HT.
My long strange trip to Montreal and then to Copenhagen for their 32nd and 33rd annual jazz festivals, respectively, was a bohemian music lover’s dream.
I wasn’t in Canada for more than two hours before my good buddy came to the hotel – White Rhino in hand – and it was off to the races. I was pretty baked for ten straight days and spent more than half of my time in Montreal hanging out at one performance venue – the intimate and acoustically luscious Gesù. It was there that I got into the most progressive jazz performances including those of Brad Mehldau, Don Byron, David Binney, Cyrus Chestnut, Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green, Christian McBride, and many others. Meanwhile, the big bad Métropolis was my favored destination for rock and funk gigs, which would include shows by Bootsy Collins, The Roots, and my first late-night gig, Prince with his NPG band and saxophonist Maceo Parker. Prince did plenty of his old favorites like “D.S.M.R.” and “Controversy” as well as cool covers like Chic’s “Le Freak” and even Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” Prince played his tail off for nearly four hours, and then did it again the next night just for good measure.
The Montreal festival isn’t strictly a jazz scene, but rather a massive, ten-day, outdoor/indoor free/ticketed celebration that includes all sorts of music from all over the world and ultimately showcased more than 3,000 artists to hundreds of thousands of spectators. There was a fair amount of New York talent involved, including ace guitarist Marc Ribot, who played three nights at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe with three different bands as part of the festival’s Invitation Series. Ribot’s angular-sounding power trio Ceramic Dog was cool, performing offbeat versions of Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” The following night, Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos played music of the conjunto and son montuno. Although that band was under-rehearsed, their edgy Cuban rhythms were still mucho caliente. Ribot scored best on his third gig with the Caged Funk ensemble (even though many folks walked out). Mixing the oddly calibrated music of John Cage with a grinding funk undertow and featuring an electric band that included Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell and DJ Logic, Ribot played his discordant guitar style with loads of energy and fierce concentration.
Pianist Brad Mehldau has been a Montreal favorite for years, and his solo set at the Gesù was pretty remarkable and very well received. Mehldau’s melodic left-brain/right-brain conversations included keen original material and mesmerizing covers of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Mehldau showed up again the following night, playing duets with his longtime friend Joshua Redman at the large and imposing Théâtre Maisonneuve. Once again, Mehldau was extremely impressive, as was saxophonist Redman, and their intuitive musical dialogue was something to both observe and enjoy.
I have to say that New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty put on one of the best gigs of the week opening for Bootsy Collins, and it was too bad he only had one hour to do so. Funky and rollicking with awesome musicianship, Shorty and his band charmed the Métropolis crowd with ease. Shorty used some impressive circular breathing to play one long single note for almost two-dozen choruses during his amazing version of Louis Armstrong’s “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” The whole show was up for grabs, but when some of Bootsy’s band came out and Trombone Shorty shifted over to play drums on “Tear The Roof Off The Sucker,” all bets were off.
After Shorty’s set, Bootsy Collins was almost a letdown. Bootsy’s touring group has almost as many veteran Parliament-Funkadelic members as George Clinton’s current band, including Bernie Worrell, guitarist Dwayne “Blackbird” McKnight and drummer Frankie “Kash” Waddy. They played a killing version of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” with McKnight just burning it up with his relentless Hendrix-styled guitar playing. But Bootsy kept leaving the stage for long periods of time, and he lost a lot of the audience who’d peaked earlier with Trombone Shorty. Still, Bootsy did wander through the crowd for a while and played some great “space bass” on the classic slow jam, “Munchies For Your Love.”
There was such a wide range of intriguing shows that it was often hard to choose where to go. One night we ran straight from watching the 75-year-old Wanda Jackson kick rockabilly ass at Club Soda to another mob scene at the Métropolis to see The Roots blaze through a short, intense set of rock-hard funk that included covers of “Jungle Boogie,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle.” The band quit early since drummer ?uestlove was DJing across town, but the Montreal crowd didn’t seem to mind, and appeared quite satisfied with The Roots music that they got.
Other heavy jazz shows included three nights of world-class bassist Dave Holland doing his own Invitation Series, and another great Gesù gig with the trio of sax-man Mark Turner, drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier – better known as Fly. Ballard and Grenadier are also the rhythm section of the Brad Mehldau Trio, but in this group with Mark Turner they perform more as cooperative equals. The balance of melody and rhythm shifted from player to player, and their Fly sound couldn’t have been more instinctive or satisfying.
Besides all that, I was pretty knocked out by the lovely singer-songwriter Keren Ann accompanied by Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and thoroughly enjoyed veteran vocalist Marianne Faithfull singing old favorites and songs from her new album, Horses and High Heels. Finally, I have to give a nod to Montreal’s Nomadic Massive, a multicultural hip-hop positivity crew with grooving rhythms from Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. Rapping and singing in English, Spanish, French, Creole and Arabic, they played four nights in a row at the festival to great effect. Ultimately, the Montreal crowds were all loose and swinging, and I have to admit that these fine people to the North really do know how to throw a party.
The transition from Montreal to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival went fairly smoothly since the citywide event was already in full swing upon my arrival. Apparently, the folks in Denmark spend more cash on jazz music per capita than anywhere else in the world. Maybe that’s because it is so darn expensive there, but they certainly do love their jazz in any case. The festival had survived some severe flooding earlier in the week, but everything was back to normal by the time I got there. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival was more “traditional” than the Montreal event, but there was still plenty of variety.
My first taste of the fest was at the outdoor venue, Jazz By The Sea, featuring our old friends Medeski Martin & Wood performing along with jazz-fusion vets saxophonist Bill Evans and trumpeter Randy Brecker. The boys were funky, to be sure, and with the sun setting over the buildings and a cool summer breeze, I couldn’t have felt more at home. That same evening, I wandered down some cobblestone streets to the Jazzhouse and caught the Charles Lloyd Quartet. Mr. Lloyd plays saxophone in the style of the late John Coltrane, and he has become a grand elder statesman of jazz with a grand spiritual bent. Accompanied by pianist Jason Moran, bassist Rueben Rogers and badass drummer Eric Harland, Lloyd opened his show with a silent prayer and closed with an adapted meditation taken from the Bhagavad Gita. The band got into a real intense groove and sounded great!
This festival had a true international feel where Danish musicians easily mixed with European and American players. Pianist Kenny Werner led a band with NY trumpeter Dave Douglas and Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel that was top-notch, while German pianist Michael Wollny jammed with Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard and some other talented Danes. Danish guitar hero Pierre Dørge’s trio jammed alongside a local poet that I couldn’t understand, but their show was amazing nonetheless.
Legendary free-jazz percussionist Andrew Cyrille played in a variety of combinations while in town, but the highlight was his solo drum show that felt like a master class in the history of jazz drumming. Cyrille gave props to everyone from Kenny Clarke to Art Blakey, and drummer Adam Nussbaum got down on his knees afterward in an “I’m-not-worthy” gesture. The Keith Jarrett Trio was the most highly anticipated show of the week, and after an erratic first set and some trademark fussiness from Jarrett, the band finally got it together for some brilliant interpretations of jazz standards like “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
But don’t think it was all jazz and no play – I also hung out with some young Danes and Englishmen and caught a tremendous midnight set by DJ Krush (from Japan), who sampled everything from DJ Shadow to Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.” And finally, I have to recommend one visit to the legendary jazz club, the Café Montmartre, where American jazz expatriates like Dexter Gordon used to party. The place contains loads of history, and after decades the club has finally moved back to its original locale. It was there that I saw veteran saxophonist Charles McPherson perform a tribute to Charlie Parker – a perfect way to end my jazz sojourn before returning home.