LOVE JAZZ: To misquote the Stevie Wonder song, jazz is in need of love today. The great American music is going strong in certain quarters and parts of the world, and needs to be brought home, implanted in young (and old) ears and replanted in the soil from whence it sprang a century-plus ago. One way to reach fresh ears and demographics is to find ways to combine the intellectual depth of the music and the sheer joyous buzz and swing of the thing, combining the head and heart and groin, and the dazzling trumpeter Etienne Charles is one of those artists actively on the case. 30-year-old Charles, born in Trinidad and trained in both jazz and classical (at Juilliard, like Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis) and a commanding trumpeter and bandleader, is fast becoming a force to reckon with, both in critical camps and with audiences seeking modes of jazz both entertaining and enlightening on a deeper musical level.
Lucky for Santa Barbara, Charles’ band is on a westward ho tour at present, on the heels of his hot, tasty and Caribbean groove-spiced fourth album, Creole Soul, and they stop at SOhO on Sunday, in what promises to be the jazz feelgood (yet musicality-nurtured) live show of the summer in this town. Creole Soul, with original tunes mixed in with the stuff of Monk and Marley and others, has gotten its thumbs-up cred from the New York Times, NPR, the jazz charts, and regular music-loving folks. Be there, with an appetite for the good stuff.
MONTREAL CALLING AGAIN: Like clockwork, the international summer jazz festival calendar was launched happily into action in the miraculous example of an operation, the Montreal Jazz Festival, unveiling another potent, dense and varied program at the end of June/start of July. (It could be said that the summer festival season has, as the other bookend, the great Monterey Jazz Festival, coming the third weekend of September).
This year, in Montreal’s 34th annual, had a local angle in that one of its annual “Invitation series,” focusing on a single artist over multiple concerts, was Santa Barbara’s own Charles Lloyd, the tenor saxist who turned 75 in March and is and being toasted the world over. Later in the festival, the “Invitation” artist of choice was the fascinating pianist Vijay Iyer. Lloyd has played Montreal many times over the years, but here we had a special three-pack of concerts.
As a logical opener, the first night was with his fine quartet (one of his three great quartets, after Lloyd’s Jarrett and Bobo Stenson-centric groups), and, the next, with the trio Sangam (drummers Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland, a project inaugurated and recorded for posterity at the Lobero Theatre a decade ago). Most intriguing of the series, in a way, was a night of duos and trios, with his current pianist Jason Moran, whose glowing new duo album, Hagar’s Song, was recorded by Dom Camardella at Sound Design in Santa Barbara, and Lloyd’s first official encounter with humble guitar genius Bill Frisell. On tunes as varied as “Solar” and “Red River Valley” and Lloyd’s “Voice in the Night,” they got along beautifully, in ways sometimes reminiscent of the empathic connection between a young Lloyd and the late Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo.
After a warm Montreal reception at the end of his first concert, Lloyd had a few words to offer (only a few this time). “This is a very touching evening for us, and especially for the kid (being Lloyd). It’s always young in the springtime, but don’t tell anyone that. I don’t want the gendarmes to come and move us offshore. Thank you for your beautiful vibes. It means a lot to us.” On the Frisell/Moran evening, Lloyd offered up another of his poetic maxims from the margins: “We’re dreamers, but our dreams are bigger than the rivers and valleys. But we love the now.”
What makes this festival such a successful venture, on so many fronts? Concentration and diversity, an insistence on artistic integrity even while allowing for the “crowd pleaser” cash cows, to subsidize the more obscure and/or emerging artists on the ten-day schedule. It helps that the action is centralized in the Place des Arts area, with fine indoor venues by the handful within walking distance, and free outdoor stages dotting the traffic-free festival zone.
On the first night of Lloyd’s stint, for instance, this scribe/festival addict roamed over to catch a set by the ever-eminent and swingful Wynton Marsalis-led Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the remarkable new symphony hall, the Maison Symphonique de Montreal, and then down and over to the still-new nightclub space, L’Astral, to catch a set by impressive saxist Tia Fuller’s group (all female except for drummer Rudy Royston, whose wife Shamie Royston is the pianist). In between, I caught a hearty blast of the Afro-Cuban-jazz goodness that is Chucho Valdes & the Afro-Cuban Messengers and, in transit between venues, heard swatches of a moody epic show by Canadian indie folk-rock icons Feist, who were hiply serenading thousands on the free outdoor stage. Best of all on this night, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet issued its own brand of brainy-meets-muscular power, demonstrating how this Coltrane has attained a new level or artistry at present.
The next night’s mental dance card plan kicked off elegantly in the symphony hall, with Joshua Redman’s new ballads-and-strings project, Walking with Shadows, and ended late in the go-to Gesu—Centre de Creativite with one of the hipper organ trios alive, leader Larry Goldings, and his most excellent comrades, guitarist Peter Bernstein and subtle dynamo of a drummer Bill Stewart.
Two interesting shows split the idiomatic differences of old school jazz, hip hop and other points between, to mostly effective ends. Jazz piano star-of-the-moment Jason Moran explored his vintage/modern jazz passions with the wildly fun and creatively-fortified “Fats Waller Dance Party” (with the leader wearing a jumbo Fats mask for much of the time, and Me’Shell NdegéOcello in the guest ranks). Two night later, tenor saxist/bass clarinetist David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, cooked up its own eclectic style experiment, where ballads, post-free jazz and R&B met. The show featured none other than Macy Gray as resident vocalist, swerving nicely between Billie Holiday-esque laconic cool and soul-trained presence.
On the vocalist front, the most exciting new artist I caught, finally experiencing in a live show what impressed on her ACT label albums, was Korean Youn Sun Nah, who speaks very softly but has a sure command and a fresh perspective once lost in a song. Joined by guitarist Ulf Wakenus, and with occasional sprinklings of thumb piano and toy piano, her set moved from Nine Inch Nails to Nat King Cole to originals and strange new places, worth revisiting.
Other highlights of the four nights I was in the land of poutine ranged from the impressive piano/keyboard trio artistry of the nimbly interactive Jacky Terrasson Trio and Euro-act deserving-wider-recognition Phronesis to the populist jazzy, happy—and guitaristically highwire—zoning of George Benson, in the vast Salle Willifred-Peltier venue. Before the set, Benson did the honors of presenting producer Tommy LiPuma with the festival’s Bruce Lundvall award, just as our man Lloyd had been laureled with the Miles Davis award on day one of the festival.
A visit to the Montreal festival isn’t complete without heading slightly off-campus to the cool, semi-basement club ironically dubbed Upstairs, several blocks away from the central fest zone. This year, I squeezed into a packed house soaking up the fascinating and nascent young guitarist Nir Felder, mixing jazz and rock in agreeable new ways, in a band including pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Mark Guiliana and bassist Orlando le Fleming. Clearly, Felder is one to keep tabs on.
Ditto, the Montreal Jazz Festival continues to be a reliable jazz feast to keep tabs on, and no doubt, the heat will bump up by degrees for the 40th annual fest next year.