I’d heard the stories and I was in the mood for a party – for the kind of gig that has you wishing you’d splashed out on one of the tables at the front where you’re right in the middle of the action, with room to dance – and at times it was heading that way.
“Estela Va A Estallar”, a hard grooving take on “Stella By Starlight”, intensified by driving electric bass, boisterous montuno, furious conga and kit playing and shout choruses from the horns, was uplifting. As was the funk number that followed, given an Afro Cuban twist by charismatic percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, who augmented his batá drumming with Yoruba vocal shouts, frantic on-stage dancing and a wander through the crowd to orchestra a few claps. “Bacalao Con Pan”, an Irakere classic, was better still and here the horns stole the show, contributing ballsy solos and a few dance moves of their own.
There was the moment Valdes stood up and shouted ‘¡Coño!’ at the top of his lungs before directing a splashy, all-over-the-place pause, and there were piano fireworks – showers of sparks, ostinati that span like Catherine wheels and chords that detonated like rockets.
But for the most part the set felt a little subdued and decidedly underpowered. In the early stages there were too many drawn-out solos under which the rhythm section failed to build. Melodies and grooves felt truncated – they didn’t cook for long enough and the horns often looked disengaged – and when the band left the stage after a little over an hour, declining to play an encore, it felt as if they were just getting warmed up.
It was a young band. As well as reinventing Cuban dance music and making an indelible impression on the world of Latin jazz, Irakere was the training ground for some of the most influential Cuban musicians of the past few decades. Clearly Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera hadn’t fancied a reunion. Still, you would have thought that young blood would have raised the energy levels not dampened them. Perhaps the week-long run had taken its toll. Maybe they were saving themselves for a big finish in the late show. Whatever the reason, if I’d paid full whack for one of those tables at the front I would have been a little disappointed.
— Thomas Rees
— Photo Wikicommons
There’s something otherworldly about Montreux. You feel it as soon as you arrive, skirting the shore of Lake Geneva on the train, passing fields of sunflowers and terraces of emerald green vines. There’s a celestial quality to the setting. The snow capped sweep of the alps frames the horizon and the water is as hazy and blue as a gas flame, at times scarcely distinguishable from the sky.
It’s my second year but I’m still giddy with the glamour of it all, the grand old hotels with their wrought iron balconies and canary yellow awnings, the palm trees, and the belle epoch paddle steamers on the lake that announce their arrival with a nostalgic whistle.
The tagline ‘Montreux Riviera’ is bang on. This feels more like the south of France than Switzerland and there’s enough history and romance associated with Montreux to give the Riviera proper a run for its money – not to mention plenty of yachts. Lord Byron used to spend his summers nearby and you’re just an hour’s lazy lakeside stroll from Château de Chillon, a storybook castle that inspired one of his most celebrated works.
That’s before you even get to the festival, which has a mythology and lore of its own. Everyone you can think of has played here and everyone I talk to, from pianist Jason Moran and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen to Quincy Jones, a long-time friend of Montreux and the man responsible for landing some of its biggest acts, is full of it – raving about the atmosphere or, in Quincy’s case, reminiscing about the time he tried to persuade Aretha Franklin to come over despite her fear of flying. He and festival founder Claude Nobs, who passed away in 2013, came up with an elaborate scheme involving trains, limousines and a cruise ship. Aretha paused a moment before delivering the immortal line “ain’t you guys never heard of the Titanic!”
Franklin did play at Montreux, in 1971, the same year some idiot let off a flare in the middle of a Frank Zappa concert and burnt the Montreux Casino to the ground. Rock band Deep Purple, who were in town to record, saw the blaze from their hotel room and ‘Smoke on the Water’ was born. The ‘Funky Claude’ of the second verse is Nobs himself.
There are hundreds of stories like these and almost as many about Montreux’s expense. It’s true that you could spend a heart-stopping amount of money here. The price of hotel rooms skyrockets during the festival and, even by Swiss standards, the big gigs don’t come cheap. You can run up a sobering drinks bill without even trying, burn through your savings at the street food stalls that line the waterfront or remortgage your house for the privilege of entering the seafood and champagne bar in the lobby, where a nearby stand will do you any kind of sandwhich you want, as long as it’s made with Iberico ham, gravlax, caviar or foie gras.
In what felt like a pathetically tame, middle class re-run of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I took to smuggling bread and hunks of Gruyère from the breakfast buffet at my hotel to save on lunch. After spending six hours in my bag in the blazing sun it was warm to the point of hallucinogenic.
But the expense is only half the story. At times Montreux feels like a festival with a split personality. There are as many studenty types here as there are Swiss bankers with Ferraris double parked outside the Montreux Palace hotel and you could just as easily do this festival on the cheap if you stayed at one of the campsites on the outskirts of town and stocked up on beers at the Co-op. By day the atmosphere is genteel but come midnight, when the waterfront is a blur of neon, the whole place lets its hair down.
It’s also sponsored up to its eyeballs and, while some of those sponsors (Nestle, British American Tobacco Switzerland, Diageo and SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) are liable to leave a bitter taste in your mouth (or an oily smudge on your conscience), it does mean that there are an astonishing number of free events.
In fact it’s a little overwhelming. I was there for three days, usually crying off around 3am and I felt like I only scratched the surface. I caught a showing of deeply emotional Clark Terry documentary Keep on Keepin’ On hosted by Quincy Jones (Terry’s first ever student), who arrived in a pair of elegant silk pyjamas; workshops and talks led by Avishai Cohen and Jason Moran; an uplifting set from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir on the Music in the Park stage and jam sessions of frightening quality – all of them free.
Everything that happens here is recorded for the festival’s UNESCO-listed archives, available via terminals in the lobby so, on top of all that, you can while away the time between gigs watching interviews with Stan Getz and sets by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from the early ‘80s, back when Terence Blanchard and Jean Toussaint were still in short trousers. I never even made it to the edgy, laser-lit Jazz Lab where nubile 20-somethings dance until the sun comes up; to the world music stage, El Mundo; to the jazz boat, the jazz train or to any of the competitions, but I saw more than my fair share of inspiring music.
Avishai Cohen’s New York Division
Cohen and Moran weren’t just in town to give workshops. The bassist was here with his New York Division, a hard grooving six piece that comprises his working trio of pianist Nitai Hershkovits and drummer Daniel Dor, plus a front line made up guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Diego Urcola and trombonist Steve Davis, all former collaborators from the Big Apple. Their set felt like joyful reunion, as much a jam session as a gig, full of blazing solos and infectious grooves that lit up the bassist’s back catalogue and expanded upon tracks from his latest trio album, From Darkness.
There were mesmeric vamps and swaggering montunos, mellow brass chorales and rockier episodes, over which Rosenwinkle’s guitar slithered like an electric eel. Both Dor and Hershkovitz were on fire – the latter spinning out vicious, switchback lines – but it was Urcola who got the best reception from the crowd. On trumpet he can shred like Freddie Hubbard while his flugel sound is dusky and effortlessly laid back. All the while, Cohen pouted and weaved, dancing with his bass and cooing over the soloists.
He gave us a handful of thrumming bass features, a surging Afro Cuban finisher and a haunting rendition of ‘Nature Boy’ – the perfect match for his soft-textured vocals. His bass playing isn’t as explosive as that of someone like Christian McBride, but he more than makes up for it with the quality of his compositions, not to mention limitless energy, charisma and groove. Here he also proved himself a great facilitator and in the New York Division he’s assembled a truly formidable band.
Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party
The energy levels were ramped up again the following night for Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party, which achieved the impossible by getting the conservative Montreux Jazz Club crowd up on their feet – albeit only during the encore. I don’t know how they held out so long. The set was a whirlwind, a gloriously feral assault on the senses that captured the essence of Waller’s music while simultaneously reinventing it almost beyond recognition.
On ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ Lisa Harris’ blurry, intoxicating vocals hovered over a stuttering hip hop backbeat – the contrast all the more disorientating thanks to Leron Thomas’ old school, muted trumpet lines. ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ got a sultry, R&B refit, anchored by the kind of riff that hangs around in your auditory cortex for days, and ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’ was rendered melancholic to the point of harrowing, underscored by dull, snare drum hits that accentuated the feeling of anguish and disappointment. Moran set out to explore some of the sadness and the trauma behind Waller’s beaming performer persona and he’s nailed it.
The pacing of the set was immaculate too. ‘Two Sleepy People’, a vocal number for Thomas, slowed things down. There was a freewheeling feature for Moran and drummer Charles Haynes, whose power, groove and ability to obscure the barline rivals that of Chris Dave, and in a momentary departure from Waller repertoire, there was a radical recasting of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’ – like a club remix with exaggerated operatic vocals from Harris and a trippy, electro backing track.
With the band in vibrant fabrics and Moran in a Haitian carnival mask – a hefty Waller head complete with hat and smouldering papier-mâché fag – there’s a strong visual dimension to the performance which heightens the immersion and channels Waller’s theatrical side. The whole thing amounts to a towering feat of imagination.
Justin Kauflin Trio
Every gig at Montreux is a double bill – excellent for raising the profile of emerging artists – and before Moran’s performance I was glad to catch a set from Justin Kauflin, a young American pianist (blind since the age of 11) who’s being hailed by Quincy Jones as the next big thing. Kauflin seemed to have arrived at Montreux in R&B mode (you can hear the influence of Robert Glasper in the way articulates his chords) and his playing was less varied than it is on his debut album, Dedication, where hard bop and classical tropes also reveal themselves. But his trio set, with bassist Chris Smith and drummer Billy Williams, was memorable all the same. Original compositions dedicated to former teachers – among them Mulgrew Miller and Clark Terry – were soulful and heartfelt, punctuated by chocolatey bass solos from Smith and virtuosic bursts from Kauflin – long ribbons of notes in which he proved himself a master of melodic development. On the agitated groove of ‘The Up and Up’ Williams was magisterial and a Beatles cover, ‘A Day In The Life’, was full of pleasing interplay and switches of groove, with a scattering of hip hop beats.
Though it was Kauflin who got the bigger reception from the crowd, the discovery of the festival for me was 25-year-old German pianist Lorenz Kellhuber, who won Montreux’s Parmigiani Piano Solo Competition in 2014. Kellhuber released a trio album, State of Mind, earlier this year, but he took the stage alone to play four long improvisations of astonishing depth and maturity.
There were bluesy episodes and forays into gospel, echoes of ambient rock, exploratory passages lit by quivering stacks of fourths and underwritten by dense classical harmony, and burst of frightening virtuosity. Swirling motifs went on for improbable lengths of time and never seemed to waver (Kellhuber clearly has iron technique) and the whole thing was underscored by serious good taste. There was nothing extraneous. No resort to virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. Everything was in the service of the music and, with timely switches between line playing and chordal work, the pacing was bang on.
The second half of the set brought covers of Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’, Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith and you could here that, even here, Kellhuber was stretching himself, tinkering with the harmony and finding beautiful, unexpected resolutions. The obvious comparison is with Keith Jarrett, who Kellhuber cites as a major influence. He seems similarly swept away by the music – his head continually hacksawing back and forth. If he goes on to similarly great things I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Though jazz has always been at the heart of Montreux, nowadays the programming is considerably more varied. Many of this year’s headliners have little or nothing to do with the tradition (along with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Lionel Richie, Sam Smith, Portishead and the Chemical Brothers all top the bill). Others are on the fringes, and I couldn’t resist watching a set by the reincarnated D’Angelo – a neo soul pioneer whose influence can be heard in the work of Jacob Collier, and without whom it’s hard to imagine Jarrod Lawson.
He’s just released his first album for 15 years and has assembled a phenomenal band to celebrate. Among others, the 11-piece Vanguard features veteran bassist Pino Palladino, maverick drummer Chris Dave, guitarist Isaiah Sharkey (a member of Dave’s Drumhedz) and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, whose contributions to recent Otis Brown III release The Thought of You are some of the album’s most memorable.
It was an angsty sort of gig. D’Angelo kept us waiting for almost an hour, with half the crowd booing as he took the stage. But by the time he sauntered off again they were eating out of his hand. Mainstream it may be, but this is serious music making. D’Angelo’s vocals ranged from silky and angelic to raw and impassioned and he orchestrated hits with a wave of his hand, à la James Brown. Classics like ‘Brown Sugar’ were fitted out with inventive new horn parts and a raft of new grooves. The band took risks and there was acres of space for the soloists to shine, with Harrold contributing flaring lines, Sharkey leaning towards intricate post bop phrases and Dave getting up to his usual, confoundingly brilliant, rhythmic trickery.
At the height of ‘The Charade’, a furious response to police brutality in the US, with Dave nailing his snare drum and the whole band shredding, the atmosphere was electric. My notebook was a sweaty, ink-smeared mess and I couldn’t have been happier. It felt like history in the making, but that’s nothing new for Montreux. Here it’s just another story in a long list – a footnote in the tale of this glitzy musical Narnia with its powder blue lake and fairy tale castle, a place where an appearance from a pyjama-clad Quincy Jones is nothing out of the ordinary. The festival turns 50 next year. If you’ve never experienced it, I suggest you go.
– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees
Photos credits as follows – The Jazz Lab (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Cohen (Credit: 2015 FFJM Daniel Balmat), Moran (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Kauflin (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Kellhuber (Credit: 2015 FFJM Daniel Balmat) and D’Angelo (Credit: 2015 FFJM Lionel Flusin)
There was a buzz at the Barbican last night, the kind that makes you feel like a child again, a ripple of electric energy that only comes with seeing the true greats. And they don’t come much greater than Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, two jazz legends with strikingly similar trajectories. Both cut their teeth playing with Miles, both helped determine the direction of jazz-rock fusion and, though they’re now in their mid 70s, both have continued to push the boundaries.
A huge cheer went up as they took the stage, looking supremely relaxed, with Hancock thanking the crowd and Corea declaring it a privilege to play with his “buddy and musical inspiration”. Their setlist brought some crowd-pleasing moments, too. The unmistakeable bassline of “Cantaloupe Island” was greeted with spontaneous applause, and there was a superb reimagining of the Hancock classic “Maiden Voyage”, which began with gently padding chords before opening out into a knotty groove, with both men leaning into the cadences and Hancock really giving it some, through gritted teeth.
In between came extended passages of improvised interplay as they faced one another across two acoustic and two electric pianos. There were digital wobbles, murmurs and sighs, rolled chords and tumbling motifs that called to mind Stravinsky, and folk melodies that suggested the influence of Bartók.
Sometimes these interactions bordered on the uncanny. They lingered together on melodies and stopped dead without so much as a look. Interjecting stabs landed with pinpoint precision – as if each man knew exactly where the other was headed – and they seemed to delight in reharmonising each other’s lines and setting up fiendish, interlocking grooves and rhythmic riddles for one another to solve.
It didn’t always work. “Cantaloupe Island” was a little cluttered and unsteady at times. Some keyboard tinkering from Hancock, in which he experimented with a few vaguely orgasmic vocal samples, prompted sniggers, and there were moments when the crowd seemed to want a few more tunes that they recognised.
Corea acknowledged as much when they returned for the encore, settling on “Spain” and inviting us to sing back progressively complex fragments of the melody. “They seem real musical, this audience,” he joked. “They must be to still be here after all that!”
Even so, it was great to see that Hancock and Corea have lost none of their musical curiosity and there was more than enough brilliance on display to ensure that the post-concert atmosphere matched the pre-gig buzz. As the two legends left the stage a group of boys ran down to the front to shake hands. Giddy and still a little star-struck, I think we all felt a bit like joining them.
— Thomas Rees
It feels strange going to the Vortex in broad daylight and even stranger leaving with the sun still streaming through the windows. Gigs here don’t usually get started much before 9 pm (I’d always assumed that improvising musicians only came out at night) and darkness seems to lend itself to the free jazz atmosphere.
Still, the Vortex by day is not without its positives. I can see what I’m writing for starters and it’s much easier to doodle during the boring bits ;) The musicians look wide awake and the colourful characters nursing restorative cans of Special Brew on the benches in Gillett Square seem altogether less menacing. (They’re actually rather adorable when they’re blinking in the sunlight).
Besides, Freedom Festival, a new event curated by vibes player and electronicist Orphy Robinson and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, is all about bringing improvised music out of the shadows and into the limelight – giving it the attention it deserves with two full days of workshops and performances designed to showcase new collaborations, build ensembles and inspire the next generation of improvisers. Perhaps daytime makes sense.
After appearances from Tony Kofi’s Sphinx Trio and Byron Wallen, on Saturday, it was down to the Freeform Improv Strings to kick start the final afternoon of the festival. A short improvisation from violinist Alison Blunt and cellist Kate Shortt incorporated beguiling snatches of dialogue along with scampering pizzicato lines and trembling melodies. James O’Sullivan prepared his guitar with spanners and plastic rods producing sudden pops and gargling distortion, and Theo Sinarkis reached for a broken bow, wrapping the limp horse hair around the strings of his bass to delicate, percussive effect.
The session ended with all of the strings on stage for a collective improvisation that opened with palm slaps and yelping guitar before settling into something softer and more mysterious, with special guest Steve Beresford’s piano lines insinuating themselves into the music like white hot nerve fibres.
Next up was flautist Rowland Sutherland and his new quartet, featuring Ansuman Biswas on percussion, Guillaume Viltard on bass and Steve Beresford on piano and electronics. Sutherland has recently returned from studying with shakuhachi masters in Japan and you could hear it in his playing – in the thumps of air that marked the beginnings of his phrases and in the haziness of his sound, uncannily like that of the Japanese wooden flute.
Bucolic melodies were a recurring feature in the set, which wove together renditions of “Desert Cry” and “Message from the Nile” by McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson’s “Earth” and Sutherland’s own “Gentle Euphoria”, along with passages of free improvisation. Viltard and Biswas orchestrated chugging, spontaneous grooves and Beresford swiped at the keyboard firing off scatterbrained lines that sank into silky chords of Bill Evans-like purity. There were wheezing riffs set up on bronchial alto flute and bursts of whistling, Clanger-like electronics, yet the development always felt organic. Never forced.
A set from Black Top was just as inspiring. Led by Orphy Robinson on xylosynth and electronics and Pat Thomas on keyboards, the group’s lineup is constantly in flux. Here they were joined by Cleveland Watkiss, saxophonist Rachel Musson, trumpeter Roland Ramanan, bassist Otto Williams and drummer Mark Mondesir, for a performance that was dizzyingly diverse in its references.
Robinson unleashed trippy electronics, dub effects and disorientating vocal samples (“many mumbling mice are making midnight music” was a personal favourite). Williams brought grungy basslines and juddering, stiff-limbed grooves. Watkiss offered poignant laments, soulful refrains and the skiffling sound of beatbox snare drum, and Ramanan and Musson locked horns, orchestrating passages of Brotzmann-like anarchy with Mondesir and Thomas churning away behind them.
There was so much going on I was still making sense of it all as I watched the festival’s closing amateur jam session with budding improvisers from Warriors International’s monthly Vortex ‘Loft Sessions’. It was 6.30 pm. I’d seen old masters and new recruits and the sun was still riding high over Dalston. Whichever way you look at it the future of British improv looks bright.
— Thomas Rees
— Photo credit: Black Top
Sometimes seeing jazz gigs feels a bit like trophy hunting. Everyone has a list of targets, and high up on mine, amid transatlantic migrants and flightless rarities seldom seen in the UK, were the names of two Brazilian keys-playing vocalists.
I discovered Eliane Elias during a year at music college when I transcribed her take on ‘But Not For Me’ from Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans and got hooked on her supple sense of swing. Ed Motta’s brand of throwback 1970s soul is an equally serious, if more recent, addiction so the chance of seeing them both was always going to be too good to pass up.
Despite a few issues with the sound, they didn’t disappoint. Both chose to focus on their latest releases – Elias with a set of slinky bossas from her latest album, Made in Brazil, supplemented by Brazilian classics like ‘Chega de Saudade’, ‘Chiclete com Banana’ and ‘So Danço Samba’ and two tracks (‘I Thought About You’ and ‘Embraceable You’) from her 2013 Chet Baker tribute album; and Motta with material from 2013 release AOR, arguably his strongest to date. But both musicians went well beyond the recorded versions.
Switching between piano and Fender Rhodes, Elias played with characteristic elegance, imbuing her lines with a coconut palm sway that matched her languid vocals. Yet there was a gutsiness to her playing too and, as she traded solos with bassist Marc Johnson and energetic drummer Rafael Barata, hunching her shoulders and hammering out octaves, glistening grace notes and bursts of tremolo, she sounded less restrained than she does on record.
Motta left most of the instrumental solos to his ultra tight, globetrotting band, comprising French bassist Laurent Salzard; Finnish guitarist Arto Mäkelä; German keys player Matti Klein and Lisbon-born drummer Miguel Casais, allowing him to focus on the vocals. ‘Simple Guy’ basked in a husky, all encompassing warmth, he chewed up the lyrics to ‘Smile’ and growled and whooped through ‘Dondi’, pouting and grimacing with delight.
Gems from his back catalogue got similarly inventive treatment. The urgent bass groove and zappy, sci-fi synth lines of ‘Drive Me Crazy’ were gloriously rendered and ‘My Rules’ became an extended beatboxing breakdown, in which he gnashed his teeth and imitated drum machines, stomach churning bass vocoders, backing vocals and horn lines.
What really stood out though, in both performances, was passion for the music and the milieu in which it was produced. Elias’ set was interwoven with reflections on the beauty of the coastal region of Bahia, anecdotes about Antônio Carlos Jobim’s legendary womanising and biographies of lesser-known songwriters. I didn’t know that Chet Baker’s unaffected vocals and habit of phrasing across the barline was an influence on pioneers of the bossa nova or that Elias first toured with Jobim when she was just 17.
There was a beguiling eccentricity to Motta’s conversation and he seemed most at home joking with the Brazilians in the crowd and persuading them that ‘Colombina’ was a better choice of encore than ‘Manuel’, one of his best-loved tracks. In between, he paid tribute to Dom Salvador (“the first musician to mix jazz, soul and samba”), explained that AOR stands for Adult Oriented Rock, a 1970s sub genre that he worships but playfully derides, and expounded on his love for Magnum P.I., a shining example of “AOR lifestyle” and one of a number of TV theme tunes that have influenced the album.
It would have been nice if the two musicians had played together – Motta features on ‘Vida’, the seventh track on Made In Brazil so that would have been the obvious choice – but I can’t grumble. This was still a dream way to kill two birds with one stone.
– Thomas Rees
– Photo credit: Lucas Secret/Wikicommons
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