Wash Us Away

by Josef Woodard

KINDRED CITIES: It’s a cliché, and yet so true: When Aaron Neville sings, people listen. A wonder of the musical world, Neville’s voice is strong yet sweet, big yet vulnerable. In a dramatic performance setting, the emotional intensity can be staggering. There he was, on the main outdoor stage at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a crowd of more than 100,000 packed onto the closed-off streets around the city’s Place des Arts. In one of this festival’s most stunning moments, Neville belted out what has become an unofficial anthem for life post-Katrina, Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” (“they want to wash us away, they want to wash us away”).

Of course, the Neville Brothers are hardly a jazz act, despite their instrumental forays. And Randy Newman is a Southern Californian rather than a Southerner. But none of that detracted from the laser-like emotionality of those few minutes, and the wave of collective compassion in the “house.”

New Orleans and Montreal are sisterly cities, being the continent’s prominently French, and similarly musically obsessed, outposts (New Orleans was also founded by a Montrealer). So it was natural that the Quebecers paid tribute to the Katrina-kicked city. The recent collaborative project The River in Reverse, a meeting of Elvis Costello and great songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint, stopped its tour here, a hot ticket. The jury’s still out on whether Costello’s tough-guy, bullying voice does Toussaint’s soul music justice, but the collaborative gesture casts deserving light on Toussaint’s genius. It was also great to hear Toussaint’s cool arrangements for old Costello gems like “Tears before Bedtime” and “Poisoned Rose.”

Yes, but what about jazz? Montreal’s festival, like many others, has received criticism for stocking its program with pop-flavored goods. But the quality control tends to be awesomely high. Even Jamie Cullum, the energized multi-talented Brit presently a sensation on jazz’s outskirts, leans more toward pop than jazz, although he’s a decent jazz pianist.

Other pop-tart highs: sensitive yet bold-voiced Martha Wainwright, sister of Rufus and daughter of Loudon and Kate McGarrigle, rocked the Metropolis in a powerful way, suggesting that her moment in the spotlight is nigh, and overdue. The amazing Cat Power (who recently played SOhO), played solo at the Spectrum, and was, as expected, alternately moody and endearingly kooky. At one point, she started the crowd clapping, but then realized it was on the downbeat rather than the desired upbeat, so changed her crowd-baiting tactics mid-song. She mimicked the hoots from the crowd and at one point feigned a limp, explaining with airy flippancy, “It’s fun to do that. It’s fun to just have that old lazy leg.”

Pop content aside, Montreal’s festival — clearly still one of the finest general-purpose festivals in the world — still hosts plenty of jazz to savor. The 2006 edition (in the festival’s first half) featured sizzling sets by two of the most exciting new-ish acts of the 21st century: Chris Potter’s engaging electro-acoustic band, featuring guitarist Adam Rogers and poetically inventive Rhodes player Craig Taborn; and The Bad Plus, an acoustic “piano trio” with lots of electric intensity, and a unique blend of rocking energy, irony, collective virtuosity, and oblique lyricism (thanks largely to bassist Reid Anderson’s cool writing).

From a proud Santa Barbaran’s perspective, the program repeatedly validated our status as a valid jazz town. One of the “invitational” subjects this year, granted multiple concerts, was French gypsy guitar wizard Biréli Lagrène, who lit Campbell Hall on fire last year.

The Bad Plus put on one of the best recent local jazz shows at the Lobero, as did Wayne Shorter’s quintet, whose show in Montreal furthered the sax titan’s inspired path toward minimalist abstraction. Ravi Coltrane — another Montreal highlight — may play up a storm, producing elegant sheets of sound, but Shorter is playing more with less. Those were a few of our favorite things at this remarkable, more-is-more model of a jazz festival. (Got e? Email ­

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