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 fringebeat@aol.com.) ­

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