NOTABLE MONTREALERS DEPT.: This fascinating city is the birthplace of such luminaries as beloved kitsch captain William Shatner, the late visionary “space music” composer Henry Brant (a longtime Santa Barbaran who passed recently, aged 94), and, most famously, poet sage Leonard Cohen, whose humor and melancholic wisdom seem to capture some central essence of this city. Cohen, 73 and hipper than ever, is currently ending his 15-year hiatus from the road with a long and winding tour. Two weeks back, he put in a coveted three-night stint in downtown Montreal, a pre-fest opener for the 29th edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Cohen couldn’t have timed his renascence better: This remarkable jazz festival continues to be a major cause of cultural bragging rights. Superlatives are dangerous temptations, but the Montreal festival feels like a prime model of the form, boasting great logistics-multiple indoor stages and several free outdoor stages conveniently concentrated in a several-block festival compound closed off to traffic-and, not incidentally, a sharp and evolutionary programming ear.
In a given three-hour stretch on the festival’s first weekend, one could drift from the stunning inside/outside Dutch little big band Corkestra (certainly a festival highlight) to the warm fuzzies of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, and hear the feisty Icelandic-Manhattanite sounds from Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra teasing the masses on the big outdoor GM stage before settling in to the neo-Tyner-esque fires of pianist Marc Carey‘s trio in a late set.
For this listener’s money, humble genius Brad Mehldau wowed the deepest at this festival. He showed up in solo piano mode (giving a Schubertian spin to Brian Wilson‘s masterpiece “God Only Knows,” for one); in full, inventive flower with his great trio-one of the greatest around; and in a special two-piano, mid-career meets late-career encounter with the gentle giant octogenarian Hank Jones.
As for the worst musician of the festival, he filled the largest venue for two nights. Chalk it up to the starstruck impulse in all of us. Of course, we’re talking about Woody Allen, who manages to make the noble clarinet sound ill, occasionally kazoo-like. (For the record, he did sound marginally better than at his Lobero debacle a few years ago.)
Speaking of old music heard anew, Chick Corea‘s summer vacation project this year reunites his wildly popular ’70s fusion incarnation of Return to Forever, with guitar gladiator Al Di Meola, thump-maniacal bassist Stanley Clarke, and strong-armed drummer Lenny White. In its mid-’70s heyday, RTF played the Granada Theatre, when this columnist was an awed/odd teen. Heard again in 2008, the music sounded strangely stale and worn-out, its hubristic more-is-more approach evoking a dinosaur pageant. Meanwhile, there was an evergreen depth and freshness in the much older ennobled standard fare from pianist Jones, in loveable loose duets with Joe Lovano, Haden, and Mehldau. Go figure.
Next year, the festival gears up to be bigger and better, celebrating its big 3-0. Time to take the plunge.
TO-DOINGS: Experimental music’s muse hasn’t fled town for the summer, but is showing up with biweekly regularity at Muddy Waters, where the Santa Barbara New Music Series keeps the faith. Tonight, check out WUMMIN, a Los Angeles duo of cellist/vocalist Anita Chari and violinist Andrew Royal. Their MySpace page provides this suitably ambiguous self-description: “heavy mental ‘n’ wood, unrepentatonic orisontal bop, free acid chamber.” Also on the bill are Venturan-turned-UCSD grad schooler Jeff Kaiser on trumpet and electronics and L.A.’s electric bassman Steuart Liebig.
More encouraging summertime musical action keeps on coming, Mondays at SOhO, host for several jazz singers worth hearing. This Monday belongs to luminous, convention-stretching S.L.O.-based jazz singer Inga Swearingen, whose resume includes work with Swiss vocalist Susan Abbeuhl, pianist Art Lande, and appearances on Prairie Home Companion. After appearing with pianist Ian Bernard in a more straight-ahead setting, she performed with her own accessible yet adventurous group at the Live Oak Music Festival last month, and she has both a SOhO show and a slot in the Courthouse Jazz series on Friday, September 26.