2009 montreal jazz fest – day one

MIles from India, released 2008

MIles from India, released 2008

Destination: Montreal

Objective: Miles From India, playing tonight at the 30th annual Jazz Festival

Made it here, beautiful drive with intermittent rain and sun breaking through towering white cumulus. Never fail to be a little surprised to see how fast the landscape flattens out after crossing the border. Within a mile or two of the entry port, northern Vermont’s rolling green hills iron out into corn-rowed farmlands that remind me so much of home, growing up at the edge of Colorado’s eastern plains.

A couple of years I visited the Montreal Jazz Festival to enjoy whatever the experience had to offer. Turned out, it offered a LOT: Ravi Coltrane’s incredible 3+ hour concert; a memorable outdoor show on one of the free stages with Esperanza Spalding (who has since, as we know, fully emerged from her prodigy chrysalis to headline at festivals around the world); Bruce Nauman’s delightfully subversive exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum; and a happy unexpected encounter with participants in a Caribbean Pride Parade on the last morning in town. Special memories. 2009-July4-MontrealJazzFest4

This time around, the reason for coming to the Festival was more focused. Around a year ago I picked up a recording of Miles Davis tunes, played by a group made up of around 15 former bandmates (Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Gary Bartz, etc.) and 15 top-flight Indian musicians. The group – and their remarkably refreshing recording – is Miles From India. It’s remarkable for concentrating so much talent in a single studio recording effort and for the artistic result, which succeeds in concept and most especially in execution.

Tonight’s live Miles From India concert was no less inspring: three drum kits(!), two keyboardists, two sax players, electric bass, a trumpeter, and seven Indian musicians played everything from sitar and tabla to mandolin, wooden flutes, and they dazzled the audience with the characteristic rapid-fire rhythmic singing style that echoes the tabla’s own melodic punctuation. All Blues, So What, and Blue in Green were all in there, the latter enjoying some particularly striking lighting effects with static white wedges of light beaming down at assymetric angles to eerily fragment the stage. So was a touching Michael Jackson tribute – think about that one for a minute. This is a Miles Davis tribute ensemble, including seven traditional Indian musicians, in a musical nod to Michael J. It was heartfelt. And it worked.

2009-July4-MontrealJazzFest2What didn’t work as well was some of the technical aspects at the Theatre Maisonneuve. I can’t tell you what was happening behind the scenes, I wasn’t there. But from my seat in the fifth row center, I can tell you that missed (and mistimed) lighting and sound cues and numerous other repeated sound anomalies unnecessarily shifted the attention at times from the musicians to the process of making live music. Note to crew, from me to you: when you see a musician walking to the mic, that’s a cue THEY’RE GETTING READY TO PLAY, and it’s time to turn up the mic. Some extra light wouldn’t hurt either. Thanks. (If there were behind-the-scenes issues you know about and want to mention, please feel free to leave a comment here and I promise I’ll share it with everyone. I’m not trying to be unfair, I can only tell you what I experienced in the audience. And it was consistently a disappointingly unprofessional production.)

Back to the positive: Rudresh Mahanthappa, the alto sax man and (appointed, he said in a self-deprecating disclaimer) band leader. He was as comfortable drilling out deep, searing solo work as trading bars in more cooperative exchanges with bandmates. I ran into a friend at the show and he mentioned having seen Mahanthappa here around six years ago as an emerging artist on the scene. My friend commented at the transformation Mahanthappa’s made from sideman into the commanding artist he is now. That’s the word: commanding. Appointed or not, he has the charisma, artistry and professional skills to be a leader and take his career as far as he wants to.

I could cite everyone in the group individually for the success and cohesion of tonight’s concert, and they all deserve it. But I believe I do their mission a greater honor in saying that they came together as a group, and as that group they played with a single creative vision that exceeded most expectations. They could have used a little more prep time together to lock down the ‘flow’ of each tune’s architecture (weaving between the multitude of solos and ensemble parts), and the sitar voice was somewhat absentee throughout, owing to the sound difficulties mentioned earlier. But overall a very positive experience thanks to the supreme musicianship.

I’ll leave with those thoughts tonight, and know that if I left the Festival tomorrow the trip here would have already been worth the effort to get here and see Miles From India. I recommend checking out the recording if you get a chance.

No special plans for tomorrow in Montreal. If past experience bears out, that’s going to be the best way to experience as much as possible!

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