It don't mean a thing

It was going to be a bit of work to get out to the Montreal International Jazz Festival this year but I vaguely wanted to go, since I’d missed it for a few years running. In 2005 I decided after covering it 17 years in a row, I needed a break. In 2006 I was writing a book. In 2007 I was living out of the country. But an hour with the festival’s schedule pretty nearly cured me of any desire to get back to see it this year.

It’s a perennial complaint among purists that the world’s biggest jazz festival doesn’t devote enough attention to jazz. Most years it’s a petty complaint at best. If you can see dozens of great jazz concerts in 10 days, does it matter that somebody else gets to see Melissa Etheridge or Stevie Winwood? Indeed, last year, after some of the guys in La Presse who never complain about the festival’s programming complained that 2006 lacked focus, the Montreal festival brass worked hard to stiffen the 2007 edition’s jazz spine. So it’s premature to worry that the Montreal Jazz Festival has completely lost its way.

That said, this year’s program is simply appalling. If I was there I’d absolutely go to the Public Enemy show, albeit with no great hopes of capturing past glories. It’s perfectly fine for Montreal to keep up its odd infatuation with Daniel Lanois, a wonderful pop record producer who just isn’t a very persuasive concert performer. Diversity is good. There’s a word for festivals run by jazz purists for jazz purists, and that word is “tiny.”

But it took me a while to figure out what’s so utterly deflating about this year’s schedule, and it’s this: there is very close to no space for the possibility that jazz, real jazz, might be an object of curiosity and a source of surprise. Dave Brubeck? Really? Golly, do you suppose he might play Take Five? As for the series of concerts devoted to the 90-year-old Hank Jones, is it churlish to react by wishing he had been invited to host a series of concerts when he was 75? Or that some 50-year-old pianist at the height of his powers might be able to regard the Montreal festival as a prospect sometime before 2048?

Then there’s the “battle of the bands” featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, which sounds like a very subtle joke aimed at a select insider audience. At the risk of ruining the comedy, let me explain the punch line to you: (a) Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey have been dead for decades; (b) the point of a “battle of the bands” is competitive pressure. Sparks are probably not going to fly when you have two ghost bands staffed by music-school third-raters who would not play 80-year-old arrangements a note differently if you held hostages to make them do it.

In a startling departure from previous festivals, Brad Mehldau is in town. Whee! It’s not true that if you’ve seen one Brad Mehldau concert you’ve seen them all, but it is certainly true that if you’ve seen half a dozen Brad Mehldau concerts you’ve seen them all, and given that he has been a featured performer at approximately 62 previous festival editions, it is now a well-known fact that every man, woman and child in Montreal has already been required by municipal ordinance to attend 16 Brad Mehldau concerts. Gee, do you think he might play a Radiohead tune? There’s no danger that audiences might want to hear some other bright young American jazz pianist, is there? Nah.

Then there are the big headliners. Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, Joe Piscopo. Welcome, Leonard Cohen. His music was never jazz but it is always good and there is never anything wrong when the bard returns to his hometown. Woody Allen, same thing, I suppose, but how excited are we supposed to get when a guy brings his hobby band? I hear next year Harrison Ford’s gonna do some carpentry. As for Joe Piscopo, washed up for 20 years as a comedian and for 19 years as a bodybuilder, there is not much to say about the prospect of asking audiences to pay cash money to hear his “tribute” to Frank Sinatra, except that suddenly Woody Allen sounds so much better.

In this context, tonight’s concert by Marc Cary is something of an aberration. Here’s a bright young African-American playing thoughtful acoustic jazz. Sort of what jazz was about, not in its totality but at its heart, for, like, a century, and what some of us brashly think it might still be about. I would like to hear Cary’s concert tonight — he is a very fine musician — but mostly I’d like to buttonhole him afterward and ask him how he snuck in.

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