International Not-Jazz Festivals

Monday, 30 June 2008 — 4:19pm | Jazz, Music

I make it well known that unlike most of my compatriots, I read Paul Wells more for the jazz criticism than the political insight; he has a keen ear for the form and a literacy in its recent developments far vaster than my own.

Wells makes some grudging remarks on the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s lineup which, as I see it, strike out at the genre’s great existential paradox:

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?

This is something I think about a great deal. I’d like to think that I have an omnivorous appetite for improvised music at its most pretentious and experimental, but in practise, when it comes to assigning a finite number of ticket purchases to a conflict-ridden concert schedule, I am often guilty of gravitating towards the established international acts over the rewarding risks of sampling lesser-known talents. I am naturally inclined to comment.

Jazz is a curious beast: its foundations in variation and improvisation necessarily impel a cultural revolution every now and then, a kind of periodic Cambrian explosion that routinely produces too many species for the casual enthusiast to catalogue. But its central imperative to be novel is somewhat at odds with its history, which one may properly regard as a mythology etched in vinyl and stone, and nowhere is the conflict more visible than in the politics of festival promotion.

The names of prominent musicians—the names that draw crowds—are safe, reliable brands that sell tickets, for better or for worse. In the extreme, you end up with the polarization that Wells laments, where the evolving core of the music drops out of the centre.

On one hand, you have the museum pieces, or the repeat performers called back so often that they might as well be museum-pieces-in-waiting. (I, for one, am not from Montreal, and am ecstatic at the thought of being required by municipal ordinance to attend 16 Brad Mehldau concerts.) Then there are the acts who made their names elsewhere, and what they are doing at a jazz festival we really don’t know, though they seem to be famous among the general public; these are your Melissa Etheridges and Stevie Winwoods, about whom I know nothing.

Like Wells, we’re willing to grant the occasional exception for Leonard Cohen out of respect, but not without a suspicious anxiety that there’s a lot of not jazz going on. We sometimes-purists could tell you why it bothers us so, with the usual Platonic trouble that comes packaged with categorical problems of definition, but it’s much easier to simply slap you in the face with an Escher tessellation of a fish.

I don’t mind the museum pieces so much. Bands like Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra get a lot of flak for playing squarely within the canonical idiom, but I don’t for a minute regret seeing Marsalis at this year’s Calgary International Jazz Festival (in Calgary!—we’re a city that matters!). There’s a lot of life left in arrangements of orthodox texture, and world-class big band music is something that I hope never goes away.

And that’s to say nothing of the 87-year-old Dave Brubeck, whose gig at the Jack Singer was so captivating that it wasn’t until long after he strode off into the sunset with a wave of his honorary White Hat, when the euphoria had subsided, that I found myself wishing he’d displayed more of the abstract time-shifting talents that first incited jazz music’s infatuation with complex metre. Instead, he kept himself to crowd-pleasing standards like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Margie” (not to mention an arrangement of “Yesterdays” that had on me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end)—and yes, he did play “Take Five”.

I’m not at all ashamed to admit that the highlight of the Brubeck concert was “Over the Rainbow”, which is about as standard as it gets. Yes, I know Brubeck’s done it over a thousand permutations, be it solo or with Paul Desmond riding shotgun, to the extent that his claim of ownership over the song runs second only to Judy Garland’s. That doesn’t change the fact that the rendition he played last Thursday (a duet with Bobby Militello on flute) is the most heartbreakingly beautiful thing I’ve heard in a concert hall since the Edmonton Symphony’s 75th-birthday party for John Williams, when I first picked up on the undiscovered subtleties of “Princess Leia’s Theme” along the fringes of the Winspear terrace. It was orgasmic.

Ever since the passing of Oscar Peterson, I’ve made it a personal mission to see all the jazz legends I can while they still walk the plains of Midgard. If a major festival brings them within range, I’d call it a good thing; Brubeck’s name looks so much better checked off my list. Montreal’s programming may be stale from repetition and hero-worship, but it still has the attraction of a pilgrimage.

Is it good for the progression of what jazz is supposed to be about—the furious invention, the boundless curiosity, the veneration of what has been only to the end of asking what may be?

No, probably not.

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