Sunday, July 5, 2015

After 36 years, the Montreal jazz festival could entertain a name change

Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose voice truly is an instrument, in front of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on Friday night at Theater Maisonneuve in Montreal.

Editor's note: During our visit to Montreal, I keep on hearing the line from Shakespeare, "If music be the food of love, play on." That fits. We love the city's annual jazz festival, and can't resist all of the wonderful food.


MONTREAL -- Just when I thought I've seen absolutely the best concert ever at the annual International Jazz Festival, an artist comes along and tops it.

On Friday night, that was Dee Dee Bridgewater, who surely is the world's No. 1 jazz singer, male or female.

Backed by the 15-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Bridgewater sang both joyous and dirge-like songs associated with the Big Easy -- including "St. James Infirmary," "House of the Rising Sun" and "Treme" -- that wowed a packed house in Theater Maisonneuve.

And her scatting imitated trumpets and trombones in the band, a performance that brought the audience to its feet.

Scatting from Dee Dee Bridgewater, left, added another trumpet to the orchestra's section.

Orchestra leader Irvin Mayfield at the head of a line of musicians as they waltzed up and down the aisles to end the concert triumphantly. Encores followed.

Flamenco and gospel, too

Our first concert this year, the 36th edition of the festival, was a spirited flamenco performance, and tonight, our last will be a large gospel choir.

As soon as the gospel concert is over, we plan to rush outside for the festival finale, a free two-hour tribute to blues legend B.B. King.

So, I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest the International Jazz Festival might want to insert the words "and World Music" into the name. 

The 10-day festival scheduled 300 concerts, from noon to midnight, many of them free. Venues ranged from outdoor stages with no seating to tents to nightclubs to grand concert halls.

We had front-row seats for Lo Esencial, called "pure, authentic flamenco," close enough to see the perspiration coating the faces of dancers Ana Perez and Kuky Santiago, and feel the swish of her dress' long, ruffled train.

On Saturday night, we also were seated in the first row at a concert by jazz singer Patricia Barber, who sat down at the piano and immediately took off her shoes and socks.

For The Record is described as a "wild performance troop," and this year, the singers, dancers and musicians presented a wicked cabaret performance based on music from the films of Australian director Baz Luhrmann.

Again, we were in the first row and had to pull our feet out of the way as the performers danced between the stage and the audience.

Jamie Cullum and Jessie Cook

We saw Jamie Cullum, the jazz singer from England, backed by a 15-piece band, most of them Montreal musicians, and he introduced each one by name.

Cullum, who has the energy of a rock singer, bounded onto the stage, and played a drum and nearly every part of the piano, including the keys, case, rim and interior strings.

Toronto-bred flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook and his band recalled the Andalusian rhythms we heard at our first concert, and we loved their acoustic encores.

Last Monday, the stylish Erykah Badu packed the biggest hall, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, and soon had more than 2,900 people on their feet for her performance, which was so highly amplified I couldn't understand many of the lyrics.

I was alone, because everyone else seemed to know the words and sang along. And Badu invited her fans to turn the 10 feet to 15 feet between the stage and first row into a dance floor.

Montreal audiences have no equal. Their enthusiasm is infectious. They're thrilled when an artist speaks to them in French, even if only a few words. And they roar their approval of a great performance. 

Escaping the cocoon

Guests of the Hyatt Regency, headquarter hotel for the festival, never have leave the air-conditioned comfort of the Complexe Desjardins, an enclosed mall on which it is built, and the adjoining Place des Artes, part of a vast network called Underground Montreal.

Said to spread over 20 miles, the network, connected by the city's Metro, was developed to cope with brutal winters and unpredictable summer weather, especially a rainy June.

Everything is within a short, climate-controlled walk: Food, from fast to food court to fine-dining; shops, a supermarket, and more concert halls than in Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

On Friday night, after that incredible Dee Dee Bridgewater concert, we decided to go outside and see who was performing at 10 p.m., instead of using underground passages to the hotel.

Then, after a singer took the stage, we wanted to return to the hotel, and got caught in pedestrian gridlock for 15 minutes before we reached our hotel entrance. 

At Rambla, a new Spanish restaurant in East Montreal, my starter on Saturday night was a winner: Cooked and raw vegetables served on a bed of minced black beets and pureed avocado. They were served in a large sardine tin.

East Montreal

On Saturday, we strolled up St. Catherine Street to East Montreal, where we found an art festival, natural food stores and many restaurants with platforms for outdoor seating.

We returned for dinner by subway -- our first meal in a week outside the hotel and food court -- and chose a Spanish restaurant, Rambla.

Plenty went wrong with the service, and the tab topped $100 with two glasses of red wine, tax and tip (the U.S. dollar is worth about $1.20 Canadian), but we enjoyed the food and the lively scene, including a combo playing in front of the Metro entrance.

We discovered East Montreal, like Manhattan's East Village, is the center of gay life in the French Canadian city.

At Rambla, the waitress never asked my wife how she wanted her steak cooked, and it had to be sent back twice ($21).

I told the waitress I don't eat meat, but my marinated trout came topped with Iberico ham, which I gave to my wife ($19). We probably should have ordered a paella to share from the limited menu.

Rambla and most restaurants on St. Catherine Street East have outdoor seating, and open dining rooms.

That could mean people at indoor tables, like us, have to contend with flies.

A small tin of organic extra-virgin olive oil from Spain is on every table at Rambla. I drizzled oil over my starter of vegetables, and dipped bread crusts in it.

A glass of Spanish red wine was $8.


Rambla, 1272 St. Catherine St. East, at Visitation, Montreal, QC.

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