Friday, July 8, 2016

Every meal is a winner in Montreal, but some of the jazz concerts bomb

Jazz piano master Kenny Barron and Elena Pinderhughes delivering a mean, low-down, dirty blues on July 4 as their encore during the 37th edition of the International Jazz Festival in Montreal. Critics call the 20-year-old singer and flutist a "prodigy" 

Editor's note: With hundreds of free and paid concerts over 11 days, you'd expect a clunker or two at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. But I was really disappointed in two of the elaborate acts I paid more than $100 Canadian a ticket to see.


MONTREAL -- You'd have to go out of your way to have a bad meal in this sophisticated French-speaking city, but a bad concert seems unavoidable.

In attending eight days of the International Jazz Festival, I noticed the scent of marijuana was in the air at free outdoor concerts, and joints were readily available for sharing or purchase as Canada moves to legalize pot next year.

So, I'm wondering what the organizers were smoking when they agreed to stage a French opera or indulge a rap artist who didn't sing a note until two and a half hours after the scheduled start of her concert.

Singer-songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright thanked everyone from the tailor who made his elaborately brocaded suit to his husband, who was sitting in the audience.

With nearly 3,000 seats, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier is the biggest concert hall used during the Montreal festival, which ends on Saturday. Rufus Wainwright and rapper Lauryn Hill performed there on July 2 and July 5, respectively.

Rufus Wainwright

I didn't have much to go on a couple of months ago when I purchased three tickets for $118.75 Canadian each to Opera Primadonna & Rufus Wainwright Symphonique.

What a bomb.

The first half of the show was an opera sung in French that seemed to be a homage to soprano Maria Callas, one of the most influential and renowned opera singers of the 2oth century.

Enough musicians for two symphony orchestras appeared to be crammed onto the stage, and a large movie screen behind them showed framed photos of Callas, as well as an older actress removing her makeup in a dressing room. 

Wainwright sung during the second half of the concert, switching between a piano and a microphone stand at the center of the stage.

He also brought out a sister, nephew and niece to sing.

One of his angst-ridden songs went:

"My phone is on vibrate for you.

"Who knows what all these new drugs do?"  

Rapper Lauryn Hill finally started singing at around 10 p.m. after her disc jockey played a dozen reggae tunes and exhorted Canada to "legalize ganja." The concert started with a singer, bass-guitar player and drummer who weren't advertised. My teenage son dismissed them as a high school-level band.
The crowd waited and waited and waited for Hill to appear on stage at a concert that was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m., and booed several times.

Ms. Lauryn Hill

After keeping the audience waiting for more than two hours, Lauryn Hill finally appeared on stage playing a guitar in front of a wailing, highly amplified  nine-piece band and three backup singers.

I couldn't understand most of the lyrics, heard only noise and soon inserted the earplugs I brought from my hotel room.

She had technical problems with the guitar and when they couldn't be solved, she put it down and just sang. But I still couldn't make out most of the words.

This concert, which also cost $118.75 per ticket, was a waste, though my teenage son enjoyed it.

The best part for me and my wife was Hill's disc jockey and his repertoire of recorded Jamaican music.

Elena Pinderhughes

I bought tickets to see the Kenny Barron Trio & Elena Pinderhuges on the strength of her being described as an accomplished jazz singer.

Unfortunately, she performed only three songs written by a friend of Barron's, and all of them sounded the same.

Why she didn't sing any of the great jazz classics eludes me.

Ticket prices

The pricey tickets to the Wainwright and Hill concerts were the exception, and most events were far more reasonable than you'd find in Manhattan or even northern New Jersey.

Most of the concerts we saw lasted 90 minutes to 2 hours, exclusive of intermissions

Our favorite this year -- jazz singer Gregory Porter and his quartet on June 29 -- cost only $54.25 Canadian per ticket or about $38 U.S.

We paid only $68.75 Canadian to see jazz singer Emilie-Claire Barlow backed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which was augmented by her own quintet (her first name is pronounced "Emily").

Barlow, a talented singer and scatter,  performed Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joni Mitchell and original songs, and many of them were in French as a concession to the predominantly French-speaking audience.

And three tickets to hear jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander, who turned 13 on June 25, cost a total of only $125.70 Canadian.

Still top festival

This was our fourth annual trip to the Montreal bash, which is widely recognized as the best jazz festival in the world.

Improvements this year include a free grandstand -- with all but 10 seats available on a first-come, first-served basis -- from where we saw and heard English jazz and pop singer Jamie Cullum.

Cullum, backed by a Montreal-based big band, dazzled the thousands of fans who jammed the plaza for his free 2-hour show with his boundless energy and great voice.

And Montreal still ranks as one of the best cities in the world to dine out.

We enjoyed sharing a big salad and two wood-oven pizzas, including this one with fresh arugula, pesto and sliced tomatoes on Wednesday at Il Focolaio in downtown Montreal. That was just one of the great lunches we had during the International Jazz Festival.

Next: Restaurant Manitoba,
 Baton Rouge,
 Pizza Il Focolaio and Brasserie T!

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