Juggling Invitations, Among Other Things, in Montreal

Jul 10, 2017

Rubber duckies whirled through the air. One red. One yellow. One green.

And then she sat the green one on her head. And the yellow one on a little boy's head.

He didn't know what to do with the duck, but he was happy. So was his brother. So was his mother.

So was the juggler. Young, with a face full of smiles. Her brown hair with curls like a nest for the duck.

Her jumper red. Her fishnets red. Her socks yellow with blue duckies.

She was performing in the street at the corner of "Ste-Cat."

Credit Benoit Rousseau

And just down the festival street, entertaining a couple meandering, another juggler was flipping a red cylinder on a string. 

A clown on stilts came dancing by. A giraffe on stilts came dancing by. (Is "a giraffe on stilts" redundant?)

I have not yet seen some of the other mountebanks that entertain around the festival. Wheel-spinners. Wheel-riders. Fire-eaters. I've always assumed that they're all waiting for a chance with one of Montreal's most successful exports, Cirque du Soleil. They'll be all around the block this weekend.

Cellphones were clicking pix of the duckies-juggler.  

My memories were clicking.

Countless moments in the 25 years I have come to Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

*  *  *  *  *

Some of the best concerts through the years have been "Invitation" concerts. At every festival, an artist or two (or three) has been invited to play a variety of concerts with different groups. 

Pat Metheny played an entire "Invitation" festival, a concert every evening, including a 3-hour outdoor Grande Evenement in the street. I remember best the concert featuring Dewey Redman. I remember that Dewey's voice on the tenor sax sounded as if from deep in the earth. 

Michael Brecker played a great week, and especially great was  a  solo concert. Michael played without electronic devices and, with only his chops, Michael somehow criss-crossed what I called "sheets of riffs." 

Right around his 90th birthday, Hank Jones played a week of duets, including a two-piano concert with Brad Mehldau. I don't remember what the song was, but Hank was playing the chord changes so simply, so beautifully, that Brad didn't play. Brad listened, enraptured.  

Oliver Jones played his last "farewell" concert last year, but I remember best his first "farewell" "Invitation" week more than a decade earlier, climaxed by a solo concert. He's a beloved godfather to the Montreal jazz scene, and after playing a lovely recital, Oliver thanked everyone for his career and then said "What would you like to hear?" Oliver played a half-hour of requests shouted from the audience, one of the most loving performances I've heard at FIJM.

This year's festival spotlighted three groupings playing three concerts each, all 6 p.m. gigs at the Gesu, the intimate concert hall of the Jesuit church on the block next to Place des Arts. Ravi Coltrane played shows with Cuban pianist David Virelles, a new quartet, and a group called The Void with trombonist Robin Eubanks. The Bad Plus played a feisty trio gig and in quartets with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.

John Pizzarelli
Credit Benoit Rousseau for FIJM

I was compelled elsewhere for most of those concerts, but I happily managed to enjoy most of all three concerts with Invitee John Pizzarelli. He's been a regular at FIJM since 1990. I remember his concert two years ago, all songs of Paul McCartney. I remember also that half the show was John being very funny.  He started at the Gesu with a tribute to Frank Sinatra, highlighted by his telling the story of David Mann, songwriter of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Catherine Russell joined John for a swinging tribute to Billie Holiday. 

Next night's double-tribute featured John's wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, and daughter, singer and ("surprisingly," said John) guitarist Maddy. They sang some of  the Paul McCartney songs, but John and Jessica spotlighted some of the more touching songs of Joni Mitchell. John said that his concert of bossa nova songs a dozen years ago was his favorite at the jazzfest, and the last of his tributes revisited songs from the Sinatra/Jobim album. Joining him was Jobim's grandson Daniel. Daniel's voice sounds quite like his grandfather's, and all the classic songs were delightful.

An ironic (and wonderful) coincidence happened at the Gesu on the show after John's Jobim. Escalandrum, a group from Argentina is fronted by drummer Pi Pi Piazzolla, grandson of composer Astor Piazzolla. What are the odds that the grandsons of the two greatest South American composers were playing music of their grandfathers at the same theatre on the same evening? Astor told Pi Pi that he wanted everyone to play his music everyone's way. Together for more than 20 years, Escalandrum adapts what Pi Pi called the "articulations" of Astor's bandoneon to two saxes and a hearty bass clarinet. 

Astor was called the "Charlie Parker of tango," and the group showed how much they can bop tango, but the show was  mostly Piazzolla's songs, and the singer was one of the best I've ever heard. Elena Roger played Evita in the most recent revival on Broadway, and as in that show her voice is beautiful and blow-the-roof-off powerful, all the more remarkable resounding from a woman who defines petite. I've always felt that tango is the most passionately fierce music in the world. Whatever she was singing about in Spanish, I didn't have to know the words. Her voice was dramatic, and she often whirled her arms about as if a whip-crack of lightning. 

One of the composer's best loved tangos was an encore, "Adios Nonino," and Elena Roger came back to sing like a goddess.  I cannot remember ever before shouting "brava!"