Tallest Man on Earth
Montréal Jazz Festival
Montréal Jazz Festival 2016,
Jul 20, 2016
The sun shone brightly for entirety of this year's Montréal Jazz Festival, right through until the festival's close, when the skies turned grey and rainy. It's a nice metaphor for just how much the two weeks of music that the event brings to town utterly transforms the lives of everyone in the Quartier des Spectacles and beyond.
Once again, the festival's program is diverse, using jazz as a suggestion rather than a definition—and with names like Lauryn Hill, Brian Wilson, Danny Brown, and The Tallest Man on Earth on the line-up alongside a lot of jazz, there's something for everyone.
Our 2016 experience was opened by prodigal son Rufus Wainwright, in town to show off his Prima Donna opera. Seven years since it first debuted at the U.K.'s Manchester International Festival, the production is playing here in a truncated hour-long version. Original reviews were mostly negative, highlighting Wainwright's confused approach: "it's just not opera," most seemed to concur.
Time has helped work out some of the flaws, although Wainwright's clearly at pains with how audiences might react. He even emerges on stage at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to assure the opera buffs and die hard Wainwright fans that it's only 60 minutes until the interval.
What amounts to a highlights take on Prima Donna goes down very well and the orchestra doubles up for Wainwright in the second half—a packed 90-minutes of his most well-known songs, with lush, expansive arrangements. "Oh What a World" sounds sublime, the lavish strings pulsating with optimism and life. Sister Martha Wainwright joins him for a duet on "Little Sister" and cousins Lily and Sylvan Lanken join for the encore of "Hallelujah."
Later in the week, Martha and sister Lucy Wainwright Roche play a show inspired by the duo's first album together—Songs in the Dark, a collection of nursery rhymes and dark lullabies. While at times things feels a little uncoordinated, the pair really come alive when paying tribute to their famous family, with songs from their mother, aunt, and father hitting the mark.
British trio The Comet is Coming are the biggest surprise of the festival. Occupying a space hinted at by Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, they could equally fit on a festival line-up next to Swans, Neu!, and Can. Debut LP Channel the Spirits isn't so much reworked for the performance setting as it is a starting point for one of the greatest live spectacles around right now. It's without restraint and without prejudice—this is a universal spiritual experience that requires only a love of music and an open mind.
It's the first time I've seen Kristian Matsson's Tallest Man on Earth perform with a band and it's slightly disconcerting, I have to say. Matsson's appeal for me always came from his ability to fill the space around him on the stage so profoundly and those moments when he flies solo are still the most striking and memorable. Basia Bulat opens for him at Metropolis, warming up the crowd with something not quite so intense but equally as affecting. Bulat's warmth offers a contrast to Matsson's often icy demeanor and the balance gave the festival its best pairing all week.
Hip-hop wasn't represented as much as I'd hoped in this year's program (and The Sugarhill Gang cancelled) but including Danny Brown is a bold and positive move. As usual with Brown, it's all about the crowd. His hamfisted skill as a showman is what matters—an ability to work a room up into a frenzy with a minimal set-up, sparse banter and a set list that juts around his entire career. The highlight of his show at the half-full Metropolis actually comes with closing track "Dip." The floor shakes. It's insane. And there's Brown: goofy grin and all, sporting a Wu-Tang Clan shirt center-stage.
Brian Wilson was named the recipient of the festival's Spirit Award, collecting it the morning after his Pet Sounds anniversary show at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. If you've ever been touched by the sad, dark, and beautifully nuanced poetry of Pet Sounds, seeing Wilson live can be something of a shock. In his advanced years, Wilson's found more of an audience among the surf-sound loving mom and pops (who arguably can afford the crazy ticket prizes his appearances come with) than the twenty-something hipsters who define Wilson by Pet Sounds and Surf's Up rather than "Barbara Ann" or "Fun Fun Fun." A show with Wilson isn't a dark journey into the soul of a musical genius, it's a nostalgia trip.
With an 11-piece band around him—including Beach Boy Al Jardine and Jardine's son Matt—these anniversary shows deliberately balance Wilson's legacy with the reality of his paying audience. The addition of sometime Beach Boy member Blondie Chaplin (who joined the band during one of their least memorable periods in the early '70s) adds little to the overblown arrangements but there are still some tender moments. "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My shoulder)" sounds incredible and "Love and Mercy" melts the entire room.
On the outdoor stages, Jamie Cullum offered up the most interesting spectacle of the entire festival. I can hear the purists around me having mild strokes when Cullum jumps onto the top of piano. They pretty much keel over once he breaks into a cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry." Cullum's credentials have him cast as a softly yobbish and quintessentially British take on Harry Connick Jr. while his show on BBC Radio show has made him the emissary of palatable kitchen jazz. This isn't a criticism. Cullum is really the jazz-world Robbie Williams or Justin Timberlake: an entertainer first and foremost and someone who has chosen showmanship and audience over the cerebral and obscure. Playing a prime space for his free show, Cullum overcomes some of the sneers around me to almost rapturous applause. It's all smiles and good feelings, just as it should be and in keeping with the spirit of this amazing festival.
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