Krall, Mehldau and Bass Maestros Dominate Rich Montreal Program
Posted 7/31/2014

For many fans, the banner moment at the 35th annual Montreal Jazz Festival was a free outdoor concert on June 29 by the sardonic Diana Krall, who first gained notoriety at the festival 20 years ago.

But on the same night, there was another artist at the fest with an entirely different trajectory: Mallorca, Spain-born, Miami-based Concha Buika may be the real diva, since she eschewed all press interviews, perhaps a reflection of her uncompromising passion.

For her debut at Théâtre Maisonneuve, a barefoot Buika sauntered onstage and, after a bare-bones introduction from the cajónist Ramon Porrina, launched full bore into the raspy agony of “Mi Niña Lola,” the title track of her superb 2006 CD (Warner Music Latina). “There is so much going through my mind when I sing,” she exclaimed.

Meanwhile, in the Place Des Arts, a 100,000-strong crowd had gathered on Rue Jeanne-Mance to watch Krall.

Formerly shy (she used to barely raise her head from the piano while playing), Krall still isn’t smitten with blockbuster presentation, but she and an executive sextet—featuring brilliant stylistic gadabout guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Karriem Riggins—put on a classy show. It began protractedly but dramatically with Jumbotron footage of actor Steve Buscemi heralding a baleful, ironic reading of the rather trite lyrics to “When The Curtain Comes Down.”

Krall’s set drew from her 2012 album, Glad Rag Doll (Verve), and her upcoming release, Wallflower (due out Oct. 21 on Verve), which features songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. She also nodded to old-school jazz à la Fats Waller with a rollicking “I’ll Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter,” which she played on a barrelhouse upright piano, which she joked featured a secret minibar (echoing an earlier crack about bathing in gin).

Krall was refreshingly unpretentious given the enormity of the occasion. Despite the largesse of the refurbished main stage festooned in red drapery—with vintage Groucho Marx movie clips and macabre cartoons rolling in the background—she deftly deflated the pomp and circumstance with laid-back wit and casual expletives.

Krall’s hubby, Elvis Costello, joined her after his own solo set at the breathtaking Maison Symphonique. Costello had been similarly charming and chatty after receiving the festival’s Spirit Award, although his singing voice proved unreliable and he might have chosen to perform the meaningful personal narratives of his new material, instead of older tunes like “Shipbuilding,” which seemed off-form, especially in such an acoustically refined venue.

On July 1, pianist Brad Mehldau followed Keith Jarrett’s solo performance of three nights prior in the symphony space. Highlights included a medley of “I’m Old Fashioned” and Tom Waits’ “Martha,” followed by Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and a somewhat surprising—given Mehldau’s preference for lugubrious tempos and romantic sojourn—blues-drenched romp through Bobby Timmons’ “This Here,” during which the ambidextrous maestro gave his left hand the melodic duties, spinning counterpoint with the right. Several diaphanous encores sent the packed crowd home happy.

Mehldau had an especially busy night on July 2 as he had back-to-back gigs in duo settings with “Invitation Series” honoree and pianist Tigran Hamasyan at Gesù and later at L’Astral with drummer Mark Guiliana.

The gig with Hamasyan, who took the Invitation series baton after trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire carried it for three nights, was a piece of cake for Mehldau. As host, Hamasyan naturally did most of the work. During a deconstruction of an ethereal Armenian song of prayer—during which he mixed in choral recordings (an historicizing collage conceit pioneered by Jason Moran) while singing along in falsetto—Mehldau merely played skeletal diatonic accompaniment.

Bassists were salient at this edition of the “world’s largest jazz fest,” a claim authenticated by the Guinness Book of Records. The most decadently dressed bassist was Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White, who showed up at a press conference in tight white pants, yellow shoes and a frilly shirt. (In a boast about the band’s popularity, Ralph Johnson of EW&F stated that the group’s music is heard somewhere in the world every 1.85 seconds.)

On July 1 alone, three great bass players held forth: slap king Marcus Miller with his fusion sextet at Théâtre Maisonneuve; reggae legend Robbie Shakespeare (looking almost adolescent in short-leg pants and skewed baseball cap aside Sly Dunbar at Metropolis); and, finally, Christian McBride at Gesù.

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Diana Krall (far left) performed songs from her upcoming album, Wallflower, at the Montreal Jazz Festival on June 29. (Photo: Michael Jackson)

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