Last night’s double bill at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier — Lyle Lovett and his acoustic group followed by Chris Isaak and his musicians — both confirmed and challenged my usual stance on the Jazz Festival’s predilection for non-jazz musicians. Let me explain.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival (FIJM) is often criticized (and sometimes lauded) for its inclusion of artists not generally considered to be jazz musicians. Bob Dylan, for instance, was one of the big headliners in 2007. Unquestionably one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation, Dylan is nevertheless not a jazz musician.
In my humble opinion, I think it’s great that the FIJM invites such a broad range of artists. Not only is it good for Montreal in terms of attracting tourists, it also potentially exposes a broader range of people to jazz. Furthermore, who’s to say where to draw the jazz line? It’s like planning a wedding: some people choose to invite only their closest friends and relatives, others draw the line at first cousins, and still others take the opportunity to have a family reunion, inviting every long-lost 3rd cousin they haven’t seen for decades… as well as their friends.
The FIJM is in the latter category, and let’s face it: whether it be a wedding or a jazz festival, it makes for a bigger and better party. The more the merrier, and after all, they’re all related, even if distantly. Most of the musical acts at the FIJM have their roots either in the blues, or in Afro-Cuban-Latin rhythm (or both), and most feature improvisation.
Which brings me to last night. First, let me disclose my bias: I went to see Lyle Lovett, not Chris Isaak. I love Lyle Lovett (say that five times fast), and I think it’s completely justifiable to include him in a jazz festival. Yes, much of his music has a countryish, bluegrass sound, but the virtuosic soloing, the hints of soul and R&B, the bluesiness and the sophistication of the arrangements all reveal a family resemblance to jazz, even if purists might claim otherwise. (I’ll get to Chris Isaak in a minute.)
Lovett and his band did not disappoint. The acoustic group was made up of Keith Sewell on mandolin and guitar, Luke Bulla on fiddle, Viktor Krauss on double bass, and Russ Kunkel on drums. These musicians are some of the best in the business and it was a pleasure to hear them play with Lovett, and also to get to know the music of Sewell, Bulla, and Krauss, whose original compositions were generously highlighted by Lovett.
The 2-hour set evoked the south (where most of these men call home) through its bluegrass/blues/country/rockabilly sensibility. Highlights included the purely instrumental second tune, which featured some crazy Lydian licks improvised by Bulla on the fiddle; the hilarious “Here I Am,” whose alternating spoken verses and sung choruses poke fun at the difficulties of romantic relationships (“Look, I understand too little too late/I realize there are things you say and do you can never take back/But what would you be if you didn’t even try, you have to try/So after a lot of thought I’d like to reconsider/Please, if it’s not too late, make it a cheeseburger”); the soulful anthem “I Will Rise Up”; and the great “You Can’t Resist It.”
Lovett was quite talkative, his dry, almost caustic sense of humour extremely entertaining. He told us about the time he was just starting out, playing as an opening act at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. In those days he was often compared to the great Jesse Winchester, whose “Isn’t That So” he does a great cover of. Winchester was headlining, and Lovett was excited but intimidated when the older artist introduced himself. Apparently Winchester said “They say we have a similar sound,” to which Lovett, in awe, began to mumble something about how honoured he was to be mentioned in the same sentence as Winchester. But before he could get the words out, Winchester continued, flatly, “I don’t hear it.”
Lovett prefaced the fun “Keep it in your pantry” with a monologue about traveling without your significant other, and the importance of not appearing to have too much fun — or eat too much good food (metaphorically or otherwise) — while on tour. He explained that country music makes you sad, brings you down, but bluegrass can kill you! And he thanked Montreal for the cool (29 degrees C) weather, having just come from Texas.
At the end of the long set, the audience gave him a standing ovation, and he responded with an encore; the audience wanted more again, but it was time to set up for Chris Isaak.
Isaak is in some ways the perfect counterpart to Lovett: a fellow pusher of pure Americana, he was channeling Elvis Presley in his shiny turquoise suit and his hip-swaying choreography, and in his banter with the crowd as well (his cordless mic allowed him to mingle with the lucky people on the parterre). But here’s where my support of the FIJM’s all-inclusive policy was challenged: where Lovett has a few fingers in the jazz pie, Isaak is unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.
I realize this makes me a hypocrite, as rock ‘n’ roll of course has its roots in the blues, and features some great improvised soloing while also sharing some syncopated rhythms with its jazz cousin. But even Isaak expressed surprise at having been invited to the Jazz Festival!
Nevertheless, it seemed that much of the audience had come to see him, not Lovett, and he put on a great, well-rehearsed, extremely entertaining show. I guess the moral of the “is it jazz” story is: go hear the artists you like, and let others do the same.