Saturday, July 5, 2008

Summer fun at Montreal Jazzfest

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Montreal, Canada, two blocks from the biggest town square festival ever assembled, listening to WWOZ on the Internet. It's July 4, U.S. Independence Day and Julie Posner is talking about the Essence Festival, the Superbowl of Soul Music events, which is going down in New Orleans right now. Just around the block from where I'm staying in Montreal a group of musicians from this other outpost of French influence in North America are about to pay homage to the music of New Orleans as part of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

"L'esprit de la New Orleans," as the small jazz band was called, proved to be an enjoyable little combo that took a relaxed approach to the standards and New Orleans classics in their repertoire as they played on a little stage in the middle of a plaza flanked by a beer garden and a wine bar where patrons sat and enjoyed the band. There was no confusing this music with the high octane set of New Orleans jazz played the night before by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but this music is serviceable even when being played by amateurs. The musicians enjoyed themselves without clowning around and were respectful to the music, kind of in a formal 1950s revival way as compared to the hot sound of the traditional enthusiasts. But when they played a languid "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in the warm late afternoon sun of a Canadian summer the moment had its own quiet sense of perfection. This is the perfect music for lounging around, sipping a frosty in the beer garden before you set out for an evening's activities.

Even as this was happening the members of Swing Tonic were getting ready on Sainte-Catherine Street for the day's Louisiana parade. When they kicked it off the crowd stopped to watch politely. Unlike a second line in New Orleans this was not a participatory event, it was a performance. Then the parade began moving to the sly groove of the Smokey Johnson classic "It Ain't My Fault" and the anthem sort of worked its magic as people got the idea and shuffled along behind the parade. Not exactly the Krewe De Vieux but it worked well enough.

Canada celebrated its own national holiday earlier this week, and Canadians are keenly interested in whatever is happening in the United States. Montrealers are particularly interested in what's going on in New Orleans. It's gratifying to see how deeply concern for New Orleans still runs in these audiences. Invariably people would come up to me while I was taking notes and when I told them I was writing for OffBeat the next question was always related to the city's recovery.

It's also interesting to note how many people at the festival were aware of OffBeat magazine, the Louisiana music publication where I serve as Consulting Editor. One of them, John Dodge, leads a band called the Fat Tuesday Brass Band. Dodge is a music teacher and audio engineer who had a life-changing moment upon first hearing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

"I had been a bass player, but when I heard that music I knew I had to start playing a sousaphone," says Dodge.

Dodge's group -- two trumpets, tuba, trombone, saxophone, bass and snare drum -- plays contemporary brass band music, mostly composed by Dodge himself with a fresh take on a few old chestnuts. Dodge has a complete understanding of this music's structure and writes engaging charts that make good use of brass harmonics. The technically proficient musicians in his band were hand selected and tutored by Dodge in the mysteries of this ritual music.

"I've been doing this for six years now," he says. "I'm doing the bookings myself so things are moving along at a slower pace than I would like, but I don't see why we couldn't be playing every festival around. We're kind of unique. Most of these Dixieland bands just exist to play corporate events."

The Fat Tuesday Brass Band has a representative album under its belt. It's well worth a listen.

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