Home Masthead Fièvre, la femme montréalaise et le jazz hot

Fièvre, la femme montréalaise et le jazz hot

Montreal JazzFest 2017 Michael Blake Photograph by Danilo Navas

The trumpet and alto saxophone, the piano, contrabass and drums…the iconic wail, vaunted arpeggio, the rattle and hum echoes in many parts of the Canada, but somehow the quintessence of the melody, the elaborate mysteries of the harmony and the elemental heartbeat is different when heard in the shadow of something called “Place des Arts” at The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. I remember something I read a long time ago: The essay is Panassié, Delaunay et Cie by Whitney Balliett. Discussing the book Le Jazz Hot a singular work of musical criticism written by Hugues Panassié and published in France in 1934, Balliett tells me that it was “the first book of Jazz criticism, and it put Jazz on the map in Europe, and in its own country – an English translation was published here (the USA) in 1936 as Hot Jazz – where the music had been ignored or misunderstood for its entire forty-year life.” Balliett then goes on to say “The French are old hands at introducing other cultures to themselves. Edmund Wilson often spoke of how much Taine’s Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise had influenced him, to say nothing of the English. Hot Jazz is a passionate work. Panassié had found what he believed to be the most beautiful music in the world, and the book rings with superlatives and clarion bursts.”

I feel as if I am seeing Balliett’s words… Panassié’s words come to life by the main stage at The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. I am standing close to a group of people listening to the Vancouver-born and bred saxophonist Michael Blake and his Red Hook Soul a group that brings together guitarists Tony Scherr and Avi Bortnick, pianist and keyboards player Erik Deutsch, electric bassist Tim Lüntzel, percussionist Moses Patrou, drummer Tony Mason with, of course, Blake blazing each new trail on tenor or soprano saxophone. I soon forget my allergy to the heat that has caused the skin on my face to burn as if in a house-fire. Remarkably I find that the fabric that sticks to my arm is not my own, but has been burned into my skin from a woman standing next to me. Her smell that swirls around intoxicates me. I find it hard to break away as we become immersed together in Blake’s playing of “King Curtis” in a style almost entirely free from anyone’s influence. Those violent, villainous phrases, with their steel structures and their tragic import are soul-stirring and nestle cheek-by-jowl with melodic curves of exquisite charm, full of sweet sadness played with characteristic, sombre force.

Wandering like a medieval apothecary I can only drink in the smell of steaming skin and sweat and frothing ale as the sound of a distant horn slices through the late-afternoon haze, striking glancing blows off murmuring tarpaulin and shuddering glass. I catch a broad hint of Gnawa diffusion; out in front, his swarthy skin shimmering in the haze, the Algérian Issam Bosli, is fronting the band Djmawi, seemingly howling in a wilderness of rai. His sobs and cries meld into the twang of his guitar and I become possessed only to be released in the trance of seven colours as if by Maleem Mahmoud Ghania of Essaouria and his Gnawa ensemble ushered in by the growling, ululating tenor saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, together berating the vainglorious spirit, tearing him, claws and all from the palpitating tissue of my heart. And I am whole again as Djamil Ghouli is stamping his feet on the stage beating out a tattoo not far removed from Bob Marley’s reggae riddim. I am glued to this stage, unable to tear myself away from the stage even after Djmawi winds down their act. As a result I miss Ambrose Akinsmusire who will no doubt affirm his deep “Africanness” in quite another, altogether unique musicianly manner. C’est la vie, I suppose…

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


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