The Montreal International Jazz Festival offers a broad palette of styles covering disparate jazz formats, and, like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and most other “jazz” festivals in North America, adds a significant dose of popular music acts to boost attendance.
Last year, the festival staged a mock Mardi Gras parade that ran for a mile in the center of town. The event looked more like something you’d see in Disneyland than on St. Charles Avenue until the float bearing the Soul Rebels cruised down St. Catherine Street. The Rebels’ spontaneity and second line insouciance pumped a rippling surge of electricity through the procession, and when the Rebels’ float reached the Place Des-Artes, the band hit the main stage to jump start Trombone Shorty’s set with a wild jam session.
This year Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue and the Soul Rebels were back at the Montreal Jazz Fest along with Galactic. The Soul Rebels headlined the same stage where they supported Shorty last year and showed themselves up to the task. The band faced a formidable challenge from Prince, who stole all the headlines the days before with two astonishing four-hour shows at the Metropolis Theater. Using a larger-than-life format with multiple encores based on the classic funk marathons invented by James Brown and perfected by Parliament/Funkadelic, Prince and his outstanding band played much of his most familiar work, plying his trademark brand of high-stepping Minneapolis funk along with feedback-dripping rock guitar pyrotechnics, fusion jazz, the sexiest version of “The Look of Love” ever conceived, and a paint-peeling performance from saxophonist Maceo Parker that served notice to all those grieving fans of the late-lamented Clarence Clemons that the Big Man wasn’t the only saxophonist on planet Earth.
When Prince decides to leave his mark, you know it. During “Controversy” he had the crowd chanting, “Montreal… Montreal.” During an extended vamp, he hijacked a sea of winking cell phones for his own purposes: “Call somebody! Call somebody right now! Call your boss. Tell him you ain’t comin’ into work until Tuesday because this party’s going ‘til then.”
The Soul Rebels don’t have a front man with the charisma of Prince, but they brought the funk with every bit as much heat, and when it comes to employing extended vamps and song themes linking fiery solos and breakdowns, even Prince’s tightly-rehearsed outfit has to take notice. The bands on the big outdoor stage get a pair of hour-long sets. In their first, the Rebels came out, played a fanfare, kicked into Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and kept going, pausing only three times during their relentless performance.
The following night Galactic charted a less expansive course, playing tightly focused sets that minimized jamming in favor of deep, disciplined grooves and terse songs. Corey Henry, a consistent presence in the band’s live shows for over a year, was featured on trombone and rapped a bit behind Living Colour singer Corey Glover, who fronted the band with authority. Glover’s version of “Heart of Steel” matched the definitive performance Irma Thomas gave to this great song on Ya-Ma-May.
The Soul Rebels and Galactic rely on their ensemble strengths rather than any one featured member, but Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue can match Prince on both counts—a band whose strength and coherence is second to none, and a front man who appears destined for singular greatness. Prince partied for hours, but in his set at the Metropolitan Shorty delivered every bit as much passion in a little over an hour, a short set because he was on a bill with Bootsy Collins.
Over the course of the past year, Shorty has worked more and more of the material from Backatown into the act. Now the record, which was great on its own terms, sounds like a terrific blueprint for a knock ’em dead live act. With each show, Shorty seems to grow in stature and poise, and the band moves with him; Pete Murano’s guitar playing is a crucial feature of the show. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” was a revelation for Shorty’s smooth, sexy vocal and Murano’s gorgeously framed guitar solo.
Then came the moment of truth: “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” One of Louis Armstrong’s most famous vehicles, this is a song that every New Orleans trumpeter has to come face-to-face with, and few can do much to keep from being occluded by Armstrong’s massive shadow. Shorty has turned this into his personal vehicle with a version that plays to every one of his and his band’s strengths, from the cleverly turned arrangement with its inventively phrased instrumental introduction, to Shorty’s confident, easy swaying vocal. It’s right there when Shorty combines old and new, bringing a smile of recognition to the old schoolers and a hip nod of the head from the millennials, who were blown away when Shorty followed with his 20-chorus-long held note solo. Shorty could probably do this circular breathing exercise all night, but he styles like he’s gasping for breath on the last turn, then falls to the stage on his back to wild applause before getting back up and going right into the last verse.
The set closed with a killer rendition of “Show Me Something Beautiful” with a sly nod in the coda to Chicago’s barnburner “25 or 6 to 4” and Murano’s brilliant Terry Kath-via-Jimi Hendrix guitar solo.
Shorty began his encore with a version of “Saints” that sounded like a jump blues tune with a second line beat, but he shifted into “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which grabbed the crowd by its collective throat. By the time they hit the chorus, everyone in the place was screaming “You! You! You!” and I was wondering what version they were hooking this to. Solomon Burke? Unlikely. The Stones? Definitely not. The Grateful Dead? Maybe at another venue. The Blues Brothers? Of course. They’ve all see the movie. Then, just as suddenly, everybody shifted instruments, members of Bootsy’s band were on stage and Shorty was playing drums to “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker.”
On the same stage where Prince had thrown the gauntlet two nights before, Trombone Shorty accepted the challenge and prevailed. The screams of delight after all this was over eclipsed even the reception for Prince.