The outdoor programming at the 25th edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival was less than inspiring. Many of the groups, even the ones I enjoyed, catered to shtick, stage presence, and showmanship more than musicianship. The existence of three outdoor galas, as opposed to the standard single blowout, reflected this quite well. And the complaint that the Jazz Festival is increasingly drifting away from its moniker was more than amply valid this year.

The Shuffle Demons
Kitsch plagued the free programming I attended. Afrobeat was the big trend this year. Montreal-based group Afrodizz kicked off the wave of Fela-inspired groups, and they're a solid band. I wish I could say the same for New Yorkers Kokolo. I bolted after 20 minutes of identical drum grooves at the same tempo in D-minor, being passed off as two different songs, set apart by the presence of marginally different horn lines. They broke all the cardinal rules of pacing a set in one fell swoop. Afrodizz, not to mention Antibalas wipe the floor with these guys. Even the jazz programming was similarly flawed. The Odd Jazz Group, made up of French Montrealers, was on the whole quite interesting, although not nearly as "odd" as they proclaimed. Most of it was in odd time signatures (hence their name), but still in the timeworn head-solo-head format. To break it up, they sometimes resorted to what I refer to as "stupid instrumentalist tricks"--the alto player would go into the wailing high notes or the stereotypical free squawking, and the drummer would just bash the shit out of his kit, and the audience would go nuts. Those points, though thrilling, didn't make for very interesting music. Thankfully that was maybe only 25% of their set. The Shuffle Demons, a Toronto-based group, are pure shtick--they got a Guinness World Record recently for having 930 saxophone players playing one song at a given time. That song (which they reprised with their meager three saxophonists) was the Hockey Night in Canada theme. They also had songs with irreverent lyrics such as "Deli Tray" and "The Funkin' Pumpkin." The crowd loved it--maybe I'm jaded but I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes.

Dapp Theory
Sound was also less than stellar on multiple occasions. It took a while for Andy Milne & Dapp Theory to warm up, I thought. Milne was not happy with the digital piano they gave him, and Sean Rickman couldn't adjust his drums exactly right. The MC was really spastic, and his flow only really hit stride in the second half of the set. The bassist, Anthony Tidd, was rock solid all the way through. The odd meters grooved like hell. The MC needs to calm down and expand his palette of rhymes, because there was way too much repetition within a given verse. In spite of this, he did have a few awesome verses at one point, which left me impressed with him overall. If you like Steve Coleman's stuff (all except the MC have worked with him in the past), you'll like Dapp Theory. Bad sound also plagued the Effendi JazzLab set. This group of Montreal all-stars on a local, independent label were cursed with absolutely atrocious sound. The bass was way too loud, the drums sounded like rock drums (an overly muffled bass drum, close miked, a very overmiked snare sound, and nearly no cymbals being picked up), there was weird miking on the horns, and the piano sounded like I don't know what. The best sound was standing in front of the Bell Stage, half a block away. Not good.

The outdoor portion of the festival still had diamonds in the rough. My personal highlights:

Michael Blake
Blake Tartare--A group headed by Montreal-via-New York saxophonist Michael Blake with three of the top young Copenhagen musicians, played outside for free and this was by far and away the best outdoor show I saw, on purely musical terms. Even when they devolved into the tricks of squealing or the pianist taking a solo on water bottle (think the intro to "Watermelon Man" off Headhunters), it served a musical purpose. Their tune "Lemmy Caution" was ferocious on the out-head; it sounded like Radiohead fronted by Dewey Redman. When Blake plays tenor and soprano at the same time it's more than a gimmick, it's a certain sound he wants to achieve. I bought his CD on the spot.

Yerba Buena--Finally, the perfect conglomeration of stage show and musical interest. The grooves were deep and varied (only once did they put two songs with the same/similar groove back to back), they had great melodies, even though the vocals were out of tune sometimes, had the balls to do an awesome cover of Fela Kuti's "Zombie" (with NO HORNS!), and had some really good solos from Andres Levin (guitar), the bassist, and the percussionist. The percussionist had shtick out the wazoo, from moving his timbales to the front of the stage to taking off his shirt. The three singers plus Andres and the percussionist indulged in the requisite "get your hands up" and "when I say Yerba you say Buena" crowd control, but also had some great moments. The black female singer could pass for a young Celia Cruz vocally, and the gringa from my vantage point was smokin' and could belly dance and imitate Shakira's moves like no one else (except maybe Shakira). The male singer, Chino, played timbales with his dreads and was super loose and cool. I very well may go see them again tomorrow night. Sucks they didn't have horns and were playing to samples, but they did a really good job with it.

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