The first was Herbie Hancock, a legend I've been listening to since I first picked up a saxophone and discovered jazz. He got his start with one of the greatest jazz ensembles of all time, hired by Miles Davis and playing with Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. He worked on the
The next night I caught torch singer Gretchen Parlato with the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet. The show was in Gesù Theater, housed in an 1865 stone church. The acoustics about as perfect as possible. She was practically whispering at one point, with just a stand-up bass accompanying, and the few hundred privileged enough to be there could hear every breath. It was a mesmerizing performance throughout, the kind of show that made me remember just how great live jazz can be in the right kind of setting, when masters are on stage.
I was going to have to leave the morning after my final concert, but as soon as Ben Harper came on stage at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier Place des Arts, I knew that this show was going to top them all.
When Ben Harper is in front of a rapt audience, he's a rock star in all the right ways. The 3,000 people in the theater hung onto his every word, like it was an experience where every second should be savored. He has that rare combination of humility and confidence that elevates him to the level of a mystic who must be heard. The audience's talking rarely rose above a whisper, even up in the balconies.
There was no stage chatter that didn't serve to communicate, no cheap baiting of, "Hello Montreal! How y'all doing tonight?!" You almost feel Harper would hate himself the next morning if he had to resort to that. He would be ashamed to plead, "Put your hands together now!" He's never gives off the vibe of a rote performer going through the motions, rather a musician who cares deeply about the craft and wants to share his joy. I'm amazed by how much space lies in between the notes he and his bandmates are playing, how all of the players are more than willing to hold back and let the music breathe. Or just make no noise at all. There's no "wall of sound" here, no need for a musical masturbation of virtuosity to show the plebeians that the people on stage really know how to play. At times it was completely silent in the theater between songs, with no noodling, no small talk to fill the vacuum. The crowd just waited, full attention at the ready.
When Harper stepped up to the front of the stage without a mic in the middle of one song and sang acapella for a minute, it was mesmerizing. Sure, he had done this before, and will do it again, but that doesn't mean it's a cheap trick. Only a person who can command the silence of 3,000 people and can deliver a song in a voice strong enough to reach them can pull the feat off. Most autotuned pop stars of today would be scared shitless to even try.
Plus there was Charlie Musselwhite singing and playing the harmonica alongside Harper. Here's a man so legendary a character in The Blues Brothers movie was based on him. Harper reminded the audience that Jimi Hendrix had Musselwhite albums in his collection when he died before the duo ripped into song he dedicated to Trump, "I Don't Believe a Word You Say."
When people streamed out of the theater at the end, they were still whispering more than talking. When they spoke up at all it was to say things like, "Wow, just WOW!" The chatter reminded me of what it's like when people leave a movie theater after a powerful film and they're struggling to put what they just saw into words. They're not sure how to explain it, but they know they're going to be thinking about this one for a while.
I'm still thinking about it now. And wondering when I'll ever see so many great musicians again in the space of a few city blocks.
The Montreal International Festival of Jazz happens for 10 days around the beginning of July. See the info-packed official festival website (in English and French) and if you're going, you can view band videos to plan who to see and there's a link to download the schedule app. To see what else you can do in the city, hit the Montreal Tourism site.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer and the author of five travel books, including A Better Life for Half the Price, and Travel Writing 2.0. He has run the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003.
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