The Montreal Jazz Festival is one of the great musical joie de vivre blow-outs on the planet. I’ve been going to it since l999, when I did a story about it for Travel + Leisure. The most memorable concert I have gone to was Joao Gilberto, the great bossa nova guitarist and singer, six or seven years ago. He kept the sold out crowd in the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier waiting for an hour. Finally as we were all fuming and clapping our hands angrily he walks out in a suit with his guitar, sits on a stool, and for the next three hours goes through the entire bossa nova repertoire, one song of Jobim, Vinicius, Bonfa, Baden Powell, etc, after another without interruption or introduction, with spare zen-like precision, not hitting a single false note or off rhythm with his voice or guitar. An absolutely astounding performance that blew us all away. Then he just got up and left the stage.We all got up screaming bravo clapping wildly hoping for an encore, but he never came back.
One of the great things about the Festival du Jazz is that it’s one of the few venues in the modern world where the elders are venerated. I have seen the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Ray Charles all in their eighties, almost nothing left of them physically, give amazing performances that only accentuated the elusive spirituality of the musical transmission. Such was the case with 79 year old Sonny Rollins, the last of the greats, who played and recorded with all the cats, Theolonius, Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Miles, Bud Powell, J.J.Johnson, Max Roach, Clifford Brown et al. One of my main buddies, George Goodman, who was a legendary writer for Look and later a reporter for the New York Times and is himself a gifted sax and flute player, has been writing the official biography of Sonny for several years and is about to deliver it, so I was curious to see what he was like, having heard many of the cats in the early sixties when I had a fake i.d. that said I was the crown prince of Afganistan, but never him. George says he is a lovely man, unlike Miles and most the other greats, who were motherfuckers, and this came through with the mellow unassuming persona he projected. He was a frail old man, almost dwarfed by his sax, at times it seemed like he could hardly hold it up, but man could he get some sounds out of it. Sonny’s thing is improvisation, and he kept on wittily throwing in all sorts of instantly recognizable quotations from classical and folk music. What struck me was how much his approach to jazz resembled this thrush that has been singing for a mate in our back alley, the same species I heard at our camp deep in the Adirondack woods last weekend. The song starts with pure, clean, liquid fluting, G to A, which is following by a wheezing, mocking commentary, a complex cluster of notes that is never quite the same.
Monday evening I had a great reunion with Taj Mahal, the legendary bluesman. I had not seen him since we jammed for hours in a music store in Berkely in l970. A 23 year old long-haired hippie who had been tripping around communes in northern Cal and scenes in the Bay Area, I was trying out one of the guitars, and in walks this big black dude. He hears me playing an intricate stride-thumb rag, Gary Davis’s Slow Drag, which I learned from the master himself, and picks up another of the guitars, and we played all the songs I learned from Davis, which he knew cold, and he comes out with some great old southern country blues numbers I didn’t know and tried to keep up with, but this guy really knew his shit and blew me away, then he said, well I gotta go, nice playin with ya, and shook my hand and left. And only after he was gone did I realize, shit that was Taj Mahal. I had just been trying to figure the tricky riff in his version of “Good Morning Little School Girl,” on his double album, Giants Steps/Ol Folks At Home, which had come out a year earlier.
Since then, Taj, a real scholar of the roots, had gone to Mali and done an album with Toumani Diabete, the legendary kora player, which whom I stayed when I went to Bamako a few years ago and recorded “One Morning Soon” with Toumani’s insanely fantastic guitar player, Fantamady Kouyate (You can hear the original one-take version in the Music From Many Lands section, and the parts that Kate McGarrigle used in her arrangement of “One Morning Soon” on Suitcase on the Loose). So I was really looking forward to seeing him again after all these years and comparing our musical journeys. Unfortunately, his tour manager, whose name was Kong, said Taj could only “do a hang,” there would be no time to jam and maybe record a few minutes at my pal Bob Olivier’s studio, as I was hoping. They had barely made it to Montreal, having missed their flight, and Taj had some cousins he had to see, one of whom was not well, so the only time he had was right before he went on. So I went back stage at the Metropolius, and there he was. A huge black dude with a Hawaian shirt and a panama hat, now 67. He lives in Hawaii, but most of the time since l967 he has been touring, he told me. With him were three ladies, his relatives, and his old friend Doudou Boicel, a French Guyanan who ran the Rising Sun, a club where Taj and everybody else under the sun played in the seventies, before the jazz festival was founded. We could hear through speakers the Thunderbirds, a white southern blues band who were the opening act and were outstanding.
Taj told me he grew up in Harlem and one side of his family, which I think included the three ladies, was from St. Kitts. So he had a Caribbean component, and so did Sonny Rollins, he told me, which I hadn’t known, and which explained a lot. I told him last year I went to Andros and met the niece and a protege of the great Bahaman rhythm and rhyme singer/guitarist Joseph Spence, and Taj started singing one of Spence’s tunes. We reminisced about Manny Greenhill, Taj’s first manager, who bought my songs not long after Taj and I jammed in the music store, which he had no recollection of. He was fortifying himself with a bottle of Barbados brown rum and this was obviously not the time to get into a deep discussion about the similar melodic sequences that produce more or less the same emotions that I have collected in many cultures, countries, and continents in the last 45 years, or to run my theories about the universal language of music by him, which needed to be illustrated with guitar playing. Then it was time for him to go on. He was a force, his blues had a driving good-time African groove, like Texas roadhouse blues from the forties, or the juke joints of Bamako. Not a lot of subtlety, but every once in a while he would take off with some riff or syncopation that was completely out of the box but completely in rhythm. A heavy dude, who has created his own niche and legend. I hope to get down with him while we’re both still here, but that is not in our hands. Except my success in making my book and t.v. series, Chasing the Wail, happen.
But now I’ve just found out that I’m going to Tampico, to write about the last 8000 ridleys and how they are faring in the nightmare in the Gulf.