Saturday, July 01, 2006

Tribute to Ahmet Ertegun (Montreux, Switzerland)

There are 3 main venues at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Unlike other music festivals that take place in one venue (possibly with several stages inside) the town itself is the festival venue. There are free workshops (last year, David Sanborn gave a really engaging talk about Being A Sax Player), free open air concerts in 2 locations, trains and boats on the weekend that carry people around the lake or up the mountain along with a band, bars and clubs with live music... You have to buy tickets to see any of the shows in the 3 main venues, though.

The smallest is the Casino Barriere that usually features a more jazz-oriented lineup. Then there's the Miles Davis Hall, a club-like venue without seats. The younger acts seem to congregate there. And then, the Big Hall, the Stravinsky Auditorium. The Casino is on one side of the town, along the lake, and the Hall and Auditorium are on the other, in a nondescript convention hall. The Casino is not the original Casino, either, so you really don't get any sense of history in the venues, but each year, more than a hundred artists will fill these halls with music ranging from jazz to soul, R&B, blues, rock, hard rock, heavy metal, hip hop, reggae, Brazilian, African, electronic, trance, ambient...you name it. This year, we have artists as diverse as Ornette Coleman and Iggy Pop (hmm, maybe not as different as they sound...) Gnarls Barkley and Donovan.

The first big show, opening the 16 days of music, was the Tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Altantic Records. (I heard a rumor that Warner had "bought" the festival, so it's not surprising that there are more Warner related shows and acts.) It started off with the Great Founder, Claude Nobs, bringing Mr. Ertegun on stage for a little speech and then Les McCann and the Soul Survivors kicked off the music, joined by George Duke, Paolo Nuteli, a newcomer to Altantic, Ben E King and Solomon Burke singing the classic soul hits that made Atlantic what it was in the 50's and 60's. We had interviewed Solomon just before the show in his dressing room. He was one of the most gracious singers I have ever met! Heart as big as his body. He can no longer walk and is wheeled around by his absolutely knock-em-dead gorgeous daughters. But on stage, what a voice! Although it was just as moving to hear him sing his well-known hits, Ben E King could not hit the high notes anymore. But Solomon Burke? I think he's as much in his prime today as he was 40 years ago.

The front row in the auditorium was filled with Ahmet's friends and family and the camera often showed a black evening gowned old lady getting up to dance away. Very sweet.

The second half was produced by Nile Rogers, so it was a bit of a shock to hear Stevie Nicks doing a disco version of Stand Back and Edge of Seventeen, but the production was significantly toned down for Steve Winwood who sang Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind as well as Blind Faith's Can't Find My Way Home.

Early on, both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were scheduled to appear, so I am sure the audience thought they'd get a bit of Led Zeppelin, but Page canceled (surgery?) and Plant made it obvious from the beginning that he was there was a Honeydripper (remember them?) crooning Ray Charles numbers and other soul hits. Chaka Khan also chose not to do her own hits but sing Aretha Franklin songs.

The big surprise was Kid Rock. He started off with that country ballad (oh, I can't remember the title now!), a duet with his drummer girl (amazing voice!) and then rapped, spun disks, scratched (I think even the old folks were entertained!) played drums, guitars, and just showed us how talented he really is.

Chic's set at the end was a bit anticlimatic, but then all the acts appeared again on stage and brought out Ahmet himself. The artists gathered around him, sang a song he wrote, improvised tribute lyrics, rapped, made the old man rap... it just went on and on. I told the producer later on that it was the kind of show you'd never see in Japan. It was not very tightly produced, it was loose, and the end just kept going on forever. It felt like a family event and I was a non-family member who just happened to be there.

Meanwhile, Big Dog was ensconced backstage, shooting Kid Rock hanging with Paolo, Robert Plant refusing to be photographed, others goofing off with each other. I don't really like to be backstage unless there's a real purpose -- I feel like such a stalker/invader -- but I joined him long enough to get comments from Les McCann...and pick up a box of chocolates!

"Do you eat chocolate? Here!" He handed me his gift. Earlier, Claude had made a big deal on stage about how the artists were all getting special Swiss chocolate (from one of the festival sponsors, natch) and Nile laughed "I don't think I need any!" touching his belly. So with chocolates in hand, we finally left the venue and headed back to our apartment across from the Casino. It was nearly 3am.

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