Preview: Salzburger Jazz

In the City of Mozart, Autumn Begins to Swing

Salzburg, City of Music. Of Mozart. Of the Festspiel. Sure, we know all that.

But here’s the surprise: Salzburg is also a city of jazz, as I learned on July 25, when the Monty Alexander Trio played for a special Jazz Gala to announce the upcoming fall festival: The 11th Salzburger Jazz Herbst 07, Oct. 25 to Nov. 4, presenting 21 main attractions and another 60 events in bars, clubs and open stages and screens all over the city.

Maybe I should have guessed; in a city where audiences throng to hear everything from the early masters to the avant-garde, why wouldn’t they also love jazz?  This year’s festival, dubbed “Ladies First,” features a very enticing line up of leading female artists, including vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diana Reeves, pianists Lynne Arriale and Carly Bley, jazz cellist Rebecca Carrington and Maria Serrano’s troup of flamenco dancers. And of course also some big names among the men. (For the full schedule, see, www.jazz-herbst.at

An hour before the July concert, the park square in front of the Salzburg Kongresshaus was a pleasing scene of after-dinner ease, couples strolling, people settled on the benches chatting or reading, backpacks or shopping bags around their feet. Old and young, business types, tourists and locals, most – even the tourists – quite well-dressed. The Salzburg effect. The line in front of the hall is already quite long, although it will get longer. In the end, the 2,200 seat hall will nearly sell out.

Inside, as concert time approached, the seats filled quickly. The hall doesn’t seem as big as it really is, lending an unexpected sense of intimacy; people greeted friends as they passed; strangers struck up conversations as they waited. Erich Hampel, General Director of Bank Austria-Creditanstalt and principal sponsor of the evening, entered with a small entourage, acknowledging smiles and waved hands and took his seat at the front. After a few words from producer Johannes Kunz, the concert began.

Monty Alexander is an interesting musician. Jamaican born, the rhythms of calypso and reggae are fused with the jazz classics he absorbed very young and that, while still a teenager, put him on stage in Las Vegas and New York playing with the Art Mooney Orchestra, Ray Brown and Dizzy Gillespie and even Frank Sinatra. Over the course of his long career, he has crossed back and forth between the worlds of jazz, pop and classical music, in 1993, for example, accompanying opera diva Barbara Hendricks singing Duke Ellington, and in 1996, performing with orchestra George Gershwin’s famous concert piece Rhapsody in Blue under the baton of Bobby McFerrin.

Alexander took his seat at the piano, and out of the live stillness of the bass and drums, the lines of melody emerged – Jules Styne’s “Just In Time” – Alexander’s sure hands gathering up the audience into an embrace of sound, bits of musical conversation tossed back and forth with drummer Herlin Riley with the daring of acrobats who seem to land effortlessly in perfect balance. From the keyboard, Alexander looked back around at Riley and bassist Hassan Shakur exchanging gestures, a phrase, an impulse let fly, as if they were playing ball, then with a lift of the shoulder, snatching it back out of the air.

It was settled, its intricacies so worked out, yet so effortless, we were entirely convinced. It was a style and a mastery – albeit with more flash –  that we might have heard from piano legends like Oscar Peterson, with whom Alexander is sometimes compared.

But Monty Alexander is not Oscar Peterson, and that’s a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re looking for. As the evening progressed, we heard a wide range of musical voices, tossing off references (bits of the Minute Waltz, the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, and the William Tell Overture, fast on one another)  and playing with idiom in a way that to this listener, while funny at first, was ultimately jarring – a confusion of style that suggested that little of it was to be taken seriously. It was almost as if it was all too easy for him, and the little asides were just to keep from getting bored.

But there were moments, as in the opening of his own piece. Renewal, so stunning and so original as to defy category, a light plinking of rain dripping on the roof into pools, then breaking into cascades of falling chords. Then suddenly he stands and reaches into the piano plucking the piano wires like a harp, without gimmickry, woven into the texture of natural music making. The sound then grew and expanded, weaving in calypso rhythms with classical runs and arpeggios, settling back in to a jazz voices of 9ths or 11ths…

Then an aggressive slap of “Dixie,” and the magic is spoiled. And we were suddenly nowhere, like a play list DJ who can’t make up his mind.

One high point had Alexander clapping in rhythm to an astonishing drumming extravaganza by Herlin, then turning to the audience jam along with the pulsing of an engine gaining momentum, threads of rhythmic patterns – then suddenly hushed, a transition so fragile no one dared breath, melting into the zither-like tremolos of a gentle piano ballade called “Hope.” Here, over Shakur’s bass melodies reaching in under the skin with the tenderness of a cello, Alexander was a poet supreme, inward and reflective, all his mighty tools at the service of a prayer.

In the end there was far more magic than muddle; the ensemble playing, three musicians thinking and moving as one mind, was astonishing.  And there was no denying that the crowd seemed to love all the witticisms and asides. The applause was torrential, the rumble of stomping feet bringing another half hour of encores.

At the final number – “Fly Me to the Moon” – the ORF camer a man is finally allowed down the aisle, and camera on his hip he gets his one close-up of musicians at play.

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