Jazz By The Mediterranean
In a little over a decade, Monte-Carlo Jazz Festival has earned its stripes as one of the world’s leading jazz gatherings. The most recent edition saw the likes of Bobby McFerrin and Gregory Porter perform alongside John McLaughlin, Ranjit Barot and Shankar Mahadevan
It was around 18 degrees Celsius on the afternoon I made my way to the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Not bad for a late November day in Europe. The sun bathed the little coastal nation of Monaco in gold, its rays unimpeded by clouds or buildings. I took in the exquisite Belle Époque architecture on my way to the historic concert hall. It was like time travel.
Large frescoes of raging storms and calm, bucolic scenes, sculptures of demi-angelic sentinels presiding over the room, the immense chandelier, narrow and plush velvet-covered seats, the contrast of baroque gold and lush red— all harked back to an era long past. Tuxedos, gowns and flutes of champagne would fit right into this scene. But so would a blazer, jeans and a cold pint of Monaco Bière at this venue for the thirteenth edition of the Monte-Carlo Jazz Festival.
I looked across the opulent room searching for Jean-René Palacio, the festival director who I was to interview, and espied a few friends. Shankar Mahadevan, who is as respected for Carnatic vocal skills as he is famed for his Bollywood repertoire, was on stage conferring with the guitar maestro John McLaughlin. Behind the drum kit sat another very familiar Mumbai face: jazz and rock pioneer Ranjit Barot, part of McLaughlin’s touring band, The 4th Dimension, for the past few years. He was trying to sort out acoustical issues and wondered aloud if plexiglas panels around the drums would help. Mahadevan was recapping his song arrangements, as Cameroon-born bass player Etienne Mbappé and British keyboardist-drummer Gary Husband paid close attention.The Carnatic-Bollywood singer was McLaughlin’s featured `special guest star’ this year. Not wanting to disrupt the rehearsal, I exchanged greetings and went down to the green room for my scheduled conversation. With his silver-fox mop and goatee, knuckle-busting skull ring, beaded bracelet embossed with the words `Fuck Cancer’ and Springsteen-On-Broadway black hoodie, Palacio looked more rock impresario than jazz promoter. That anyway was his antecedent before he was appointed the festival director. He spoke passionately about jazz and rock music, the amorphous nature of the industry, the need to find new hooks to bring young people to jazz concerts (Snarky Puppy and Vulfpeck featured highly in the strategy) and his love for The Boss, who he dreams about bringing to Monte-Carlo despite his admitted futility of the idea.
The Monte-Carlo Jazz Festival started in 2006, featuring jazz greats Clarke Terry, Sonny Rollins and Marcus Miller. Palacio, unsurprisingly, has many close relationships with the world’s finest jazz stars. Miller has been a festival regular, even collaborating with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. This time he was scheduled to share the stage with the Belgian chanteuse Selah Sue. These kind of unusual and unlikely collaborations are a Palacio specialty.
In 2014 the impresario, who also programs the Antibes Jazz Festival, brought together Joe Satriani, Booker T. Jones, Trombone Shorty, Manu Katché and Marcus Miller for Monte-Carlo’s Sporting Summer Festival. A year earlier he combined the Philharmonic Orchestra with legendary torch song doyen Shirley Bassey, piano wunderkind Lang Lang and rapidly rising jazz-pop sensation Jamie Cullum. It’s his way of stirring the pot to create intrigue to pull in the crowds.
This year’s lineup included a number of non-collabs too: vocalist Gregory Porter and his band; the inimitable Bobby McFerrin; Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah (whom McFerrin expressed a desire to collaborate with); French accordionist Vincent Peirani; Franco-American funk, soul and hip-hop crowd pleasers Electro Deluxe; and—in keeping with global jazz festivals keen on luring a wider audience with a non-jazz star—Boy George and Culture Club.
The crowd gave a rousing welcome to McLaughlin and gang as they took the stage. A longtime resident of Monaco, McLaughlin’s practically a homeboy. He began by graciously announcing his guest and his band, offering warm and generous praise for their musical excellence, and launched into a cracking set filled with a rich mix of material from times past and more recent. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was revisited through such classics as “Lila’s Dance,” “Lotus Feet,” “Trilogy” and “You Know, You Know.” They explored McLaughlin’s new millennium work with The 4th Dimension in “Here Come the Jiis,” “Light at the Edge of the World,” “El Hombre Que Sabia,” “Gaza City” and “Echoes From Then.” Mahadevan deftly wove aalaaps through the band’s tight arrangements, bringing in a couple of his own solo tunes early in the set. He began with “Bending the Rules,” which segued into his pop hit “Breathless” before capping it off with a revisitation of his Remembering Shakti days with McLaughlin and Ustad Zakir Hussain in “Giriraj Sudha”.
The audience lapped up every last bit of the “jazz-rock-ragas and beyond” set, enthralled by Mahadevan’s skilled vocalizations over McLaughlin and band’s tight AF rhythmic and melodic arrangements. A couple of encores later I found myself in the green room downstairs again, chatting with Mahadevan and Barot and their families, who had accompanied them to the festival. Mahadevan told me he had been, “Really looking forward to experiencing this amazing venue in one of the most beautiful countries in Europe, with mountains on one side and the sea on the other.”
Later, I stepped out into the crisp Monaco night. The gorgeous Mediterranean nation was all lit getting ready for Christmas. I wondered if I’d be back. I’d like to. Maybe Palacio will manage to lure Bruce away from Broadway and bring his show to the Opéra Garnier. If that happens, I think I’ll be here, in blazer and jeans, clutching a cold pint of Monaco Bière.
All photos courtesy of Monte-Carlo Jazz Festival