As I get older I find that each year there are certain events I try and get to annually and subsequently provide a framework around which I plan my year and travels. The French Open tennis at Roland Garos in Paris in late May/early June, The ATP Master’s Tennis tournament in London each November, The Glastonbury Festival in June whenever I can get tickets and The Kendal Mountain Film Festival each November all come immediately to mind although in recent years the attractions of relaxing in Thailand have tended to prevail over the attractions of Kendal and Britain in November!
However in the last few years I have added another event to my annual calendar after first visiting the famous Montreux Jazz Festival on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland two years ago and returning again twice in 2012 and three times this year. The first music festival I ever attended was to the Isle of Wight in 1970 with a star studded line up that included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and many more legends and to this day I am a regular camper at Europe’s biggest rock festival at Glastonbury. I have had a home in Switzerland since 1997 and have always wanted to go to the Montreux Jazz Festival although I always wondered what kind of Festival it was that had its main performances largely confined to auditoriums rather than outdoors but I discovered that Montreux is a very successful Festival in all senses of the world – both a coming together of artists and audiences to celebrate musical diversity of the highest quality and yet still incorporating the spontaneity and informality so characteristic of open air festivals. And of course all organised with typical Swiss efficiency! And don’t be put off by the term Jazz.
I like all forms of music from Folk to Opera (OK – Grunge and Heavy Metal don’t push too many buttons for me) and I always enjoy live performances but I would hardly describe myself as a Jazz aficionado and I would be hard pushed to define Jazz except to say it is a loose and wide ranging genre of music that has many subsections but you recognise Jazz when you hear it! Although Montreux is still faithful and pays homage to its Jazz roots there is such a wide selection of artists performing over the almost three weeks of the Festival that there is always something for everyone whatever your musical tastes.
The format of the Festival is similar each year with the main artists performing in one or two of the major auditoriums – the Stravinsky Hall or Miles Davis Hall although the latter was dropped this year in favour of a smaller even more intimate Cafe type Showroom. The Stravinsky Hall works well in that the upstairs circle is always seating but the main floor can be predominately seating with side standing or depending on the artist all standing allowing for a more typical rock festival atmosphere.
At least two and sometimes three artists are scheduled for each session which means if an artist performs for 90 minutes with a 30 minute interval for setting up the next act some evening sessions can last from 8pm to almost 1am – one needs a festival type stamina for sure! Other artists perform in smaller venues in Montreux and there are free concerts throughout the day and evening in the gardens next to the main Auditorium. The main festival venues can be approached along the beautiful Lakeside and Palm decked promenade with interesting sculptures and floral displays and garnished with a wide range of drinking and dining options, handicraft, clothing and jewellery stalls that create an interesting lakeside market for the duration of the festival. Combine this setting of order and elegance with the spectacular views across the lake to the Swiss and French Alps and you will see why the area is always described as the Swiss Riviera. And when you combine the location with the quality of performers that are offered annually you will understand why the Montreux Jazz Festival has been such a success for almost 50 years.
Whether you approach Montreux by road or rail you will be rewarded with magnificent views across the lake and experience typical Swiss efficiency as you are directed towards free stewarded parking areas on the outskirts of the town which are serviced by complementary shuttles to the main venue. But beware if you are tempted to cheat! To save time I once drove into town and parked in a posted no parking zone which I assumed applied to the nearby post office and was surely not applicable in the evening? Wrong! It was a residential parking spot for a nearby apartment block and I returned to my car at 0130 to find an irate resident had blocked me out of spite for not obeying the posted notice. The Swiss are sticklers for following the rules! I have reverted to the designated zones or the on street parking by the hostel ever since and the resident did have the grace to watch me try and extricate my Jeep for 30 minutes before finally coming down at 2am to give me an earful and let me out! If the upside of Montreux is its spectacular setting and the sheer range and quality of the artists who perform each year the downside has to be the costs involved – Montreux is expensive for all but the highly paid Swiss and indeed many of them have commented that they cannot afford to go to for much more than the free concerts or standing tickets. Seats at the main concerts range from £120($180) to £175 ($270) although standing tickets are usually available for £60 ($90) and don’t even think about staying at a hotel in Montreux unless you are comfortable with shelling out upwards of £200 ($300) – and usually a lot more upwards!
I am a tightwad as far as hotels are concerned as I am happy to spend my money on tickets but have never paid any more than the bare minimum necessary to allow me to close my eyes for a few hours each evening within four walls. My slumbering brain functions no better in a $400 room than in an $80 room so why waste the money! My years in Montreux have seen me based in a comfortable and basic Ibis hotel in the mountain resort of Leysin about 25 miles distant but the return drive is always a challenge at 1am up a never ending series of hairpin bends so last year I stayed at another Ibis in the bigger city of Lausanne some 25 miles west of Montreux. This year I could not find an affordable hotel within 30 miles of Montreux so I booked into the very modern Youth Hostel a very pleasant 2 miles away along the beautiful lakeshore promenade. $40 with an all you can eat buffet breakfast and free wi fi was great value and it certainly does not bother me to share a room and washrooms with another 4 – 8 people. That is no different than staying a mountain hut! I will surely use the hostel for all my future visits although I usually needed to take a rest and sip a refreshing coffee after standing at a concert for 4 hours before attempting the 40 minute walk back to the hostel at 1am!
And no mention of Montreux can take place without mention of Claude Nobs with whom the Festival will be forever associated. When I first attended Montreux I had no idea who the elderly, casually dressed, almost quirky gentleman was who often wandered on stage after a performance and gave some understated thanks to the performer and/or made announcements about the Festival and forthcoming performances, usually in French and with a smattering of English. However it was clear that the audiences afforded him genuine respect and affection and so they should. It was back in 1967 when a young Claude Nobs, who as a jazz enthusiast and chairman of the local Tourist Office team, had come up with the concept of a Jazz Festival to raise the profile of Montreux and attract additional visitors to the town and it was he who had been the driving force behind the initial and all subsequent festivals and very much becoming the face of the festival which was very much ‘his’ baby. Claude went on to form lifelong friendships with countless American performers who have returned time after time to perform at Montreux and when Claude died in January 2013 as a result of a skiing accident it was headline news throughout Switzerland and his passing was lamented by musical performers from around the world who lined up to pay fulsome tributes to his friendship, hospitality and organisational skills.
This year’s festival was the first in 46 years since the beginnings in 1967 that was not under his stewardship and photos and tributes were prominently displayed at the Festival and in shop windows throughout Montreux by locals keen to show their thanks and gratitude for all he achieved in raising the profile of Montreux and attracting so many visitors to Montreux from around the world. One of the attractions of attending a music festival like Montreux is discovering and enjoying artists with whom one is not previously familiar because all the artists performing at Montreux are going to be of a high calibre – book a concert for someone you want to see, go with an open mind and the chances are you will be pleasantly surprised by other artists on the same bill. When I booked to see arguably Africa’s most famous singer Youssou N’Dour two years ago I had little knowledge about the two support bands other than Ziggy Marley was the son of the great Jamaican Reggae singer Bob Marley whose music is still today, almost 33 years after his death, played as frequently as the music of any other single artist in many parts of the world. Alpha Blondy is a top draw reggae singer from the Ivory Coast, now based in Paris with a very tight band. They were terrific and played for almost 90 minutes and were followed by Ziggy Marley who I soon appreciated was an accomplished artist in his own right and far from just going through the motions and trading on his father’s name.
Both bands brought bundles of energy to the stage and although neither knowledgeable about, nor a particular fan of Reggae I really enjoyed both performances and at each break was able to move closer to the stage until by the time Youssou N’Dour appeared almost three hours after the session began I was stage side at the very front for what proved to be an extraordinary performance and spectacle. Indeed it was past 11pm by the time the acclaimed Senegalese singer appeared on stage so no one could complain about not getting value for money and the audience were enthusiastic and waiting with great anticipation on two accounts. Both Alpha Blondie and Ziggy Marley had delivered pulsating performances that had energised the crowd and clearly a rare European appearance by Youssou N’Dour had attracted African fans from all over Europe and together this led to a vibrant feel of expectancy that erupted when this most distinctive vocalist walked on stage to start a memorable 90 minute performance – great atmosphere, dynamic delivery and interpretation, terrific musicianship, versatile percussionists and even band members who doubled as spectacular acrobats during instrumental interludes. It all combined to produce one of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended. And one of the points I could not help but notice was all three bands I saw that night had one thing in common other than the fact they appeared to be genuinely enjoying what they were doing and having a party with the audience. Whilst it might not be politically correct to comment the reality was that each group had either a pair or trio of more than competent, attractive, female vocalists – not stunningly attractive nor necessarily in the first flush of womanhood but dressed to emphasise what allures they possessed whatever their shape, indeed rather like ordinary girls out for a night on the town and hoping to strike it lucky!
Yousser N’Dour is arguably Africa’s most famous singer today[/caption]I could not help but think that is not a bad recipe that any band playing appropriate music could follow – have a group of female back up singers with ‘come on’ looks on stage and you have already got all the male members of the audience involved! All three groups that night had a group of female back up singers, all could sing and all made a great contribution to the atmosphere and as a bonus – they all looked good strutting their wares provocatively on stage. Methinks this was not coincidence and all three bands knew what they were doing and the effect it had on the audience. And of course my idol and icon Leonard Cohen has performed for almost 50 years with attractive female back up singers as an integral part of his concerts both musically – and visually. It’s a formula that rarely fails and thinking it through not so different from cheerleaders in the good old U S of A I guess! Natalie Cole’s tribute album to her father ‘Unforgettable’ was one of the most memorable and best selling albums of the last 30 years and two years ago I enjoyed watching her perform at Montreux and perform the duet with a projected image of her late father (and disarmingly apologise to the audience when she had to leave the stage and change dresses due to an unscripted wardrobe malfunction!). However the real surprise of the night for me was not almost seeing more of Natalie Cole than I envisioned but listening to the Italian Blues singer Mario Biondi of whom I had never previously heard. He had a great sense of timing, a powerful voice and reminded me of a young Tom Jones as he sang in both Italian and English and I was not surprised a sizeable number of fans had clearly come from Italy to hear him sing.
The other concert I attended of the many on offer two years ago was a Tribute night to the legendary producer of the famous Verve Record label, Tommy LiPuma and the performers included Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall who would surely be most people’s choice of the world’s most popular contemporary female jazz singer, acclaimed guitarist and vocalist George Benson, Randy Crawford, Leon Russell who had recently released a CD with Elton John, Dr John and many others. I could hardly complain at the diversity that Montreux delivers and so despite a busy schedule I managed to fit in two concerts last year on my way from the UK to Toulouse where three of us were planning to cycle the Canal du Midi. And both the artists I saw were colossal talents. The lesser known of the two was the American singer Melody Gardot who first came to my attention perhaps 7 years ago after her initial album ‘Worrisome Heart’ was released and there was a lot of media interest when she first toured in the UK about how she had honed her vocal skills in therapy after a serious road accident which impaired both her sight and mobility – Melody appears on stage with a walking stick and dark glasses.
If people have not heard the name Melody Gardot I would often compare her to Nora Jones and I have long enjoyed having her music in the background as I work on one project or another. After just a few hours’ sleep in Calais and then a non stop drive from the English channel I only arrived in Montreux an hour before her concert and when I entered the auditorium in the intermission before she was due to sing it was hot, packed and I was tired so I decided to sit on a comfortable settee in the auditorium until the concert began and it turned out that her performance was shown live on an adjacent big screen and as the sound was excellent and it was just like being in the front row I stayed there until the encore when I finally made it into the auditorium to watch her final two numbers ‘live’. Her performance was an absolute revelation and nothing like I expected – she has clearly matured as an artist and performer since her first two albums and they were both excellent as it was! She had an original and vibrant interpretation of every song she sang and included a reworking of her signature song ‘Baby its You’. How would I describe her performance? Cleo Laine meets Edith Piaf plus more than a hint of Bossa Nova! She was that rarely sighted species – a very cosmopolitan American who was clearly very comfortable and at home in Europe.
My favourite female performers are Barbara Streisand who is the perhaps to my untrained ear the most technically accomplished female singer I have heard and the classically trained blues/jazz singer Roberta Flack who I have enjoyed for 40 years but I came away from Montreux that evening feeling I had watched a unique talent and the most expressive female singer I have ever watched or listened to – she was magnificent and clearly I am not alone in my estimation.
When it was announced Melody was performing two concerts in London as part of the London Jazz Festival both concerts quickly sold out before I could get tickets for my family! The other concert I saw last year was the incomparable Tony Bennett still going strong at almost 87. I had watched him only 9 months earlier in Washington DC and had no hesitation in paying top dollar for a single seat 12 rows back. Tony Bennett has been a star for over 60 years (it is not so well known that he is a very talented and sought after artist whose works hang in Galleries and Private Collections) and in 1965 no less an authority than Frank Sinatra described him as the ‘best singer in the business’ and I think that description is as applicable today as it was 49 years ago. His daughter Antonia, a more than capable performer in her own right, opened for him opened for him and then he delivered an absolute master class in delivery, timing and voice control and his short 80 minute concert was nevertheless the perfect package, containing many standards and interspersed with memories of famous songwriters and fellow performers. And when delivering those songs always associated with himself – ‘The Good Life’ and ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ I was truly amazed at how he could combine such power and voice control, especially at 84. I had enjoyed him in Washington DC but with the more intimate setting at Montreux and better acoustics thought he was magnificent. Bravo indeed! I assume because of his age the organisers let Tony Bennett perform first so he was followed by his supporting act (!) which was the 2007 BBC Best Jazz Album winner, the Neil Cowley Trio. I had never heard of them , decided to stay for a couple of numbers but stayed for the entire set which included some virtuoso piano playing from the extrovert Neil Cowley. and then long after midnight Clause Nobs wandered on stage to announce an unscheduled but talented guitarist would play as long as anyone wanted to stay and listen to him! And so to this year where I could not believe my luck – or lack of it – my favourite artist Leonard Cohen was opening the Festival with not one but two performances, and I had arranged to be in Svalbard in Arctic Norway!
However I still managed to get to three concerts as I was able to combine visits to Montreux with my return flight from Norway and flights to and from the UK for our daughter Lisa’s graduation from the University of Cardiff (author’s privilege and permitted aside from proud father – with a 1st Class Honours degree in Zoology!). And even if I missed Leonard there were compensations – two years ago I was spotted by my friend Angeline in the foyer which was a wonderful and unexpected reunion as I thought she was still living in Canada and this year I met fellow musical enthusiast Patrick, a German living in Zurich, who proved to be good company as well as a true Jazz aficionado gave me some good tips of artists to look out for in the future. Patrick and I were both running late (nothing unusual there then!) so I drove as close as we could to the auditorium from the hostel and then we walked together – he to watch Gregory Porter and Oleta Adams and myself to watch a great double bill of Randy Crawford and Paolo Conte. We met back at the hostel at 2am to compare notes on the performances that we had both watched. I was really looking forward to seeing Paolo Conte perform and although his is a name known in most Italian households I had not discovered him until winning 20 World Music CDs at a Charity Raffle at the Glastonbury Festival a few years ago. I would best describe him as a jazzy Italian mix of Leonard Cohen meets Tom Waits! And to add to the intrigue he is a Lawyer in his mid70s and best known outside of Italy for his song ‘Via Con Me’ which is often referred to as ‘It’s Wonderful’ after wide exposure from sources as wide as Coca Cola and Galaxy Chocolate advertisements, various films and Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2!
Paolo with his smoky somewhat grainy voice and an accomplished backing band with an outstanding bearded violinist were good but just as I was really getting into the flow and mood everything stopped as alas I had assumed as his name was second in the listing he was the lead act. Wrong! So after arriving 20 minutes late I was treated to just 50 minutes of Paolo before the intermission (which I was to rectify later in the year by watching him perform at the famed Art Deco Cinema Rex in Paris) and then I settled down to watch Randy Crawford, who has always been more popular in Europe than her native USA.
My main motivation for the session had been to see Paolo Conte but hers was a most enjoyable performance. Not a slight lady but polite, very humble and with a clear antipathy to photographers she combined beautifully crafted vocals with an exemplary delivery. She was accompanied by the legendary American Pianist Joe Sample who prior to her arrival on stage had played several numbers and told some fascinating anecdotes about Jazz performers in the 50s when his career was starting.
Randy Crawford sang for just 70 minutes and just like Tony Bennett last year it was sheer quality with not a note out of place and a flawless delivery that demanded attention to every word and note and the concert seemed to contain so much it appeared longer than 70 minutes and included memorable renditions of ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ and ‘One Day I’ll fly away’. Despite her size her on stage shuffle was far more elegant than Mick Jagger’s cavorting on stage in Hyde Park which I had watched 48 hours earlier and my notes of her performance read ‘Fat (her words not mine!), Happy and Beautiful renditions’.
The other two concerts that I attended this year were both voices from the past who are still performing.
I am not a big fan of Sting but had seen him perform in the Roman amphitheatre at Nimes in the south of France two years ago and had certainly enjoyed it sufficiently to warrant watching him again and chose to stand for what was a very good two hour set including three encores. For someone approaching 60 he looked very trim, fit and in good nick and I got the impression he thought so too although perhaps it is a little unfair to judge without knowing the man and from 50 feet away on a concert floor!
The show was different from the Nimes concert that I had attended with perhaps a more funky/jazzy feel (that was perhaps an acknowledgement of the Montreux setting?) but the set list still included the beautiful ‘Fields of Gold’ (has anyone interpreted this better than Eva Cassidy whose version I considered playing at my mother’s funeral until I fully understood the significance of the lyrics) and ‘Englishman in New York’ as well as many of the Police classics which he performed really well with his penetrating vocals which in turn really got the crowd hopping.
Like Paolo Conte and Leonard Cohen, Sting too had a violinist on stage and the guy playing with Sting was the fastest string player I have ever watched – he was amazing and I could not believe his bow control skills because despite his phenomenal speed he never appeared to hit the wrong string! It is interesting an increasing number of rock musicians will use a violinist on stage. The violin is a beautiful instrument that always provides an effective foil when properly incorporated into a suitable number.
My final visit to Montreux this year was to see Joe Cocker and in truth when the program was released in April I was surprised to see he was headlining one evening as I was not aware that he was still performing, perhaps because he is now based in the USA. I am not a big fan of the Blues although I did enjoy the late Gary Moore at Finsbury Park 14 years ago but I those old timers still performing are invariably worth watching.
I thought Joe Cocker was great, and still characteristically shuffling around the microphone with all the grace of a twitching corpse! Indeed Joe often looked as if he was on the verge of cardiac arrest but that has been a trademark of his since I first saw him on TV in the 60s!
And like the African singers I referred to earlier in this article he clearly realised the importance of having two raunchy black female singers on stage with him who looked as if they had been hauled out of a local bar (in New Orleans!) but who could sing great back up and duet with him on ‘Up where we belong’.
His voice was as distinctive, gravelly and powerful as ever and as well as ‘Up where we belong’ he delivered great versions of his other memorable songs, the haunting ‘You are so Beautiful’, ‘You can hang your hat’ with its great build ups and ’With a little help from my friends’.
And indeed with reference to the last number Joe Cocker is deserving of a very important footnote in the history of popular music as it was he was (one of) the first to be brave enough to cover a Beatles number whilst they were still performing and indeed to give a distinctive interpretation that I think can be fairly judged to have improved on the original.
So my 2013 visits to Montreux were, as per my previous visits, an interesting range of top class performers reflecting a variety of musical genres, Clearly all the artists are appreciative of having the opportunity to perform at such an iconic venue and many of the vocalists comment it is a rare privilege to perform in such an intimate setting with great acoustics and before an appreciative audience.
Consequently I well recommend a visit to Montreux as part of a summer tour of Europe or indeed for a few days break from any neighbouring or nearby country in Europe. The program is released mid April, tickets can be booked online but just remember that Lausanne or the excellent Montreux Youth Hostel (with no age restrictions and some single and twin rooms!) offers more affordable accommodation options than anything you will find in Montreux!
And to end at the beginning……………………………the ‘Smoke on the Water’ in the title refers to the famous song written by Deep Purple describing the 1971 fire at the Montreux Casino Concert that burnt down the original venue for the first festivals whilst Frank Zappa was performing.
Frank Zappa & the mothers were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground
Smoke on the Water, fire in the sky
Deep Purple performed at the early festivals in and like many other artists have returned regularly over the decades as a result of their admiration for Claude Nobs who they refer to in ‘Smoke on the Water’ as ‘Funkey Claude’ who was helping some of the audience escape from the fire.
So it was especially fitting that they too performed again in 2013 to pay their own tribute to Claude Nobs, a man whose vision has brought pleasure to so many, performers and audiences alike.
© Michael Bromfield 2014
March 17, 2014 at 7:29 PM
I really enjoyed reading this, Michael. Thank you
January 2, 2015 at 7:30 PM
Thanks. There is always great music at Montreux – you should try and go. Last night on TV I stumbled across a program of last years Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga concert at the Lincoln Centre New York. I was spellbound. I know he is incredible at 87 but she too was just brilliant. What a pair. What a concert!