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“Today, talk is kept to a minimum and surprises are rare. The artists hardly ever stop touring, communication is by e-mail and initialled by the agents. Everything is nicely squared away, everything is clearly marked out. Until one day it all spills over.”
We would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Claude Nobs set about organising an exceptional evening in Montreux. Hours and hours of telephone conversations forever lost in the mountain air, charm offensives, epic tantrums, sometimes both at once. Talk, talk, talk, talk, promises and niceties, with intermediaries strategically placed in London, New York and Paris… All this for a magical encounter on the festival stage, a few minutes of improvised sets that nobody would have dreamed about. Today, talk is kept to a minimum and surprises are rare. The artists hardly ever stop touring, communication is by e-mail and initialled by the agents. Everything is nicely squared away, everything is clearly marked out. Until one day it all spills over. Like this year when Mathieu Jalon sends us reels and reels of messages. From his computer. From his phone. So many messages, enough to make a book. The first ones date from the autumn and they never stop. For weeks, thoughts pile up, the missives sound like manifestos. Some musicians even create a WhatsApp group where they exchange videos of legendary gigs. They know each other but clearly want to know more. They form a prestigious band that keeps growing. Thundercat, the first to be contacted. Then Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper caught up in the momentum. And their accomplice Kendrick Lamar, the elders Q-Tip, Nas, Snoop Dogg, pioneers of the new London jazz scene and famous faces from the past. There are others, but it is still too early to give names. When you read the hundreds of feverish messages, you can understand why the organisers were so keen to believe. And that they were afraid to let the cat out of the bag. Too good to be true.
“Thundercat sets the tone: ‘Don’t you think it’s time to celebrate the marriage (sic) of jazz and hip hop? Isn’t it time to celebrate our strength? Kendrick, you’re the boss, you’re the one who can get everyone moving. Come on!’”
In a text message in January, Thundercat sets the tone: “Don’t you think it’s time to celebrate the marriage (sic) of jazz and hip hop? We’ve been talking about it for years. For years journalists have been asking us questions about this new scene, for years we’ve been bragging about our free spirit, our taste for improvisation, our networks, our sense of community and seriously, guys, what have we done? A couple of jam sessions in the studio? A couple of tracks for each other? Isn’t it time to celebrate our strength? Kendrick, you’re the boss, you’re the one who can get everyone moving. Come on!” For a few weeks, there was no sign of a response. Other messages from Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper revive the idea, each promises to be available in July, ideas flow, there is talk of a tribute to J Dilla or another to John Coltrane. Some names crop up in the conversation, others fade away…
“He’s talking to Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg, and Dr Dre about it. Finally, an email he obviously sent (Kenkcird2076@…), ends up arriving in Montreux. The whole festival team spends weeks reading and rereading it: ‘We WILL COME. We will ALL come and play for FREE. It’s the only way to DO IT.’”
The enthusiasm is threatening to wane when, one day in February, Kendrick Lamar shows signs of life for the first time. He received a video of Nina Simone in Montreux. He watches it on a loop and comments on it at length. Perhaps he couldn’t find the canton of Vaud on a map but he’s in the starting blocks. He wants to take on the project. He’s talking to Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg, and Dr Dre about it. Finally, an email he obviously sent (Kenkcird2076@…), ends up arriving in Montreux. The whole festival team spends weeks reading and rereading it: “We WILL COME. We will ALL come and play for FREE. It’s the only way to DO IT.” After a few weeks, it even becomes clear that the trips will be covered by a mysterious benefactor, not a sponsor but a patron who wants to give back to music a little of what it has given him. Montreux only has to play host and ensure logistics. And that, they know how to do.
“Kendrick Lamar has planned the evening in three parts. The programme announces only the name Parade at the Stravinski, Unity at the Lab, Love at the jazz club. Despite the buzz, everything starts on time in the crowded auditorium, overheated by rumours. Quincy Jones, a Montreux man at heart, plays MC. He takes his time paying tribute to the fusion of hip hop and jazz, which he was one of the first to embrace.”
Naturally, such a promise has all the makings of just that, an illusion. Nail-biting until the last. Nothing is really signed. Except with Kendrick Lamar who has agreed to promote the evening with his name alone: “Kendrick Lamar and friends” is enough to fill the Stravinski and the other venues which will all be taken over by the merry band. On the day in question, 15 July, the guests are directed to Le Picotin, Claude Nobs’ chalet, more for anonymity than for prestige. Everyone is caught up in the play of mystery. The musicians themselves don’t know all that is in store. And Mathieu Jalon, the boss of the festival, is forced to admit that he doesn’t hold the cards. Dr Dre arrived the night before and acts as the master of ceremonies, surrounded by his henchmen who keep their distance. He’s staying with Quincy Jones, together constantly tweaking the programme. A rehearsal studio is set up in a lakeside villa. Loops are recorded for the evening. New faces keep showing up in the hills. Some, nobody expected to see here. Unescorted and without chauffeurs. The Montreux staff can’t believe their eyes. Badges are no longer useful. It’s a strange feeling. A mix of drunkenness and panic.
Kendrick Lamar has planned the evening in three parts. The programme announces only the name “Parade” at the Stravinski, “Unity” at the Lab, “Love” at the jazz club. Despite the buzz, everything starts on time in the crowded auditorium, overheated by rumours. Quincy Jones, a Montreux man at heart, plays MC. He takes his time paying tribute to the fusion of hip hop and jazz, which he was one of the first to embrace. A finger of light reveals Dr Dre on a platform at the edge of the stage. Condensed bursts of his hits are already driving the audience into a frenzy. A huge pulsing throng. Amplified by the explosive beat of Ahmir Thompson of the Roots, who towers like a buddha in a purple glow. Thundercat, clad in feathers, arrives in short strides with a fellow Indian in his wake, none other than George Clinton, then Larry Graham who lays down a second bassline that makes the walls shake. “Free Your Mind and You ass will follow” jokes Clinton who plays the entertainer. The hall is abuzz. For nearly three hours, the jazz-funk fever does not subside. Led by saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the instrumentalists polish their digressions without ever getting lost and the tenors of rap perform their balancing act. Supple and vigorous as a judoka, Kendrick Lamar warms up his troupe. His performance with Snoop Dogg on a moving twenty-minute version of Lil Ghetto Boy in homage to Donny Hathaway is unforgettable. As are those with Nas and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. The close-ups on the Stravinski’s screens watch for the euphoria on every face. It will be ephemeral. For the first time in Montreux, nothing is to be recorded. At the behest of Kendrick Lamar. There were messages and messages discussing it. Not everyone agreed. Far from it. But in the end, as George Clinton chanted, at the heart of a monumental King Kuta encore “This Revolution will not be televised”
And then? We drift between floors of the convention centre. We’d like to recount it all, but the memories get blurred. On the Lab’s stage, the members of A Tribe Called Quest play tracks from The Low End Theory, the classic of rap and jazz fusion, with double bassist Ron Carter. You’d swear they were levitating. Nas plays his guts out on his father’s (bluesman Olu Dara) guitar. Snoop Dog and Dr Dre bury their senseless feud for good and pay tribute to Notorious B.I.G. on tracks from his mentor, saxophonist Donald Harrison. Erykah Badu comes out of nowhere to play songs from her debut album and a sublime version of Why Can’t We Live Together for which she brings on its writer, Timmy Thomas. Organ, vocals, beat box, tears. Just like back then. Everyone’s a little high when we switch to the jazz club. It takes a moment to realise that the falsetto escaping from a shadowy pocket at the edge of the stage is that of D’Angelo. The doors are wide open onto the lake, the crowd is gathering on the docks. The songs of the black revolt keep coming, a constellation of classics that we would sing along to at the top of our lungs if the artists’ improvs didn’t immediately lead us elsewhere. The orchestra never stops shifting, and it’s when we’re drunk, loaded, satiated that Kendrick Lamar brings in the last of his guests, Frank Ocean, with whom he plays several ethereal numbers, including a cover of A Change Is Gonna Come. Some spectators are on the verge of a trance, others act as if they hadn’t noticed the immensity of the moment. At this hour anything is possible. A columnist, drunker than the others, points out that “Lamar and Ocean by the lake is pretty impressive”. It sounds silly, but nobody listens to him. His words float, then fly away, like everything else.
Laurent Rigoulet, Télérama