The Montreal Jazz Festival continues through July 4; before we headed out to Halifax, day two proved to be the high point. Once again, there was an early show at the beer tent on St.-Catherine just off Bleury. This time it was Le Dixieband, pretty much the same group as the previous day. As with that incarnation (with a different clarinetist and drummer), they push the envelope with dixieland, incorporating elements of early swing and ragtime and this time, funk. Bandleader/trombonist Richard Turcotte bantered with the crowd between songs, while clarinetist Bruno Lamarche fired off one supersonic, klezmer-tinged arpeggio after another, trumpeter Aron Doyle supplying firepower over the fluid groove of Luc Bouchard on banjo, Jeff Simons on drums and Jean Sabourin on sousaphone. The previous afternoon’s show was darker; this was the fun set, amping up Cole Porter and Louis Armstrong, closing by giving When the Saints Go Marching In a hip-tugging, funky bounce. Playing an early show is invariably a tough gig, but these guys made it look easy: it was a welcome jolt of energy to kick off the day.
French quartet Les Doigts de L’homme’s name is a pun. Meaning “the fingers of man,” it’s a play on “les droits de l’homme,” meaning “human rights,” the foundation of French democracy. Sunday night they celebrated their right to party: the crowd, extending at least two city blocks from the stage, literally exploded after they’d wound up their last song: the reaction was visceral. And they knew a lot of the songs, and clapped along. Maybe it’s the connection between France and Montreal, or maybe it’s just that Les Doigs de L’homme had just played their doigts off. Drawling on their new album 1910, which celebrates the Django Reinhardt centenary, they put an exhilarating new spin on an old sound. They’re much more than a Django cover band: Les Doigs de L’homme are taking gypsy jazz to new places. Lead guitarists Olivier Kikteff and Benoit Convert stretched out the songs for minutes on end with a barrage of long, crescendoing solos that never let up. Kikteff is the harder hitter of the two, and a bit of a ham; Convert’s equally blinding speed is disguised by the seemingly effortless fluidity of his attack. Behind them, rhythm guitarist Yannick Alcocer and bassist Tanguy Blum locked into a mesh of spiky textures punctuated by the occasional terse, biting bass solo.
One of their early numbers saw the band creating the echo effect popularized by U2 guitarist the Edge, but in real time. Another worked a hypnotic, circular riff for a watery, Pat Metheny-ish vibe before going off into gypsyland. Kikteff reminded the crowd that St. James Infirmary Blues is about a guy watching his wife die in the hospital, and gave it an austerely plaintive edge with an expansive solo against a flurry of tremolo-picking from the rest of the band. They swung through a diversion into the Django songbook with a surprisingly effective, funky rhythm, made a brief attempt to get the crowd to go with some polyrhythms (“The Swiss are great at this,” Kikteff deadpanned) and wound up their hour onstage with a blistering, Balkan-inflected number where Kikteff first quoted from Hot Butter’s old 1970s instrumental-cheese hit Popcorn (what is it about the French and Popcorn, anyway?), finally firing off a lickety-split, somewhat tongue-in-cheek solo using high harmonics way up his high E string. It was the highlight of the festival for us, especially since we missed their New York show at le Poisson Rouge earlier in the week.