Madeleine Peyroux might very well define what the Montreal Jazz Festival has become over its 32-year history: one foot rooted in jazz and blues tradition and the other taking exploratory steps into new musical configurations…
“You look at the Montreal Jazz Fest and it’s one of the best-run jazz festivals in the world in my opinion,” says Peyroux the day before her June 29 back-to-back shows. “I think the goal in the long run, especially at this festival, is to be open-minded and to embrace that, check things out and mingle in a way that you wouldn’t get a chance to otherwise.”
The American singer with a French background and worldly vision of music first came to the Jazz Fest in 1997, shortly after her first album came out, and her return visits, including as part of a tribute to Leonard Cohen, only solidified her place among festival greats. This year, Peyroux comes to Montreal with a repertoire of jazz and blues standards, her takes on the folk-country of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits, and original songs, including some from her new album, Standing on the Rooftop.
“I feel that I locked in with the blues tradition when I was first studying music, teaching myself songs and trying to find a repertoire, with the understanding that it was also a foundation for all this other music, pop music of course, some jazz, so on,” says Peyroux.
“My understanding of jazz is of the songs themselves, the melodies, and the world of song, and that’s where my heart is – but not only that, a very personal connection to the sentiment behind it,” she adds. “I’m sitting in the chair of the interpreter who takes the emotion that comes from that world on – so my role in music right now is to be the human, the vocal part. I think that [the original] blues songs are far too deeply touching to be written off as two or three decades in American musical history – that spirit has a lot to do with overcoming, it has to do with a secular community and it has to do with, within that community, telling stories that are taboo, opening up hidden places and creating a sort of school of life.”
About the broad genre of jazz having universal aspects, that jazz is music that everyone can relate to, Peyroux contemplates: “I think that what jazz does is allow everyone to be more educated in music. It’s a really delicate thing to start looking for the right words, since jazz itself is a really narrow term – for one thing, it’s about exploring what kind of harmonies exist, what kind of rhythms exist, and embracing them. So, self-educating I think is the basis of the early jazz spirit – jazz is a response to a certain political hierarchy, I think, and yet it’s sophisticated in its spirit, because it’s a self-educated field of music; that’s what’s interesting… I think there’s a lot of room to move in jazz.”
Many of Peyroux’s newer songs are based on her own poetry, while musically she’s been exploring the works of modern classical composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass: “I’ve been trying to get in there more deeply – I listen to Steve Reich and I hear blues influences and I hear jazz harmonies here and there, and that’s why I think somebody like Marc Ribot is able to put together a project like [Caged Funk, which Ribot and co. performed at the Fest on June 27]. It’s an example of somebody looking back at a recent historical musical trend and reinterpreting it; it’s a musical attitude that can go in all directions, so whatever you want to call it is whatever you want to call it. I was really interested in being able to just open up the palette – that might actually be the most jazz attitude I’ve ever had – to try to do something a little bit exploratory.”