From the soulful blues of BB King via the energy of the Black Eyed Peas to the eclectic fusion of Bill Laswell, this year's Montreux Jazz Festival promises exciting fare.
Spare a thought for European rock fans. Their festivals are frequently something of an endurance test. Fans at this year's Glastonbury Festival have once again faced the omnipresent risk of mud, torrential rain and lost tents. The Wacken Open Air festival in Germany is like a punishment camp fuelled by sunburn and Reading's event is advisable only to those whose lungs can withstand the smoke from bonfires constructed out of plastic bottles.
Jazz fans have a better idea. The Montreux Jazz Festival takes place every July in the Music and Convention Centre overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Since it kicked off in 1967, it has always been a plush affair (it was originally held in a casino) and right from the beginning, it attracted the best names that jazz had to offer: Nina Simone, Jan Garbarek, Ella Fitzgerald, Soft Machine and Weather Report.
But in the 1970s, organisers opened the festival to rock acts as well. This would eventually lead to the composition of the most famous song about a rock festival. During Frank Zappa's set in 1971, the casino burnt to the ground, an eventful evening which was immortalised in Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, which probably even outstrips Woodstock by Joni Mitchell. During the same decade, blues and rock fans were delighted by the chance to see such acts as Funkadelic, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and Joe Satriani as well as the biggest names in fusion and jazz rock. One group that was very taken with the location, scenery and sound recording facilities offered by the complex was the Rolling Stones. During the festival's 10th anniversary, the band decamped there to record their often overlooked Black and Blue album, which features the curious sound of them playing reggae on Cherry Oh Baby. This holiday for the band led, in part, to the curious urban myth that Keith Richards used to travel to a Swiss clinic to have his entire blood supply changed.
The remit got even wider during the Eighties to include world -and indie music. The festival has -remained stable in concept since that decade and has played host to New Order, Prince, Elvis Costello and Youssou N'Dour. It's -understandable that the world is currently rediscovering two of the outstanding albums of the pop -canon this month - Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller. But there was also a genius -working -behind the scenes on those albums - the disco funk savant and composer/producer Quincy Jones, who was celebrated by the festival last year in a star-studded five-hour concert -involving the likes of Herbie -Hancock and Chaka Khan. Underlining that it has not lost any of its eclecticism, this year's stellar line-up -includes Lilly Allen, the Black Eyed Peas, Underworld, BB King and Steely Dan. One of the most interesting guests appearing is a -returning visitor, Bill Laswell, who will be playing some 26 years after his first appearance. Laswell is a musician's musician, combining an unpretentious, can-do attitude with an aptitude for performing and producing good results whether in the field of jazz, improv, dub, drum and bass, punk, electro or hip-hop. His natural -curiosity led to him working in what is known as "collision music". This involves seemingly disparate elements being thrown together in an attempt to create a new sound. He has brought hip-hop and punk together with his work on the Time Zone project; melded electro, fusion and hip-hop as a producer on Herbie Hancock's Rockit; and combined jazz with punk and heavy metal as a member of Massacre and Painkiller. Most recently, his explorations have been into low-end provision and the blending of drum and bass, dub and funk as part of the Method of Defiance group who will be playing at Montreux. While taking a break from his rehearsals in New York, he talked about what people could expect from his appearance at the jazz -festival. "Well, it's kind of a new idea. Originally, the name was used on a compilation of drum and bass producers collaborating with -established jazz musicians. It was always rooted in drum and bass. Then, we played live in Greece two years ago and we sort of did it for fun. What came out of it was that we were all interested in continuing as a band. Again, a lot of it is based on live drum and bass, dub and quite a lot of improv in the middle with Bernie Worrell (keyboards) and Guy Licata (drums), the frontmen Toshinori Kondo (trumpet) and Dr Israel (vocals/console). And there are two newer members, Hawkman from Jamaica and DJ Krush (the former Mo Wax turntablist)." It's probably fair to say that things in Laswell's professional life probably aren't as hectic as they were back in 1983 when he first played Montreux. He laughs and says: "I think I was playing with Sonny -Sharrock (the legendary jazz guitarist), D.ST who is a DJ and Henry Kaiser (guitarist/composer). Again, it was -improvised, but with a rhythm section. It was a long time ago, and probably a lot more in the avant-garde. But we did play pieces that featured the turntable. It was also the first time I had ever seen live -music with live painting. So Keith Haring painted live while we were playing and when the music stopped, the painting was finished, which was kind of a trip for the -audience." As well as Montreux, that year also saw him bring John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and the renowned Zulu -Nation DJ Afrika Bambaataa together to form Time Zone for the hit World Destruction. But apparently the outcome could have been very different: "I got a call from Bam who wanted to incorporate what he does with metal to make World -Destruction. And he said to me: 'Do you know Def Leppard?' And I said: 'No, I don't know Def Leppard.' [laughs] At that time I didn't know many metal people. So I told him that I had just got to know John Lydon. I told him that he was Johnny Rotten who had been in this band the Sex Pistols. I said: 'It's not really metal, but you might think it is!' And he said: 'Yeah, that sounds good!' So we went and did this thing very quickly and it seemed very natural to me." He adds that despite the obvious differences, Lydon and Bam were similar characters: "They certainly had the images that kids, or people in general, notice and they stood for a particular sensibility, culture and image." This record would go on to- -influence a lot of modern music from the rap-rock of Faith No More to the militant hip-hop of Public Enemy, the industrial sound of Nine Inch Nails to the nu metal of Linkin Park. Laswell also would be involved in the writing, bass playing and recording of an equally influential record just some months later, Herbie Hancock's Rockit. "Yeah, we actually played that song at Montreux before it had even come out," he says. "That was kind of the beginnings of progressive hip-hop in New York. If there was resistance to us using scratching as a method of soloing on a record, we certainly weren't aware of it and again, in those days, things happened really quickly. I got a call from a guy who knew Herbie who told me he- -wanted to put together some tracks. I went to New York, saw Bambaataa and people DJing at the Roxy. I don't even think he was really paying attention but after that night out I said: 'I'll come to LA in a couple of weeks and I'll bring a couple of rhythm tracks.' So we just recorded very quickly in a basement in -Brooklyn. We didn't really know what it was. We took it and Herbie played over it for an hour or two and then it took another hour to mix. The whole thing didn't take very long. We didn't really know what we'd done. We stopped at a store that sold a lot of speakers on the way to the airport because we wanted to kill some time. The guy went to put on a rock record and we said: 'No we don't listen to that kind of stuff.' We had a cassette of the rough mix we'd finished so we said: 'Play this -instead.' We played it and afterwards we turned round and there was just about 50 kids looking at the speakers, saying, 'What was that?!'" He laughs. "We all just looked at each other and everyone was -thinking we might have -something." Perhaps it suits other artists working in adventurous fields of music to spend as much time theorising as actually playing or recording but this is not true in Laswell's case. He is refreshingly modest about his achievements, referring to any new ground broken as a happy accident and his grafter's attitude and lack of monomania showing him to be more in the vein of a collaborator like Miles Davis rather than a -theory-driven soloist like Ornette Coleman. Despite the fact that he excels at combining forms of -music, he -denies interest in the fusion music of the 1970s. "I didn't -really -relate to that kind of music. -Fusion -had a great beginning with The Tony -Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin and Larry Young and later with Jack Bruce. That is a -really good example of a band who play with structure but who also -improvise within that structure. That was important and some of the electric Miles Davis things, which were, again, based around -repetitive rhythm. There was a lot of room for people to incorporate sounds and rhythms and structures on top and I think that was important. The only fusion I became interested in then was through following African -music, Indian music and music from parts of central Asia and Japan. Looking back, I thought Cream was a good improvising band even though it was only in a couple of time signatures and mainly based on the blues. I thought that was more -inspiring than what fusion became." But fusion in its original meaning (or collision, as Laswell would probably have it) is still the order of the day at Montreux. For the musically open minded, this year's festival is as good as any in recent memory. Where else could you see the heavy -metal, glamrock godfather Alice Cooper rubbing shoulders with the living boogie-woogie legend of New Orleans, Allen Toussaint and -the -socially -conscious hip-hop superstar Mos Def? With all that eclectic excitement, it's good that Status Quo are bringing their Rocking All Over the World show to town just to bring people back down to earth. And with a no Wellington boots needed policy, you can count us in. ? Nihon by Method of Defiance is out now via www.rarenoiserecords.com. ? For more details on the Montreux Jazz Festival visit www.montreuxjazz.com.