All that jazz

All that jazz

In the heart of picturesque Switzerland, Brian Johnston indulges his other senses in an auditory smorgasbord at the Montreux Jazz Festival

I’ve been told to avoid the weekend, but why? I like the crowds that stream downhill from the train station, and the partygoers perched like seagulls on rocks along the lakeshore, gabbing and jostling for space. In the Jazz Cafe, the evening audience sways, dense and sweaty. The elbow-to-elbow vibe is electric, but I still feel I’m the only one in the room as Anna Calvi moans into the microphone about the devil and desire. Her lips are a red slash, moody as her riffs.

The British singer and guitarist – so good she’s been compared to Jimi Hendrix – is a brooding presence on the stage, even across an undulation of heads. She sings with blues seduction and Goth edginess, plus a hint of flamenco passion in the way she strums her guitar and moans in the back of her throat. Maybe it’s just the humid summer night, but I’m hot under the collar.

Calvi has described her music as a mix of danger and exhilaration. Frankly, those aren’t adjectives that normally get an outing in the prim Swiss town of Montreux. Eleven months of the year, you could skip through it on a day trip with ‘pleasant’ your most intense description. The dukes of Savoy built a whopping castle just along Lake Geneva foreshore that’s now a prime tourist attraction, which brings most people here. Montreux got its start as a tourist spot in the nineteenth century, when it was favoured by the British and Russian nobility for their winter retreats. (A balmy climate allows palm trees and figs to flourish, bringing a touch of the Mediterranean to Switzerland.) Now wealthy tax-evaders skulk in big villas with alpine views as Chinese tour groups traipse past beneath their windows.

In short, Montreux is probably not a place you’d generally need to linger unless you have a blue rinse and an offshore account. The month of July is a different matter, however. July brings the three-week Montreux Jazz Festival to town, and you should stay as long as you can. Then, music oozes from this little lakeshore town’s every pore. It becomes sultry and unpredictable. You might catch an anti-establishment jazz singer croaking about poverty in South Africa. Or Herbie Hancock – improbably but rather splendidly – performing a duet with Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang. Swedish folk-rock drifting from a local late-night bar might make you stop in your slightly inebriated tracks and think: this place is wonderful.

When I was last at the Jazz Festival in 2011, Carlos Santana, Sting and Paul Simon were among the headline acts. A Sunday tribute jam featured BB King, and it was truly amazing to watch some of the world’s top guitarists on stage, strumming to each other in a two-hour jam session. BB King was 86 and didn’t make much music, but you could tell the other musicians were energised just by the legend’s presence.

That’s what I like about the Montreux Jazz Festival: the chance to see the world’s best, as well as obscure acts that just catch your ear. The event has been around since 1967 and, from the beginning, attracted big jazz names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Keith Jarrett and Nina Simone. But by the 1970s, it was already featuring soul, blues and rock artists, and causing a stir with the appearance of the likes of Prince, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. In 1970, Frank Zappa was performing at the Montreux Casino when a fan fired a flare gun and burned the place down, an event recorded in the Deep Purple song, ‘Smoke on the Water’. By the 1980s, the program had become very international – Brazilian music in particular has always been favoured – and mainstream pop and rock artists were increasingly invited. Despite its name, the Montreux Jazz Festival isn’t really a jazz festival anymore. You can expect anyone from Alicia Keys to the Black Eyed Peas or Phil Collins to play.

The big stars attract big-ticket prices and play in the two main venues, the Stravinsky Auditorium and Miles Davis Hall. But what’s great about the Montreux Jazz Festival is that the music just seems to trickle down everywhere, and lots of it is free. You can attend the best voice, guitar and piano competitions for nix and hope to catch the next star on the cusp of being discovered. Jam sessions are a late-night option at the Montreux Jazz Club, while DJs keep going until dawn at the Montreux Jazz Cafe and Studio 41. You can attend free music workshops too, and learn how to make those guitar strings twang from some of the masters of the trade.

I find music in the most unexpected places: in a train carriage, on one of the lake steamers that I catch for a scenic ride to Chillon Castle, in local restaurants and cafes where a sort of fringe festival has ivories tinkling. In the evenings at Vernex Park, I join picnickers on the grass under giant trees and drink wine to the sounds of Russian jazz one night, samba the next, as the moon shimmers over the lake.

What I like too is that the Montreux of the other 11 months never really goes away, underneath it all. It’s a grand old resort town with yellow-shuttered hotels and wrinkled people flopping in pocket-sized swimming pools. Jaunty marigolds are planted in neat rows along the waterfront, tablecloths in cafes are flawlessly ironed. The air smells of lake water, starch and Perrier with a twist of lemon. Out on the blue waters of Lake Geneva, yachts are tied up in parallel lines and festooned with brightly coloured squares of plastic to keep seagulls from crapping on the decks. The snow-dusted fangs of mountains loom on the horizon. It seems like the last place on Earth where you’d find one of the world’s best music festivals.

The Swiss staidness of Montreux is redeemed in unexpected ways, not least by a flamboyant statue of Freddie Mercury, slap-bang on the waterfront in his trademark strutting pose. Queen recorded several albums here at Mountain Studios prior to Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991. Montreux inspired one of the last songs Queen recorded, ‘A Winter’s Tale’ from the album Made in Heaven. “Seagulls are flying over / Swans are floating by” go the lyrics: Mercury too was apparently seduced by the chocolate-box kitsch of this absurdly pretty place.

The swans are a little jittery during the Jazz Festival. Visitors are out in rowing boats and sometimes they jump overboard from sheer giddiness, producing piercing screams from those who haven’t, until that moment, realised this water comes from alpine snow-melt, frigid even in summer. Among the promenade’s flowerbeds, Brazilians in pink feathers shimmy as the smell of satay sticks wafts from a food stand. Diana Krall passes by in a floppy sunhat. Plastic Heineken cups are scattered like confetti on the grass, though not for long. The Swiss soon have them swept away, and the lakeshore pristine for the start of another day. The music might be wantonly seductive, but there are civic standards to maintain.

Get there

Emirates Airlines flies from Australia via Dubai to Geneva, which is 40 minutes by train from Montreux.

International Rail offers a variety of travel options in Europe, including a Eurail Global Pass, with either a flexible or consecutive number of travel days.

Stay there

Best Western Eurotel Riviera has decent if uninspiring rooms, magnificent views over Lake Geneva and is right in the middle of the jazz action.

Accommodation during the festival books up well in advance, but if you’re stuck, stay in Lausanne, which is just a 20-minute train ride away.

Get Informed

The Montreux Jazz Festival is held annually during July.

Words Brian Johnston

Photos Brian Johnston

Tags: festival, music, switzerland

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