Since 1967 the Montreux Jazz festival has hosted some of the world’s leading artists. This year, the 43rd of the festival, was no exception. Last week, thanks to the generosity of the Swiss firm Nagra, which is an underwriter of the festival, and its American representative John Quick, I was able to join a small group of writers and purveyors of fine equipment that got to hear, in the space of a single week, performers ranging from McCoy Tyner to Jeff Beck to Madeleine Peyroux. It was friggin’ awesome!
With the Alps serving as the background, Montreux is located along a bay of Lake Geneva. Not for nothing is it known as the Swiss Riviera. It features lush vegetation and Palm trees, not the sort of thing you usually associate with the phlegmatic Swiss. But when it comes to music, the Montreux festival has become legendary for its high-powered performances. Two shows that I particularly enjoyed were listening to New Orleans pianist and singer Allen Toussaint, who has a wonderfully mellifluous voice, and McCoy Tyner’s group, which simply blew the house down.
The festival was kind enough to hand out a limited edition moleskine notebook, specially created by Tomi Ungerer for the festival. It contained a personal inscription from the impresario of the show, Claude Nobs. Nobs, the former Warner Brothers executive for Europe, states that Montreux represents “live music at its best since 1967! Ever, Funky Claude.” Funky is right. Nobs threw a small party one night for musicians and writers at his chateau up in the hills overlooking Montreux. Nobs has a complete collection of recordings of the festivals, many of which he is unable to release, due to copyright and other legal issues. His musical taste is as rarefied as his Swiss aerie: he has the kind of pull to get Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock, among others, to show up for his events.
The week was also complemented by a visit to the Nagra factory. It has various facilities for testing and constructing equipment—the red button featured in the adjacent photo is a panic one if someone runs into real trouble with high voltages. No, I didn’t press it.
Nagra designer Jean-Claude Schlup, a man of decided views not only about sartorial wear but also about what’s proper in audio and what’s isn’t, showed off his laboratory and played us some tunes on his custom speakers. His demo room features airplane seats, making it easy to doze off, except that the music was rather compelling through the diminutive but powerful 845 tube-based VPA mono block amplifiers. Then it was off to Nagra’s big listening room, which features the Verity Lohengrin loudspeaker. Very open, transparent, and elegant sound.
The week went like, well, clockwork. But despite the multiplicity of watch-making enterprises in nearby Geneva, it all had a rather timeless feel, one that I won’t soon forget. As long as I’m feeling wistful, I can at least pull out that Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown album from an earlier festival and let the mind wander back to those turquoise waters and shimmering beaches.