The Montreal International Jazz Festival at 35: A Look Back
Ten days of superb music
The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal marked its 35th anniversary this summer. Running from June 26 to July 6, it was a festive, well-attended celebration. True to itself, the festival featured a plethora of jazz, as well as offerings to satisfy a range of other musical cravings. Alain Simard, the festival's president and managing director, noted the emphasis placed on the accessibility and democratization of the music, with two-thirds of its 800 performances free.
OPENING NIGHT: A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME
Among the headlining artists were the Heath Brothers, bluesman Harry Manx with Charlie Hunter (Manx led the first of four Invitation Series), Daniel Lanois with Trixie Whitley and Emmylou Harris, Cassandra Wilson, Angélique Kidjo, Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60, Cécile McLorin Salvant, the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Alain Lefèvre and the Montreal Symphony celebrating the 90th anniversary of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ... Yes, all in one night. Simultaneously, the festival held its opening outdoor mega-concert with Woodkid (French artist Yoann Lemoine), tens of thousands descending on Place des Festivals for a stunning audio-visual spectacle.
Kicking off the night was Montreal's very own diva, Juno-winner Ranee Lee, delighting the audience with a set drawn mostly from her new recording, What's Going On. Lee interwove originals with renditions of "Lazy Afternoon," the Mandel/Bergman classic "Where Do You Start?" and Leon Russell’s "A Song For You," beautifully arranged for strings (like the album, the concert featured the Birds on a Wire string quartet). Sounding better than ever, Lee closed with Bob Marley's "One Love," joined onstage by three of her grandchildren.
Later that night, Place des Arts' Théâtre Jean-Duceppe hosted Newport's 60th anniversary celebration. Currently on tour under the artistic direction of clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, this stellar all-star band consists of trumpeter Randy Brecker, singer Karrin Allyson, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, drummer Clarence Penn and bassist Larry Grenadier. Opening with Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotations," their entirely satisfying concert included a captivating bass-vocals duet of "’Round Midnight," Brecker's "Freefall," featuring the inimitable trumpeter, and a show-stopping rendition of "La Vie en Rose" featuring Cohen on clarinet.
The Heath Brothers played a sold-out two-night run at the famed Upstairs jazz club, with pianist Jeb Patton and bassist David Wong. Performing together since 1976, saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath carry the torch sans brother and bassist Percy, who passed away in 2005. At 87 and 79, the two brothers are still going strong, maintaining their signature bop sound: laid-back, funky and irresistibly swinging. The audience was thoroughly enchanted with the band's renditions of classics such as "All the Things You Are" and "You’ve Changed," a couple of Jimmy Heath's own compositions ("You or Me," "Sleeves,") and "Love Walked In"—featuring Patton. Singing through the bridge of "Day Dream," he encouraged the ladies to sing the next one, visibly pleased with how they did.
Subsequent days offered diverse choices for varying tastes. Highlights included Pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Billy Harper's magnificent duo concert, opening with an extended exploration of Weston's 1958 composition "Little Niles," and traversing material from their recording The Roots of the Blues, including "The Healers"—a tribute to the ancient civilization of the Nile Valley, the originators of the music who, noted Weston, were "in tune with the Universe"; alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Gamak project, fusing classical Indian music and progressive jazz; Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez and his Children Of The Light Trio with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, with whom he has been sharing the stage in the legendary Wayne Shorter Quartet for years; a night of straight-ahead sweetness with the Christian McBride Trio; and the adventurous, polyrhythmic drum-sax-guitar trio of drummer Jeff Ballard with Miguel Zenón and Lionel Loueke, who played both bass and lead on his electric guitar, contributing percussive vocals on tunes such as "Western Wren (A Bird Call)" off the trio's recent Times Tales. "I had to force myself to stop counting, listen to my heart instead of my head, and just enjoy the groove!" mused Montreal guitarist Gary Schwartz as the audience drifted out of the cozy Gesù, well after midnight.
The Festival's 35th anniversary marked the inauguration of a new award honoring distinguished blues artists, named after B.B. King. Featured on a double-bill with King was Grammy-winning guitarist Gary Clark Jr., delivering an electrifying performance, after which King was presented with the trophy onstage by the Festival's Artistic Director, André Ménard.
There was no shortage of singers at the Festival; alongside Cassandra Wilson, Alejandra Ribera, Angélique Kidjo and Cécile McLorin Salvant (all performing on day one) were Sheila Jordan, Dianne Reeves, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Susie Arioli, Cyrille Aimée, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Canadian darling Diana Krall performed her first free concert in Montreal at Sunday night’s Grand Event in front of approximately 100,000 people, joined for her encore by husband Elvis Costello (who had just played a solo concert at the Maison Symphonique).
The vocal category also included Michael Bublé, Tony Bennett (with a surprise appearance by Lady Gaga), Montreal native Rufus Wainwright, soulman Cody ChesnuTT and Bobby McFerrin. José James played two solid sets at Club Soda, the first featuring material from his new Blue Note album While You Were Sleeping, infused with electronica and indie rock influences, and ending with his version of Freestyle Fellowship’s "Park Bench People," quoting Freddie Hubbard’s "Red Clay." The second set featured tunes from Blackmagic and No Beginning No End, showcasing James' distinct amalgamation of jazz, hip-hop and R&B.
Among lesser-known noteworthy vocalists were London-based Ghanaian Benjamin Clementine, who—discovered busking in the Paris Métro—played Club Soda solo, demonstrating why he has won over both critics and fans; soul singer Hollie Smith, a star in her native New Zealand, whose powerhouse outdoor performance captivated thousands; the exceptional Tennessee native Valerie June, who sold out L'Astral; and Israeli-Ethiopian Ester Rada, whose powerful vocals, blending Ethio-jazz, soul, funk and R&B, were paired with a magnetic stage presence.
Always a heavily programmed day, smack in the middle of the festival, this national holiday offered audiences a broad spectrum of jazz: pianist Brad Mehldau's solo concert (Mehldau subsequently performed in piano duo format with Tigran Hamasyan, and also presented his Mehliana project with drum phenom Mark Guiliana), Marcus Miller, the Kenny Garrett Quintet, and a variety of other offerings including a sizzling reggae night with Sly & Robbie and the legendary Burning Spear.
Marking the transition of the prestigious Invitation Series from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire to pianist Tigran Hamasyan, the evening granted the two artists the opportunity to share the stage for an experience that is the quintessence of this festival. The series—a festival favorite, taking place at the intimate Gesù (a small, century-old church converted into a concert hall with phenomenal sound)—offers featured artists the occasion to collaborate with colleagues in a unique setting, exploring each other's music and creative sensibilities, sparking something entirely new. Referring to his residency, which opened with a duo concert with guitarist Bill Frisell, as "the most life-changing musical moment of [his] career," Akinmusire's signature sound was in full effect, as was Tigran's, and the combination of the two was nothing short of mesmerizing. Joined by Sam Minaie on bass and Justin Brown on drums, the set opened with a solo trumpet intro to Akinmusire's modulating "As We Fight," Tigran's piano flavored with the folk music of his native Armenia. Highlights came in the form of duets: a haunting Armenian folk song, followed by the trumpeter's "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child." Akinmusire elicited highly emotive notes from his horn, alternately tender and hushed, growling and gritty, Hamasyan complementing with stunning harmonies and oscillating dynamics on acoustic piano and Rhodes. In true Montreal form, the audience waited until a moment after the very last note dissipated to express its appreciation.
FINGER ON THE PULSE
While continuing to offer an abundance of concerts by beloved veterans, the festival is making an effort to showcase rising stars. Alongside Akinmusire and Tigran Hamasyan, featured artists included Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based pianist Shai Maestro, who played to a rapt audience at L'Astral accompanied by bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ziv Ravitz, showcasing new compositions as well material from The Road to Ithaca; pianist Kris Bowers, featuring music from his genre-bending debut album Heroes + Misfits; bassist Felix Pastorius, taking the Montreal stage 32 years after his father, the inimitable Jaco Pastorius; and saxophonist Darius Jones and the fierce Tarbaby—bassist Eric Revis, drummer Nasheet Waits and pianist Orrin Evans—with a set of a muscular, free, explosive and soulful jazz (proof these are not mutually exclusive).
The festival maintained its tradition of hosting diverse music from around the world. The legendary Conjunto Chappottin y sus estrellas, keepers of the son fire for over 70 years, turned the festival's main plaza into a Cuban dance party. The Mokoomba sextet from Zimbabwe, hailed as the next big thing out of southern Africa, shared their unique Afro-fusion of traditional Tonga rhythms, Congolese rumba and soukous, funk and pop. Fiercely energetic throughout most of the set, the group laid down a soulful, breathtaking a cappella tune that hushed and moved the crowd. Tuareg guitarist and singer-songwriter Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez, Niger, dazzled with his desert rock-blues.
The festival showcased quite a bit of local talent; featured artists included Montreal bluesman Paul Deslauriers, trumpeter Joe Sullivan with guitarist Lorne Lofsky, Juno-winning saxophonist Joel Miller and his Honeycomb project, festival staple Vic Vogel and his big band, saxophonist Jean-Pierre Zanella with guitarist Mike Moreno, singers Coral Egan, Emma Frank and Kim Richardson, trumpeter Ron Di Lauro (recipient of the festival's Oscar Peterson award), pianists Jérôme Beaulieu, François Bourassa, Vincent Gagnon, Marianne Trudel, Rafael Zaldivar and his Afro Cuban Revival project, John Roney (host of the festival's late-night jam sessions), and the legendary Oliver Jones, honored with an 80th birthday celebration concert.
The festival's closing night showcased its diverse programming: Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz, accompanied by members of the Either/Orchestra, drew a huge, multi-generational audience. Neo-soul star Maxwell's sensuousness took the stuffiness right out of Place des Arts' main concert hall. Next door, trumpeter Tom Harrell, soulful and crisp, presented Colors of a Dream, beautifully orchestrated for two basses (Esperanza Spalding and Ugonna Okegwo), three horns (Jaleel Shaw and Wayne Escoffery on saxophones) and drums (Johnathan Blake). Saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen's formidable Jazz Orchestra delivered the night's final performance, with compositions from her critically acclaimed, award-winning Habitat.
A massive undertaking, with two million attendees feasting not only on jazz but soul, blues, rock, mainstream pop, hip-hop and world music for 10 straight days, the Montreal Jazz Festival clearly has a winning formula.