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Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Charlie Haden took a moment at the start of his Montreal International Jazz Festival concert to recite the evening’s set list–including his choice of encore. When the audience twittered at this presumption, the bassist seemed stranded for a moment, but then spread his arms imploringly. “What can I do?” he shrugged. “This is Montreal. You guys have made yourselves the most predictable audience in the world.” At this, the Theatre Maisonneuve de la Place des Arts filled with appreciative laughter that rippled into applause. Montreal fans are well aware of their reputation for enthusiasm and erudition, but they don’t mind having it confirmed every once in a while.

The extravagant warmth of the crowds is just one distinguishing feature of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. Another is the setting–a network of concert halls, ballrooms and clubs in the heart of downtown, with a central four-block radius closed to vehicular traffic. Ten outdoor stages offer free concerts on a staggered schedule, and a number of bands log additional time in the streets; I slowed my pace on the arterial Rue Sainte Catherine more than once for an outfit from Marseilles called Accoules Sax (six saxophones, two marching drummers, and an ample if unsubtle sense of groove). Concertgoers walking from one ticketed venue to another confront many such diversions–an alleged 350 outdoor concerts altogether–and yet the festival site never takes more than ten or fifteen minutes to traverse. The seamlessness of the experience is a credit to the festival’s workforce, which surely rivals any special event staff on the planet for efficiency and industry. Their mostly invisible efforts imbue the proceedings with an impression of homeostatic order; after a while it no longer seems remarkable that the flow of pedestrians never clogs and the concerts begin and end on time.

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