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Hiromi, Christian Scott at JVC Newport

Montreal vibrates in the summer. When the sun finally comes out and the mercury gets stuck in the sweaty 80-degree range, the pent-up energy of three million souls who have survived another long, arctic winter finds delirious release, and the city positively throbs with cultural activity. Between June and August, Montreal hosts almost a dozen important festivals, showcasing everything from film, stand-up comedy and African music to kites, fireworks and musical instruments. But the cultural season hinges on the Montreal International Jazz Festival, an event that turns the downtown theater district into a nearly two-week party with an ideal balance between populist entertainment and aficionado flair. This year’s festival, the 27th annual installment of what is arguably North America’s most prestigious jazz event, was middling compared to previous years. But even a less spectacular installment of the Montreal Jazz Festival is a bracing experience.

What makes Montreal such an adrenaline-inducing event is the way that the festival grabs hold of the city’s imagination, becoming the dominant cultural story for a huge metropolitan region. With a typically Canadian embrace of sensible urban planning, Montreal has developed the ideal infrastructure for throwing a huge, multi-venue event, and the total cooperation of the municipal government means the festival can turn several major blocks into a car-free zone while transforming the plaza in front of the Contemporary Art Museum into a vast outdoor party with libations and food stalls. The festival’s eight indoor venues, which offer ticketed concerts, are either on the plaza or within a few blocks, from the palatial Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier Theater to the cozy intimacy of the Salle du Gesú, a converted church.

In many ways, Montreal is actually two distinct festivals. The free events focus more on blues, R&B and a wide array of international styles, climaxing with a series of huge concerts that draw tens of thousands of people to downtown for late-night revelry. This year the featured performers were the Neville Brothers, the wild Balkan brass party music of Goran Bregovic and his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, and a highly entertaining tribute to Paul Simon with artists such as Elvis Costello, Jamie Cullum, Jeri Brown and Daniel Lanois proving that Simon’s songbook is as vast and stylistically pliable as any living tunesmith.

Montreal’s reputation as not merely a savvy presenter but a creative catalyst is based upon its Invitation Series, which each year allows two selected musicians to design several concerts with different artists. This year the series was particularly successful, showcasing French-born Gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene and Italian-born, French drummer Aldo Romano in multiple settings. Romano’s shows were especially instructive, revealing a supremely expressive drummer with a wide-ranging stylistic palette. The first performance at the Spectrum, a sizable nightclub, found him with bassist Henri Texier and reed master Louis Sclavis, exploring a series of themes inspired by trips to Africa. Rigorous yet playful, Romano has a knack for writing memorable tunes. On “Standing Ovation (for Mandela),” he responded to Sclavis’s clarinet birdcalls with clattering rim shots, answering and anticipating the squeaky reed work. On Sclavis’s ravishing melody “Three Children,” Romano kept the trio grounded with feathery brushstrokes as Texier launched into a volcanic solo that climaxed with him bouncing a drum stick off the strings. Wherever his interlocutors took the music, Romano seemed to have an apt response. The next day, the drummer joined forces with stalwart bassist Remi Vignolo and special guest Mark Turner on tenor sax, forming a highly sympathetic trio. On Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” Turner navigated the vertiginous melody with sinuous grace, while Romano buoyed him with cascading cross rhythms. The combo was at its best on an extended version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” as Romano’s purring cymbal work brought out the sheen in Turner’s lithe, middleweight tone. It was impossible not to feel that the U.S. jazz scene would benefit greatly by hearing more from this incisive drummer.

Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of Montreal is the way that European players are given the respect they deserve. The remarkable French bassist Joelle Leandre wasn’t an official invitation artist, but she appeared in several different contexts, including a riveting encounter with pianist Matthew Shipp at the Salle du Gesú. A brilliant musician who spent the first half of her career on the European new classical scene inspiring influential composers such as Berlioz and Stockhausen, Leandre has dedicated herself in recent decades to spontaneous improvisation, though she rejects the label free jazz (“It’s impossible to be free,” she says. “First you have an instrument in your hands or lips. We have a culture”). In her encounter with Shipp, both players drew on a wide vocabulary, sometimes testing each other, but more often allowing plenty of room for developing parallel ideas. Leandre’s command of the bow means that she turns the bass into an entirely different instrument than one usually hears in jazz settings, and Shipp seemed to welcome her thick, pliable sound with carefully placed chordal clusters. Using the body of the bass for percussion accents, plucking below the bridge and vocalizing along with her sweeping arco lines, Leandre filled up a huge amount of space, while Shipp joined her with a pointillist attack. Like the first conversation between two cagey and excitable poets, Leandre and Shipp revealed a good deal of themselves, but left even more concealed, perhaps for a later encounter.

Another festival highpoint was discovering Elisabeth Kontomanou, a vocalist with a big, lush contralto and the creative moxie to combine a cabaret performer’s sense of drama with a commitment to open-ended improvisation. Performing at Club Soda, which usually features DJs and club music, she delivered a sensational set working in a duo with French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc. Rather than playing close-to-the-vest accompaniment, the New York-based pianist treated the gig as if Kontomanou was a horn player. Instead of arrangements, they turned each number into a musical joyride. Her slow and sensuous version of “April in Paris” segued seamlessly with a scat passage into “Stardust.” On “Summertime,” she underlined the song’s often forgotten purpose and turned “Porgy and Bess” into a lullaby, pantomiming rocking a baby in her arms. Delivering the line “and your mama’s good looking” with a self-mocking chuckle, she artfully captured the song’s heartbreaking irony. While Kontomanou has worked and recorded with some of jazz’s finest players, she is clearly ready to take her place among the best jazz singers.

It’s not entirely fair to characterize this year’s Montreal lineup as sub par, as I only caught five of the 11 days. But even when Montreal doesn’t live up to its exalted status, I’ve found that the festival doesn’t disappoint. In much the same way, Quebec City’s Festival d’ete, which runs for 11 days and overlaps with the end of the Montreal jazz festival, is a supremely satisfying experience that offers a steady flow of musical surprises. While Montreal is the cosmopolitan cultural engine of Quebec, Quebec City is the Francophone heart of the province. The festival is part of the city’s campaign to raise awareness about the region as a tourist destination, so it is hugely subsidized. For $25 (Canadian), you get access to all four outdoor stages and most indoor events (with a flashing red light, the access badges make for a strange and wonderful vision at night). A world music smorgasbord unlike any festival in the United States, the Festival D’ete presents a mind-boggling range of music. There’s a steady flow of Quebecois artists playing everything from pop and folk to punk and rap/rock, along with Celtic and Cuban artists, Latin American, Eastern European and Asian, with a healthy dollop of jazz. The same night that the Scorpions and Twisted Sister headlined on one stage, I caught Calexico with the powerhouse Mariachis Luz de Luna (which I chased with a nightclub set by Iwayan Balawan, an Indonesian jazz guitarist who has developed a two-handed tapping technique on a double-neck guitar, a beautiful but limited sound). The Malian couple of Amadou and Mariam turned the audience at the elegant Place Metro stage into a gyrating rave with chorus after chorus of blues-like call and response lines.

But the most ecstatic moment I witnessed at the festival took place in the intimate club Pub St. Alexandre, where American Gypsy jazz guitarist John Jorgenson led his superb quintet through a blazing set. With an occasional vocal thrown in, Jorgenson charmed the audience, alternating standards like “Avalon” and “Undecided” at killer tempos with beautifully rendered ballads. Toward the end of the set, he delivered a sublime version of “September Song” that brought a hush to the noisy room.

Originally Published