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2014 Montreal Jazz Festival Preview

Russ Davis looks at the performances and event for the upcoming festival

Mehliana (Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana) @ Highline Ballroom, NYC, 1/22/14 (photo: Greg Aiello)
Mehliana (Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana) @ Highline Ballroom, NYC, 1/22/14 (photo: Greg Aiello)

It seems to me that there is a good and a bad side to most everything in life. As I prepare for my 10th consecutive visit to the beautiful city of Montreal, Quebec for the 35th edition of The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal there is plenty good to look forward to. The bad side is that I can’t stay for all 11 days of this glorious event that runs from the 26th of June through July 6th.

I certainly won’t take the time and space to list all the performances that will take place, you can go to the festival website at and get all the details, but I am always astounded at the variety and depth of styles exhibited in the massive lineup that truly presents “something for everyone.” As with many festivals, especially one with the scope and expense involved with an event like this one, major sponsors and big-ticket pop artists pay the bills for the lesser known acts. It’s the former that brings in the bucks and the crowds and the latter that gets my attention. I’m looking for the artists from around the world that I may have heard of but never seen and/or the ones I’ve never heard of that will be that one, big surprise that makes my festival experience complete.

This year legendary pop artists like Diana Ross, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire and Rickie Lee Jones will bring in the crowds and pay the bills. The biggest names in jazz will also pack the beautiful indoor venues around the Place des Arts, the city center where the festival events happen, all within walking distance of one another. During the 11 days of the festival one can see everyone from Christian McBride to Keith Jarrett to Kenny Garrett to Brad Mehldau to Joe Lovano to Dr. Lonnie Smith to Mike Stern with Bill Evans to Jack DeJohnette to…well you get the idea. But to me, it’s the unknown that is as big a lure as anything and this year the list of artists that will perform in the free outdoor and indoor shows is as alluring and impressive as any time in the past decade that I’ve been attending the festival.

I’ve always said that visiting Montreal is like going to Europe without leaving North America, but during festival time it’s more like traveling the musical world while staying in one place. This year one can see artists from all over the USA and Canada as well as every other continent on the globe. Festival co-founder and director Andre Menard told me recently that 37 countries are represented in the list of artists who’ll make their way to Montreal to play this year. There’s Ester Rada and Mulatu Astatke, the father of “Ethio-Jazz,” from Ethiopia, Australia’s Melbourne Ska Ensemble, Mokoomba from Zimbabwe, Denmark’s Ibrahim Electric, Jean Jean Roosevelt from Haiti, the quartet Partisans from England and many, many more that promise to reward festival attendees with surprising performances.

I’ve been looking at the lineups for many of the festivals happening in the spring and summer this year and I’ve noticed that there are not as many jazz vocalists featured as I would imagine. That is not the case with the 35th Montreal Jazz Fest as one might take their pick of the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Stacy Kent, Jose James, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Angelique Kidjo, the legendary Tony Bennett and three of Canada’s greatest, Michael Buble, Nikki Yanofsky and Diana Krall, who’ll play a free show on the giant stage outdoors in the Place des Artes.

There will be dozens more free shows outdoors on stages all in walking distance of one another with performances each day from afternoon to midnight. One might see some of the local jazzers or some funky American blues or a little something for the fans of the jazzy jambands with acts like J.J. Grey and Mofro. The paid performances happen inside concert spaces as varied as the converted church called the Gesu that is now an intimate performance space, and my personal favorite by the way, to the newest and largest, the magnificent Maison Symphonique that will feature everything from solo piano performances by Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra program titled Gershwin Legacy and the now legendary “Battle of the Big Bands” featuring the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras.

There are three clubs of different sizes including Le Club L’Astral, the newest and most intimate space, where one might see newcomer Kris Bowers or Brad Mehldau’s new electric project Mehliana, with Mark Guiliana. Just off St. Catherine Street is Club Soda, the medium sized but large, two-level club that reminds one of the old Spectrum. There you can see and hear the likes of Rickie Lee Jones, Jose James or Mulatu Astatke. In the giant of the three clubs, the Metropolis, the crowd will be moving to the sound of New Orleans with Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, or the son of Frank Zappa, Dweezil, bringing the music of his father to life with his band Zappa Plays Zappa.

I’ve mentioned a number of shows that have peaked my interest but a few others that stand out as “must see” personal favorites are Regina Carter performing music from her latest release, Southern Comfort, rock legend, drummer Ginger Baker, and his Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion with funky sax legend Pee Wee Ellis, the son of Jaco, Felix Pastorius leading his own band, and any of the three performances by the young Armenian-born pianist Tigran Hamasyan. He’ll play two duo performances, one with fellow young gun of modern jazz, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the other with Brad Mehldau. Then he’ll lead his own band in performance of his latest release, the brilliant Shadow Theatre.

So you see, there’s much to enjoy at the 35th Montreal Jazz Festival. To give you a taste of what to expect you can hear my preview in my 2-hour show Jazz America that I produce for the U.S. Government service Voice of America. I’ve posted it on my MOJA Radio website, as I do each week. It will be available for free listening on demand through Sunday, June 29.

As you can see I’m pretty excited about my tenth trip in a row to Montreal for this great event, but the bad part is that I just can’t be there for all 11 days. I suppose I’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation and see a dozen shows or so in the time I do have. I guess I can enjoy a meal in a few of their world-class restaurants, take my daily walk through the city streets and up Mount Royal to take in the breath-taking view of the city below from the top. I guess I just have to try and enjoy the company of the charming inhabitants of this most livable and beautiful city for a while. Oh well, it’s a tough task but I think I can live through it one more time!

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio’s website.

Originally Published