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Special Preview: The Montreal Jazz Festival Turns 40

What to expect at this summer’s fest—the last to be run by co-founders André Ménard and Alain Simard

A poster for one of the original Montreal Jazz Festival shows in 1979
Seen framed on the wall of André Ménard’s office: A poster for one of the original 1979 Montreal Jazz Festival shows and (above Keith Jarrett’s head) a ticket to that same concert—the very first ticket sold for the festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The largest jazz festival in the world—the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal—kicks off June 27, transforming Montreal’s downtown core into a massive venue spanning half a square mile, with nearly 30 outdoor and indoor stages. This mammoth 10-day musical feast will present 150 ticketed concerts and over 300 free outdoor shows, as a blend of local and international artists represent the many facets of jazz and beyond.

There’s a lot in store for this special edition, André Ménard—the festival’s co-founder and VP—tells JT. “The day before the official opening,” he says, “the French accordionist Richard Galliano will present two concerts in one: first a duet with legendary bassist Ron Carter, then a tribute to [French composer] Michel Legrand, with a local string quartet. This was my special request, and is a gift from heaven.” As in previous years, the programming includes jazz artists from around the globe, from Paris to London (tuba player Theon Cross), Cuba to Scandinavia (see the ECM series below). “The festival has always been about great American music, but we take into account all the other jazz scenes in the world.”

Both Ménard and Alain Simard, who co-founded the festival in 1979, will be retiring at the end of this year. They’ll share anecdotes from the festival’s 40-year history during a special show on July 4, accompanied by pianist Lorraine Desmarais’ band and broadcast live by WGBO.

Those who grumble about the inclusion of other genres at the festival—which, like many others, books not only jazz and blues, but also folk, soul, reggae, and world artists—will likely make the same argument this year. There will, however, be no shortage of quality jazz, no matter your stylistic preference. Opening night illustrates this perfectly: The diverse program includes Vijay Iyer with Craig Taborn; the Stave Gadd Band; Brad Mehldau’s special quintet (with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Joel Frahm, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Leon Parker); compelling Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana; and Montreal trumpeter Jacques Kuba Séguin, who unveils MiGRATIONS—a new mosaic of compositions inspired by the narratives of people from different cultural backgrounds, both natives and immigrants to Québec.  

Subsequent nights continue to offer a wide variety of jazz, both from veterans and rising stars: Danilo Pérez in duo with Kurt Elling; underground Virginia quintet Butcher Brown; the Ravi Coltrane Quartet on a double bill with drummer Antonio Sánchez; saxophonists such as Donny McCaslin and Joshua Redman, and pianists such as Yaron Herman and Kris Davis; a range of drummers, including Makaya McCraven, Kendrick Scott, and Nate Smith; trumpeters Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Erik Truffaz, and Keyon Harrold; blues legends Buddy Guy and Lucky Peterson; guitarist Gilad Hekselman; and the unique pairing of Raul Midón and Lionel Loueke

There will be a broad variety to choose from in the jazz vocal category as well, from Sheila Jordan, Dianne Reeves, and Norah Jones to up-and-coming Blue Note artist Kandace Springs, Patricia Barber, Madeleine Peyroux, and Melody Gardot; Canadian vocalists Ranee Lee, Holly Cole, and Nikki Yanofsky; Franco-Dominican Cyrille Aimée and South Korean rising star Youn Sun Nah; and vocalist/guitarist John Pizzarelli’s salute to Nat King Cole. International vocalists include Bebel Gilberto, daughter of Brazilian legend João Gilberto, and Omara Portuondo of the near-mythical Buena Vista Social Club, on her One Last Kiss farewell tour.

The bubbling, culturally diverse local scene is represented in the Jazz d’ici series at L’Astral, as well as a series presented at Dièse Onze jazz club on Rue St. Denis. Vocalist Karen Young and pianist Marianne Trudel will revisit Canadian icon Joni Mitchell; French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, who has made Montreal his home, features his Waves trio; singer Dominique Fils-Aimé opens for Leslie Odom, Jr. (Hamilton); Cuban-born pianist and composer Rafael Zaldivar presents his Afro-Cuban Revival; trumpeter Rachel Therrien, now a Brooklyn resident, performs both with her quintet and with up-and-coming pianist Gentiane MG; drummer Jim Doxas, once a member of the Oliver Jones Trio, features his own quartet and accompanies 88-year-old pianist Wray Downes, Canadian jazz veteran and disciple of Oscar Peterson; promising young vocalist Laura Anglade launches her debut album; and trumpeter Hichem Khalfa, commissioned by the festival, recreates the music of Roy Hargrove’s iconic band the RH Factor.

“I’m especially looking forward to hearing [saxophonist] Yannick Rieu’s Coltrane concert,” Ménard notes. Rieu will interpret pieces of the opus Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, rediscovered last year. 

A number of intriguing performances bring together Montreal and U.S. artists. Saxophonist Christine Jensen presents her New York Quartet: Allison Miller on drums, Helen Sung on piano, and Noriko Ueda on bass. Marc Copland assembles a Montreal trio with bassist Adrian Vedady and the aforementioned Doxas. Saxophonist Samuel Blais fronts a quartet with guitarist Ben Monder and drummers John Hollenbeck and Dan Weiss. And Montreal’s Orchestre National de Jazz takes on The Invisible Man: An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre, conducted and accompanied by its creator, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, and producer Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II, a.k.a. Sly5thAve.

The festival’s anticipated Invitation Series features three evenings with Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca (in trio with French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, solo, and finally with New York DJ/producer Joe Claussel). A series titled “ECM at 50” presents the Iyer/Taborn duo, bassist Larry Grenadier, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, and Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch.

For its 40th anniversary, the FIJM announced the creation of the new Oliver Jones Award, named for the legendary Montreal-born pianist who left an enduring mark on the festival. This new award supports young university-level musicians from visible minority groups; the winner receives a monetary prize offered by Stingray and an invitation to perform at the festival next year. The festival is also launching the first of five satellite performance sites to be unveiled over the coming years. Located only eight subway stops from the downtown core, the Verdun hub presents 40 free concerts.

A surprise 40th-anniversary party was just announced; details are still under wraps. Stay tuned.

For tickets and more information about the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, visit the festival website.