Live Review: 39th Montreal International Jazz Festival

Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington, John Medeski, and Mark Guiliana are just a few standout performers among many over 10 days

©2018_benoit_rousseau_fijm_herbie hancock_BEN04441
Benoit Rousseau/Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

Herbie Hancock (left) and Lionel Loueke at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 2, 2018

Despite a record-breaking heatwave over the Canada Day holiday weekend, the 10-day music marathon that was the 39th Montreal International Jazz Festival (June 28-July 8) proceeded in fine fashion, with a smorgasbord of high-caliber performances rooted in jazz, blues, pop, world music, and other genres. Hundreds of thousands of concertgoers flooded onto the streets around the Place des Arts performing arts complex for a fest featuring 500 indoor and outdoor shows—two-thirds of them free—on 20 stages by 3,000 musicians from 300 countries.

Round one was capped with a sprawling, high-energy performance by Herbie Hancock, who took a 100-minute fusion and funk voyage with the help of guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus, and drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. “Buckle up your seatbelts,” he told the adoring crowd at the plush, 2,990-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier theater, before launching into a spacy “Overture” that, like most pieces, found the legendary keyboardist, composer, and jazz innovator playing electric piano as well as synthesizer and acoustic piano.

The zig-zagging set included new tunes along with favorites such as “Come Running to Me,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Actual Proof,” “Watermelon Man,” and the closing “Chameleon,” during which Hancock prowled the stage with his keytar. Leading a trio, opener Thundercat, a six-string bass guitar virtuoso who appears on Hancock’s next album, dazzled the crowd with soulful falsetto vocals, astonishingly fleet-fingered solo work, and appealingly off-kilter compositions that seem equally rooted in funk, jazz, hip-hop, soul, electronica, and prog rock.

Kamasi Washington at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival
Kamasi Washington at the Montreal Jazz Festival, June 30, 2018 (photo: Victor Diaz Lamich/Festival International de Jazz de Montréal)

Celebrated L.A. tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, one of the fest’s most anticipated acts, largely lived up to the hype with a charismatic SRO performance at the cavernous Mtelus nightclub. Wearing a flowing yellow-and-purple robe and joined in a three-horn front line by his father Rickey Washington on soprano sax and Ryan Porter on trombone, Washington offered soaring, spiritually minded anthems, deep funk grooves, and occasional detours into hard bop. It was a satisfying mix, drawing from his new Heaven and Earth—including opener “Street Fighter Mas” and closer “Fists of Fury”—as well as The Epic and other recordings.

John Medeski, playing host for a three-night “Invitation” series at Gesù, an intimate, acoustically pristine theater located beneath a 150-year-old stone church, showed off several variations of his rangy musical palette. And none involved his best-known band, Medeski Martin & Wood.

For night one, performed “for your listening pleasure,” as he joked, Medeski focused on the Hammond B3 and connected with guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer JT Lewis. The three mostly dug into jazz-funk grooves, turning in an offbeat version of Steppenwolf’s “Sookie Sookie” and bolstering Horace Silver’s “Strollin’” with an extended trading-fours section. Medeski’s wildly imaginative approach to keyboards made a good match with Ribot’s bent six-string declarations, spiked with jazz and pop references, including a quick quote of Miles Davis’s “Four.”

Billy Martin and Mark Guiliana at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival
Billy Martin (left) and Mark Guiliana at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 1, 2018 (photo: Valerie Gay Bessette/Festival International de Jazz de Montréal)

New Orleans-ish grooves were at the heart of Medeski’s set for the second night, with his Mad Skillet group, featuring guitarist Will Bernard, drummer Julian Addison, and Kirk Joseph, a founder of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who enhanced his tuba sound with wah-wah, distortion, and other effects. Sun Ra’s “Golden Lady” was a highlight. For night three of the run, Medeski faced off with a pair of drummers: MMW bandmate Billy Martin and Mark Guiliana. Wielding a bottomless supply of keyboards, percussion instruments, electronic effects, and other audio devices, the trio turned in a long, practically nonstop set of bracing electroacoustic improv.

Medeski’s Invitation series was just the first of three at this year’s festival; the second, curated by Guiliana, overlapped with Medeski’s for this one evening. The following night, Guiliana presented his Beat Music project with guest keyboardist Bigyuki, whose classical training and extensive vocabulary melded perfectly with Guiliana’s sensibilities, fusing elements of jazz, classical, hip-hop, soul, rock, and electronica. Jeff Taylor’s distinctive vocals added yet another dimension to the dynamic set. Guiliana closed out his series with his compelling Jazz Quartet (bassist Chris Morrissey, saxophonist Jason Rigby, pianist Fabian Almazan) and guest vocalist Gretchen Parlato. The set included “inter-are” (off last year’s Jersey), the new “GP” (working title)—on which Parlato’s wordless vocals added the quality of an ineffable instrument—and “What Does a Lion Say,” a gorgeous new ballad by Morrissey featuring lyrics by Parlato and capturing the fleeting pre-speech moment of childhood. Amazingly, this was only Parlato’s first sit-in with the band—look out for future collaborations.

Jonathan Kreisberg, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Chris Potter, and Johnathan Blake at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival
Left to right: Jonathan Kreisberg, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Chris Potter, and Johnathan Blake at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 5, 2018 (photo: Victor Diaz Lamich/Festival International de Jazz de Montréal)

The third Invitation series belonged to the grand master of the B3, Dr. Lonnie Smith. Its first installment featured Smith’s spellbinding trio, joined by saxophonist Chris Potter. Opening with a scorching version of “Mellow Mood” (“That wasn’t quite mellow, now, was it?” Smith said, smiling), the band soared, thanks to Johnathan Blake’s propulsive drumming and Jonathan Kreisberg’s imaginative guitar lines. The following night Smith featured Evolution, a horn section with Robin Eubanks, John Ellis, and Jason Marshall, as well as versatile vocalist Alicia Olatuja. A standout was “All in My Mind,” Smith starting off on keys, reciting the lyrics in dramatic, spoken-word fashion before switching to the organ, Olatuja equally poignant. Introducing his own “Pilgrimage,” Smith noted that “it’s not a sad song; it just tells the world what’s going on. Maybe it’s the way I play it.” His first note was enough to elicit vocal expressions of bliss from the audience. Kreisberg’s soulful solo and Olatuja’s range and emotive quality took the music to further heights (“Church!” hollered an audience member). The extended standing ovation received by Smith spilled into a warm welcome on night three, when he returned to the stage for his final set, again with the trio. The 76-year-old played with intensity, exuberance, and electrifying spirit throughout the series.

Also on the Montreal itinerary: a raucous set of jazz-funk by former Snarky Puppy keyboardist Cory Henry at the MTelus, with Jose James’ inspired opening set of Bill Withers remakes, and bottleneck slide guitarist Ry Cooder’s spirited Americana and roots-rock, supporting his recently released The Prodigal Son album. On the bluesier side were Ben Harper and harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite, whose voices and instruments meshed beautifully in support of their joint recording, No Mercy in This Land; powerhouse Detroit vocalist Thornetta Davis (nominated last year as Best Emerging Artist at the Blues Music Awards for her latest album, Honest Woman); and Mississippi singer/songwriter/guitarist R. L. Boyce, sharing sounds from the hill country. One of the most intriguing performances on the blues stage was delivered by Delgres, guitarist Pascal Danae’s latest project. The band journeyed through delta blues, blues-rock, Caribbean Créole blues, and the brass sounds of New Orleans, debuting music from the powerful new album Mo Jodi.

Delgres at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival
Delgres (left to right: Pascal Danae, Baptiste Brondy, Rafgee) at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 2, 2018 (photo: Victor Diaz Lamich/Festival International de Jazz de Montréal)

Montreal musicians represented the city’s diversity and creativity. The Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal presented a tribute to Carla Bley, who was slated to join the band together with Steve Swallow; sadly, their participation was canceled for health reasons. “We’ll do our best to honor her through her music,” said Montreal saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Christine Jensen, who deftly conducted the orchestra through Bley’s works, opening with “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid.” Each piece featured a different female artist, including Montreal pianists Marianne Trudel, Gentiane MG, and Marie-Fatima Rudolf; American pianist Helen Sung; and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The following night, the Jensen sisters were joined by Helen Sung for an intimate set in quintet format at Upstairs (with Adrian Vedady on bass and Jon Wikan on drums), returning to Bley and also interpreting Kenny Wheeler’s “Foxy Trot” and Sung’s own “Convergence.” Gifted saxophonist and native son Chet Doxas (now based in New York) played music from his recent Rich in Symbols, blending electric indie-rock into a unique jazz aesthetic while drawing from New York art created in the 1970s and ’80s. As each piece was played, the artwork that inspired it—by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Keith Haring—was projected onto a screen, adding an engaging visual dimension.

Helen Sung at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival
Helen Sung at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 3, 2018 (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Of course, there were plenty of visual and aural pleasures to be had just wandering around the fest site, too, including “Further on Down the Road,” “Walkin’ the Dog,” and other blues gems blasted by the 10-piece Les Pros du Camp de Blues, and Barbra Lica’s pretty strolling acoustic-band take on “La Vie en Rose.” Montreal’s own Urban Science Brass Band took to the streets for a daily parade show, a dancing crowd trailing along as the high-energy crew, led by saxophonist Vincent Stephen-Ong, brought the brass band tradition into the present. Other brass bands at this year’s festival included Toronto’s Heavyweights Brass Band and Chicago’s LowDown Brass Band—a tight ensemble rooted in the New Orleans second-line tradition, whose material (drawn from their new recording, LowDown Breaks) was infused with funk, hip-hop, reggae, and pop flavors.

For the fest’s final night, after catching Dr. Smith, French-born gypsy jazz guitarist Stéphane Wrembel, and Lakou Mizik—a Haitian racine (roots) band founded in the wake of the earthquake as an act of resilience—it was time to return to Gesù for Jamie Saft’s late-night solo piano set. “I can’t play Montreal without playing something by Leonard Cohen,” Saft said, offering his own interpretation of Cohen’s reading of Frederick Knight’s “Be for Real.” Among his other brilliant reimaginings were Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” a selection of Joni Mitchell songs, Roswell Rudd’s “Ode to a Green Frisbee,” and a mashup of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” and John Coltrane’s “Naima.”

One measure of a festival is the FOMS—“fear of missing something”—factor: How many top-rank artists must one miss because of schedule conflicts? In this case, the list includes Monty Alexander, Archie Shepp, Emmet Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Benny Golson, the Mike Stern/Randy Brecker band, George Thorogood, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Terence Blanchard, Boz Scaggs, and several others. By the degree-of-FOMS standard, Montreal’s gathering remains a top-shelf item on the world’s music-fest calendar.