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2021 Montreal Jazz Festival: Back to Business, Slightly Abridged

Amid a continuing pandemic, the Quebec mainstay holds a high-spirited 41st edition

Elisapie and Jason Sharp
Elisapie (left) and Jason Sharp at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

“It brought us all pure joy to get together and play as a group post-COVID lockdown,” saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen told JazzTimes after playing the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival. “They gave us a great venue to express our sound as a band. We were able to play safely outside, with so many able to listen to us!”

It was no easy feat, managing large crowds in the midst of a pandemic; and yet the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM) managed to stage a 2021 edition—albeit an abbreviated one, running September 15 to 19, weeks later than its usual late June-early July schedule. All concerts were presented in compliance with the health measures currently in effect per order of the Quebec government, with multiple COVID passport checkpoints throughout the festival’s sizable perimeter. Online ticket reservations were required even for outdoor shows, with daily color-coded access wristbands, and carefully sectioned areas maximizing crowd safety.

Luckily, the summer-like weather cooperated with the artists and fans who were eager to reconnect and bring live jazz back to downtown Montreal. Focusing on a diverse array of homegrown talent, with 50% of the artists being female, the festival presented more than 50 bands from across Quebec and Canada. For the first time, the public was also able to tune into free real-time webcasts of live performances.

Opening-day offerings presented a microcosm of the overall programming, and of the city’s cultural and musical diversity. Four very different vocalists played various venues: Montreal treasure Ranee Lee, celebrating 50 years on the scene; 23-year-old Laura Anglade, finding inspiration in giants such as Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae; blues powerhouse Dawn Tyler Watson; and folk-pop singer Amélie Beyries. Saxophonist and composer Yannick Rieu presented music from his latest album, MachiNations. Harmonica player Guy Bélanger put together a Blues Summit featuring leading local bluesmen and blueswomen. And multicultural, multilingual hip-hop group Nomadic Massive rocked the late-night show.

Christine Jensen at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival
Christine Jensen at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Jensen performed as part of the Ornette Coleman-inspired CODE Quartet—a veritable all-star band—with bassist Adrian Vedady, trumpeter Lex French, and drummer Jim Doxas, all leading voices in Canadian jazz. The Montreal-based collective explored composition and improvisation in a “chordless” setting, celebrating the freedom of expression pioneered by Coleman’s seminal 1950s group, two horns interacting with acoustic bass and drums. Each voice was equally prominent, obscuring the boundaries between frontline and rhythm section. The quartet aired material from its recently released Genealogy (Justin Time), including Jensen’s “Wind Up” and the calypso “Beach Community” by French, the set infused with a sense of exuberance and expansiveness, the audience basking in the music and the early-evening sun.

With travel still presenting formidable obstacles, only two concerts featured out-of-town artists, both from New York. They were presented at jazz clubs slightly off site: Pianist Marc Copland performed an emotive set at Diese Onze, and the Peter Bernstein/Larry Goldings/Bill Stewart Trio played two nights at Upstairs. That virtuosic organ trio, celebrating three decades as a working band, played music from various recordings and a new one on the way, returning for an encore of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues” to the joy of the enthusiastic, attentive crowd. “Making this happen was extremely challenging,” Joel Giberovitch, Upstairs owner and artistic director, told JT after the show. “The logistics of bringing people across the border during COVID was a lot more difficult. . . But we made it happen. This pandemic makes you put things in perspective, appreciate things. It made us realize how much we miss the music and need the music; the audiences weren’t just hearing the music, they were listening, as if the music was feeding their souls.”

Copland, known for his collaborations with John Abercrombie, Gary Peacock, and other luminaries, first visited Montreal in 2006, where he met local bassist Vedady. This creative association yielded numerous gigs over the years, prompting the formation of a symbiotic trio with Doxas on drums. The music played at Diese Onze on September 18 included material by both Copland (“The Bell Tolls”) and Vedady (“Between States”). Mongo Santamaría’s “Afro Blue” was one of the evening’s highlights, as Copland’s abstractions evoked an Alice in Wonderland-type journey and Vedady, playing arco, wound down to a whisper. “I like the way his voice comes through the piano,” Vedady enthused about Copland after the show. “It’s very introspective, emotional. He creates a kind of harmonic palette that is so touching, so unique, and so colorful! Marc wants you to get in there and get your hands dirty.” As Copland kept pushing outward, the Montreal musicians responded, opening, stretching, creating subtle beauty and reaching profound emotional depth.

Marc Copland and Jim Doxas at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival
Marc Copland (left) and Jim Doxas at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The intriguing piano/percussion duo of French-born Simon Denizart and native Montrealer Elli Miller Maboungou played two intriguing sets at Upstairs with guest bassist Jeanne Corpataux-Blache. The two have found perfect counterparts in one another, releasing Nomad (Arte Boreal/Laborie Jazz) this past April, blurring aesthetic boundaries and offering an eclectic, cinematic journey through rhythm and melody. The percussion setup included calabash, snare drum, hi-hat, and cymbals. “Nomad describes what happened to African music,” Maboungou said after the show, “the fact that it traveled everywhere in the world, and that it is present in all our Western music. My playing is influenced by the musical culture that my mom passed on to me, mostly Congolese/central African rhythms.”

The album notes for Nomad quote Archie Shepp’s 1965 statement that “jazz is a music …  born out of the enslavement of my people.” Introducing the evocative “Oldfield,” Denizart took a moment to acknowledge that the tune is a tribute to Black people and to that music, which he considers to be the origin of all contemporary Western musical culture—while also offering a personal commentary on the latent racism and overt discrimination still prevalent in our societies.

Shining a light on Indigenous music, the festival presented Anachnid, a multidisciplinary Oji-Cree artist based in Montreal; the incendiary, award-winning Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a Haisla hip-hop duo from Kitamaat, British Columbia, that’s developed its own unique Indigenous trap genre while lyrically deconstructing stereotypes; and Elisapie, a soulful, outspoken artist representing Inuit musical culture, whose electrifying concert offered one of the festival’s highlights. Performing music from her 2018 album The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, a critical success nominated for a Juno for Aboriginal Album of the Year, Elisapie welcomed the Buffalo Hat Singers—a group of Pow-wow vocalists based in Greater Montreal—and sang “Summertime” in duet with vocalist Dominique Fils-Aimé. Montreal saxophonist and composer Jason Sharp’s improvisation on bass sax led into the sheer beauty of “Darkness Bring the Light.” “Survivors of the residential schools are still among us,” said Elisapie, alluding to a painful and tragic chapter in Canadian history, and to the need for change for First Nations and Indigenous people.

There were several celebratory and tribute concerts at FIJM, including a performance of Chick Corea’s Light as a Feather with vocalist Coral Egan, Daniel Thouin on keys, saxophonist Rieu, and bassist Alain Caron; the 25th anniversary of pianist François Bourassa’s quartet, featuring bassist Guy Boisvert, saxophonist André Leroux, and drummer Guillaume Pilote; and a tribute to Marvin Gaye, marking the 50th anniversary of his iconic album What’s Going On, presented by trombonist Modibo Keita on closing night.

Malika Tirolien at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival
Malika Tirolien at the 2021 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Commissioned by the festival to produce the concert and arrange the music for a big band, Keita welcomed the opportunity to underscore the album’s messages of social equality, environmental preservation, and peace—still resonant, still relevant. A roster of local vocalists, each performing a song, was accompanied by an ensemble of up-and-coming young talent. Standouts were the exceptional Malika Tirolien on a slowed-down, somber arrangement of “Mercy Mercy Me,” and Brooklyn-based guest singer/songwriter J Hoard, who performed the album’s title track with great flair. Montreal poet Jason “Blackbird” Selman delivered “Vietnam,” a poignant self-penned spoken-word piece, imbued with deep emotion. “This project means a lot to me,” Keita mused in a post-concert interview, “because it represents the power of intention and artistic integrity. It felt like a reminder to just stay true to my artistic vision. The festival allowed me to form the band that I envisioned, giving me creative carte blanche.” Expect more from this promising young talent.

“It’s been very challenging,” said Maurin Auxéméry, the FIJM’s senior manager of booking, concerts, and events. “We thought we’d have a festival in 2021, postponing many concerts booked for 2020, then had to cancel again . . . The main challenge was waiting, not knowing what we’d be able to do, what the government guidelines would be. But we had an amazing festival, and we are so happy to be back. There were great musical moments. And though it’s billed as an international festival, and we usually feature artists from all over the world, this year we presented almost exclusively Canadian artists. To me, this actually wasn’t a bad thing; we’re very proud of the lineup. There is so much amazing Canadian talent!”

Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer and editor. A music journalist since 2001, she has contributed to publications including JazzTimes, DownBeat, OkayPlayer, VICE/Noisey, Afropop Worldwide, The Revivalist, and La Scena Musicale; her articles are often accompanied by her photographs.