One way to define a music festival: the sum of its memorable moments. There were plenty of those moments to savor during the first four days of the 40th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, which kicked off in late June on 20 stages in the city’s downtown Quartier des Spectacles.
Which highlights were the most resonant? Tough choice. Ravi Coltrane, during his encore, did some earth-scorching via his father’s classic “Giant Steps.” Melody Gardot, after a thunderous standing ovation, opened her show with a hushed, affecting version of vintage Americana gem “Wayfaring Stranger.” The War & Treaty, under sometimes rainy skies, thrilled the Saturday-night crowd with a soulful explosion touching on “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and “Respect.” Edmar Castañeda, on the aptly titled “For Jaco,” played his harp like a bass guitar, spinning out long, lean lines and harmonics. Afro-Cuban giant Chucho Valdés concluded his set with several gorgeously realized standards. Brad Mehldau, leading an all-star group, dug deep into gospel-blues terrain on Oliver Nelson’s “Yearnin’.” Donny McCaslin cranked it up on a roaring maelstrom of fusion, art-pop, and newfangled prog-rock.
The festival, slouching toward middle age, is still considered one of the world’s largest, with two million or so locals and tourists expected to visit the site during 11 days packed with more than 500 concerts by an impressively eclectic mix of jazz, blues, folk, electropop (rising-star Montrealer Charlotte Cardin), rock (Bryan Adams), metal (Voivod), R&B, and hip-hop artists from Canada, the United States, South America, Central America, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere.
The gathering benefits from its cultural geography as much as its physical location, said co-founder André Ménard, who’s officially exiting the fest’s leadership after the 40th edition. “Montreal, with its French culture and English culture, is a bit of a crossroads for America and Europe,” Menard commented, relaxing on a couch in the fest’s press lounge. “It has become what we call the Montreal formula, a mix of free events [outdoors] and paid events in concert halls. It’s like the best of both worlds crammed into one festival over three blocks, and two metro stations. You cannot reproduce that in many cities—closing the main street and then finding great-quality halls varying in size from 200 seats to 3000.”
Those well-appointed, acoustically fine-tuned concert halls—four located in the sprawling Place des Arts, Canada’s largest performing arts complex—again were home to some of the fest’s most highly anticipated concerts, at least two of which featured celebrated pianists.
Mehldau, winding down a short summer tour with a quintet featuring trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Joel Frahm, injected new life into classic hard bop and soul-jazz at the 2,100-seat Maison Symphonique. The pianist variously offered call-and-response with the horns, deployed them for counterlines, and let them loose on fearless improvisations. Supported by the pliable grooves of bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Leon Parker, a standout soloist, the group offered refreshing takes on “Besame Mucho,” Monk’s octave-jumping “Pannonica,” Coltrane’s “Straight Street,” and Hank Mobley’s “Chain Reaction.”
Valdés, at the same hall, sported something of a stripped-down sound, as he was joined by his Jazz Batá group, with double-bassist Ramón Vázquez, batá drummer and vocalist Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles. The four specialized in montuño rhythms, with the leader variously applying his virtuoso chops to folkish melodies and long improvisations. And the nightcap: a beautifully realized medley of “People,” “Waltz for Debby,” and “But Not for Me.”
Coltrane, at the Theatre Maisonneuve, was joined by pianist David Virelles, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Johnathan Blake for nearly two hours’ worth of satisfying and sometimes adventurous postbop and Latin tunes benefiting from the saxophonist’s dark, biting tenor tone, bright soprano sound, and urgent soloing. The group drew from originals, as well as compositions by John Coltrane (“Satellite”) and Alice Coltrane; for the latter’s “Los Caballos,” not-so-secret weapon Blake built up a mini-symphony of syncopation over a repeating piano/bass figure before continuing with a brilliant unaccompanied solo. Antonio Sánchez & Migration opened the concert at the 1,453-seat venue with a 100-minute set of intricately arranged, intensely played music from the drummer’s recent politically charged album Lines in the Sand. The quintet, with Chase Baird on tenor and EWI and Thana Alexa on (mostly) wordless vocals, played compositions, often built around rise-and-fall structures, that ranged from impressionistic to raging. Some, like the 28-minute opener, felt overlong. Sánchez, a dual citizen of the U.S. and his native Mexico, spoke of his empathy for immigrants. “I’m trying to institute ‘Hug a Mexican’ day,” he joked, in front of an enthusiastic audience that included his mother and other family members.
Returning festival favorite Melody Gardot, who made her debut there in 2008, charmed the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier audience with carefully constructed, dramatic arrangements of her songs of romance. Backed by a rhythm section and a dozen or so string players, and sometimes singing in French, the singer/songwriter effectively transformed the nearly 3,000-seat hall into a Parisian café or street corner circa the 1930s. Occasionally playing piano or guitar, she drew heavily from her 2018 Live in Europe album, making a virtue of vulnerability with such songs as “The Rain,” “Goodbye,” the bossa-driven “So Long,” “Our Love Is Easy,” “Baby I’m a Fool” and “My One and Only Thrill.”
Gesù, a 425-seat theater beneath a 150-year-old baroque stone church and one of the fest’s most intimate stages, again was the site of concerts by acclaimed rising stars. Melissa Aldana led her quartet through the bracing, challenging compositions on the gifted Chilean-born tenor saxophonist’s new album Visions, inspired by the work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. McCaslin, with Jason Lindner on keys, bassist Tim LeFebvre, drummer Zach Danziger, and singer Ryan Dahle, aired out the songs from the tenor saxophonist’s 2018 Blow album. The music, hinting at the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie, with whom McCaslin worked on 2016’s Blackstar, was turbulent, experimental-minded, and emotionally volatile.