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Live Review: 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival, Week 2

Roberto Fonseca, Christine Jensen, Keyon Harrold, and many others offer performances that inspire at the 40th annual fest

Cha Wa (photo: Benoit Rousseau)
Cha Wa at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Benoit Rousseau)

A jam-packed weekend opened the 40th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, with inspiring performances by luminaries and rising stars such as pianists Chucho Valdés and Brad Mehldau, and saxophonist Melissa Aldana (see JazzTimes review here). With six more days ahead, July 1—Canada Day—was a microcosm of what was to come, with music for every palate: George Benson charmed an audience of close to 3,000, packing the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier concert hall, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah performed at the historic Monument-National theatre, Dianne Reeves played Théâtre Maisonneuve, and the Grammy-nominated Mardi Gras funk band Cha Wa of New Orleans took the main outdoor stage.

See JazzTimes’ Review of Montreal’s First Weekend

The night offered a couple of the festival’s highlights. Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, on his third and final night of the prestigious Invitation Series, welcomed New York producer/DJ/percussionist Joe Claussell for a unique night of sheer improvisation. “You’re free to dance, even though it’s a seated venue,” said Fonseca in his opening words, anticipating that the dynamic, intuitive interaction with Claussell would inspire the audience out of their seats. Accompanied by Yandy Martinez González on bass, Fonseca and Claussell, who seamlessly synthesized electronic equipment with claves, bells, chekeré, and an assortment of other percussive instruments, created an array of captivating soundscapes and moods. Eyes locked, the two danced between anticipation, tension, and resolution, constantly imagining enticing new pathways. A one-man percussion orchestra, Claussell reflected the pure joy of this shared creative experience in his expressions and animated body language. It was exhilarating, spontaneous spirit music at its purest.

Nubya Garcia (left) and Theon Cross at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival
Nubya Garcia (left) and Theon Cross at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The evening’s second highlight was delivered by British tuba player Theon Cross and his fiery trio. With an eye on jazz scenes overseas, last year’s edition featured Sons of Kemet, of which Cross is a member, bringing a unique blend of free jazz, punk, Afrofuturism and electronica to the London jazz scene. Cross, 26, led his sax/tuba/drums trio through material from his recent album, Fyah, employing his instrument in new ways, demonstrating how expressive and dynamic the tuba can be, and forming a fierce, hypnotic interplay with incendiary saxophonist Nubya Garcia. The rapt room was perceptibly spellbound, as the two horn players exchanged roles holding the rhythmic center and driving a melody. Cross clearly has a fan base in Montreal, the audience often chiming in with the first notes. What is it that they find compelling? “It’s their visceral energy,” a group of music students told JazzTimes following the show. “There’s a good balance between surprise and predictability, between catchy riffs that stick in your ear, and challenging lines that are harder to follow.”

Subsequent highlights included bassist Larry Grenadier‘s solo masterful performance of material from his recent ECM recording The Gleaners; a set by the Richmond, Virginia five-piece band Butcher Brown; and several local artists, among them two-time Juno Award-winning saxophonist Christine Jensen, the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal, and drummer Jim Doxas. Given carte blanche from the festival to form the musical constellation of her choice, Jensen presented the New York Quartet—a stellar supergroup featuring imaginative pianist Helen Sung, powerhouse drummer Allison Miller, and fluid bassist Noriko Ueda. The set included pieces by all members; Miller’s “Congratulations and Condolences” showcased not only her chops but her joy in playing, while Jensen’s poignant “Wind Up” evoked her childhood experiences sailing in British Columbia. Bringing a wealth of ideas and textures, and demonstrating strong chemistry, this would be a dream of a working band. 

Christine Jensen's New York Quartet at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival
Christine Jensen’s New York Quartet at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival (L to R): Helen Sung, Noriko Ueda, Jensen, and Allison Miller (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal, skillfully led by Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer Sylvester Onyejiaka, a.k.a. Sly5thAve, performed arrangements from The Invisible Man (Tru Thoughts, 2017), his orchestral tribute to rapper/producer Dr. Dre—an intriguing choice for the orchestra. As Onyejiaka mentioned, the recording’s title references the 1952 novel by Ralph Ellison, and his engagement with “the experience of being invisible in America.” Onyejiaka’s treatment of the music, with distinct horn and string arrangements, transformed the source material, enhancing its melodic, harmonic and textural qualities; to the unfamiliar ear, it could have felt like complex, modern big-band music. Singer Miranda Joan joined the markedly monochrome orchestra for two numbers, including Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You.” Receiving a standing ovation, Onyejiaka thanked the festival, and the orchestra’s director, Jacques Laurin, for the invitation to play this work, and for the opportunity to inspire and unite.


A special edition of The Shed—a musical outlet for minorities, created and musically directed by up-and-coming Montreal trombonist Modibo Keïta—featured Brooklyn-based vocalist/flutist Melanie Charles. Mining jazz, soul, and her own Haitian roots, Charles performed with a group of talented young artists including bassist Marie-Ketely Gomes and pianist Theo Abellard, justly nominated for the festival’s new Oliver Jones Award.

Melanie Charles at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival
Melanie Charles at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo: Victorine Yok)

Cuban-born, Montreal-based pianist Rafael Zaldivar launched his new album Consecration (Effendi), born of his “immersion into the spiritual, physical, and cognitive process of creation’s eternal thought through the knowledge of energy and its manifestation as matter.” Zaldivar opened the set by reading the self-penned prayer-poem “Arara” in Spanish, expressing his relationship with Mother Earth. “Congo” featured Amado Dedeu Garcia Jr., shining on percussion and vocals. An adventurous improviser steeped in Afro-Cuban spirituality, Zaldivar offers a singular contribution to the evolution of Latin jazz.

The festival’s final night was, once again, emblematic of its diversity, ranging from deeply rooted tradition (Wray Downes) to abstraction (Kris Davis), and everything in between: the blues of Buddy Guy, a tribute to Bill Evans by Montreal’s own Donato-Bourassa-Lozano-Tanguay quartet, an outdoor celebration of Brazilian music with vocalist Bïa, and an intimate evening with trumpeter Keyon Harrold.

Wray Downs receives the Oscar Peterson Award
Wray Downes (with microphone) and his sons receiving the Oscar Peterson award from André Menard (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The 88-year-old Downes, a veteran of the Canadian jazz scene and a protégé of Oscar Peterson, humbly received the Oscar Peterson Award from the festival’s co-founder and outgoing VP André Ménard, who was visibly and admittedly moved by the occasion, this being his final night with the festival, and the final award he would bestow. Finessing through compositions by Peterson, Milt Jackson and Downes himself, the seamless synergy of this cohesive trio (bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Jim Doxas) enhanced the beauty of the music. “Playing with Wray is a beautiful experience. He is deeply committed to being ‘who you are’ as an artist. It’s very inspiring,” drummer Doxas told JazzTimes. “It’s funny, but his age never really occurs to me. He approaches improvising as though it’s the first time he’s ever done it—dedicated to the collective moment.” Still in fine form, Downes displayed equal parts passion, elegance, playfulness, swing and soul. Playing 11 concerts throughout the festival, Doxas—one of the most prolific musicians on the Montreal scene—had led his own formidable quartet the previous night, launching his new album, Homebound, featuring originals inspired by choral music.

Keyon Harrold and Malika Tirolien in Montreal (photo: Sharonne Cohen)
Keyon Harrold and Malika Tirolien (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The final highlight on closing night was a late-night set by trumpeter Keyon Harrold at the intimate Upstairs jazz club. The “stunt double” for Miles Davis / Don Cheadle in the film Miles Ahead, Harrold traversed various moods and inspirations, performing material from The Mugician (Legacy, 2017) with a skilled and inspired unit: pianist Shedrick Mitchell, guitarist Nir Felder, drummer Kendrick Scott, and bassist Daniel Winshall. “Our job as musicians is to give you music and magic, and take you to another level,” Harrold elucidated the album’s title. Launching into its reggae-inflected title track, he vocalized its theme: “The mugicians are the healers.” With the rhythm section providing solid support, the trumpeter delved into ballad territory, offering the more recent “Love in Tragedy,” featuring a stirring piano solo by Mitchell, and highlighting Harrold’s rich, round tone, intricate lines, and expressive voice. On “Stay This Way,” reflecting his various influences, Harrold invited the audience to join in wordless song; the room filled with a perfectly tuned choir singing the memorable refrain. For the final tune, the gripping “Wayfaring Traveler,” Harrold invited exceptional Montreal singer/composer Malika Tirolien to the stage for a soulful vocal duet. The two were perfectly paired, vocals soaring, eliciting a range of emotions and tangibly uplifting the audience.

With a memorable 40th edition now concluded, and new leadership at the helm, we can only anticipate ever-increasing diversity and inclusion, and a continued, overriding dedication to the music.

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.