The Montreal International Jazz Festival kicked off its 37th edition June 29, opening night a microcosm of what was in store for this 11-day music extravaganza. Over two-dozen shows, on this night alone, spanned everything from vocal jazz to Quebecois blues, Jon Cleary’s New Orleans sound to Mashrou’ Leila’s Lebanese alt-pop, and a concert billed as “Total Madness”-pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist François Moutin, drummer Ari Hoenig and saxophonists Joel Frahm and Jacques Schwarz-Bart. The outdoor opening concert by powerhouse vocalist Sharon Jones and the Dapp Kings drew a crowd of thousands, igniting the festival spirit.
Subsequent nights explored myriad jazz styles and musicians of different generations: rising stars such as 13-year-old Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander and Israeli pianist Shai Maestro, established artists including poly-saxophonist James Carter, a collaboration with Norwegian festival Punkt, featuring trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and guitarist Eivind Aarset, left-field British cosmic jazz by the Comet Is Coming, and the all-star Blue Note 75 band (with the Quebec City-based 5 for Trio opening). The band members-Robert Glasper (keys), Lionel Loueke (guitar), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Marcus Strickland (sax), Derrick Hodge (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums)-took turns introducing tunes including Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” and pieces from the performers’ respective repertoires, such as Scott’s “Cycling Through Reality” and Loueke’s syncopated “Bayyinah.”
The festival’s two million visitors had a vast selection of over 800 concerts, performed on both indoor and outdoor stages, with virtually every genre and subgenre represented. Musical events began as early as 11 a.m., with family-friendly activities like jazz lessons at the Little School of Jazz, Dixie bands and stilt walkers roaming the festival perimeter spanning several square blocks in the center of downtown Montreal.
Other jazz highlights included Dr. Lonnie Smith, who performed two nights at the Upstairs Jazz and Grill; Chick Corea featured a trio with longtime collaborators Christian McBride and Brian Blade; Montreal’s beloved Oliver Jones (81) bade the festival adieu accompanied by his solid trio, and as a guest of the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal; Kenny Barron was honored with an Invitation Series (three consecutive nights with invited guests), as well as the Miles Davis Award; and legendary blues guitarist Taj Mahal received the B.B. King Blues Award prior to his concert at Théâtre Maisonneuve. But it was saxophone sensation Kamasi Washington’s pre-opening concert on June 20, at a packed Métropolis (1,500 people in attendance), that signaled the numerous young artists featured in this year’s edition, expanding jazz’s horizons in distinctive ways.
Washington contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-infused landmark album, To Pimp a Butterfly, co-produced by multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin. Supported by a tight unit of young musicians, Martin played a compelling, soulful jazz-funk set at Club Soda, exploring material from his recently released Velvet Portraits. Taylor McFerrin, son of singer Bobby McFerrin, accompanied by monster drummer Marcus Gilmore, was thoroughly engaging with his unique brand of alternative R&B, left-field hip-hop and intricate jazz-influenced electronica. Keyboard phenom Cory Henry of Snarky Puppy took his late-night audience to church at the Gesù auditorium with his Revival-a project “not specific to any genre; it’s music that makes you feel good,” he explained. Playing mostly Hammond B3, he traversed funk, jazz, soul and gospel, and the crowd seemed to know all the runs, clapping and singing along.
There was a diverse array of trumpeters to choose from this year, representing a broad spectrum of styles and sounds. Wynton Marsalis led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Maison symphonique; Israeli trumpeter Itamar Borochov fused traditional jazz with Arab and pan-African influences; Roy Hargrove and his quintet played five sets at Upstairs, enchanting audiences with George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me,” adding vocals on “My Personal Possession,” and serving up Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” as an encore; Frenchman Erik Truffaz shared music from his new album, Doni Doni; and avant-garde jazz legend Wadada Leo Smith played an intimate set with pianist Vijay Iyer, exploring music from their ECM album, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Iyer’s cerebral approach was juxtaposed with Smith’s, whose extended, poetic improvisational lines were all heart.
A number of female trumpeters were featured as well, including Ingrid Jensen, who played a set with sister Christine at Dièse Onze jazz club, and another with a local treasure, pianist Marianne Trudel; Montreal’s own Rachel Therrien (winner of last year’s TD Grand Jazz Award), performing with various groups and headlining her own quintet; and Toronto-based trumpeter-vocalist Tara Kannangara, who won the festival’s Stingray Rising Star Award for best composition, for her piece “The House Where I Live,” off her Juno-nominated album Some Version of the Truth, blending jazz and melodic indie-pop.
The festival also presented a two-night Chet Baker homage, opening with Montreal trumpeter Ron Di Lauro’s My Funny Valentine and following with the duo of hip-hop/bop/soul singer José James and New York-based Japanese trumpeter Takuya Kuroda (who played his own set at L’Astral several days earlier). With the strong support of Ben Williams on bass, Nate Smith on drums and Takeshi Ohbayashi on piano, the two presented funkified arrangements of music drawn from Baker’s 1954 recording Chet Baker Sings, José’s vocals distinguished by his unique jazz-meets-hip-hop phrasing. “He stands alone,” James said of Baker’s singular style and dark, tortured soul, offering “My Funny Valentine” as an encore, and promising never again to perform this “untouchable” song.
Another trumpet highlight was Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Invitation Series. Scott performed three nights at the Gesù with a stellar unit of young musicians: pianist Samora Pinderhughes, bassist Kris Funn, drummer Corey Fonville, saxophonist Braxton Cook, and Elena Pinderhugues on flute and vocals-a festival standout, not only in Scott’s band, but as Kenny Barron’s invited guest on the second installment of his Invitation Series.
Scott’s first night featured his working quintet, playing John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” “The Last Chieftain” and other tunes off Stretch Music (2015), as well as new material. (Scott announced he’d be releasing either two or three albums next year, marking the centennial of the first jazz recording.) For his second concert Scott invited guitar legend Charlie Hunter, “someone I’ve listened to and looked up to since I started playing this music,” praising his percussive style and influence. Scott experimented with various pedals and effects (“I never play with all this stuff”) on music derived mainly from Stretch Music, as well as Herbie Hancock’s “The Eye of the Hurricane.” Guitar heads vocalized their awe and appreciation during Hunter’s dazzling solos. For the third and final installment of the series, Scott was joined by vocalist Lizz Wright who, at 36, joked that she was the oldest person on the bandstand. Hailed by Scott as “one of the most unique, captivating voices [he’s] ever heard,” Wright displayed her characteristically rich, soulful vocals and warm tone, as Elena Pinderhughes added vocal harmonies. The band presented an eclectic set, performing Neil Young’s “Old Man” as well as tunes from Wright’s most recent recording, Freedom and Surrender.
So much for trumpet; as for bass, there was Montreal staple Michel Donato; the flamenco explorations of French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons and Andalusian pianist David Peña Dorantes; Marcus Miller’s Afrodeezia project; Australian rock/pop/jazz bassist Tal Wilkenfeld; Frédéric Alarie, exploring revolutionary bassist Scott LaFaro’s celebrated tone while playing LaFaro’s own bass; and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio, performing originals (“Remembering”), the Argentinean standard “Alfonsina y El Mar” and a solo vocal-bass rendition of the spiritual “Motherless Child,” to relentless applause.
And there was a multitude of vocalists, too: Melody Gardot, performing the festival’s opening concert (with opening act Lisa Simone); Gregory Porter, who received the Ella Fitzgerald Award; promising newcomer Jamie Woods; bewitching Londoner Ala.ni; Rufus Wainwright, presenting his opera Prima Donna, as well as his greatest hits arranged for orchestra; sisters Martha and Lucy Wainwright with Songs in the Dark; Franco-Dominican singer Cyrille Aimée; Emilie-Claire Barlow with a symphony orchestra; Joe Jackson with music from Fast Forward; Mexican singer and dancer Lila Downs, honored with the Antonio Carlos Jobim Award; British vocal sensation Jamie Cullum; and commanding vocalist-composer Malika Tirolien, among others.
Other highlights included the Volcan Trio with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and bassist Armando Gola (with an opening set by Chilean-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana), mesmerizing performances by saxophonists Chris Potter and Steve Coleman, and a poignant, intimate late-night set delivered on closing night by Aaron Parks. Joined by legendary drummer Billy Hart and bassist Ben Street, the three captivated a rapt audience with George Shearing’s “Conception,” Park’s own “Adrift,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Alice”-an original written for Alice Coltrane-and “Find the Way” (recorded by Rosemary Clooney on Love (1963), the title track for a new album forthcoming on ECM.
The Jazz D’ici series featured numerous local artists, representing the thriving Montreal jazz scene. Drummer Guy Nadon, elder statesman of Québécois jazz, opened the series with his 33rd and final concert, followed by performances by pianist Lorraine Desmarais and her big band, trumpeter and composer Jacques Kuba Séguin, harmonicist Guy Bélanger and blues singer Dawn Tyler Watson. Dièse Onze jazz club hosted its own series showcasing local talent, including the Jensen sisters and bassist Normand Guilbeault’s Mingus tribute. Other headliners were saxophonist Joel Miller and his intriguing Dream Cassette project with singer Sienna Dahlen, trumpeter Hichem Khalfa, the Simon Denizart Trio (nominated for this year’s TD Grand Jazz Award) and Cuban-born pianist Rafael Zaldivar’s Afro Cuban Revival.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band-the “authorized” ambassadors of New Orleans sound-played the festival’s closing concert at Théâtre Maisonneuve. “I can’t believe y’all aren’t dancing,” said Benjamin Jaffe, the band’s tuba/bass player and creative director, 30 minutes into the show, inspiring the audience to let loose.
The festival promises an even bigger celebration next year, as it prepares for a special edition that will coincide with Montreal’s 375th anniversary and Canada’s 150th anniversary.