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The Montreal Jazz Festival: Jazz All Year Round

Sharonne Cohen reviews shows by Femi Kuti, Charlie Hunter, Ibrahim Maalouf and other artists appearing in shows presented by festival

Ibrahim Maalouf at Le Savoy in Montreal on May 17, 2011
Yael Naim at L'Astral in Montreal on May 7, 2011

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is as global as the multicultural metropolis hosting it. Its Jazz All Year Round series, presented throughout the off-season (August to May), features a consistent range and diversity of artists, showcasing local talent as well as music from around the world. “Our main goal is to attract as many people as possible,” explains Caroline Johnson, who programs the festival’s World Music – one of five programmers, each responsible for a different genre. “We want audiences to discover jazz; when we present World music, folk, pop and blues, we hope the people who attend these concerts will also get into jazz.”

During the frigid Montreal winter the Jazz All Year Round series presented artists as varied as The Wood Brothers (bassist Chris of Medeski Martin and Wood and vocalist-guitarist brother Oliver); Montreal folk-rock singer Colin Moore; Montreal-based singer Susie Arioli; Armenian-born piano prodigy Tigran Hamasyan; Toronto vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow; Montreal guitarist Jordan Officer on a double bill with American singer Stacey Kent; Moroccan-Parisian singer-songwriter Hindi Zahra; Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia; and Acoustic Africa – three extraordinary African guitar virtuosos: Malians Habib Koité and Afel Bocoum and Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi.

Afrobeat king Femi Kuti performed at L’Astral on April 20th, delivering material drawn mostly from his new album, Africa for Africa, recorded in the same studio where he collaborated with his legendary father, Fela Kuti. Continuing the legacy of activism through music, Femi’s new songs address the social and political realities that continue to plague his Nigerian homeland, advocating African brotherhood and empowerment. Stylistically, his tunes are shorter, the music offering less space for individual expression or dialogue among instruments; the focus lies in the substance of the message and the ensemble’s cohesion as a whole. Together with his band, The positive Force (drums, percussion, a five-piece horn section, bass and guitar), and three mesmerizing female dancers, Femi swept the sold-out crowd into a two-hour dance frenzy. Alternating saxophones, keyboard and vocals, Femi’s sense of urgency and conviction were matched by his seemingly boundless, contagious energy. His hope that audiences would “go crazy” for this new material as they did for Shoki Shoki certainly materialized that night.

April was a blues-heavy month, with Montreal blues / folk-rock harmonica player Guy Bélanger; New Orleans bluesman Bryan Lee; Buddy Guy (preceded by Quebec blues guitarist Steve Rowe); and singer-guitarist Bob Walsh, a central figure on the Québécois blues scene since the ’70s. Other artists included Canadian-Rwandan rapper Shad; Afro-pop star Johnny Clegg; Francophone Belgian singer Maurane; Canadian folk-rock guitarist and singer Bruce Cockburn; Malian legend Salif Keita; French rocker Gaëtan Roussel; Argentinean singer-guitarist Federico Aubele; and Swiss folk-pop-blues singer Sophie Hunger.

April also featured guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter, once again at L’Astral, set up cabaret-style. Hunter seems to enjoy switching things up; last I saw him, at NYC’s Winter Jazz Fest, he was accompanied by Eric Kalb on drums, Michael R. Williams on bass trumpet and the dazzling tap dancer Tamango. This pared down duo setting with Eric Kalb (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, John Scofield) was just as energetic and exhilarating. Kalb was the perfect foil to Hunter’s two-instruments-in-one (he plays a custom-made seven-string guitar with three bass strings). It almost sounded like a full band, Hunter’s lead and bass self-accompaniment together with Kalb’s crispness, precision and vigor filling the room. Visibly enjoying their intimate yet highly animated exchange, Hunter and Kalb spontaneously determined their set list as they went along, playing off one other, leaving space to take off. Hunter’s uncanny ability to play his hybrid instrument was in full effect, thumbing hard-grooving basslines while churning out winding melodies and astounding improvisations.

The duo creatively explored gems such as the classic “Body and Soul” and Curtis Mayfield’s “We Must Be in Love,” as well as “Ode to My Honda Odyssey”(a tribute to Hunter’s faithful touring minivan off Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You That You Will Not Be Getting Paid) and several other Hunter tunes. “I don’t think we’ve played a single song on that set that was written after 1920!” quipped Hunter during the second set, which featured material derived mostly from his most recent solo album Public Domain, including Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Hunter was often vocally expressive, occasionally emitting “yeah!”s and “aaah!”s, his guitar dialoging not only with Kalb’s drums but also with the audience, whimsically mimicking the sound of a chair moving or an audience member’s voice. His enthusiasm was matched by the attentive, discerning and thoroughly appreciative audience, “Bravo!”s frequently ringing in the air. A thoroughly satisfying night filled with astonishing technique, innovative interpretations and pure fun.


Perhaps most exemplary of this off-season’s diverse programming was a spring night in early May, when fellow Parisians and friends Ibrahim Maalouf and Yael Naim performed on the same night.

Lebanese-born, Paris-based trumpeter and composer Ibrahim Maalouf played the intimate Savoy. Maalouf, who burst onto the scene with his 2007 recording Diasporas, presented music inspired by the silent French film La proie du vent (The Prey of the Wind, 1927) by director René Clair, as well as Miles Davis’ score for Ascenseur pour l’échaffaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958). Among his musical influences Maalouf cites Lebanese singers Fairuz and Souad Muhammad; Egyptian icons Oum Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab; Miles Davis, Don Ellis, and Billie Holiday; Vivaldi and Mahler; as well as hip-hop, electronic music, pop and rock – all informing his compositional sensibilities. The cinematic music he presented that night, recorded in New York three days prior (with German pianist Frank Woeste, saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Clarence Penn), integrates these influences, combining jazz with classical Arabic music and deep grooves; it is “moody,” as Maalouf put it – haunting and melancholy, at times funky, always passionate and engaging.

Maalouf plays a unique “patchwork” trumpet combining different elements from several different brands. It also has a fourth valve that his father conceived of in the 1960s, enabling him to play quarter-tones, prevalent in Arabic music. Seated on a stool wearing a black Wu-Tang hoodie, the trumpeter maintained an informal rapport throughout the set, switching from English to French as he reminded himself he was in Quebec. The band consisted of pianist Woeste, as well as three superb local musicians: drummer Kevin Warren, bassist Rick Rosato and saxophonist Joel Miller-all active members of the Montreal jazz community. With only two hours of rehearsal time before the concert, they did a fine job performing and interpreting Maalouf’s music, as he himself attested post-show. Miles hovered, permeating the sound and feeling of the music, which was interspersed with Arabic flavorings and driven by phat basslines, flowing in and out of cultures and sonorities. Maalouf delivered several scorching solos, offering his bandmates the space to stretch out-and stretch they did, each contributing inspired moments.

Leaving after Maalouf’s compelling first set to catch singer-songwriter Yael Naim, I quickly walked up Ste Catherine Street to L’Astral, where Naim was playing to a packed room (I had missed the opening act, young Québécois-Texan folk singer Émilie Clepper). Born in Paris and raised mostly in Israel, Naim later returned to Paris, where she now lives. She has garnered much attention and acclaim with her most recent recording, She Was a Boy, and won the Female Singer of the Year award at Les Victoires (the French Grammys) earlier this year. Naim draws on her classical education, as well as her love of jazz, pop and folk to create a unique sound all her own. Performing an animated set, singing in French, English, and Hebrew, she alternated piano, ukulele, acoustic and electric guitar, switching up solo, duet and ensemble settings with her band: multi-instrumentalist and long-time collaborator David Donatien, keyboardist Xavier Tribolet, guitarist Julian Feltin and bassist David Romeo. Airy white dress and raven-black hair, Naim was both light and dark, up-beat and melancholy, reflecting the full spectrum of her life experience with sensitivity, emotion and humor.

Naim was already in full swing when I walked in, dividing the rapt audience into three voices, all singing the title words of “Come Home.” On “Paris” Naim sang (in Hebrew) of her cold, lonely days in Paris, longing for her beloved. A poignant solo version of “Today” was followed by the uplifting “Go to the River.” Naim switched to electric guitar on “Mystical Love,” and suddenly this was a rock band; she danced around the stage during a raw, Slash-esque guitar solo on “Stupid Goal.” Naim & Co. ended their 90-minute set with “Game is Over,” mixing French and English lyrics, engaging the audience once more with sophisticated call & response phrases – and the crowd nailed them, scats and all. On their feet, they clapped incessantly, requesting an encore. Naim returned with the band, sitting in a small, intimate circle front-stage with a mini piano, xylophone, bass and ukulele. For her second encore she performed “New Soul” (famously used in Apple’s MacBook commercial), everyone singing the lyrics and now-famous “lalala la lala” refrain. “We love you!” yelled an adoring fan; returning for a third and final encore after more cheers and applause, she delivered her surprising, effectual cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” accompanying herself on piano.

Dave Liebman, named an NEA Jazz Master earlier this year, closed out the Jazz All Year Round series on May 18th, revisiting Ornette Coleman with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko.


Programming for the 32nd edition of the festival (June 25th – July 4th) boasts a staggering number and array of artists from around the world, including: Robert Plant & The Band of Joy (pre-opening concert); Paco de Lucia (opening concert), Milton Nascimento; Youssou N’Dour; Peter Frampton Comes Alive; an 85th birthday celebration for George Wein; Dave Brubeck; Tony Bennett; Don McLean; Return to Forever; Béla Fleck and the Flecktones; Brad Mehldau; Joshua Redman; Anat Cohen; Richard Galliano; Gonzalo Rubalcaba; Christian McBride; David Binney; Erik Truffaz; Tigran Hamasyanl Rudresh Mahanthappal Yaron Herman; Hugh Masekela; Sierra Maestra; Harold López-Nussa; The Jolly Boys; Pink Martini; and the humanitarian production Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats (GRUBB) featuring young Roma musicians and dancers performing Gypsy rhythms mixed with world beats, rap and hip-hop. Among the Québécois musicians featured are Blue Rodeo, Jean Pierre Zanella, Ron Sexsmith, Colin James, Oliver Jones with the Orchestre Métropolitain, Men Without Hats and Champion & his G-Strings.

The festival will also be showcasing a plethora of diverse female voices: Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright continuing the legacies of Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta with Sing the Truth! ; Diana Krall solo (all three concerts are already sold out); Madeleine Peyroux with opening act Sophie Hunger; Sade; Regina Carter’s “Reverse the Thread”; Holly Cole; Keren Ann; Esperanza Spalding; Dee Dee Bridgewater with To Billie with Love: A Celebration of Lady Day; Marianne Faithfull; the First Lady of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson; Nikki Yanofsky; k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang; Québécois singer-songwriter Clara Furey; Emilie-Claire Barlow; Portuguese fado singer Ana Moura; Émilie Clepper; Montreal folk/bluegrass/Americana songstress Katie Moore; and Jill Barber.

Stay tuned for the announcement of hundreds of free outdoor shows on June 7th. Another hot summer in Montreal!

Originally Published