The summer in Canada always promises a plethora of festivals, such as the eclectic Montreal Jazz Festival, which is one of the biggest music festivals in the world. It just turned 39 and is still going strong. Most of the festival’s stages surround the Contemporary Art Museum, in downtown Montreal, at Places des Arts. The festival is a 20-minute walk from the Plateau, a vibrant scene - the Brooklyn of Montreal — with a wealth of restaurants, stores, and surprising, completely unexpected murals. It is also a 10-minute walk from the Montreal Chinatown and a 20-minute walk from the beautiful Vieux Montreal, the older, European looking neighborhood of the city. If the Montreal Jazz Festival is thriving after 39 years, it is because several elements are in place to maintain its strength.
One of these is the quality of the acts the festival puts together. This year, luminaries Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland and Chris Potter, just to name a few, performed at the festival. The Zakir Hussain trio made for a lovely expedition to both the Indian and the jazz worlds simultaneously. It was, like the progressive David Binney quartet, who performed at the Gesú, an explosion of sounds and rhythms. “Although they make compromises in the curatorial end like all festivals,” explains agent Maurice Montoya, who represents Binney, “they also take chances.” And scheduling David Binney was a risk: his energetic, abrasive, and unconventional approach to rhythms and melodies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, yet he had, in Montreal, a true following. The quartet gave the impression that anything was musically possible on stage, and it embodied freedom mixed with control and passion coupled with strength. It’s also at the Gesú that vibraphonist Dr. Lonnie Smith performed with an 8-piece band for what turned out to be one of the festival’s most enthralling sets. The band featured vocalist Alicia Olatuja and drummer Jonathan Blake.
The venues of the festival are all extremely appealing, and so is the sound in all of these. “Montreal is special because of the setting and charm of the festival,” Montoya adds. And “I would point out how outstanding the venues are.” Many venues are outdoor, such as the gigantic Scene Hyundai, where Detroit blues singer Thornetta Davis performed two sets in a row, or the Scène Rio Tinto, where the British band Hannah Williams and The Affirmations performed two sets in a row as well. But many venues are indoors, such as the intimate theater the Gesú, which happens to be an old church, or the Salle Ludger-Duverner, at the Monument National, where Steve Kuhn paid tribute to some of jazz’s most compelling pioneers. The trio performed Johnny Mandell’s famous song “Emily,” but also Billy Strayhdorn’s tune “Passion Flower,” Duke Ellington ’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.”
Another characteristic of the festival is how international it is. It brings in artists from all over the world: Australia, Austria, Spain, Cap Verde, France, Japan, Belgium, Israel and Congo…and the list continues. And unlike the Newport or the Detroit Jazz Festivals, Montreal features non-jazz acts. This year, rock artists such as Jethro Tull or pop singers such as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Finley Quaye were invited. Finally, on top of featuring the world’s most famous musicians, the eclectic Montreal Jazz festival is also a place where one can discover new artists, who, in turn, are given a chance to present their work in front of a rather large audience. Colombian vocalist Lido Pimienta is one of these breathtaking talents the festival scheduled this year. She performed at the Club l’Astral. In spite of being 8-months pregnant, she brought tremendous energy on stage. She also spoke very openly about having been abused in past relationships, because she believes women have to tell their stories.
Last but not least, one can enjoy the Montreal Jazz Festival without having to spend any money. The outdoor concerts are just as exciting as the indoor ones, and the Montreal audiences always show the same type of respect, awe, and curiosity for the music the festival has to offer. And in-between sets, it’s easy to take a walk to some of the city’s best museums, such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. All in all, venturing out to Montreal at the end of June or early July is an excellent idea.