Story by Mitch Myers
Don’t call me unpatriotic, but I wasn’t in the country this 4th of July, once again choosing to spend nearly two weeks in Canada for the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal – their 31st celebration to be exact. Spanning 12 nights with almost 400 free, outdoor shows on nine different stages and almost 200 more ticketed events for a solid variety of indoor venues, this is one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world.
Ensconced in the Hyatt Hotel smack dab in the middle of everything, I tried to see two or three (or four) different shows each night, and succeeded on almost every front. In terms of buds, I placed my order well in advance and was greeted with most generous service – delivery prompt, materials of high quality, and the transaction completed with a smile. Baked from the first take and as altered as I wanted to be throughout, I dutifully indulged my inner jazz geek, saw dozens of amazing artists, and stuck mostly to a number of wonderful shows at the ticketed, indoor venues.
The weather was the weather: not too hot, a little rain now and then, but mostly cooperative. As in recent years, the festival was extremely well organized, but the grounds downtown caused some minor problems as one end of the main drag, Ste. Catherine Street, was under construction, creating a couple of bottleneck walkways that couldn’t really service the festival crowds.
When I say I stuck indoors, I’m most specifically referring to my all-time favorite music venue – the Gesù, Centre de Créativité – where some of the most interesting musicians of the festival appeared in variety of capacities within two time slots every night, the early shows being at 6:00 PM and the much appreciated later gigs starting at 10:30. To be honest, about half of the shows I attended were at the Gesù.
Besides the intimate nature of the Gesù, it was the solid music programming that kept me coming back night after night. The early shows included two distinct phases of the Festival’s Invitation Series, where a featured artist performs several shows with different musical guests each night. This year the series was quite worldly, with Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu showcased in the first Invitation, while French-African drummer Manu Katché was featured in the latter.
The international contingent of the Invitation Series was duly sustained with Fresu and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa playing fascinating duets one night, fascinating duets with Fresu and American guitarist Ralph Towner the next, and finally Fresu with Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and Manu Katché for some mind-melting jazz-fusion-world-improvisation. As the first week went further, Katché led his own quartet and then played as part of a “supergroup” trio alongside French guitarist Sylvain Luc and the amazing Cameroonian bassist/singer, Richard Bona. Other killing shows at the Gesù included the acclaimed Brooklyn-based Vijay Iyer Trio, young pianist Robert Glasper improvising mightily with veteran trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and Nils Petter Molvaer with his own powerful trio doing a progressive multi-media set replete with laptop, film screen, and a dedicated sound engineer hiding offstage.
Although there was plenty of avant-garde music performed at the festival, some innocent folks were caught off guard by a big-ticket performance featuring Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and jazz iconoclast John Zorn. Expecting at least some rock & roll, or at least a clever Laurie Anderson monologue, a good portion of the Montreal crowd rejected the intense sonic assault of Reed’s guitar feedback, Anderson’s treated violin and Zorn’s squealing alto saxophone. After some boos and scores of people walking out after the first (twenty-minute) tune, somebody yelled, “Play some real music!” To which John Zorn replied, “If you don’t think this is real music, get the fuck out!” Zorn himself had presented nearly five hours the night before showcasing a virtual tribe of downtown New York musicians in a number of different combinations called the Masada Marathon – all of which was far better received than Zorn’s misunderstood night with Reed and Anderson.
The big concert featuring pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette fared better, but after knocking out the crowd with some high-level improvisation on a number of old standards and receiving a rousing standing ovation, cranky old Keith let his latest pet peeve get the best of him, scolded the crowd for allowing selfish spectators to photograph the band with their cellular phones, and adamantly refused to perform any kind of encore. Boo-hoo! On a similar music tip, veteran pianist Steve Kuhn played a great trio set with bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron (at the Gesù, of course). Thankfully there were no histrionics at the Kuhn show, just refined piano music and an extremely satisfied audience.
Sadly, I missed some of the oldest music veterans who were featured at the festival, including saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Ahmad Jamal (both born in 1930), and pianist Dave Brubeck (born in 1920!). All were reportedly vital and creative, and all were shown much love by the adoring crowds who attended their shows. On the other hand, I stumbled into some cool gigs unexpectedly, and had a great time watching blues guitarist Coco Montoya, British pianist Neil Cowley, and especially enjoyed the midnight gig at Club Soda featuring alternative hip-hop screwballs Anti-Pop Consortium, who stayed onstage until two in the morning. APC put on a truly hazy, crazy show and the mellow crowd was fairly smoked out near as I could tell.
Note to future after-hours revelers: Montreal’s Chinatown was the smartest cure-all for the inevitable drops in my blood sugar and/or the killer munchies, and La Maison VIP restaurant is the place to be after midnight (and before hanging out at Club Soda). And the most chilled out late-night gig at the Gesù had to be percussionist Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures band. No showy exhibitions for Rudolph and his exotic crew – just layers of gentle sound that ebbed and flowed like a hypnotic musical tide.
From yet another perspective, there was a preponderance of talented trumpet players in Montreal this year, and besides Fresu, Molvaer, Blanchard, and Zorn’s longtime crony Dave Douglas with his band Keystone, I saw Polish horn-man Tomasz Stańko, the brash-but-talented Christian Scott, former trumpet whiz-kid Wallace Roney, and finally, Nicholas Payton, who accompanied legendary pianist Allen Toussaint as part of his New Orleans-inspired jazz band featured on the acclaimed album, Bright Mississippi.
Even more interesting than the Bright Mississippi project was Allen Toussaint’s sold-out solo show at…you guessed it…the Gesù, Centre de Créativité. Toussaint charmed the up-close-and-personal crowd, regaling them with stories from his half-century in the business and performing the many songs he wrote that were once covered by the likes of Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-In-Law”), Lee Dorsey (“Working In A Coal Mine”), the Rolling Stones (“Fortune Teller”) and the Pointer Sisters (“Yes We Can Can”), to name only a few. The clear highlight of the evening was his lengthy narration over “Southern Nights,” which had been a big hit for Glen Campbell in the 1970s. Catch Toussaint soon if you can, as he’s making the rounds this summer and his solo show is nothing but pure entertainment.
Shows that I didn’t love so much included the Bitches Brew Revisited concert featuring guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Melvin Gibbs and trumpeter Graham Haynes, Herbie Hancock’s ultra-commercial Imagine Project, and guitarist John Scofield & The Piety Street Band playing old gospel tunes at Théâtre Maisonneuve. Still, it was damn hard to leave Montreal, and although I caught the last twenty minutes of George Clinton at the Metropolis (Garry Shider R.I.P), I can’t believe I left town before Allen Toussaint and Trombone Shorty closed out the festival with a huge outdoor show, as well as a Mardi Gras parade with tons of floats imported from New Orleans.
Yes, it was tough to bid adieu to Montreal, but I take solace in the great time had by all, and the soothing prospect of returning once again next year.