The much-missed Montreal International Jazz Festival makes a triumphant return.
“We have missed the connection with an actual audience and just connecting with fellow artists,” Chicago-based trumpeter Marquis Hill said when encountered in the trumpet room, naturally, at the Twigg Musique shop in Montreal, not too far from ground zero of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. “This is the part we missed the most — the fellowship and the hang after the gig. There’s music everywhere. It’s been beautiful.”
That sentiment was frequently expressed among performers and concertgoers alike at the sprawling festival, back in action for its first full-on incarnation in three years. Forget streaming: There’s nothing like in-the-flesh performing and communing with audiences eager for live music. The 10-day event reportedly featured 350 or so concerts by more than 3,000 musicians from about 30 countries on six free-admission outdoor stages and 11 mostly ticketed indoor venues in Quartier des Spectacles, the cosmopolitan city’s vibrant arts and entertainment district. Attendees seemed thrilled to soak in the multi-genre sounds at a gathering that generated at least $3.5 million in ticket sales, according to organizers.
“It’s such a gift to be able to play music in front of, and with, real people,” Tord Gustavsen, a Montreal returnee, said midway through the kind of emotionally intense, exploratory performance for which he’s revered. The Norwegian-born ECM label favorite led his piano trio on a long set at the Gesu, an intimate, 425-seat theater in the basement of a stone church dating back to 1865. The three, playing acoustic instruments but sometimes deploying laptop-generated sound effects and open space, focused on alternately earthy and free-minded originals and an intriguing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
The acoustically pristine venue, where you can hear a pin drop in the hushed moments before shows begin, also played host to a pair of three-night showcase series led by drummers Makaya McCraven and Terri Lyne Carrington.
The 42nd edition of the fest offered an embarrassment of riches when it came to singers, starting with Gregory Porter’s sold-out show at the 2,100-seat Maison Symphonique, one of four elegant, beautifully appointed theaters in the Place des Arts performing arts complex. Porter, fronting a pliable six-piece group, applied his welcoming, bourbon-smooth baritone to music drawing from jazz as well as gospel, blues and soul. It was the definition of a feelgood set, opening with “Holding On,” for which he repeated the titular phrase, elongating it and giving it a slightly different spin each time, and “On My Way to Harlem,” one of several tunes tinted with nostalgia and benefiting from stellar improvisations by his sidemen. “I was baptized by my daddy’s horn,” he sang on the latter.
The same night brought an appearance by British-born R&B and pop chanteuse Corinne Bailey Rae in front of a massive crowd at the big outdoor TD Stage. Marking her return to North America as a headliner after a five-year hiatus, Rae proved no worse for the absence, handily synching her expressive vocals with the tight pockets of a three-man band. Sometimes picking up an acoustic or electric guitar, she turned the world on with her smile, warm presence and engaging versions of her 2006 breakthrough hit “Put Your Records On” and a slowed-down take on Bob Marley’s “Is This Love.”
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Photo credit: Benoit Rousseau.[/caption]
Two other singers more closely aligned with jazz turned in knock-out performances. Samara Joy, the fast-rising singer from the Bronx, also played the TD Stage. She proved her mettle as a vocalist able to connect with audiences, no matter the size of the venue or the crowd, or their familiarity with her work. Joined by a no-frills trio featuring regular collaborator Pasquale Grasso on guitar, she made the place feel like a small after-hours joint, demonstrating artful phrasing and powerful belting on a set including swinger “If You Never Fall in Love With Me”; “April in Paris,” sung in French for the occasion; “Stardust,” her signature song; and rambunctious blues tune “Never Trust a Man.” Joy, clearly rooted in the jazz vocal tradition, is the real thing.
So, too, of course, is Cécile McLorin Salvant, who held forth the same night at the historic Monument-National Theater. Accompanied by a superb quartet including pianist Sullivan Fortner and guitarist Marvin Sewell, Salvant displayed a voice that by now is a familiar treasure. She easily captured the audience with robust, rich singing and dramatic, sometimes theatrical stage maneuvers on swing, ballad and Afro-Caribbean pieces.
FOMO — fear of missing out — is always a danger at a fest with the depth and breadth of Montreal’s, as so many great shows conflict with each other. Two other highlights: Ravi Coltrane’s quintet at the Maison Symphonique, where the tenor and soprano saxophonist dug deep for a tribute to his parents, John and Alice Coltrane; and Montreal’s Jireh Gospel Choir, who capped the first weekend’s TD Stage lineup with a joyous rendition of the Staple Singers hit “I’ll Take You There.”
And there are occasions when a listener, trying to get to as many shows as time, logistics and energy allow, catches only a small part of a killer concert, and lives to regret the lost moments. A few cases in point, all at Le Studio TD, a nightclub formerly known as L’Astral: celebrated California guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley and Bad Plus drummer Dave King capping their set with a gorgeous reading of Johnny Mandel’s “Emily”; Marquis Hill’s jazz-funk-meets-post-bop quartet with vibraphonist and pianist Joel Ross, with the leader spinning out dazzling improvisations on trumpet and flugelhorn; and drummer Ali Jackson, bassist Omer Avital and pianist Aaron Goldberg, a.k.a. the Yes! Trio, doing their rambunctious, invigorating everything-but-the-kitchen sink thing.
"Those guys together — the chemistry that’s happening — wow,” Maurin Auxemery, the fest’s program director, responsible for adding the free-admission Le Studio TD series of mostly up-and-coming artists to this year’s event, said about the Yes! Trio. “That is jazz, the purest definition of it. "Jazz is our starting point,” he added, “and we travel across all the music that jazz has influenced — funk, rock, soul, R&B, modern R&B. The definition of this jazz festival is right in the middle of all those kinds of music. That’s what we’ve been doing over the last few years, and that’s really the direction that we’re going to take.” - Philip Booth
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Photo credit: Benoit Rousseau.[/caption]
Featured photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin.