40 Years On: The 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival

This year’s event, held June 26-July 6, made for a remarkable experience regardless of what you were expecting.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY

Over the course of the past four decades, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (also known as the Montreal Jazz Festival), has rightfully become one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals regardless of the competition. This was a milestone year for the festival and the fact that its two long-time leaders and cofounders, Alain Simard and Andre Ménard, announced their retirement, the 2019 edition of the festival took on additional significance as well.

Nevertheless, there will always be consistency. Montreal’s downtown district offers both ticketed main stage performances and outdoor musical events that are free to the public. People attend from all over the world, all marvelling at some of the best bills found at any festival of a similar size.  Indeed, the Montreal Jazz Festival’s reputation for providing imaginative and adventurous music in a variety of forms will likely continue unabated. This year’s line-up included Peter Frampton, Alan Parsons Project, Buddy Guy, Holly Cole, Charlotte Cardin, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Blue Rodeo, Steel Pulse, Victor Wainwright, Dianne Reeves, George Benson, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Joshua Redman, Bryan Adams, Chet Faker, John Pizzarelli, PJ Morton, Popa Chubby, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Elling, Pink Martini, Richard Reed Parry, Colin James, Sue Foley, and Mercury Rev among the many. Its banner to the contrary, the festival isn’t limited to jazz, but rather some of the most eclectic offerings possible.

(Above: Buddy Guy on July 6, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

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Here then are some of this year’s highlights in the order of their presentation:

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s tribute to Django Reinhardt was an early highlight, as was Gabriel & Rodrigo’s demonstration of duelling guitars. “People ask is what kind of music we play,” Gabriella remarked. “I tell them I don’t know. We have no boundaries in our heads.”

(Alan Parsons on July 4, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal)

The Alan Parsons’ Project provided another extraordinary performance, and the group’s takes on such signature songs as “Time,” “Breakdown” and “Games People Play” were, by measure, both stunning and surreal.

(Peter Frampton on July 5, 2019, The Farewell Tour, we hope not, at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

Peter Frampton’s performance was highly anticipated due to his decision to make his current Farewell Tour a final farewell due to the fact that he suffers from a disease called IBM which attacks the muscles with varying degrees of speed and progression. “I never want to stop playing. I love being on stage,” he continued, while insisting that the choice depends on the progression of his affiliation.

For the moment however, Frampton was still in top form. A slide show captured images of him from his earliest efforts with the Brit pop band The Herd through his efforts with Humble Pie and then into his tremendously successful solo career. He began the 2 1/2-hour concert with the upbeat song “Something’s Coming,” an apt opening anthem. From that point on, the setlist offered some obvious choices — “Show Me the Way,” “Do You Feel Like We Do,” as well as covers of “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Same Old Blues,” the latter two from his chart-topping new album All Blues. He went back to the beginning with several selections from his first solo album Wind of Change and then even further back with a pair of Humble Pie staples, “Four Day Creep” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as part of his encore. A dramatic read of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” ended it all, with an obviously emotional Frampton telling the audience “I’m not going to say goodbye,” while fighting off a few tears as he walked off the stage.

(Press Conference with newly festival president, Jacques-André Dupont and festival founders, Alain Simard and André Ménard on July 6, 2019  – Salle Stevie-Wonder, Maison du Festival, Montréal  – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

The founders of the festival, Simard and Ménard, took center stage later that evening in Le Club, where they were interviewed live on the radio and a given special serenade by several of the festival’s past and present performers. A slide show was shown on a screen behind them as the musicians entertained the small invited audience. The l two song set by Holly Cole was especially memorable, and her rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from the musical South Pacific were nothing less than magical.

The festival’s new team in charge — programmers Marin Auxemery and Lauren Saunier, and newly installed festival president Jacques-Andre Dupont — shared their satisfaction. “We are really pleased,” Auxemery insisted. “We’re on budget, we have good ticket sales and a lovely vibe within this community. It’s an excellent first year.”

The others echoed his enthusiasm, hailing Montreal as a city that’s an ideal match for the diversity of the festival’s artists and audiences. It is, they agreed, a perfect place for musicians and music lovers to gather and celebrate such an astounding array of sounds and styles.

(Colin James on July 6, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

Later, local proud again became evident when Canada’s Colin James opened for blues legend Buddy Guy. He occasionally ventured offstage into the first few rows of the crowd, keeping a constant grin on his face as he shared his songs with both aplomb and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Guy showed he was in a playful mood as well. Even at age 82, he’s as vibrant as ever, gyrating his hips, mugging with his moves and showing he’s still earnest and enthusiastic when it comes to showing off his skills,

Leslie Odom Jr., known for his role as Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton — as well as for his various TV roles — did a superb job of sharing standards in the company of a three-piece jazz band of considerable skill. His voice climbed to higher octaves while retracing some familiar fare, his take on “Killing Me Softly” being but one example.

On the other hand, experimentation was on tap with the final show of the festival, a performance by the adventurous ensemble Mercury Rev in the intimate environs of Le Club. The music was mesmerizing given its shifting tones and textures. Singer Jonathan Donahue was an inventive frontman, preening and posing with obvious aplomb. It was an apt ending for Montreal Jazz, and the extraordinary encounters that have always been so essential to its existence.

Granted, being in Canada over the 4th of July holiday does seem somewhat unpatriotic. Visiting a foreign city sans fireworks or any other homage to American pride can be cause for remorse.

Still, the sacrifice is well worth it. The Montreal Jazz Festival has a remarkably gracious staff that helps make the journalists that congregate onsite feel welcome and decidedly at home. Indeed, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as mingling with the crowds on the bustling streets of Montreal. The combination of those wonderful sights and all that remarkable music clearly makes for an amazing adventure in itself.

 

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