After 38 years, the annual music event has yet to disappoint. This year it took place June 28 through July 8. Following the review, scroll down to see a gallery from the festival.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY ALISA BETH CHERRY
There are any number of reasons why the Montreal Jazz Festival stands out above all others. The first has to do with the music, which is world class, eclectic and marked by the kind and calibre of performance that’s rarely heard elsewhere. The other cause for why it’s so special is …well, that it’s held in Montreal. The host city alone ought to provide enough allure to draw those who are willing to succumb to the mystique, aura and allure that makes Montreal the closest thing to a European metropolis in the whole of North America, Quebec being the only exception. The singular line-ups featured each year provide added incentive, but even those like myself who have a limited knowledge of many of the musicians involved can find reason enough to trust that the setting alone will make it an exceptional event nonetheless.
To be sure, there is something of a risk that comes with peering at a roster that I find for me consists of mostly unfamiliar names. Even my husband’s reassurances that there’s much to enjoy still leaves me wondering if, in this adventurous array of cutting-edge artists, I’ll still find sounds that will easily find their way into my brain and later leave me humming a few catchy refrains. While I love jazz of the classic variety — big band, swing, contemporary conceits and the like — much of the music demands a willing ear and a willingness in general to venture deeply into experimental realms.
Mind you, that’s a concept that I’m generally comfortable with. The first time I agreed to go with my hubby to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I had to wonder how I’d relate to a plethora of fiddles and banjos. I was a cosmopolitan girl from up north after all, and the lure of back porch jams and arcane Americana had me convinced that I’d be settling in for a series of hillbilly hoedowns, albeit in the lovely setting of Colorado’s magnificent mountains. Yet by the end of the festival I was totally hooked, having become enamoured by the likes of the Avett Brothers, Sam Bush and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Would I get the same feeling of satisfaction from The Souljazz Orchestra, Bill Frisell and Christian McBride? Clearly, it remained to be seen.
Granted, there were also artists who lured me in. The opportunity to see Bob Dylan on the day we arrived provided a sense of satisfaction, even though I knew that Dylan himself was hardly what one would call a predictable performer. Yet at the same time, he provided a perfect segue way for some jazzier designs, his current fascination with the music of his early idol, Frank Sinatra, and the Great American Songbook providing a cultural tie to the musical mantra that the Montreal Jazz Festival has always drawn upon for the past 38 years. Dylan’s designs were so concrete and coherent, in fact, that even when his own classic songs seemed inexplicably altered to the point where they were practically beyond recognition, his reverent renditions of “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic” and “Autumn Leaves” consoled me and made me believe that I could find connections even in the most unlikely circumstances.
That sense of calm was further amplified the following day when we took in a performance by the Bad Plus, a melodic jazz trio that chose to supplement their sets with an array of special guests. On this particular eventing, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel was sitting in, adding an extra texture to the group’s sooting sounds and seemingly extemporaneous improvisation. At times it seemed a bit too sedate, but after a whirlwind day taking in the sights and sounds of the festival — among them, the plethora of free outdoor performances, street shows and the general buzz that gave Rue Sainte- Catherine its festival-like atmosphere — a mellow mood seemed to play well into the evening’s fare.
That said, the next concert we took in changed my perception dramatically. The grand Festival a la Maison Symphonique is a spectacular setting for any concert, given its remarkable acoustics and a multi-tiered auditorium that brings to mind the regal opera houses found in many a great European city, London’s Albert Hall in particular. However, witnessing the performance of Colin Stetson on his saxophones, accompanied only by some strange sampling and unusual aural effects made me think that instead of being in a magnificent concert hall, I was actually in the belly of a beast. Suffice it to say, Stetson creates sounds like no other, strange, dissident and outlandishly obtrusive. It was left to Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan to restore my sense of calm and allow some reassurance that even the most avant garde experimentation was simply a matter of individual taste.
At this juncture I have to say that indeed, there were plenty of established artists at the festival who had earned their place in the pantheon by breaking boundaries and take their artistry to places that were unexpected and often divine. The Charles Lloyd Quartet, blues greats Buddy Guy and Charles Musselwhite, and Hudson — a new quartet featuring Jack DeJohnette (the recipient of a prestigious award of accomplishment the next day), John Scofield, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier — all proved that experimentation could be both adventurous and enticing all at the same time.
Nevertheless, our third day at the festival was all about reassurance as far as I was concerned. A soothing set of perfectly tuneful and melodic songs from Canada’s own Ron Sexsmith set the pace that evening, allowing the chance to admire and observe a singer/songwriter who, nearly 30 years on in his career, still makes music that comes complete with cascading choruses, willowy melodies and a soothing sense of wistful reflection. Ater Sexsmith’s set, we made a shift in our settings, from the intimate environs of Club Soda where Sexsmith had performed to Evenements Speciaux, another magnificent auditorium where we would view the film “La La Land” with the accompaniment of a full symphony orchestra. Having seen the film, I couldn’t imagine how the live symphonic sounds could effectively integrate into the musical segments on screen. And yet, it worked out seamlessly, giving a cinematic experience that was as uniquely charming as it was wonderfully romantic.
As if we hadn’t experienced enough diversity that evening, we braved through our hunger pains and made our way back to Club Soda for what may have been the most unlikely concert of the whole festival, a performance by the ‘80s pop/new wave/electronica band Men Without Hats. While the bulk of the band are new to the fold — and without hats, I might add — original singer Ivan Doroschuk still retains his distinctive baritone and, for a man of senior status (he turns 60 this year) some remarkably agile dance steps. Naturally, the group’s worldwide hit “Safety Dance” proved the highlight of the set, performed no less than three times throughout the evening, the first marred by technical difficulties involving one of the keyboards, the second by way of a make-up and the third to close out the show prior to the band taking an encore. Clearly, the nudge of nostalgia is a hard habit to break.
After the nonstop bombardment of both the proven and the provocative, our final evening of the festival couldn’t have provided us with a better way to say our farewells. It offered ample amounts of both. King Crimson was one of those weird yet wondrous outfits I remember seeing at the Fillmore at the end of the psychedelic ‘60s, when progressive rock brought strange new sounds to an audience that clamoured for the unconventional. Their signature song “In the Court of the Crimson King” offered a wonderful ride into an unexplored dimension, but ever since then, the ever-evolving nature of the band left me behind and unfamiliar with all but that earlier era. So much to my surprise, I found myself fascinated by the band’s current incarnation, particularly the three drummers that lined the front of the stage and seemed so in synch when it came to exacting the band’s rhythms. No jam band, this; each of the percussionists took solo turns, picking up with the others left off and pounding different drums while colleagues took their solos with sole original stalwart Robert Fripp playing out his unique guitar style and also tending to keyboards, the entire ensemble dazzled the audience with varying tones, textures and an ethereal ambiance that was as mesmerizing as it was magical. The end of the performance paid off with songs I could recall — the aforementioned “Court of the Crimson King, a soaring version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and the electrifying verve of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the latter of which seems more appropriate than ever.
It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary festival, one that stands alone in its unique musical draw. Even the fact that we had to awaken at 4:30 AM the next day to catch a flight back to the States on the 4th of July proved well worth the effort. Montreal is amazing, and its soundtrack couldn’t be more enchanting.
Ron Sexsmith with Lee Zimmerman interview
Montreal Jazz Fest 2017 – Street scene
Street Performers @ Montreal Jazz Fest
La La Land in Concert
Men Without Hats
Jakko Jakszyk & Mel Collins of King Crimson -interviewed by Lee Zimmerman
Jakko Jakszyk, Lee Zimmerman, Mel Collins