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High spirits and an eclectic lineup at the Montréal Jazz Fest

09 July 2024, 10:30

The music at this year's Festival International de Jazz de Montréal excels as an uplifting and unifying force, writes Sharonne Cohen.

There’s a sense of elation in Montréal's summer vibe. A joyful emergence from the deep freeze of the winter, gratitude simply for being outside without needing a heavy coat, hat, gloves and boots.

This spirit is tangible at the Montréal Jazz Festival, nestled between the seemingly endless stream of summer festivals – the Francos, showcasing local and international Francophone music, Nuits d’Afrique, the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Taste of the Caribbean, the circus festival… and on it goes. It feels like a summer-long celebration of life. And music.

Spanning ten jam-packed days and nights, the jazz festival is held on the vast Quartier des Spectacles, Montréal's sprawling cultural district spanning a square kilometre, with the Place des Arts performance complex at its heart, together with several other indoor venues, and numerous outdoor stages featuring a broad range of free concerts.

Opening day is a microcosm of all that the festival holds, both in terms of its eclectic programming, and the sheer volume of shows offered to the public – a staggering 350 in total, and two-thirds of them of them free to the public. Among the 25+ performances that first day, which could easily constitute an entire festival elsewhere, audiences get more than a taste of everything they could possibly want – a full spectrum of jazz, from legendary bassist Stanley Jordan to trailblazing saxophonist Chris Potter, outstanding guitarist Julian Lage, and Montreal-based piano phenom Taurey Butler, as well as the tropical vibes of LA-based instrumental trio La Lom, Australian jazz-funk band Hiatus Kaiyote, and the deep groove of improvisational UK band Ill Considered.

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Alexandra Stréliski

"We have a responsibility to be open minded and to create a lineup that is a reflection of society," reflected Maurin Auxéméry, the festival’s Director of Programming, in an interview with Best Fit. "We had to integrate questions of gender balance and diversity into the mix. I think it’s extremely exciting." And it is, witnessing the many female artists represented throughout the festival, rocking the many stages – instrumentalists of all kinds, vocalists, composers. NY-based alto saxophonist and rising star Sara Hanahan plays her heart and soul out with legendary drummer Joe Farnsworth at the Upstairs jazz club. Three-time Grammy-nominee Lakecia Benjamin, who recently released her first album, Phoenix Reimagined, has the energy and electric, captivating stage presence of a veteran rock star, setting the stage, and the audience, on fire.

Quebec neo-classical composer and pianist Alexandra Stréliski performs two nights at La Maison Symphonique, demonstrating the draw of her Néo-Romance orchestral project. Masterful Caribbean-Canadian steelpan artist Joy Lapps uplifts the crowd with her Afro-Caribbean flavors. Compelling Ottawa-based bassist and blues singer Angelique Francis charm the audience with material from her Juno-winning Long River. Riveting Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who closes her strong set with “The Bluest Eye,” inspired by Toni Morrison’s first novel. Brooklyn-born artists Melanie Charles, dazzling the audience on both vocals and flute, offers a unique arrangement of Max Roach’s “All Africa” and celebrating her Haitian roots with “Damballa Wedo.”

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Melanie Charles by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Montréal is also home to a large Haitian community, celebrated in this year’s programming in several ways, and offering audiences an opportunity to appreciate the music and culture of this island nation, the first to gain its independence in the colonised Caribbean.

Rara Solay, playing traditional Haitian drums and horns, brings out the community and entrances audiences into ecstatic dance on St. Catherine Street. Montréal-born horn player Jowee Omicil, who explores the Haitian contribution to jazz on his latest album, is joined by his former “racine” (roots) music teacher, guitarist Harold Faustin. With great skill and a distinct voice, Montréal Haitian pianist Theo Abellard performs a soul-stirring set which, as one audience member shares with me so poignantly, “took me through a wide range of emotions, each song reaching the furthest emotional edge.”

A special concert curated by festival programmer Modibo Keita, entitled The Haitian Revolution Through the Jazz Tradition and exploring the link between the Antilles and New Orleans, showcases aforementioned vocalist Melanie Charles and pianist Abellard alongside Haitian-American bassist Jonathan Michel. The set features Abellard’s soul-stirring “Limyè” (light in Haitian Creole), Michel’s “Elysian Suite” and “Papa Loko” by Toto Bissainthe. This is a festival highlight for many, and deserves to go on the road, shared with audiences everywhere.

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Jeremy Dutcher by Victor Diaz Lamich

The city of Montréal sits on the unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation and is known as Tiohtià:ke, meaning “where the boats and rivers meet” (unceded means that First Nations people never ceded or legally signed away their lands to the Crown, or to Canada). Several Indigenous artists perform at the festival, including Canadian Inuk musician and activist Elisapie, who sings in a combination of Inuktitut, English and French about the inequalities facing Indigenous communities, and about the interconnectedness with nature and humanity.

Jeremy Dutcher, a classically-trained Montréal-based Indigenous tenor, composer, musicologist and activist, performs a beautiful and passionate set on the main stage. Noting that fewer than 500 people still speak his endangered native language, he plays music from Motewolonuwok, welcoming Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine to deliver a heartrending poem. The Native American Medicine Singers perform an electric set to close the festival, with Lee Renaldo (Sonic Youth) and Yonatan Gat shredding on guitars.

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Elisapie by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Montréal's fine jazz artists are featured both on free outdoor stages and in various indoor venues. Performing on the festival’s main stage are New Zealand-born trumpeter Lex French, Sri Lankan-Canadian singer-songwriter and trumpeter Tara Kannangara, and the Jazzlab Orchestra, celebrating the 25th anniversary of local independent label Effendi. Diese Onze, an intimate jazz club off-site, runs its traditionally strong series of Montréal bandleaders well worth exploring, including luminary saxophonist Christine Jensen, bassists Émille Farley, Rémi-Jean Leblanc and Normand Guilbeau, saxophonist Al Mclean, trumpeter Ron DiLauro, and projects by two stellar non-natives who have made Montréal their home, both teaching music at McGill University: French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and American drummer John Hollenbeck. Upstairs jazz club curates an excellent series combining local and international artists, among them captivating Montréal pianists Laura Englade and Andrés Vial.

Celebrating the impactful life and music of the legendary pianist Oliver Jones, a cherished Montréal treasure, the festival offers a concert produced by Céline Peterson and prominent Montréal drummer Jim Doxas, a longtime collaborator of Jones who also serves as the show’s Musical Director. A meaningful and moving tribute to Jones, in attendance, the concert also offeres a glimpse into the breadth and depth of the Montréal jazz community. With a changing roster of musicians anchored by Doxas, who played with Jones for many years, the evening features emerging composer and saxophonist Alex Ambroise, recipient of this year’s Oliver Jones Award (given to young musicians who are members of visible minorities or Indigenous communities), opening the evening with his own promising set, as well as bassists Éric Lagacé and Morgan Moore, vocal diva Ranee Lee, pianists Lorraine Desmarais and Taurey Butler, and trumpeter Lex French. The caliber and diversity of the Montréal jazz community is truly remarkable.

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Oliver Jones by Victor Diaz Lamich

This year the festival inaugurates Le Phono, a new lounge with a nocturnal ambience housed in Le Maison du Festival, featuring late-night DJ sets. Montréal's legendary J.A.S.S. — The Jazz Amnesty Sound System, aka DJs Andy Williams and Sweet Daddy Luv, play a four-hour jazz-inspired mix, spanning Oliver Nelson, Nina Simone and Marshall Allen. “Not too often do deejays have the opportunity to perform a jazz mix at a festival as popular as the internationally known Montréal Jazz Festival,” notes Williams.

Le Phono is also home to a new afternoon series of free-to-attend conversations and masterclasses with musicians from the festival program, offering an opportunity for an exchange between artists and music lovers on matters of music and culture. Trumpeter Chief Adjuah (formerly Christian Scott) discusses aspects of Indigenous identity and its influence on the creative process. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire leads an open discussion on improvisation, composition and the creative process. “We had a wide-ranging conversation, touching on many aspects of his creative process, and the various people he’s worked with or drawn inspiration from,” reflects Montréal saxophonist Erik Hove, who moderates the conversation (and also performed on three stages). “He answered every question with complete openness and deep thought. He also touched on some important sound exercises for the trumpet players in the audience," adds Hove.

Testifying to the powerful impact of this direct exchange, Hove notes, “a very astute question from an audience member, who commented on the directness of Ambrose’s communication through his horn, and the powerful effect it has on the listener. The response was so thoughtful and complete; he was able to fully express the goals and meaning of his artistic voice, and his desire to almost remove himself and his ego from the equation, in order to act purely as a conduit for something higher when making music. It was a truly beautiful moment.”

“The masterclass series is an amazing initiative,” shares Vincent Stephen-Ong, bandleader of the freestyle hip hop band LeCypherX, which holds a late-night residency at the festival. “If this were to become a full lineup of daily masterclasses from festival artists, that would be of tremendous value to both the general public of fans and the artistic community.” Let’s hope this important initiative continues.

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Makaya McCraven by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

The nature of live music is that ineffable quality of a singular moment in time that can never be re-created or re-experienced. What do I wish I could go back to? The gorgeous set by The Doxas Brothers, cohesive as can possibly be; it's a tough decision to forgo the second half for the opportunity to catch Montréal-based Ivorian drummer Donald Dogbo and his potent Afro-Jazz fusion. The mesmerising set of drummer Makaya McCraven – something about the unusual combination of instruments, the ethereal interplay between Joel Ross on vibraphone and Brandee Younger on harp (both of whom played sets as bandleaders), the creative anchoring of bassist Junius Paul, the lyricism of Marquis Hill on trumpet, and of course, McCraven’s skill, vision and commanding leadership. Saxophonist Chris Potter’s trio with Kendrick Scott (drums) and Matt Brewer (bass) — fiery, soulful, transcendent. Montréal pianist Marianne Trudel’s sublime set, which I catch only half of, wanting to experience some of blues guitarist Cedric Burnside. The late-night set on closing night by Shabaka, with Brandee Younger’s heavenly harp. And… I’ve run out of space.

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Kin'gongolo Kiniata

There’s a very special quality to the audience in Montréal. They don’t just hear the music; they actually listen. You can tell by the “ohhh"s and “aaaaah”s that ring out when an artist hits an unexpected note, goes on a gorgeous run or takes a particularly moving solo. You can see it in the performance by 25-year-old Cameroonian-American jazz vocalist Ekep Nkwelle. You can hear it, even feel it, during Chris Potter’s exhilarating set on opening night.

“What is it that did it for you?” I ask two elated music students who had been vocally admiring what they heard, eyes bright, feeling lucky to see one of their heroes outdoors, free of charge. “Their expressivity, technicality, and musical vocabulary, that transcends language,” says one. “The interesting, creative lines, and how they were listening to each other, and having fun,” says the other.

So yes, it's about fun, and good listening, and superior artistic expression, and discovering new music (the electrifying Kin'gongolo Kiniata of Kinshasa, playing instruments made of recycled materials!). And it's also, as several artists note, about spiritual expression, exultation, even transcendence. For these ten days in Montréal, music in its many forms is not only a medium facilitating cultural exchange, but a unifying force that has the capacity to offer spiritual uplift to the performers, as well as the listeners. Palpably, it does just that.

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