MONTREAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
BY JEFF CEBULSKI
WITH ITS CO-FOUNDER NEARING HIS RETIREMENT, THE MONTREAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
ENTERS ITS 39TH YEAR.
The evolution of the jazz festival in the western world has been a remarkable paradox that keeps hope alive for millions of jazz fans. Even as radio and TV—and even most cable—has shied away from jazz programming, the jazz festival has grown in stature. The allure of live performance in more spacious locales, often free, along with a bourgeois ambiance that lends a social gravitas to the proceedings has not only lured customers but also gained the attention of artists who no doubt crave the chance to perform in front of larger crowds, if only to hawk their latest album.
We know about the key sites: Newport, NYC, San Francisco, Montreux. Chicago’s now-expanding Labor Day weekend fest is annually pitted against the one in Detroit. And jazz cruises are growing in stature.
Then there are the festivals in which “jazz” is not necessarily a key attraction, even if the term is in the title. New Orleans’ festival, for example, hasn’t been primarily about jazz, ironically enough, for a long time.
Money and sponsorship matter, of course, along with the ability and willingness to coordinate various venues around a central or district area.
The one festival that has worked hard for years—39 to be exact—to create a delicate but effective balance between mass entertainment and auditorium fare is the Montreal International Jazz Festival (or Festival International de Jazz de Montréal), a 10-day excursion that has ridden a line between jazz and pop/rock, all based on the vision of one André Ménard, the co-founder and Vice-President, who has dedicated practically every week of the past four decades to development of this ever-evolving fest.
Ménard was in town recently to meet with an assortment of Chicago jazz media’s finest to tout not only this year’s concerts but also to announce that next year, his 40th, with be his last as an official. It’s difficult to fathom that Andre will be totally out of the picture, given his love of music. But one can only wonder what grand plans are germinating for next year. (Whispers of special concerts occurred, but this reporter has too much respect and sense to even offer a clue. One I heard is enticing enough to make plans a year ahead of time for a visit to Montreal.)
Ménard, a quietly affable gent whose expertise, French-Canadian insouciant wit, and genuine interest in all things jazz makes him a popular figure among jazz devotees, is totally dedicated to the continuance of his creation, traveling this year to Boston, NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco to make sure the United States doesn’t forget about this Canadian wonder. And, as he told me, he attends over 300 concerts a year in search of performers and his own musical education. I got the impression that his concert going would not be much impeded by his self-imposed retirement as a festival official. “Family,” he said, even though it has become a bit of a cliché, is the main reason. But 40 is a good, round anniversary number on which to celebrate and cap a legacy.
The grand provocateur certainly seemed at home in the meeting room of the Michigan Avenue restaurant where he engaged an audience he has cultivated for years. The comfort was so palpable that, to begin, he merely picked up a press release and began to rhapsodize about this year’s indoor schedule, which included a few unique opportunities for those willing to travel 850 miles or so to hear them.
One that Ménard was especially pleased with is a rare live appearance by musical iconoclast Ry Cooder, who will appear at the Théâtre Maisonneuve on June 29. The festival had been trying to get him to play for years, Ménard said, “but this time they called us!” Which gives you an idea about the esteem placed on this man and his creation.
In his way of thinking, Ménard understands the unique ties forms of modern music have with each other and their audiences. Attracting separate generations of fans is key to the festival’s success. Indoor concerts are festooned with familiar names: George Thorogood; Bela Fleck and the Flecktones; Boz Scaggs; Al DeMeola; Chris Botti (André understands the slight disdain from jazz elite but notes the trumpeter attracts huge crowds); the Preservation Hall Band; Terence Blanchard with the E-Collective; Monty Alexander; Dee Dee Bridgewater and The Memphis Soulphony; Dr. Lonnie Smith (for three nights at Gesú, an intimate venue and a favorite of journalists).
But resurrections occur, too. Charlotte Gainesbourg sings at Mtelus on June 26 and 27. Seal, who has now identified with classic jazz/pop, will sing on June 28. Archie Shepp and a quartet, for the first time since the 90’s, will be at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal (2000 seats) on June 30. Meanwhile, at Gesú, Marc Ribot will play material from a new album at 10:30. Mike Stern and Randy Brecker, with Dennis Chambers and Tom Kennedy, appear on June 30. Canada’s Holly Cole, who had a brief heyday in the U.S. in the 90’s, sings on the thrust of a new album on July 5. Jethro Tull will spend part of its 50th anniversary (and probable final) tour in Montreal on July 7. And (an eyebrow raiser here), the Soft Machine will show up on July 7, too. (Can’t go to Tull and the Machine separately—a mild complaint.) So will Bobby McFerrin, with a new rendition of Circlesongs at the Maison.
Meanwhile, strongly attached to new recordings and displaying Ménard’s imaginative vision, more recent intriguing artists will play as well. Herbie Hancock will appear with Italy’s Thundercat on July 2. Crosscurrents, the group led by Dave Holland and Zakir Hussein (with Chris Potter), will extend its 2018 tour into Canada on July 4. A “festival creation,” Bonobo and St. Germain will appear together on July 5, as well as NYC saxophonist David Binney and his Alhambra Trio. The rising drummer Mark Gulilana will play three Gesú concerts with different partners, including Gretchen Parlato, on July 1-3.
Ménard cited figures that indicate the average age of a jazz concert fan is 42. So, “we’re trying to get [that] younger.” Thus, newly ‘famous’ musicians will also represent: Snarky Puppy on June 28, as will Cecile McLorin Salvant and rising trumpet star Keyon Harrold; John Medeski on June 29; Kamasi Washington on June 30; Cory Henry and his rising Funk Apostles will double bill with Jose James on July 1; Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band on July 3; Leslie Odom Jr. and Jill Barber, double billed, on July 6.
Asked about acts that American fans may not be aware of yet, Ménard chose these: the exotic Englanders Sons of Kemet (with a new album on Verve); GoGo Penguin, an English jazz/electronica trio; and the Spanish pop singer Marinah; and a special mention of the concert on July 2 by L’Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal, which has invited Carla Bley and Steve Swallow to join it.
There’s more, of course, featuring a scattering of local talent and artists from around the world, including Belgium, Australia, France, Norway, and Israel.
And that’s just among the 150 indoor concert offerings. Free, outdoor concerts will be scattered within Montreal’s city center as well. Check out montrealjazzfest.com for more.
Ménard was careful to mention that hotel slots will fill quickly, though concert venues typically put aside tickets for visitors.
It is worth noting that Chicago’s festival, though more narrow in scope, is beginning to get the expansion fever. While it has a way to go before approaching the breadth of something like Festival International, this development fits right into the trend of merging public music with its surroundings. A visit to Montreal would give the Chicagoan something to experience while thinking forward, thanks to people like André Ménard.
Dave Holland photo by Mark Higashino
Cécile McLorin Salvant