By Jeff Cebulski
Dear Chicago Jazz Magazine Reader,
My first trip to Montréal, and my first attendance at the acclaimed Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, came at the end of a whirlwind Eastern excursion designed by my wife Barb and me. Before heading to Canada from just outside Albany, New York, we had driven to Rahway, New Jersey, left our vehicle at a relative’s home, then taken a Lyft to the coast where a cruise ship awaited to sail us up the East Coast into Bar Harbor, Maine, St. John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. After that six-day journey, we and some friends used local transportation to go to New York City for a few days. We holed up on the Upper West Side, visited around, ate maybe too much, and found time to see the band One for All, a personal fave, at Smoke. (Note: NYC jazz clubbing can be expensive, even if you’re just sitting at the bar.)
After returning to New Jersey, we drove into Pennsylvania to see more relatives and then drove into New York to see even more relatives and pick up my brother-in-law, who knows Montréal well and decided to accompany us on our initial visit to the city.
Barb and I rented an Airbnb studio condo in the heart of the city. From there we were no more than fifteen minutes away from practically everything we would be interested in, be it festival fare or nice stores and eateries in Old Montréal. If you plan to go some summer, I recommend this plan, though a negative was that we had only one electronic key entry device, which meant the two of us had to sometimes negotiate a meeting at the condo so that one would stay and the other leave—like when I attended later night performances at the wonderful venue, Gesù. Still, parking the car in an underground lot and hoofing it was the way to go.
Thursday, June 27, 2019
Upon arriving in Montréal, we were both impressed and distressed to see various types of road construction, deconstruction, and attempted improvements, which made for careful driving but few detours. But right away I knew that the larger challenge was getting used to the predominantly French road sign nomenclature—Rue de . . . whatever. Once we got our feet on the ground things were much better. But still . . . fortunately Bro was able to use his GPS without worry, so getting in was no biggie. Wife and I had wisely saved our directions in the United States (we had to drop off Bro early), and that helped.
[Yes, we signed up for international phone service at a fixed rate, but we wanted to avoid it if we could. Plenty of Wi-Fi is available in the city when you know where it is.]
Once ensconced, we walked up to Rue Sainte-Catherine, where a whole building just inside one main festival entrance is dedicated to the management of this yearly celebration. There, the press room awaited. I received my credentials, had a complimentary beer, and began to figure out the whole scheme.
Essentially, the festival resides inside a blocked-off grid of streets, the Quartier des Spectacles, perhaps three blocks square, with some outliers (like Gesù, just down the block on Rue de Bleury) and regional activity (like in Verdun, where a stage was set on a main avenue). The two featured venues were the impressive Place des Arts, where two terrific performance halls reside, and the outdoor main stage adjacent to the Place. (A second outdoor stage down Sainte-Catherine also exists.) The huge Complexe Desjardins, the indoor place to grab multicultural food and do some shopping, is across from the Place. Rue Sainte-Catherine was lined with eateries, too—both existing restaurants and festival booths. The beer of choice all around seemed to be Heineken, based on the signage.
Getting there via the underground Metro is easy; an exit is conveniently located next to the Place. A lot of people like using the BIXI system (like Chicago’s Divvy) with well-placed outlets and many sidewalk posts on which to park bikes.
We did not arrive in time to attend any daytime or early evening concerts, but I was able to get a press ticket to see the young Chilean sax artist Melissa Aldana (she says she is “half Canadian”), who played a scintillating set at Gesù, a hall created inside the Church of the Gesù. Aldana’s fifth album, Visions, which includes Chicago’s breakout star, vibraphonist Joel Ross, provided most of the selections that night. Given that the music was inspired by the famous painter and artistic feminist icon Frida Kahlo, her compositions exuded emotional ups and downs that were fortified by solid pianist Sam Harris, who was often featured as part of the accompanying trio. Aldana proved to be a new jazz classicist, playing with deep modal expression throughout. She reminded me often of Joshua Redman in her approach, which was nice because I had to miss Redman’s concert later in the festival.
The sound here, as well as at all the venues, was clear and generally undistorted. It was a great way to be introduced to the festival.
Friday, June 28, 2019
I will always refer to this day as my “Montréal day.”
It began with the three of us taking a walk to the St. Lawrence port, where we encountered a young lady who enticed us (“a large party cancelled”) to purchase a cheap ticket to (what I think was) the Croisières AML Montréal Billetterie, a not-necessarily-considered-to-be tourist trap that sailed a few miles up the river and back down. The more remarkable event occurred onboard, where a talented and judicious DJ proceeded to entertain the heterogenous crowd with a deft mix of dance music, to which the crowd responded heartily. (We would have, too, but—true story—I left my sunscreen back at the condo and had to observe from the second deck in lovely shade.) The festive mood turned what could have been a prosaic journey into an enjoyable party.
Montréal is like that—a cosmopolitan city that most American cities would like to be except we are too uptight to allow it. While the festival certainly contributed to that amenable ambiance, one gets the impression that this city doesn’t let cultural or ethnic differences matter that much, generally. It tolerates both French and English (more on that below), and it just wants to know your preferred choice . . . and get on with it.
We experienced that as we walked on Rue Saint-Paul, in the heart of Old Montréal. Whether it was in a gallery or in an eating/drinking establishment, the employees amenably asked for the working language. While we decided to be monetarily disciplined in regard to art (and, as Americans, the prices were most always better), we needed replenishment. And I was informed by no less than my son that I had to try poutine, the Canadian cholesterol-rising treat. So, we ventured into a pub, Wolf & Workman, and had fancy fare—a “New England clam chowder” poutine, which was very good. With local beers alongside, we shared the dish and pronounced the repast “excellent.”
Later, we rejoined Bro in a meal at his favorite spot, the Stash Café, a Polish eatery two blocks down. We all inhaled their cabbage rolls.
Then, in the one non-jazz concert I attended, I sat in a sold-out Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to hear Blue Rodeo, a beloved alt-country band that made a bit of a run on American college radio stations in the ’90s. The crowd was excited, the band amped up. Next to me was Dave from Vermont, a likeable guy whose friendliness was crafted by his main profession, sales. He’s from Stowe, Vermont, living not far from the vast estate acreage of The Sound of Music’s von Trapp family. Dave’s a HUGE Blue Rodeo fan; he runs a joint where Rodeo’s co-founder Jim Cuddy and his other band have played several times. Being a nice guy, he bought me a Heineken and shared some Blue Rodeo insider info. We settled down for a night of golden oldies with some new stuff sprinkled in.
[In return for the beer, I share with you Dave’s side business, that of arranging golf trips to Ireland. Given the spectacular scenery of Northern Ireland exhibited during broadcasts of the recent British Open, I bet his business is currently booming. His email address, given by permission, is firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him Jeff from Chicago sent you.]
The well-behaved but anxious Canadian audience was itching for its version of rebellion, and about a half dozen songs into the concert I noticed some people lining up in the far aisle. They were planning their attack on the civil proceedings, and eventually began to crowd the front of the stage, sitters be damned. It was a very subtly enforced rebellion, and few seemed to mind.
That’s not why I left early—I had two more concerts to attend. I reached the main outdoor stage a few minutes into trumpeter Erik Truffaz’s performance, a must-see for me. Truffaz has been one of the few artists, in my view, to carry out Miles Davis’ original fusion vision (Wallace Roney, of course, has extended the pre-fusion, second Miles quintet vision), with a fairly eclectic repertoire that often infuses elements of acid jazz, rock, hip-hop, and Eastern music flavors. Yes, he sounds like Miles, and I suppose some people might deride him for it, but the music is good. I recognized at least two of his longtime bandmates, bassist Marcello Giuliani and drummer Mark Erbetta. The large, multicultural crowd grooved to everything, including the philosophical rapping of Nya, who was fifteen years older than when I first heard him and still effective.
That bucket list item aside, I left that concert earlier than I wanted to because I had a seat to see the engaging singer Cyrille Aimée, who mesmerized a large audience at Gesù with her latest versions of Sondheim tunes, accompanied only by a piano and bass. She claimed the two musicians had known each other for only a day, but she seemed to wield an artistic insistence that melded the two guys into a formidable unit. For her part, Aimée displayed an intensity of interpretation, embodying the songs physically and emotionally—a riveting performance.
And this night was when I ran into the dual-language challenge for the first time. Like other performers, Truffaz and Aimée spoke to the audience in French in between songs, in Aimée’s case, while singing in English. Good for me, and loyal to Sondheim’s native tongue, but I often wondered what the audience was laughing about between songs. Overall, that’s not their fault—it’s my challenge. I either bring an interpreter or start learning a language for use in Montréal.
What a day.
Saturday, June 29, 2019
I awakened this morning with good news, an email that pronounced that I had been given a press ticket to see the slightly mysterious chanteuse Melody Gardot perform at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. While a second ticket may have been available—one has to learn how to ask—we did not want to take a chance. Barb went online and found a fourth-row VIP seat. We were set.
The Gardot concert wasn’t until that night, so we decided to join Bro for brunch at Stash and then venture up Rue Saint-Paul for exploration, but we got to Stash a bit later than planned because a goodly portion of lower downtown was being used for the Montréal Triathlon, at least the biking phase of it. All of our walking paths were impeded except for the few places we could cross streets.
The brunch was, of course, terrific. We bidded Bro so long for the day and headed up the street. Our main destination was a courtyard adjacent to Rue Saint-Vincent (a few blocks north of the Notre-Dame Basilica area) to check out a scattering of local artists, with a musician or two providing further ambiance. Again eschewing the art, we purchased some items for grandkid gifts and moved on.
Eventually it was time for Melody. Settling into my balcony seat in the Salle, I was joined by another press person, a young gentleman from Paris, where a jazz radio station exists and from where Gardot currently operates. He was checking out some used CDs he’d purchased from a store north of the festival district. I inquired and figured out my Sunday morning walk routine. Turns out this was, I think, his seventh festival. He invited me to visit when I got to Paris. Someday, Lord willing.
Then festival co-founder André Ménard (interviewed for my 2018 article here) appeared onstage to introduce Gardot, a personal favorite. The lady, dressed in a black jumpsuit and heels, strolled out in front of a standard guitar quartet and a twelve-piece string orchestra, including a spirited cellist who added heft and energy to what could have been standard string arrangements. Wearing ever-present shades due to light sensitivity, she quickly went into an exquisite version of “Wayfaring Stranger.”
It was a carefully but breezily choreographed show, with Gardot’s sultry and articulate voice bathing the audience, which was clearly primed. Still, the moment had its attempted detractors. A “Freebird” idiot showed up. He was ignored, but when another gentleman with more respect for context loudly asked for a Gardot standard, “Preacher Man,” the singer responded, in English, that, well, she had a planned show, with no horns, so she couldn’t perform it, but suggested that afterward “We’ll meet out back, we’ll have a smoke, and I’ll sing it to you.” As the crowd roared its approval, she turned slowly toward the band and quietly sang the opening line to the song. She’s a pro, Gardot is. At the end, she sashayed over stage right, and just before she entered the shadows, she turned her back to the audience and disappeared into the black. You had to be there, but that was one class act.
Sunday, June 30, 2019
As I mentioned before, my Sunday morning walk was designed the moment I found out a used record store was open to check out. It was a bit of a hike, maybe a mile and a half away, west up de Bleury, then right down Rue Sherbrooke, where motels, a few eateries, and one Middle Eastern embassy reside. Left on Rue Saint-Denis, and two blocks later I was at Beatnick Records, one of maybe three stores I should have checked out if I knew more. But I made it, and found a three-CD collection of . . . Eric Truffaz music! The price was right, even in Canadian money, and knowing it was costing me even less made this find superb.
I was particularly excited about the day because one of my favorite artists, the newly acclaimed bassist Linda May Han Oh, was playing with her quintet at one of the outlying sites in Verdun. We were thus obligated to get to know the Montréal subway system, the Metro. Verdun is a district of Montréal that lies southeast of the city proper. The process of getting to the concert, an outdoor affair, was easy—once we emerged from the train, we could see a gate with the festival imagery right down the street. Verdun is clearly an older entity; a large cathedral-like church was at the corner and the general architecture of homes and stores was fairly dated. Just at the edge of the downtown shopping area was the stage, looking like the Star Trek ship that skipped back in time and landed in San Francisco.
After we enjoyed some baked goods and coffee at a local bistro, we landed a nice spot (standing) near the front of the ship, uh stage. And they appeared: Oh on bass, husband Fabian Almazan on piano, guitarist Matt Stevens, saxophonist Ben Wendel, and drummer Rudy Royston. They featured the music on Oh’s recent release Aventurine (which includes Chicago saxophonist Greg Ward) and previous recording Walk Against Wind. The music was stirring, and the band performed well in front of a growing walk-up audience.
As we left, an old-timey band gathered in front of the church and began a concert of ragtime-ish material, an interesting counterpart to the postmodern presentation we had just been a part of.
But it’s all jazz, isn’t it?
Later, I gave my wife a present, another chance to see Melody Gardot, this time with another press pass. I wanted to attend the Antonio Sanchez/Ravi Coltrane double feature in the other Place des Arts venue, the Théâtre Maisonneuve, but apparently press passes were not available for me. I decided to—why not—ask for a pass to hear Chicago’s Patricia Barber at the Salle Ludger-Duvernay in the Monument-National building a few blocks away from festival center. Oh, sure, I could check out Barber on a Monday night at the Green Mill, but I thought seeing her here would be kind of special.
Having heard most of the music at the Green Mill, it was still cool to hear it onstage, with more space. Barber always forms a synchronicity with her chosen bassist, and on this night, in this sonar context, Patrick Mulcahy shone brightly. That is no slight to one of Chicago’s most versatile drummers, Jon Deitemyer, who ably accompanied Barber’s oft-visited pop remakes like “The In Crowd” and the closer, “This Town,” as well as her own “Company,” which pleased me and the clearly excited lady and her husband in row 4. Barber’s main material this night came from her latest album, Higher. Those songs resonate with this reviewer better in person, where Barber contributes more jazz nuance to her “art” pieces. At the end, I wasn’t sad with my choice—another intimate evening with a great interpreter and her trio.
I walked Barb back to the condo, and then turned around for my final concert, led by Chicago’s gonzo percussionist Makaya McCraven, at Gesù. The place was packed with people clearly anticipating a spirited session with the provocateur of the critically acclaimed album Universal Beings. When I saw Greg Spero at the keyboards, I knew this was going to be a good show. And Spero was needed for direction because, from the start, McCraven could not hide his excitement with being a part of this festival. His manic playing nearly overwhelmed his musicians early on. Fortunately, he settled down and a groove was established that clearly satisfied his gratified audience. While it would be nearly impossible to represent the heralded recording live, McCraven did lead his Chicago quintet in some pieces from it, with Jeremiah Hunt exhibiting some scintillating bass chops along with Matt Gold’s increasingly tasty guitar licks and Irvin Pierce’s steady sax work, especially punctuated by McCraven’s constant cymbal playing. All through it, Spero provided excellent backbone and expression that, along with Gold, reminded me of Joe Zawinul’s Syndicate group with Scott Henderson.
* * *
We did spend one more day in Montréal, but it was dedicated to a visit to the Botanical Gardens, just a block beyond the Olympic Village, a relic of past glory. Events still occur there, but one could not escape a sense of ennui in passing by, a place that used to be so active, now just a tourist attraction.
We went to the garden to hopefully see some of the fanciful topiaries that were developed there. Alas, they all seemed to be on loan to places like Atlanta. We had a pleasant walk through the remainder, though muted somewhat by the hottest day of our week.
On this Monday, we had two sumptuous meals: breakfast at Eggspectation on Rue Sainte-Catherine and fish-and-chips at a suggested corner place, Brit & Chips, near Rue Notre-Dame, where I decided to exchange the chips for classic poutine, which was satisfying but a bit much—I had it and part of my fish for breakfast the next day. At a lot of places here, portions were easily enough to satisfy two elderly people looking to stave off calories.
In the end, we were more than happy to have made this trip and to have attended one of the great music festivals in North America. While my press credentials helped, I would not have minded being there as a mere tourist and music fan. The main festival itself is two weeks long, and that is a long time. But there is enough music and plenty to experience for a five-day planned visit. The language situation is not an impediment, and Montréal’s general good will make this a destination well worth revisiting. We plan to.
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at email@example.com