June 17, 2024

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Live review, Photo report: Montréal jazz festival: Lionel Loueke, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Zakir Hussain, Herbie Hancock, Brian Blade: Video

Last year, Montreal native Leonard Cohen was immortalized in a 20-story mural in the city’s downtown. Cohen’s image now stands out clearly on the skyline, sending a powerful message that art and music are foundational to Montreal’s identity.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival, which ran June 28-July 7, has shaped the city, too: The permanent complex of venues in the Quartier des Spectacles, established in 2003, partly evolved from festival events that have been held in the neighborhood since the early ’80s, when it was a red light district. Now, in its 39th year, few other large festivals feel as well integrated within their host cities. Montreal is a kind of framework upon which the event improvises, making it an ideal place to combine a love of music and travel. Visitors have a chance to play their own changes. For me this year, the sensation of cycling down the scenic Lachine Canal one afternoon carried into Zakir Hussein, Dave Holland and Chris Potter’s pulsing, transporting set that evening. Morning visits to Old Montreal’s gothic revival Notre-Dame Basilica and the Au Papier Japonais shop resonated that night in the jewel tones and fine filigree of Gretchen Parlato’s vocals.

The Montreal festival long has walked the razor’s edge in booking artistic integrity and commercial success with 50 percent corporate sponsorship. On my fifth festival visit—but my first since its 2013 sale to Groupe CH—I noticed a tilting in the direction of business interests. In the U.S. alone, serious fans now can find innovative, richly curated programs at festivals like Newport, Detroit and New York’s Winter Jazzfest. Montreal, meanwhile, seems to be trending toward more reflexive programming of packaged acts—for example, at a closing press conference, organizers said they green-lighted 2018’s misguided SLĀV production on the basis of singer Betty Bonifassi’s previous success at the festival.

The festival is nevertheless too big to fail, with about 500 free and paid shows offering a diverse mix of world music, pop, jazz and everything in between. Its sheer volume of jazz performances could convert any casual fan into a true believer, which is exactly what happened to my 16-year-old niece, Grace, this year.

Like many kids who’ve grown up with digital access to the world’s music bounty, Grace’s taste is omnivore and adaptable. With Grace along, my festival experience had less to do with my own aesthetic criteria than some other fundamental issues: Do the performers seem to enjoy performing? What feeling does this music give us? And with the city sweltering in a heat wave during the festival, how well air-conditioned is the venue?

Kamasi Washington’s ecstatic jazz funk would have slayed Grace, if his septet hadn’t been fighting sound issues that entrapped their authoritative solos like debris in a lava flow. Both of us loved Jose James’ Bill Withers project: Grace for James’ soulful vocals, and me for bassist Ben Williams and drummer Nate Smith’s astute balance of groove and invention, which brought forward the jazz in some of pop’s most recognizable and beloved songs.

The most inspired festival pairing we caught was an intergenerational Thundercat (33) and Herbie Hancock (78) double bill. The well-heeled audience tensed as Thundercat shuffled out in a striped tee, printed orange bathing trunks, pink socks and sandals, as if attired for a hungover poolside afternoon, and began playing trippy songs dedicated to his cat. When Thundercat name-checked his collaborator Kendrick Lamar, Grace glanced skeptically at older crowd members; I assured her that after Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win, even grandparents have heard of him. Thundercat and his power trio gradually, but decisively, won over the audience as he sang falsetto and played stunning bass runs on original prog-jazz-r&b-pop fusion tunes. Sometimes, success is about singing the inestimable song of oneself.

“I haven’t been sleeping while he was creating,” Hancock said when he took the stage, mentioning Thundercat’s role on his upcoming album. Hancock’s quartet then delivered some of his greatest hits, but so kaleidoscopically rearranged and reoriented by virtuosic soloing that the set amounted to a retrospective of his entire life’s work. Shifting between piano and synths—and yes, even the keytar—Hancock cycled through transfigured tunes like “Actual Proof,” “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” and “Chameleon” with the expert and equal support of Lionel Loueke, James Genus and Trevor Lawrence Jr.

Hancock’s show was Grace’s jazz-believer breakthrough. She raved about the communication onstage, how “the musicians seemed to be having a conversation through music.” She mentioned their sincere appreciation of each others’ solos and how the musicians “liked hearing surprises in the music as much as the audience did.” Grace also got her first taste of jazz preconceptions, when we later enthused about the show to a group of journalists. “Herbie? Really?” a colleague asked. “His show even cured my heat exhaustion,” Grace testified.

Grace’s favorite festival show was Brian Blade and The Fellowship, she said, because it was “everything jazz can be.” Maybe she admired the band’s Black Southern ECM aesthetic, its minimalist musical themes and personal expression in service to the collective. Maybe it was the excitement of Blade’s rhythmic eruptions—“One time,” Grace noted, “his drumstick even flew out of his hand and over his bassist’s head!” Maybe it was the band’s seeming conviction that spirit is the only reality.

Opening for Fellowship was the piano quartet SHPIK, winner of the 2018 TD Canada Trust award for promising jazz newcomers. For all the band’s potential, many in the crowd hadn’t bargained for so amateur an act, and during intermission some concertgoers grumbled about programming that serves a bank sponsor’s largesse, rather than the audience.

But in the show’s second half, Fellowship lifted the crowd. We left the venue with a post-concert buzz, which was heightened when we discovered a screening of Fellini’s 8 1/2 in the park across the street. It was another reminder that the essential program pairing at the Montreal festival is the one between the music and the city. Whatever pleasures the festival offers, Montreal itself always is ready with an encore, always down to improvise the rest of the story with you.

Michelle Mercer

Festival International De Jazz De Montréal 2018: Part 2Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

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