By Lee Zimmerman
Montreal makes a daunting first impression. Travelers arriving by air, first find themselves in Montreal’s cavernous airport, where the walk to customs takes in countless levels of concrete enclosed passageways and enough of a traipse to make one believe he or she will be halfway to the city center by the time its done. Forms have to be filled out for customs and then inserted into machines much like those that take your payment to in city parking lots, although failing to fill in an answer finds the testy devices coughing the form back and wholly unable to reasonably describe why your form has been rejected. When one finally does encounter an actual customs official of the human variety, you find yourself being asked if your trip is for pleasure or for business. Make note: a response indicating the latter (I am a diligent journalist after all) results in a squinty eyed look of suspicion and a separate series of questions about the purpose of your business and why it brings you to town.
Freed from the airport’s confines, the trip to the city offers the overdeveloped landscape common to any American metropolis. Endless highways slice through an endless sprawl of homes, businesses and nondescript industrial terrain, stretching mile after mile until they reach the city limits and then the inner city beyond. Our driver complains that the government’s recent efforts to rebuild the roadway system in a way that will somehow better the commute has only resulted in traffic that’s constantly snarled and a tangle of unfinished bridges and parched pavement that offer no respite.
Happily, this momentary distraction ultimately gives way to a city that’s as modern and beautiful as its reputation insists, an especially impressive feat considering its origins stretch back nearly five centuries. At first glimpse, it resembles an unlikely hybrid of New York and Seattle, the former due to its endless array of hotels, offices, eateries and commercial buildings, the latter because many of its streets are on a slight tilt — not as steep as San Francisco perhaps, but just enough to suggest a kind of west coast topography. Of course, Montreal is not a western city. It lies within hugging distance of Vermont and just west of Maine, making it Canada’s most accessible major destination within reach of the U.S. north and east coast.
Discovered by the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535, Montreal was already a thriving beacon of activity once he arrived, thanks to the fact that native people had been occupying it for some 4,000 years. Located on the island of Montreal, it ranks as the most populous city in its home province of Quebec, as well as the second largest city in all of Canada as a whole. Originally dubbed Ville-Marie (“City of Mary”), it had its name changed later to reference Mount Royal, the triple peaked hill that lies at the city’s center and now accounts for the change in grade from one area to another.
Still, the most immediate impression Montreal shares with its visitors is the city’s remarkable cultural disparity. While French is the primary language — often leaving those who are less than multi-lingual perplexed when it comes to certain menu selections that are in desperate need of translation— its population of 1,650,000 also includes a substantial number of residents of Asian and Far Eastern descent. The Old City, with its array of Parisian type shops, cafes, cathedrals (including stately Notre Dame) and imposing government buildings lies only blocks away from the thriving Chinatown, which boasts shop after shop filled with seemingly unlimited quantities of inexpensive imports such as clothing, games, toys and paper products that range for light fixtures and fans to playing cards and other cheap knick-knacks. The neighborhood also seems to attract the rougher elements of the city’s population; on the day we were there, we spied several unruly ruffians with hostile attitudes encamped on the street, giving a nearby shop owner concern for the goods he had displayed outside his door.
Nevertheless, for those on a budget or simply unwilling to venture across an ocean, Montreal is quite a lot like Paris, an old world city that lies within easy reach of home. In the Old City especially, there are enough outdoor cafes with continental cuisine and examples of ancient architecture coexisting with modern art and attitude to purvey a distinctive European aura.
Our visit to the city in early July found Montreal mostly about the music. The annual Montreal Jazz Festival was taking place just beyond the doors of our hotel, spread leisurely along a spacious pedestrian mall. For said pedestrians, it’s ideal, with walks between the various venues taking no more than a matter of minutes. In fact, Montreal literally seems to embrace its namesake festival, not only because it hosts it in the city center but because it’s a beacon for international tourism. After 37 years, it ranks with Montreux, Newport and New Orleans as one of the most venerable musical gatherings in the world, and its accessibility to both Europe and the U.S. makes it a magnet for music lovers both near and far. Indeed, there were some evenings where we found ourselves strolling through the crowds and swearing that a good percentage of those aforementioned aficionados were staking a claim to the sidewalks along with us.That meant that with a multitude of free outdoor concerts — a decided plus for a festival of this size — early arrival was necessary to get a good glimpses of the stage.
Naturally, the festival’s main draw is its headliners. Those artists were found performing in either the sprawling performing arts center — a combination of three world-class concert halls (Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Maison Symphonique De Montreal and Theatre Maisonneuve)— or the array of clubs and cabarets that dot the festival’s periphery. The bigger concerts were ticketed events asking varying costs for admission, but the array of headliners — from tradition jazz staples like Wynton Marsalis, Chuck Corea and Marcus Miller to a seemingly unlikely blend of progressive rock and pop encompassing both the old (Brian Wilson, Kool & the Gang, Joe Jackson, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher) and the new (Boy & Bear, Lord Huron, The Tallest Man On Earth) — made for some remarkably varied options. There were also those artists that fit somewhere in-between — soul singer Lauryn Hill, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, jazz/pop hybrid Squirrel Nut Zippers, the folkie Wainwright Sisters, and arched crooner Rufus Wainwright, among them — performers whose attempts to bridge that divide were clearly welcomed as well.
Consequently, over the course of ten days, attendees can get an entertaining lesson in a wide range of musical invention, as well as a sense of this spectacular city, each of which find a common bond with tradition while also looking ahead towards the future. Or, as Joe Jackson noted during his performance, Montreal isn’t all about jazz anymore. Like the city itself, it gains distinction through diversity.
That means of course, it is all about variety. And it didn’t take long to witness that firsthand. On day one, we were watching a Rufus Wainwright’s concert, the first part of which was made up of excerpts from an opera he recently wrote and recorded entitled “Prima Donna,” with a second set that had Rufus playing his repertoire in the company of an orchestra. He proved himself quite a crooner, and his flair for drama and a striking multi-patterned suit gave him the kind of charisma most artists would certainly be eager to emulate.
On our second day, the music seemed to be everywhere, whether it came in the form of a mobile Japanese brass band or the evening’s big name headliners. Joe Jackson and his three-piece backing band put on an especially fine performance, and with longtime bassist Graham Maby in tow, they demonstrated a virtuosity as striking as any of the jazz artists that shared the other stages. From there, we were off to an adjoining auditorium to see Kool & the Gang energizing their audience and putting the fun back in funky. It was a celebration indeed.
The next night, we took a few chances with our choices, catching a performance by Tal Wilkenfeld, a former bassist in one of for Jeff Beck’s recent ensembles. A mass of tousled blond curls and seemingly unstoppable energy, she parlayed songs that were as much about vulnerability as they were about virtuosity. Later, one of the outside stages hosted the Campbell Brothers, a band that puts pedal steel guitar and a gospel groove front and center as they replay traditional fare in the form of “”Wade in the Water” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along with more ambitious offerings such as an extended version of John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.”
By day four we had gotten in a groove of our own. We awoke early to partake in the hotel’s breakfast buffet, then returned to the room to catch more sleep before hitting the festival around three. It wasn’t that we were lazy; with the music going on some nights until 2 AM, and much of it within earshot of our hotel, a midday doze was certainly justified. One unlikely highlight we encountered that day was Canada’s so-called “National Crooner,” Colin Hunter, who led his swinging big band through a selection of standards, including “Come Fly With Me,” “It Had To Be You,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and, natch “New York, New York.” Old Blue Eyes might have turned a bit green at the thought of someone emulating him so expertly. Later, Son Little followed on the same stage, offering up some tangled blues with considerably extra edge.
The next night gave us our first opportunity to witness music of a more progressive variety. It came in the form of Lord Huron, a band whose mesmerizing blend of psychedelia, surf and psychobilly reflected a flair for high drama and a beguiling sound balanced midway between dreamy and dramatic. The next night, TheTallest Man on Earth showed much the same flair, thanks to front man Kristian Matsson’s spidery way of slithering around the stage and a seductive stance seemingly at odds with songs that were tuneful and triumphant when they weren’t supple or sad.
Speaking of sad, we had to miss opener Basia Bulat because of the fact that we were delayed by one of the much-ballyhooed festival highlights, that being Brian Wilson’s replay of "Pet Sounds" and other attendant Beach Boys classics. Where Matsson was fleet-footed, the 70-something Brian Wilson merely shuffled to and from the stage, given to a perfunctory vocals and, on those occasions where he was assigned a song’s introduction, interactions that came across as both stilted and scripted. Still, the real thrill of the "Pet Sounds" performance lay, as might be expected, in the songs themselves. As always, Wilson’s band did the material justice on his behalf, and while it didn’t quite qualify as a Beach Boys reunion, save for the presence of the ever faithful Al Jardine and later recruit Blondie Chaplin (who grabbed attention by stalking the stage himself), the classic Beach Boys sound was well replicated. “This song was sung by my cousin Mike but he’s not here tonight,” Brian announced at one point, perhaps brushing aside the animosity that’s again split the group into two rival camps. Happily, Jardine’s son Matt was there to sing the trademark high parts that Wilson himself can no longer muster.
The following evening the Wainwright Sisters — Martha and Lucy — offered a mellow respite, their sisterly harmonies and affable attitudes causing the extracts from their recent album "Songs in the Dark" to bask in an appropriately nocturnal glow. It was their third night of performances, but when Martha hobbled onstage in a cast and on crutches, it was clear something was amiss. She explained the reason that her impairment was the result of a tennis mishap earlier that afternoon. It did however make the sisterly bond far more emphatic. “I need you more than ever,” she told Lucy, her need for nursing all too obvious. Likewise, their songs were sublime — a take on Townes Van Zandt’s “My Mother the Mountain,” a cover of “El Condor Pasa” and the traditional standard “Hobo’s Lullaby,” among them — and though they left the stage individually to allow for individual offerings, one couldn’t help but be nervous about Martha tripping over herself as she hopped her way off.
Later on, the melodic strains of Sweden’s Peter, Bjorn and John, were accentuated by the festival’s best light show, bar none, and visual effects that were dazzling in their design. They proved a nice match for the bubbly approach that made the trio sometimes sound like a meld of ABBA and Duran Duran.
The festival’s final night featured a sturdy performance by Noel Gallagher, the oddest addition to the bill by far. Where other artists aspired to a a somewhat highbrow approach, Gallagher is still an upstart, an old school rocker with a penchant for punk. His new band, High Flying Birds, still harbors the same admiration for The Beatles and other early Brit rockers that he and his brother Liam invested in Oasis, while Noel himself retains an ample amount of sass and insurgence. He kept a running dialogue with individual members of the audience throughout the show, establishing a rapport that had the crowd on its feet the entire time. Happily, he always kept his cool, even when at one point someone shouted out “Where’s Liam?” “I don’t know," the bemused rocker replied. “Probably at home on twitter.” Nevertheless, Liam’s absence didn’t prevent the band from frequently delving into the Oasis songbook. When the inevitable “Wonderwall” was performed, the crowd roared with recognition. Granted, High Flying Birds haven’t reached the stature that Oasis accrued, but they managed to soar regardless.
That left it to Australia’s Boy & Bear to cap the final night of festivities, and while the band showed a certain verve, the sameness of the songs muted any sense of real revelation. Ironically, it was the music played before they took the stage and piped in over the club’s terrific sound system — songs by The Beatles, the Stones, Traveling Wilburys and Tom Petty included — that made for some of the most exhilarating moments overall. Classic rock, played at a loud volume still sets a high bar.
These festivals often have little to do with the branding, as Joe Jackson had noted several days earlier. Given its variety, the Montreal Jazz Festival may someday need to rethink its handle. On the other hand, it’s nice to know that even a revered genre like jazz negates any need to typecast. Merci, Montreal, for a festival that remains magnifique.