By Lee Zimmerman and Alisa Cherry
Music and Montreal make a superb mix. That’s become increasingly evident over the past 40 years of Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (or, the Montreal Jazz Festival for those of us less versed in French, Montreal’s predominant language), a literal labor of love that has grown over the decades to become one of the world’s most prestigious festivals regardless of genre or style. Given that it reached that milestone number this year, and that its two distinguished cofounders, Alain Simard and Andre Ménard, have announced their retirement, the 2019 edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival took on special significance, an emotionally charged experience that that couldn’t help but impact all those who were even marginally aware of its circumstances.
The original incarnation of the festival was spawned from the Rising Sun Festijazz, Montreal's first blues & jazz festival held in 1978. Simard, a promoter who spent much of the ‘70s bringing top flight artists to Montreal, originally connected with Ménard and another local entrepreneur Denys McCann after conceiving the idea of creating a summer festival that would feature leading artists from the world of jazz sharing stages and offering a world class repertoire.
After attaining the support of the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Radio Quebec, the three men presented the first official Montreal Jazz Festival in 1980, featuring such illustrious headliners as Ray Charles, Gary Burton and Chick Corea. Ever since, the festival has reached beyond its branding as strictly a jazz festival. An array of artists continue to play prominent roles in its line-up. In recent years, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Brian Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, George Thorogood, Boz Scaggs, and King Crimson, as well as both mainstream and independent up and coming artists have been showcased as well.
That penchant for providing imaginative and adventurous music in a variety of forms continues to be the festival’s constant to this day. This year’s line-up was no exception and indeed, the emphasis on crossover appeal was never more explicit, given the appearance of such iconic artists as Peter Frampton, Alan Parsons Project, Buddy Guy, Holly Cole, Charlotte Cardin, Norah Jones, Madeleine Payrous, Blue Rodeo, Steel Pulse, Victor Wainwright, Dianne Reeves, George Benson, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Joshua Redman, Bryan Adams, Chet Faker, John Pizzarelli, PJ Morton, Popa Chubby, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Elling, Pink Martini, Richard Reed Parry, Colin James, Sue Foley, and Mercury Rev among the many.
Whew... it’s enough to boggle the mind merely thinking of it.
Of course, the diversity of the line-up allows plenty of opportunity for both indulgence and discovery. Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s tribute to Django Reinhardt got us in a groove early on, but our first night’s real highlight was witnessing Gabriel & Rodrigo’s remarkable dueling guitars in a driving, dynamic display of tone and treatments. The melodies sometimes seemed to soar to other dimensions, but it still held the audience in awe regardless.
“People ask is what kind of music we play,” Gabriella stated at one point. “I tell them I don’t know. We have no boundaries in our heads.”
Even so, they clearly connected with the crowd.
Alan Parsons’ eight piece band also had an illuminating effect on the audience, which, given his array of timeless tunes, really came as no surprise. Parsons himself, usually found sitting on a riser at center stage, seems to shun the spotlight, leaving any drama and dynamics to the others in his ensemble. He’s a stoic sort of bandleader, comparable in a way to the obvious influence Brian Wilson has on his backing band, although in Parsons’ case, he’s not nearly as inert. Reverent takes on “Time,” “Breakdown” and “Games People Play” were obvious highlights, but the fact that Montreal marked the final show of the band’s current tour instilled added emphasis and led to a particularly powerful performance.
Nevertheless, the most anticipated concert of the entire festival was Peter Frampton’s. As Frampton explained at a press conference the day before, his medical condition -- known in shorthand as IBM -- has forced his decision to make his current Farewell Tour a final farewell to live performance. “It’s not up to me when I stop playing,” he insisted, explaining that IBM is a slow-moving disease that attacks the muscles with varying degrees of speed and progression. “I never want to stop playing. I love being on stage,” he continued, noting that a summer tour with co-headliner Alice Cooper was subsequently cancelled out of sheer necessity.
Fortunately, for now anyway, Frampton’s acumen and enthusiasm remains undiminished. Kicking off his 2 1/2 hour set with a slide show that took him from his earliest efforts with the Brit pop band The Herd through his celebrated stint with Humble Pie and then into his tremendously successful solo career as a wavy-haired, pin-up poster boy and mega selling superstar, he immediately launched into “Something’s Coming,” an ideal as ever opening anthem. His looks may have evolved with age, but however gray and balding he now appears, his affable presence was still on full display. Naturally the setlist covered plenty of ground, from expected choices that included “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do” to well-etched covers of “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Same Old Blues,” the latter two from his chart-topping new album All Blues. Frampton successfully surveyed a good portion of his career, culling songs from his first solo album Wind of Change and reprising a pair of Humble Pie staples, “Four Day Creep” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as part of his encore. A dramatic read of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” ended it all, with a clearly emotional Frampton telling the audience that it had been a most memorable evening for him and his band. “I’m not going to say goodbye,” he declared, but it was apparent he was fighting a few tears as he walked off the stage.
Founders Simard and Ménard were also celebrated later that evening in the intimate setting of Le Club, courtesy of a live radio interview and a special serenade by several of the festival’s past and present performers. While a slide show tracing their earlier efforts was shown on a screen behind them, various musicians rotated onstage throughout the evening, entertaining the small invited audience with supple samples of melodic jazz and a special two song set by Holly Cole. Cole’s rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from the musical South Pacific lived up to its recurring refrain, “Come away, come away.” Indeed, the audience was transported.
At a press conference the day after, the festival’s new men in charge, programmers Marin Auxemery and Lauren Saunier, and newly installed festival president Jacques-Andre Dupont, explained satisfaction that they had inherited an event that was in fine form commercially and creatively as well. “We are really pleased,” Auxemery insisted. “We’re on budget, we have good ticket sales and a lovely vibe within this community. It’s an excellent first year.”
The others onstage with him shared his enthusiasm, hailing Montreal as a wonderful host city while noting the diversity of the festival’s artists and audiences. It is, they agreed, an ideal place where musicians from all over the world gather and celebrate a lingering legacy that should inspire future generations of music lovers for many decades to come.
The local pride was once again on full display when Canada’s best selling bluesman Colin James took the stage as an opening act for blues legend Buddy Guy. The audience showed obvious affection for a man many still consider a hometown hero. James responded in kind, occasionally venturing offstage into the first few rows and maintaining a constant grin on his face throughout. Although blues is famously his forte, his music is open and accessible, enabling him to reach a wider audience that many blues musicians might boast.
For his part, Buddy Guy was in a playful mood as well. At age 82, he appears as spry as ever, and when he gyrates his hips and and shuffles his guitar, it’s apparent that his inspiration for basking in the blues remains undiminished.
On the other hand, actor/singer Leslie Odom Jr., known for his role as Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton -- as well as for the parts he’s played on several TV series -- made his own bid to attract an audience by singing standards along with the three piece jazz ensemble he had in tow. With a voice that’s well equipped to reach a high register, he proved to be a formidable presence. Likewise, when it came to retracing more familiar fare, like his take on the song “Killing Me Softly,” he proved he was well up to the task. Although more suited to cabaret than present day pop, he made an excellent impression on this initial encounter.
It was apt that the final show of the festival would return us to the intimate environs of Le Club where the experimental quartet known as Mercury Rev held court with a psychedelic soiree reminiscent of early Pink Floyd or the Soft Machine playing the part of underground inhabitants of London’t UFO Club circa 1967. The music was mesmerizing to say the least, all cosmic creativity in the midst of shifting tones and textures. Jonathan Donahue proved to. be a fanciful frontman, primping and posing like David Bowie in early Ziggy Stardust mode.
Like many of the other artists that dazzled and delighted audience throughout the ten day festival, Mercury Rev was as captivating as they were creative. It was an apt end for this 40th anniversary of the magic that is Montreal Jazz, and the extraordinary encounters that captivate in continuum.