mon 04/03/2024

theartsdesk in Montreal - the world's largest jazz festival just got younger | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Montreal - the world's largest jazz festival just got younger

theartsdesk in Montreal - the world's largest jazz festival just got younger

A vast event with something for everyone

The youthful crowd at the Scène TDFrederique Menard-Aubin / FIJM

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM), the largest in the world, is genuinely on a roll. The head of programming of the huge event, which takes place all around the Quartier des Spectacles in the centre of the city, says in this year's wrap-up press release that “a new wind is blowing through our beloved jazz world, and we can be proud today to see the public rallying around. A booming new scene with legends leading the way: Vive le jazz!”

This thought, as he told me in an interview, is more than just a hunch. Statistics issued for last year’s 42nd edition showed that 52% of the audience, was under 35 years old, and the proportion of first-time visitors was 33% of people attending, a jump from just 19% in 2021. This year’s 43rd edition was definitely a lot busier, and looked a lot younger too. Montreal’s student population is not far short of 200,000, so the word is clearly getting out to them.

FIJM is a huge ten-day event with 27 scheduled concerts on each of the ten nights that the festival lasts, as well as impromptu performances around the festival site. More than half of the total of 350+ events have free admission. The largest venue is the open-air Scène TD, with a capacity of up to 60,000. The appreciative audience which gathers there or at smaller free-stages is drawn by the music, the relaxed all-day atmosphere. There is a whole area given over to a children’s musical playground, complete with a version of the walk-on piano from “Big” (pictured, bottom of page by Benoit Rousseau). For an impression of what rejuvenation looks like, it would be hard to beat the image above (pictured above by Victor Diaz Lamich/FIJM) of the airborne Herbie Hancock. The jazz legend is now 83, and from the evidence we see, must be getting younger. Whereas at a recent appearance in London, he seemed content to coast, to quietly slip into the role of a spectator and let his band be the ones to shine, here, in front of the audience in the full-to-capacity 3,000-seater ticketed Salle Wilfried-Pelletier, he made sure that every one of the numbers he took a solo and gave it a massive intensity build. Huge energy seemed to flow naturally from him. He also gave a Q and A in a community centre near the house where Oscar Peterson was born, at which he talked about his benign mentors, notably Donald Byrd, and how things have now turned full circle. Hancock himself is a true elder statesman, notably in has role as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and patron of International Jazz Day.

Tangible evidence of a younger audience being drawn to jazz came from another gig the same night, a free-admission performance by the Emmet Cohen Trio at the intimate Studio TD venue. The queue to get in was absolutely massive. Cohen has amassed over 26 million YouTube views and is a phenomenon. He plays mainstream jazz, and the mainly young audience (those of them who could get in) were transfixed, the atmosphere was electric. People sometimes walk out of free gigs early. Not this one.

There are a host of fine stages in the city, such as the gig venue Mtelus (which hosted Snarky Puppy this year) and Club Soda, (a bit like a better-designed version of Camden’s Jazz Cafe). At the really intimate end, of particular appeal are the city’s two wonderfully atmospheric year-round jazz clubs Upstairs (which is actually in a basement) and Dièse Onze (meaning ‘sharp 11’). Both of them provide a focal point for the very fine players of the local jazz scene.At Upstairs I heard Houston Person, now 88 but full of life, with an incredibly supportive trio led by Mike Rud. Rud was a one-time pupil of guitar legend Jim Hall, and Hall’s mantra of “making the other musicians sound better” comes from somewhere very deep in this self-effacing but superb Alberta-born guitarist's personality.

Also at Upstairs was an album launch by a quartet led by a pivotal figure in the Montreal scene – even though she has just moved to a senior teaching role at Eastman College in Rochester NY, Christine Jensen (pictured above by Dave Ingham). Jensen and first-call Montreal pianist Steve Amirault have been making ‘contrafacts’ on jazz standards. It might seem like a dry academic exercise to use the chords and re-imagine a melody, but with a composer as lucid, as smart and as totally persuasive as Jensen, the results are wonderful. “Balcony Rules”, based on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is a gem.I went to the ticketed shows by three divas of vocal jazz: Melody Gardot (pictured above by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin), Stacey Kent, and this year's top ticket-seller Diana Krall. The pick of these three shows was Gardot, who has transformed herself from the diffident performer of the years around 2010 into a confident and sassy performer and also directs the show, has a great partnership with Philippe Powell, son of Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell, and was in great voice too.

Another highlight of the shows I went to was a trio which met for the first time as part of a three-night residency at Gesu for drummer/ bandleader/ producer Nate Smith, who had invited guitar genius Lionel Loueke and bassist Michael League to form a trio with him. The particular energy of a first encounter was overwhelming. The three seemed to click and enjoy each other's musical company immensely. They will hopefully get together again.

The practical reality is that it is impossible to get to even a fraction of the gigs; there was definitely a buzz in the press-room about two American pianists in their twenties, James Francies and Julius Rodriguez, and also about the Toronto-based Afro-Cuban band Okan.A few things did go wrong: Macy Gray, who was due to headline on the big outdoor stage on the final night, cried off, and the good-time Canadian funksters The Brooks stepped in at short notice. John Scofield's gig was delayed by the sudden appearance of fire engines. There were also some sudden but heavy rain-storms which dampened the mood at some of the outdoor stages.

But with the good-natured, relaxed mood of Montreal in the summer, the unobtrusive security, the whole vibe is hard to resist. This is a city (and a festival) which welcomes its own and its tourists to just enjoy it, and where there is something for everyone.  

This year’s festival was busier, and looked a lot younger too

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