2019 marked the 40th anniversary of arguably the best jazz and one of the best music festivals in the world.
To celebrate, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in partnership with the new Cultural Policy of the City of Montreal and new Tourism Montreal Development Strategy created the next step for Montreal Jazz, a satellite stage in the Verdun neighbourhood. This new idea of festival ‘Hubs’ is set to grow year after year for the next five. While the programming at the Verdun hub was interesting, with a packed schedule of free shows, I wasn’t able to travel to it and back to Quartier des Spectacles in time to get to my scheduled shows. While the idea is interesting, one thing that makes the festival special is now it’s contained to several square blocks making travel from one venue to another effortless. However, there aren’t many attendees who aren’t members of the press who are scheduling 3 ticketed shows for themselves in a single evening. If I return to the Jazz Festival, I will definitely spend a night at one of the Hubs to get its vibe. When I asked his thoughts, one Festival staff member I spoke to believed that the Hub idea could be a way to offer a new element of independence for the festival and allow each Hub to operate unrestricted. That is the beauty of an old dog finding a new trick. How the Hub experiment mutates over the next five years will be interesting to watch.
What the greater future beyond forty holds for the festival is unclear. This year marks the end of the deep-rooted involvement of festival founders, André Ménard and Alain Simard. Deep is perhaps an understatement of the duo’s influence, Simard has had a hand in the artist curation just as Ménard has in the operation of the festival. There’s no doubt that an entire programming team assembles the hundreds of artists who perform at the 11-day festival each year. But without a doubt, Simard was the figurehead of the overall complexion of Festival performers. He has stated that he knows he’s leaving the festival programming in good hands. This being said, there may have been a few puzzled looks reacting to the announcement of this milestone iteration of the world’s greatest jazz festival was closing with a performance by Matt Holubowski, a folk artist popular in Quebec, but virtually unheard of outside of Canada. Most may have expected an artist more along the lines of Stevie Wonder, who played the festival in 2009 and 2015, or Festival stalwart and living jazz great, Pat Metheny, this delightful unpredictability is what keeps the Jazz Festival experience fresh. However, it seems strange that the jazz artists who may have seemed more likely mainstage candidates to close the festival, like Chick Corea, Snarky Puppy and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band are performing under the FIJM Presents banner next fall when all us tourists have gone home. Or these bookings are just the excuse jazz lovers need to head back to Montreal minus the crowds.
Minor complaints aside, this year was among the greats for both atmosphere and lineup. The Festival presented jazz artists such as Norah Jones, Steve Gadd, Madeleine Peyroux, Manu Katché, George Benson, Holly Cole, Joshua Redman alongside ‘pop’ artists like Strumbellas, Charlotte Cardin, Blue Rodeo, Steel Pulse, La Force, Bryan Adams, Morcheeba, Chet Faker, alt-J, Alan Parsons, Peter Frampton, Bahamas, Courtney Barnett, CHVRCHES and Voivod. The latter being perhaps the most unique band offered at a jazz festival. But the seemingly unusual inclusion of Quebec’s best-known thrash metal band into its best-known festival makes perfect sense. FIJM happily shed its highfalutin’ jazzbo skin as it’s size and scope outgrew its initial bounds back in the 1990s. Understanding that perhaps the best way to make new jazz fans was to entice pop fans, the festival began booking pop acts. There’s no doubt that youngins on their way to a show at Club Soda would get their heads turned by a shredding jazz act on one of the many free stages. Yet another wonderful element of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is its inclusive nature. While many shows are ticketed (and high dollar amounts at that), a casual stroller can wander from open-air stage to open-air stage without opening their wallet once. That being said, one of the stages was moved this year to accommodate more concession stands on the Ste. Catherine St. thoroughfare. But these compromises are minute in comparison to any other single-price festival that has its hands in all your pockets at every opportunity and suffers no guilt selling you a plastic bottle filled with water for $5 or more. A read through their Responsibility page shows how thoughtful this festival can be.
For this 40th anniversary of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, ADDICTED spent 3 nights catching a variety of shows. First up, was one of my picks for favourite albums of 2018. Montreal’s Thus Owls is comprised of husband and wife duo, Simon and Erika Angell. For their show at M2, they were joined by drummer Samuel Joly as well as a pair of upright bassists, Morgan Moore and Marika Galea. The band’s sound is truly unique and made even moreso with the addition of the two bassists. While one was holding down the bottom end with Joly, the other was bowing to great effect. Adding the layer of the Angells’ atmospheric guitar and haunting, soaring voice, Thus Owls proved their power lies live even more than on record. Erika Angell poured emotion into her vocals whether she was forcefully sustaining a long canting vocal or slipping into spoken word. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for their entire set (this will be a commonly-typed refrain from me as a music journalist/photographer rarely gets to just be an audience member) as I had to run to catch another Montreal artist who weaves musical notes into intricate and colourful tapestries.
Neoclassical composer, Alexandra Streliski was first largely recognized by her score of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Oscar-winning 2013 film, Dallas Buyers Club. She became Vallée’s go-to composer when he directed HBO shows Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects. These projects helped put her stunning 2018 album Inscape in the spotlight. With fellow Canadian neoclassical cellist, Justin Wright opening the show, Streliski took to the stage of Theatre Maisonneuve in the beautiful Place Des Arts. Starting the show behind a screen, she began her performance with Ellipse from Inscape, followed by Prelude from her first release, Pianoscope. As the screen opened, she spoke to the audience. Unfortunately, I am not bilingual, so what seemed like a very charming aside was lost on me. While dimly lit and somewhat hidden behind her piano, Streliski let her songs be the stars of the show. And my pathetic Franco-illiteracy stayed concealed while the music played.
Running from Place Des Arts to Club Soda to jockey for a good photo-shooting position, I arrived in time to see the delightful New Zealand weirdo, Connan Mockasin. Running in the same psych-pop lane and occasionally collaborating with the likes of MGMT, Ariel Pink and Mac DeMarco, Mockasin drew a crowd of devotees unlike any other I saw at the Festival. The kids LOVE this guy. And I have to admit that despite having never heard of him prior to seeing the show listing on the Festival website, I sorta love his thing too. His three-piece backing band took the stage and started the slinky track Charlotte’s Thong, the leadoff of Mockasin’s latest album, Jassbusters. When he was good and ready, with wine glass and bottle in hand, Connan took the stage to mad cheers and applause. He roused up the crowd just through gestures while they swayed smiling. I love it when an artist lives up to the hype.
My second night at Montreal Jazz was a busy and long one.
Peter Frampton is in the middle of his Peter Frampton Finale—The Farewell Tour. Diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a progressive muscle disorder of which the unfortunate effects are weakness and atrophy, he’s stated he wants to make the rounds while his musical dexterity is unaffected. At his press conference, he did state that if in a year’s time, he’s still able to play at his level, he’ll happily tour again. But for fans, making the ‘farewell tour’ statement means more than say, The Who, a band whose first farewell concert was in 1982. Frampton entered the stage to Something’s Happening the opening track of his classic rock artifact, Frampton Comes Alive. The song sounded as fresh as it did on vinyl in 1978. Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours followed and showed why Peter Frampton has been underrated as a vocalist as well as a guitarist for far too long. While his movements looked a touch stiff around the stage, he’s playing as great as he ever has and it was a joy to see him enjoying himself so much. While I was allowed to shoot the first two songs of this show, the overwhelming demand for tickets for what may have been Frampton’s final Montreal performance sadly prevented me from staying any longer. I’ve been a fan ever since I first heard his 14 minute, mind-warping hit, Do You Feel Like We Do? in a smoke-filled station wagon in 1988.
Running from Place Des Arts to MTELUS, I just missed catching the last song from Montreal’s Pottery. I’ve enjoyed their quirky, angular EP No. 1 and was hoping to see them live. On this occasion, they were opening the night for the word-defying awesomeness of Courtney Barnett. I’ve enjoyed her latest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, but seeing her live for the first time showed me how powerful this rock-pose-striking Aussie goddess is. She’s a slayer on stage and a consummate performer, whipping up the audience in singalongs. This show, despite having to leave to catch a late nighter (sadly), was the hands-down favourite of my trio of nights in Montreal. I pledge to be at every show she plays herein when we’re sharing a city.
The last artist of the night I saw at a dad-defying 11PM (that actually started after 11:30) was Richard Reed Perry‘s immersive concert, The Quiet River of Dust Vol. 2. The show itself was beyond the scope of any other performance at the Jazz Festival. In fact, there are few venues in the world that can accommodate a show like this, apart from the Satosphere at Société des Arts Technologiques. The Satosphere is a permanent modular dome with a diameter of 18 meters and height of 13 meters with 10 video projectors and 157 speakers behind curved walls of white metal mesh. The show consisted of Richard Reed Perry along with eight other musicians and a motion graphic designer. As the (very mellow) ambient music played, video of various bodies of running water was projected on the sphere. The performance itself was unusual in the sense that the audience took up the entirety of the room, mostly lying down on beanbag chaise longues, while the band was relegated to the edge of the dome. The feeling was that the band was in service to the audience but the visuals were the actual show. It was very interesting, but after a long day, it was finally time to call it a night.
The final night of my Festival International de Jazz de Montréal trip only had two shows in store. The first was Canadian blues legend, Colin James playing a double feature with global blues legend, Buddy Guy.
Here in Canada, James’ many crossover hits, like Five Long Years, Why’d You Lie and Voodoo Thang are rock radio standards that have ingratiated him to a wide audience. That was demonstrated at his Montreal appearance as the audience was filled with young and old, and some, in between who came just to dance. His set was tight, featuring his full band and acoustic numbers, some accompanied only by longtime harmonica player, Steve Marriner. James really shined on the covers he played, especially on Otis Rush’s It Takes Time and John Hammond’s Riding In The Moonlight. The latter holds a special place for James as he recalled that when he lived in Montreal at the age of 20, he won $50 twice playing the song at weekly Concordia talent shows. Other banter included his personal historical references to the city, recalling the venues he had played previously and the fact that his son now calls Montreal home during the school year. Another highlight of Colin James’ set was leading the audience in a successful call and answer during Freedom from his 1995 album Bad Habits.
Due to the next event and the late start of the Colin James/Buddy Guy show, I only got to see three songs from Guy. While it was a packed house for James’ set, it was clear that the crowd was most excited to see Buddy Guy. Fans flocked to the stage prior to the set to get autographs from his backing band, the Damn Right Blues Band. The band got started on Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues before introducing Buddy to the stage. Looking spry at 82, the polka-dotted Guy worked through the song with panache before ripping through I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man
My final show of the 40th Festival International de Jazz de Montréal featured New York art-rock legends, Mercury Rev. Happily, I got to see this show in its entirety and like the rest of the room, was not disappointed it was our last. For me, few bands that may have played the main stage to close the 40th FIJM could’ve pulled me away from this show. In fact, they would’ve done just fine on that huge TD Stage. Mercury Rev is among the vanguard of modern indie-psych pop along with bands like Spiritualized and The Flaming Lips (of which lead singer, Jonathan Donahue was once a member). While more active in the late nineties and early oughts, Donahue and partner, Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak, recently put out Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweetie Revisited this year. The album is a reimagination of the American singer-songwriter’s classic country soul album featuring female artists such as Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval, Margo Price, Phoebe Bridgers, Beth Orton and Lucinda Williams on vocals. Taking the darkened stage in the very intimate setting of L’Astral, Mercury Rev opened the night with The Funny Bird, from their groundbreaking 1998 album, Deserter’s Songs. The setlist of this evening arrived as a leftover of the album’s 20th-anniversary tour the band ran mostly through Europe in 2018. From this album, they additionally played Goddess on a Hiway, Holes, Opus 40 and Tonite It Shows. While ‘lush‘ is a well-worn word used to describe Mercury Rev’s music, Deserter’s Songs solidified that adjective into their sound. The shared smiles of the hundred or so watchers demonstrated this as well. Between songs, Donahue got a laugh when he wholeheartedly told the crowd that as a child, he imagined one day playing Montreal, not onstage, but alongside Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur. Keeping with the Canadian theme, the band played their only cover of the night, Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid. The cinematic, The Dark Is Rising closed the night. As the song crashed to a close, the band took their bows to loud cheers and applause.
Despite being midnight, thousands were still out enjoying the festival as I left L’Astral. I walked back to my hotel via the Heineken Stage, where Canadian Latin-jazz legends, Manteca were winding down the last of their three shows. Despite feeling like I knew what this festival was, having covered it the previous year, I marvelled at its many facets. It’s somewhat easy to take this event for granted if you live in Montreal (or are a mildly jaded music journalist). But when you pull the zoom back on this event, even with an understanding of how special it is, you find a hall of mirrors of continuing treasures that this city and festival offer. While there are cities that form the shape of a festival, there are fewer festivals that symbiotically help grow a city’s culture. There may be a chicken and egg scenario with Montreal and her jazz festival. How has this festival changed this city over its 40 years? While the Places Des Arts is a singularly beautiful cultural venue that has a large life for apart from the festival, the esplanade renovations that occurred in 2018 likely wouldn’t have been made without it. Would there be a Quartier des Spectacles without the FIJM? Without trying to unweave the impact the city and festival have on each other seeking an answer, more attention should be paid to its future. Will differences be noted next year as the Fest loses its founders? What Hub will be added in 2020 as the festival grows even larger? And of course, whom among your favourite artists will grace one of the many stages for one or more of the Jazz Festival’s 500 concerts? That’s the question that is the most important.
The 41st Festival International de Jazz de Montréal runs from June 25 to July 4, 2020. Start your plan soon. Hope to see you there!