Words and photos by Aron Harris
This year marked the 39th iteration of Le Festival Internationale de Jazz de Montréal. Since its inception in 1980, this festival has never been short on stars, from within the jazz scene and outside it. That first year featured Chick Corea as well as Ray Charles. Each year since, the lineups have continually impressed and entertained. An estimated 2 million visitors, 3,000 performers and hundreds of accredited media descend upon 20 venues in or near Le Quartier Des Spectacle for ten days centred on the end of June and beginning of July. This operational monolith is seemingly effortlessly run by over 1,000 staff and volunteers. Perhaps because of FIJM, Montréal is considered ‘la ville des festivals’. Fitting this title, their Quartier Des Spectacle is one of its chief locales. The area was constructed in 2009 to serve not only the jazz festival but also over 40 events and festivals per year.
In a brief conversation with esteemed NYC jazz radio personality and Downbeat writer, Michael Bourne, when asked, he confirmed that not only was Montréal’s the largest jazz festival in the world but that he considered it the best. Above his stature in the scene, he’s considered FIJM royalty and only due to health reasons missed a single festival since his first in 1992. I’ll take his word as law.
This year hosted jazz greats from Al Di Meola to Zakir Hussain. In between, were dozens of internationally recognized artists like Archie Shepp, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Bobby McFerrin, Brian Blade, Dave Holland, Dennis Chambers, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Herbie Hancock, John Medeski, Kamasi Washington, Marc Ribot, Mark Guiliana, Molly Johnson, Randy Brecker, Snarky Puppy, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Krantz. And within this impressive lineup lived another large group of not-quite-so-internationally-recognized, but brilliant and innovative jazz players too long to list. To call this festival ‘well-curated’ is an understatement of monumental proportions. Without further hyperbole, you can come to Montréal at any time during the ten days of the festival’s run, buy a ticket to a venue show or stroll up to one of many free stages and be entirely dazzled by any performance at random. You can look at any one of the festival’s ten days and find several top ticket shows, any singular one you’d be dying to see anywhere else in the world. You don’t need to be a cat with chops and possess an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone from Eubie Blake to Robert Glasper. All you need to bring is an open mind and a love of music.
As mentioned off the top, the Montréal Jazz Festival has always featured non-jazz acts as well, from Tom Waits in 1981 to Toots and the Maytals in 1990, Thievery Corporation in 1999 to Elvis Costello in 2003. Bob Dylan was the headliner in both 2007 and 2017. Sting in 2000, Leonard Cohen in 2008, Snoop Dogg in 2014, Robert Plant in 2011, Cat Power in 2016, Erykah Badu in 2015, Stevie Wonder in 2015 and 2009, the latter attracting a record crowd estimated to be around 200,000. All this to say that boiling down Montréal as a jazz festival is only telling a small portion of its story. Along with the bands, there’s the many famous live albums recorded at the festival, the Concours de Jazz competition which awards Canada’s best newcomer jazz artist via the Stingray Rising Stars Award and the TD Grand Jazz Award which helps launch a fan-chosen act’s jazz career with cash and an invite to the following year. As well, FIJM welcomes not only all ages with a vibrant childrens’ area, it also is greatly accessible.
My schedule only allowed me to catch the last weekend of the festival. A quick look at the performance calendar showed me that my best focus would be on what I called the pop acts of the festival. I caught several jazz performances on the outdoor stages, but beginning on the Friday I arrived, there were three stunning pop shows to catch.
The first was a band that I found perusing the FIJM website. It took all of 30 seconds before I clicked the favourite button (a must-have feature on the web and app to help plan your festival hours wisely)
Raveen is an electronic soul-pop act from Montréal founded by producer/keyboardist/vocalist Eric Seguin, bassist/producer Stokely Diamantis and drummer Peter Colantonio. They quietly came onstage in the cozy upstairs room of MTELUS accompanied by a 2 piece string section and after a soft hello, launched into a set of their sweet and melancholic songs. Seguin’s voice falls somewhere between Paul Young and José González, lilting and gliding, but emotive and evocative. The music of Raveen is gentle and decidedly guitar-free. There are moments of ambient drums and keyboards and ethereal vocals before it all slips back into a song with a pop foundation. Seguin was a shy banterist but focused behind the mic.
Later that night, in the large room of MTELUS, for her second sold out show of the festival, 26-year-old French pop star, Jain played to a rowdy cheering crowd. Opening the show with On My Way from her upcoming sophomore release, Souldier, the chanteuse bounced across the stage in her standard red and blue (and white Nikes to complete the Tricolour) paramilitary jumpsuit. Leaning mostly on new tracks, to the delight of the all-ages crowd, released singles Star and Alright were sung along. The audience was filled with a rainbow of faces, young and hip to moms dancing with their children. If there’s an aspect of Jain’s appeal it’s how unabashedly her fans span a wide spectrum. A case in point is my own home where my daughter and I share a love of her first album, Zaneka. Addressing the crowd to loud cheers showed the first of many embarrassing recurrences made aware during my time in Montréal where I found myself wishing I had tried harder to become conversational in French in school. Everyone I encountered, from artist to staff to festival goer, who spoke to me in French, quickly switched to English when I apologized for being unconversant. Jain herself, when I asked her about her influences on this album responded in eloquent English that American hip-hop impacted these new songs, along with French electro and Eastern Arabian sounds picked up during her time living in Dubai. She said she chose to blend the sounds to tell a story of her own, to perhaps move a bit away from the deep-set African sounds that so dominate her first album. Not only influenced by her Malagasy mother, Jain (back when she was still just Jeanne Galice) learned songcraft while living in the Congo. While the newer songs were appreciated, the familiar songs of her first album garnered the loudest cheers. Namely, Come, Mr. Johnson and Makeba, the latter which closed the night. Jain touched down for one more show before hitting a handful of European festival slots. Her new album arrives on August 24th, while her North American tour starts in October including Canadian stops in Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal.
Racing out of the Jain show and around the corner to Club Soda brought me to an eagerly anticipated performance by New Zealand singer, Kimbra. The graceful singer/keyboardist first had her accompanists, a duo of keyboardists lay some sounds before she strolled out in a sequined gown. She stepped to centre stage and took control at her command post of synths and controllers as the opening notes of Version of Me played. A powerfully quiet song that allowed her to come out of the gates strong. The beat of Hi Def Distance Romance started and the crowd started dancing, as did Kimbra. Her voice was one of the strongest I heard at the festival and it was stunning to see the impact of her soaring vocal on an audience. She often spoke to the audience en francais, again making me feel bad that I can barely order a falafel in French. The night featured almost entirely music from her latest album Primal Heart including closer, the vocoder-thick, solo piece, Real Life.
On the main stage, Scène TD, was Megative, a meld of not just punk, reggae and dare I say, ska but also The Stills’ Tim Fletcher and, Me, Mom & Morgantaler’s Gus Van Go. Adding the dub and sound system style of Scratchy Dan, I heard a bulb light up when I thought that this may be what Big Audio Dynamite would’ve sounded like if Joe Strummer was a member as well as Mick Jones. Political through and through, leaving no question of which side they stand in the class war, they made sure the audience listened. The songs were dark and they made no apologies. And yet, people danced and I loved them. They closed out a busy night one for me, night nine for everyone else.