Montreal Jazz Fest: Hailing the Return of One of the World’s Great Jazz Gatherings

Hear that, in the distance? It’s getting closer. Now it’s within earshot and in sight, just two days away.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival once again will make Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles — the city’s major cultural district, dominated by the sprawling Place des Arts, the largest such complex in Canada — resonate with the sounds of endless musical performances and hundreds of thousands of concertgoers.

The festival, which opens Thursday and continues through July 9, is a welcome return for an event with an annual budget of $24 million, and said to have an economic impact of nearly $48.5 million.

Since the festival’s 40th-anniversary celebration in 2019, those streets have mostly been filled with the sounds of silence, or, rather, typical city life. The district’s soundtrack has been defined by pedestrian traffic and car horns, but little in the way of trumpets, saxophones, trombones or rhythm-section instruments.

That, of course, is because pandemic-related closures and travel restrictions made it impossible to put on the fest, traditionally held during the end of June and beginning of July. Instead, organizers presented a four-day, Montreal-focused “Jazz is in the Air” online event in 2020, and last September offered a truncated 41st edition — about 30 acts — absent of international artists.

This summer, though, the music is back with a vengeance, with the fest’s first full edition since 2019. “I think people have been absolutely starving for this for a few years: a party for the soul,” Maurin Auxéméry, the fest’s director of programming, told the Montreal Gazette in March.

With 350 or so performances held over 10 days at a variety of theaters, clubs and outdoor stages, Montreal’s fest is one of the largest and most impressive events of its kind in the world. Two-thirds of the shows are free.

Jazz superstars on the order of bass guitar virtuoso Marcus Miller (returning this year) and pianist Herbie Hancock (2019; my review) and emerging artists alike typically turn in inspired one-off concerts or participate in multi-show residencies. And venues also play host to blues, world music and gospel artists, along with acts representing pop, hip-hop and many other genres.

Tickets sales are nearly as robust as they were in the days before the start of the 2019 event, Auxéméry told Jazzlands on Monday. That edition reportedly notched 1.5 and 2 million entries to the festival site. 

Among many shows unique to the festival, Auxéméry said, are the three-night runs by two gifted drummers. Makaya McCraven, a Paris native based in Chicago, will be joined by singer and songwriter Madison McFerrin, daughter of Bobby McFerrin (June 30), guitarist Jeff Parker, vibraphonist Joel Ross and trumpeter Marquis Hill (July 1), and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (July 2). Terri Lyne Carrington will collaborate with Philadelphia poet and musician Moor Mother (July 4), pianist Aaron Parks (July 5) and the Art of Living Featuring (pianist) Kris Davis (July 6). Both series will be held at one of the fest’s most intimate and most acoustically pleasing venues — Gesu, a gorgeous 425-seat theater in the basement of a stone Catholic church that dates to 1865.

Coltrane, whose quartet was one of the highlights of the 2019 fest, will also present “Cosmic Music,” a July 3 program saluting his late legendary parents, John and Alice Coltrane. It’s a double bill with Brazilian bandolin master Hamilton de Holanda. American-born Montreal singer, actor and TV host Ranee Lee will take on Celine Dion‘s repertoire on closing night (July 9).

Singer Dominique Fils-Aimé, pianist and composer Jean-Michel Blais, indie-rock band Clay and Friends, experimental soul group Chiiild, rootsy folk and blues singer-guitarist Mélissa Laveaux, and electronic musician and producer CRi are among the other Canadian stand-outs on the bill, Auxéméry said.

Aficionados of jazz and jazz-adjacent music will also be drawn to performances by Wynton Marsalis, leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; singers Cecile McLorin Salvant, Gregory Porter and Giacomo Gates (separately); omnipresent bassist and broadcaster Christian McBride; fusion guitar master Al Di Meola; Brazilian pianist-singer Eliane Elias; bass guitarist Meshell Ndegeocello; Israeli-born bassist Avishai Cohen; singer Dee Dee Bridgewater‘s duo with pianist Bill Charlap; long-running vocal group The Manhattan Transfer; and trumpeter and flugelhorn player Ingrid Jensen with the Orchestre National de jazz de Montreal, and (separately) leading a quintet with her sister, saxophonist Christine Jensen.

More: Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah; Guitarist Julian Lage‘s trio featuring bassist Scott Colley and drummer Dave King of The Bad Plus; singer Holly Cole; pianists Robert Glasper, Marc Copland, Tord Gustavsen, and Jean-Michel Pilc (separately); the (guitarist) Mike Rud & (saxophonist) Joel Frahm Quartet; saxophonist David Binney + drummer Louis Cole; the Brubeck Brothers Quartet; Pink Martini; Brazilian-oriented singer Bebel Gilberto; pianist Christian Sands; drummer Ari Hoenig; a group led by famed studio bassist Pino Palladino and guitarist Blake Mills; jazz/electronic band Gogo Penguin; Samara Joy, the fast-rising twentysomething singer from the Bronx; and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio.

The big outdoor TD Stage will be home to several major free-admission nighttime shows, kicking off June 30 with Australian singer-songwriter and one-woman band Tash Sultana and continuing with neo soul and R&B singer Corinne Bailey Rae (July 1), on her first tour in more than 5 years, celebrated L.A. saxophonist Kamasi Washington (July 2), Montreal’s Jireh Gospel Choir (July 3), soul singer Lee Fields, now 72 (July 4), Denver R&B, rock and soul outfit Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (July 5), and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” hip-hop royalty The Roots (July 9).

The fest is nothing if not eclectic: Cedric Burnside (July 8) will inject some Mississippi Delta-rooted guitar blues into the goings-on. A bit of post-punk will also pop up, with England’s The Psychedelic Furs (july 9) sharing a double bill with L.A.’s revered cult band X. And ascendant Swedish pop favorite Léon (July 3) is in the mix, too.

Philip Booth, a writer and bass player based in Tampa, Florida, covers music, film and the arts for Jazziz, JazzTimes, Relix, Jazzlands, Philip’s Flicks and other publications. He was the pop music critic for the late, great Tampa Tribune, and also has contributed to The Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times, Billboard, Variety, and DownBeat, as well as several academic journals. The 42nd edition of the fest marks his seventh visit to Montreal to write about the event for various press outlets.
Follow: @twitter.com/PBoothMedia

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