Three Memorable Days at the 2018 Montréal  Jazz Festival

August 8, 2018 Updated: September 7, 2018

MONTREAL—Once more, the stars of jazz came out for the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (Montréal  Jazz Festival). For ten days, there was music from noon to 3 a.m. at about 40 venues, located in one concentrated walkable area: the Quartier des spectacles.

The festival offers virtually every kind of jazz, from Dixieland to fusion and blues and gospel, as well as rock, pop, and reggae performed by stars like Seal, Boz Scaggs, and Ziggy Marley and artists of every generation, from veterans like Benny Golson and Dave Holland to new luminaries like Cécile McLorin Salvant. Though the bigger names appear at concert halls and clubs where there is an admission charge, you can spend the entire day at excellent free outdoor concerts (including children’s shows) that provide satisfying and sometimes revelatory music.

Go to the festival once and, like me, you will want to return every year. For New Yorkers, Montréal  is especially appealing. A flight of a little over an hour and you are in a charming French-speaking city (where everyone also speaks English).

Because of my own schedule, I was able to attend only three days of the festival, but squeezed a lot of wonderful music into my visit.

Carla Bley is an important figure in jazz—a composer, arranger, bandleader, pianist—and a concert was scheduled to celebrate her 80th birthday.  Her husband, bass player Steve Swallow, was going to appear with her. A sudden illness prevented them from attending.

Nevertheless, the jazz festival has a deep bench and six pianists stepped in to play this complex music: Gentiane MG, Maria Fatima Rudolf, Helen Sung, Francois Bourassa, Marianne Trudel and Lorraine Desmarais. They performed Bley’s arrangements with the highly lauded big band: Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal , conducted by Christine Jensen. She was voted number one in two categories in the 2016 Downbeat Critics Poll: Rising Star–Arranger and Rising Star–Big Band (for the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra). Christine’s sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, performed a lovely duet with pianist Helen Sung. The two sisters played in their quintet with Sung the following day.

Bley’s pieces often have odd titles (for example, “Awful Coffee” and “Greasy Gravy”) and they often change mood and style of music (early jazz, swing, bebop and after) within a single work. The band members were given solos to show off their talents. Trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and tenor saxophonist David Bellemare were standouts in a first-class band.

The TD Grand Prix du Jazz was given this year to SHPIK, a Canadian band led by pianist and composer Arnaud Spick-Saucier. The other members of his group are bassist Étienne Dextraze, drummer Philippe Lussier-Baillargeon, and saxophone and flute player Alex Dodier. Their music (mostly acoustic with occasional electronics) is atmospheric (an effect also communicated by a smoke machine), sometimes resembling a movie soundtrack.

Some drummers form bands to show off their own drive and virtuosity (such as Buddy Rich). Others (like Paul Motian) concentrate more on the quality of the music and use their drums to comment and highlight their own music as part of an improvising group. Brian Blade, leader of the Fellowship Band, is clearly in the second group. A masterful percussionist, he has worked with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, among others.

Blade’s group has a unique sound, featuring two saxophonists, Melvin Butler on tenor and soprano sax and Myron Walden on alto sax, plus Chris Thomas on bass and Jon Cowherd on piano. There were no pieces that qualified as a blues or spiritual, but the influences of the traditions of African-American music came through with a deep spirituality. Fellowship is an appropriate name for the band.

In an interview, Blade once told me that he grew up in Louisiana and he would go to the music festivals, where he checked out all different varieties of music. This had an impact on his development as a drummer and leader. Some of the pieces came from the band’s “Landmarks” album, including “Her Friends Call Her Dot,” which he composed for his mother.

At the end of one number, a woman with a French accent exclaimed, “That was so beautiful.” The rest of the audience clearly agreed.

Before her set began, jazz pianist Renee Rosnes was given an award named for the most famous Canadian jazz musician, the late Oscar Peterson. Always a swinging pianist (who has played with James Moody, Joe Henderson and others), she has emerged in recent years as a composer of note. Her group is made up of master musicians: drummer Lenny White, bassist Robert Hurst, and vibraphonist Steve Nelson.

The tunes were written by Rosnes and previously appeared on her albums, “Beloved of the Sky” and “Written in the Rocks.” Rosnes can play lyrically, but also swings with abandon. The other band members each had a chance to shine.

Percussionist Zakir Hussain was given the Antonio Carlos Jobim Award just before his set with the great trio with bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter.

One new number was recently composed by Potter: “Island Theory,” inspired by the group’s travels. Hussain’s “J Bhai” (J Brother) was written to honor John McLaughlin, one of the many stars with whom he has played. The group performed with another Potter creation, “Good Hope” The encore seemed to be created on the spot with each of the trio members trying to surprise and amuse the others.

Although the above concerts all had an admission price, you could spend all afternoon and evening at free shows. Among the ones I enjoyed were The Wood Shredders, a multi-instrumentalist duo of “Sonny Boy Gumbo” Loiselle and Terry Joe Banjo, who play a mix of bluegrass, folk, Cajun and blues. They added a rockabilly feel to Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Crossroads.” The Festival also had free concerts by three distinctive vocalists: Jessie Reyez, Annie G. Roy, and Barbra Lica.

Located on the ground floor of the Maison du Festival is Le Blumenthal Restaurant, which serves delicious French cuisine. It was the best meal that I had during my stay in Montréal.  My lunch started with an octopus appetizer, followed by a main course of steak frites and ended with a delicious cheesecake. Aside from the superb food, your meal serves a good cause. All the proceeds (after expenses) go to the jazz festival.

I hope to return to the Montréal Jazz Festival next year.

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Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade.