merchants: L’Orchestra Internationale du Vetex.
June 25-July 6
The Montreal Jazz Festival is commonly hyped as the largest
and best jazz festival in the world. That well may be so—after
the four days I spent at the Festival last week I can say
it is mind-blowing, it is immense, it is intoxicating, and
it’s in Montreal. What more do you need?
Now in its 31st year, the festival is spread out over almost
two weeks from late June to early July. The Festival locus
is the Place des Arts, a roughly eight-city-block expanse
smack in the middle of Montreal; there are a couple big modern
buildings there, housing a number of big theaters and auditoriums,
and a ton of open space where a half-dozen very large outdoor
stages are spread out. Admission to the festival is free,
and there are hundreds of free shows on the six large outdoor
stages and a number of smaller stages; there’s even a small
wooden dance stage built into the sidewalk that was busy every
time I walked past it. And then there are hundreds more ticketed
shows in theaters, auditoriums, clubs, and cafes either inside
or a stone’s throw from the Place des Arts.
The festival is extremely well laid out: Even with tens of
thousands of folks milling around, one can quickly scope out
the entire festival grounds, even with a lot of construction
going on. Next year, when the work is done, the layout will
be even better.
Food and drink are everywhere—Heineken is a major sponsor,
so there are “jazz bars” every 10 feet or so, there are food
vendors selling these serious hot dogs everywhere, and outdoor
cafes overlooking the outdoor stages throughout the festival.
I stood in very few lines for anything, and, remarkably, nobody
was charging “festival prices.” Livin’ is easy at the Montreal
Of course, the frosting on all of this is that the festival
takes place in the heart of Montreal, one of the world’s great
cities. There are hundreds of hotels near the Festival (mine
was two blocks away), and there are insanely good restaurants
of all types everywhere. And as the festival doesn’t really
crank up in earnest until the evening, afternoons are a time
to explore Montreal. To make that easy, the city has a municipal
bicycle system: hundreds of computerized bike racks holding
thousands of bikes. For $5 a day, you get unlimited bike usage
for 24 hours. I biked to all these restaurants recommended
by my Facebook friends and ate like a freakin’ prince. Heaven.
OK. The music? Well, as is the case with most “jazz” festivals
of any magnitude, this is really a generic music festival,
with major headline acts that tend towards the banal, like
Steve Miller and Lionel Richie. Below that is a wild variety
of world music, hip-hop, folk, some rock, and a whole lot
of other things that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with
jazz. In the course of 12 hours, I saw three (count ’em) strolling
“gypsy” bands. But, then, there is a ton of jazz going
on if you look for it, and what makes the Montreal Jazz Festival
so special is that you don’t have to drill down very far to
find real substance, whatever the genre. This is a very thoughtfully
and tastefully curated festival, and even the most jaded muso
can zero in to the source playing something somewhere here.
My highlights included the first half of the John Zorn Masala
Marathon, an explosion of Zorn’s experimental “Jewish music,”
featuring downtown heavies like guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist
Uri Caine, cellist Eric Friedlander, and trumpeter Dave Douglas.
Lyrical, challenging, varied, centered, and fun. I missed
Zorn’s other big show, with pals Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed,
an amalgam of Zorn’s old No Wave noise projects and Reed’s
Metal Machine Music. Apparently, the show wasn’t marketed
particularly accurately (a rare misstep for festival organizers)
and a goodly number of the 3,000-strong audience thought they
were gonna hear medleys of old Velvets tunes, or something.
The “Lous” turned fairly quickly to “boos,” reportedly causing
Zorn to scream, “If you don’t like this music, you can fucking
leave!” Now that would have been something to see.
Anyway, another brilliant show was the impromptu trio of drummer
Manu Katche, bassist Richard Bona and guitarist Sylvian Luc.
Montreal Jazz has this delightful habit of mashing up talent
like this—each of these supremely gifted folks was headlining
with his own group elsewhere—and this show, in a small grotto
concert hall in the basement of an ancient church, was an
hour of improvised groove nirvana, good humor, and dazzling
On the outdoor free stages I saw LC-33, a Colombian salsa
group who were spectacular; Brooklyn’s Slavic Soul Party,
who were annoying; L’Orchestra Internationale du Vetex, a
young, scraggly Quebequois hippie-gypsy band, who were brilliant
and everything Slavic Soul Party weren’t; Wop Pow Wow, some
sort of misguided Canadian conceptual world-music group that
I never want to think about again; Beast, a Montreal trip-hop
group, who tried hard but didn’t do it for me; Caravan Paradise,
a Parisian techno group who did do it for me (and 100,000
other screaming people) in a big way; Grace Kelly, the teenage
Bostonian saxophonist and singer, who quietly ruled; and Chicago
Goes West, a young trio from Calgary who Friday afternoon
took over the biggest outdoor stage at the Place des Arts,
and with all the calm in the world, reminded the massive crowd
what jazz is.
But for me the most fun was seeing the “Queen of Rockabilly,”
Wanda Jackson, with her backing band, the Capital Region’s
own Lustre Kings. Wanda played to a packed house in this cool
nightclub right in the center of the festival—the kind of
club that you see in gangster movies, never in real life—and
she utterly killed. And what fun to see Mark and Chops and
the boys doing what they do so well, what they do for us all
the time, in front of hundreds of ravenous fans. It was nuts.
Wanda’s on the comeback trail with an upcoming Jack White-produced
album, and she’s dragging the Kings along with her. If this
show was any indication, this comeback will have legs.
Sometimes we have to be reminded that this wonderful city
is a mere four-hour drive away. And with events like this,
so utterly well-conceived and -run, so fun and life-affirming,
so affordable, it should be a crime to stay home. See
you there next year.