The Montreal International Jazz Festival is one of my top three yearly festivals and this year, they really outdid themselves in celebrating their 39th year.
Happening from June 28 to July 7, the festival features over 500 performances from thousands of incredible artists from around the world, bringing a one-of-a-kind musical and cultural experience to Montreal.
In fact, it’s ranked as the world’s largest jazz festival in the Guinness World Records and the festival sees an excess of two million visitors annually.
I hopped in a brand new Genesis G70 sports sedan and did the quick five hour drive to Montreal for a few days to soak in the sounds, experiences and exciting atmosphere of the JazzFest.
My first concert was on opening day to experience the soulful Jill Barber, who coincidentally was born and raised in Mississauga; Port Credit to be exact. Delving into music via the folk-pop style, she’s successfully transitioned into the jazz scope over her recent records. Her 2008 jazz record, “Chances” saw her first jazz album and since then, she’s been nominated for multiple Juno awards, including a win for Contemporary Roots Album of the year in 2017.
Dressed in a sparkling silver dress, she and her talented band dazzled the audience with her sweet, savoury voice and a high level of engagement with the audience.
The performance took place at the intimate le Gesu ,which is one of my favourite concert spots in the city and for as popular as Barber is, using this specific venue for her was a smart choice.
Monty Alexander Trio
Friday saw the exciting and oh-so-fun Monty Alexander Trio at Monument-National, which was a 60 second walk from the wonderful Hôtel Faubourg, where I had the pleasure of staying during my four day visit.
Hailing from Kingston, Jamaica, Alexander still actively tours, has his name on nearly 100 records and is a powerhouse musician, being quite prolific on the piano.
The trio performed perfectly with a balance of uptempo tunes and slowed down ballads, with each member being able to take solos frequently throughout the performance.
The chord voicings, the harmonizing between members musically, the “zone” that they found themselves in for the audience was simply remarkable. They even managed to slip in some reggae-centric songs and did an awe-inspiring version of “No Woman No Cry” by fellow Kingston native, Bob Marley. Definitely a highlight moment for me this year.
On Saturday, I doubled down and took in two performances…well, three, really.
Opening up for the iconic Archie Shepp was Canadian jazz musician Wray Downes, accompanied by a stand up bassist and active and enthusiastic drummer. There was a clear synergy between the three as they played off each other, much to the excitement of the audience. There were two Oscar Peterson covers, one of which was “Open Spaces” and the other, “Wheatland” both beautifully performed by the trio. Downes often thanked the audience for the applause, which was a very nice touch and often mentioned his musicians by name to the nearly sold-out crowd.
Archie Shepp Quartet
Both Shepp and the aforementioned Downes played at the gorgeous, spacious Maison symphonique de Montréal.
As Shepp gingerly shuffled on stage, he was given a standing ovation even before a single note was produced by the 81 year old established saxophonist. Dressed in a grey suit and tie, fedora and shiny purple scarf, Shepp and co. dished out an array of toe-tappin’ jazz tunes from the heart.
While the band wasn’t quite a “powerhouse” of music, their approach was that of subtlety and mindful exclamation marks, sprinkled throughout the performance. Shepp did take some light vocals on a few tunes and his sax playing was relatively clear, save for a handful of lower notes that blended too closely with his talented bassist. He was active in presenting his band members several times and dipped into a bit of American history channeled through his grandmother and slavery.
Overall, it was an ear-tingling performance that supports Shepp as one of jazz music’s modern gems.
Back at le Gesu for my final show, the eclectic guitarist Marc Ribot and his "Songs of Resistance" were clearly politically charged throughout the night. Themes of racial division, war and current-day America were common themes Ribot rode through his long, energetic performance.
The music itself saw more upbeat, free-sung songs opposed to traditional structured songs, which was a nice change. As he barked his lyrics out, his thoroughly talented band set the framework for strong musical foundations. Interspersed were wild, cascading guitar solos where Ribot danced up and down the neck as his drummer/percussionist kept time (and did a few lovely solos of his own) while the stand up bassist locked up the rhythm section smartly and of course, the sax/flute player was, well, his high-energy playing was an ideal addition to this already exciting collection of musicians.
And so wraps up another memorable Montreal visit filled with music, excitement and all-out fun.
I'll be back for 2019 for sure and in the meantime, here's a gallery of images snapped by yours truly over my 100-ish hours in Montreal.