On the Scene: Montréal Jazz Fest Turns 40

This is the third consecutive year that my girlfriend Susan Lorenz and I have journeyed up to Montréal to experience the fun and pageantry of the Montréal Jazz Fest (aka Festival International de Jazz de Montréal), the biggest annual jazz festival in the world.  Two million people reportedly flock there every year, and it’s easy to see why.  Between the combination of free outdoor events large and small and a variety of indoor concerts, there’s something to see every day. Oftentimes, you’ll be stuck making a decision between two shows that are going on at the same time, which can admittedly be a challenge. With so much to do and explore within the city, the whole event can make for a magical experience.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the festival, and it was the last that its co-founders André Ménard and Alain Simard were at the helm. My interview with Ménard follows after my wrap-up. Jazz Fest took place between June 27 and July 6 this year.

On my first day there, I checked out the acclaimed Joshua Redman Quartet, who I was first exposed to at the festival’s press preview in NYC earlier in the spring.  The consummate saxophone player leads a band of talented musicians who have been playing together for 20 years and are completely in sync.  When each of them got a chance to solo, Redman would step to the side of the stage and let the focus turn to them.  While his saxophone solo drew a rapturous standing ovation from the audience of nearly 1,500 people, his bandmates also deservedly received plenty of applause. His drummer Gregory Hutchinson is especially amazing and operates on a level beyond most kit players. Prior to the show, Ménard bequeathed Redman with the festival’s annual Miles Davis Award, and the sax player gave a heartfelt speech of acceptance to the audience, noting that many of the past winners have been major influences on him.

At the same time, Susan was checking out Bryan Adams’ headlining set at the Bell Centre. He was her first concert back in the eighties, so it was refreshing for her to see him in a home country environment playing a set of hits partially selected by fans. Adams elated the nearly sold-out crowd with tunes like “Run To You,” “Kids Wanna Rock,” “Summer of ’69,” and “One Night Love Affair,” plus the expected ballads. He made her think of him as the Bruce Springsteen of Canada, “a hometown boy making them proud,” she says, “playing straight up rock ‘n’ roll and showing them how it’s done.”

Over the course of our stay, we experienced three nights of gypsy jazz in the main amphitheater of Le Gesù, a live venue in a church with beautiful stonework and an intimate vibe. First off came French guitarist Biréli Lagrène, an incredibly talented acoustic player who does more with two hands than most guitarists. Pulling from jazz, folk, blues, and beyond, he frequently improvised and even quoted famous songs like “The Entertainer” and “All The Things You Are”. I was immensely impressed with his prowess, as was the audience. I guarantee you have not witnessed a player like him.

On the second night, we saw Stephane Wrembel, who played solo and with a three-piece backing band in a program called “The Django Experiment”. While he is known for various covers interpretations of music by gypsy jazz progenitor Django Reinhardt, the talented and agile Wrembel has branched out into original compositions including “Bistro Fada” and “Carbon 14,” which he performed. I also learned that his playing is influenced by Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. His Jazz Fest set started off deceptively slow and mellow, but it grew more intense as it evolved. He delivered the goods.

For the third night, we imbibed the sounds of the quintet The Django All-Stars, and they certainly invoked that iconic player, even leading the audience in a call and response chorus during the song “Chez Django”. The group is playful, humorous, and knows how to interact with a crowd. They got us on their side pretty quickly. That was one show we had to leave a tad early in order to make it to Alan Parsons on time.

Gypsy jazz has a very distinct sound, and while over the course of three nights certain rhythms, motifs, and melodic ideas became familiar, the music is very emotional, sprightly, and something that more American ears should be exposed to. For each of the three concerts at Le Gesù, the performers spoke to the audience mostly in French. One annoyed concertgoer joked during Wrembel’s set, “Thanks for the English.” You’re in the French Canadian province of Québec, dude. Deal with it. The music is the important thing.

On the rock side of things, I checked out The Alan Parsons Project, a classic rock octet whose leader has enlisted seven younger members to keep his musical legacy alive. I was casually familiar with the man’s music over the years, but it was great to actually experience it in concert. It combines elements of prog along with classic rock, and it was really refreshing to see him with a band in which all the members can sing vocal harmonies. While Parsons is best known in the States for the hits “Eye In The Sky” and “Games People Play,” other songs resonated with the audience including the grand instrumental “Luciferama,” a variation on “Lucifer” which included parts from “Mammagamma”.

I also witnessed Canadian pop and jazz vocal legend Molly Johnson command the main TD Stage. She is certainly a spontaneous performer. In fact, I bumped into her in the hotel elevator (going up) a mere 15 minutes prior to showtime! By the time I got to the outdoor gig, Johnson was generously allowing her three bandmates—including talented drummer Larnell Lewis, whose own set I only caught the last few minutes of previously—to each perform an instrumental composition they had written. Then the sassy vocalist returned to sing her heart out. I did not get to watch enough of her—once again, so many things going on—but I enjoyed her presence and will hopefully catch more of her in the future.

The final concert of the trip was Holly Cole, a charismatic Canadian torch singer who can take subdued numbers and make them smolder with both sensuality and emotionality. She played a two-part set, changing attire from a cabaret look to a slightly more goth appearance. Cole performed a combination of originals, standards, and covers (including Tom Waits and Amy Winehouse), and she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand the entire time. One of the tunes, about getting over a lover, took a deliciously dark turn. This was her final show of a four night sold-out run at the Cabaret Lion D’Or, and she did not disappoint. I suspect live recordings of these shows may have been made. Stay tuned.

The diversity displayed by these different groups shows why Montréal Jazz Fest is a popular destination. To outsiders or newbies, it might seem a little odd that many pop, rock, international, and blues groups get included in the mix, but simply keeping things to jazz would not make the event as popular. In some cases, the audiences for jazz, blues, and international cross over. If one compares this to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, which takes place around the same time, a majority of the headliners there fall into the pop and rock realm. Montréal remains more of a jazz and blues bonanza.

“In our case, jazz had to remain at the center of the festival,” Ménard told me during our 15-minute interview in the press lounge. “As early as 1982, we had African music and salsa. In terms of pop music, New Orleans had Katy Perry this year. We don’t. Bryan Adams is probably the furthest we’ve gone [out of jazz], but he’s a Canadian icon and written many classics. We’ve had Bob Dylan and Sting without any reservation.”

Ménard is not a musician and has never played a single note of music, but music moved him to start the festival. He was obsessed with music in high school, and as a parent he later made his three kids learn music at an early age. “They could read music before reading words,” he says.

He is also connected to rock music, having booked Lemmy’s final gig with Hawkwind in 1975 and also having brought Voivod to Montréal’s iconic and now defunct Spectrum venue for a sold out, two-night run in 1986 before they became a bigger name band. Ménard actually booked the Canadian thrashers this year to do a one-off show at Club Soda with the five-piece horn section called Les Métaux (“The Metals”) prior to my arrival. Voivod are the first headbangers to play Montréal Jazz Fest.

Beyond music, there is a democratic principle at work with Montréal Jazz Fest. Its free concerts are meant to be all-inclusive, with an unemployed person likely to rub shoulders with an executive. The festival has also spawned families. Ménard recalls that for their 25th year, they asked couples who met there and started families to send in photos.

“We thought we would get 10 or 20,” recalls Ménard. “It was in the hundreds. Socially, [Jazz Fest] has come to embody what Montréal is culturally, being at the crossroads of America and Europe with all the ethnic communities here. They can commune to the same place and have a party together. We’ve never had a single fistfight at the festival over 40 years.”

One of the most memorable performances for Ménard was by Prince, who played two shows at the 2,300 capacity venue Metropolis in 2011. Perhaps irked by a local critic who thought it was opportunistic for the festival to book him, the Purple One chose to open for himself in disguise. He took the stage with one other band member, “and he played one hour of free style, totally improvised music with almost no lights onstage,” recalls Ménard. “Some people walked out incensed, and then he came back to the stage much quicker [than expected]. He said, ‘Who was that guy playing that shit? We’re here to play rock ‘n’ roll.’” Then he played a rare set of all hits. “It added up to so much magic.”

While his time as co-founder and artistic director of the festival has come to a close, Ménard will undoubtedly be returning in the future. “I’m looking forward to coming as a tourist,” he says. “I’m already dressed like a tourist.” He and Simard have earned the right to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their hard and passionate labor like the rest of us do.