Imagine leaving a John Scofield show early to catch the end of a John McLaughlin show. That event, bailing out on one of the greatest living guitarists in the world to see another one of the greatest living guitarists in the world, defined the frantic pace of the 22nd annual Festival International De Jazz De Montreal.
Jazzfest in Montreal has been called the best jazz festival in the world by heavy-hitters like Tony Bennett, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny. From June 28 th to July 8 th , more than five-hundred concerts took place by over two-thousand musicians from twenty countries. The audiences fell somewhere in the realm from respectful to adoring. The venues vary from renovated churches to small rooms in museums to clubs abutting the red light stretch of St. Catherine Street. The only things the rooms had in common besides a common geographical area were excellent sight lines and superb acoustics.
Montreal knows how to party and she goes all out for this signature event. The nucleus of the festival is a massive outdoor stage where free concerts are given. A radius of surrounding blocks is roped off to automobile traffic so pedestrians can revel without restriction. One can also enjoy open containers of wine or the famously strong Canadian beer in this zone as well.
The free concerts, held on a handful of outdoor stages besides the central one, offered a more populist experience than the ticketed performances but were no less compelling. In fact, many acts begin a relationship with the festival by playing for free and then graduate to the paid gigs. As a result, the free concerts offer a preview of tomorrow’s stars playing to impress and succeeding. I would often have to drag myself away from an act I had never heard of (like S.O.U.L. or Avalon Motel) to go see a more established artist I had a ticket for. The free shows were invariably fun as the crowds always provided a cosmopolitan troupe of dancers to watch if the musicians weren’t in view.
The depth and breadth of talent in the venues, however, demanded attention. Performers like Wynton Marsalis flew the flag of traditional jazz with a fourteen piece ensemble while the local duo known as Detention played a set that had more in common with Sonic Youth than Louis Armstrong. Sultry singers like Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, and Patricia Barber offered romance and melancholy while Femi Kuti and Antibalas teamed up for a dream Afro-beat double bill. When inviting acts, festival coordinators have a “more the merrier” philosophy that welcomes artists as diverse as Prince, Steel Pulse, and George Thorogood to take part in the celebration. A whole series of free blues shows held after midnight gave further evidence of this spirit of inclusion.
The elegance and grace of vocalist Jimmy Scott left me wondering why he’s not a bigger star. Due to a hereditary condition, his voice sounds more like a woman’s than a man’s.and what a voice! He enthralled with a set that included Gershwin’s Embraceable You , Lennon’s Jealous Guy , and Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Jimmy Scott is a treasure and was appropriately revered by generations of fans that were lucky enough to seem him in this, the twilight of his career.
Medeski, Martin, and Wood offered an experience at the other end of the jazz spectrum. They noodled and jammed with seeming abandon but never lost the groove driven by keyboardist John Medeski. DJ Logic on turntables added ambience and an enjoyable, if ultimately unnecessary, rhythmic edge. Their adventurous, danceable, and sweaty performance would have made Sun Ra smile and Duke Ellington raise an eyebrow. John Scofield joined them for a glorious finale including Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic.
The following night, Scofield, who recorded 1998’s “A Go Go” using MMW as a backing group, played his own headlining set. Now approaching fifty years old, John is a tasteful virtuoso whose been incorporating funk and rock into his sound for decades. (He also plays nylon-string acoustic guitars wickedly.) During the time I was there, I got to see John lay down plenty of meaty hooks with an electric that would have kept me riveted all night if it wasn’t for Mr. McLaughlin calling.
McLaughlin and tabla master Zakir Hassain recently got back together after a twenty-five year hiatus and have been playing under the billing of Remember Shakti. I felt somewhat disrespectful walking into the venue a bit late where the cross-legged performers were giving a joyful and spiritually uplifting performance. The fusing of traditional Indian music and jazz is a challenging proposition for those of us who were raised with a backbeat but ultimately a very rewarding one. The number of fully attained, distinct notes that McLaughlin can attain in flourishes is staggering and his interplay with Hassain and two other percussionists attained breathtaking peaks that encapsulated the passion and expression that made this year’s Jazzfest an unforgettable experience.
– Eric Holland