Montréal jazz festival 2019

Among which Tord Gustavsen, Antonio Sanchez, Chucho Valdés, Roberto Fonseca, Melissa Aldana, Richard Galliano and a lot of anniversaries

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Melissa Aldana at Montréal 2019. Photo by Alexanne Brisson

Remember that feeling that crept over you the first time you stepped into a big-box toy store as a child? Well, that’s just the feeling to expect the first time you attend what is claimed to be the world’s largest jazz festival, held in Montréal.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of an event which has welcomed a whole series of jazz stars – including Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis and Montréal native Oscar Peterson. The festival spanned 11 days, with free outdoor concerts and many indoor venues, most of which were concentrated at the famous Place des Arts. Despite mainly starring North American artists, the festival painted a broad and varied picture of today’s jazz scene.

This year is also an anniversary for the German label ECM, and four carefully selected artists represented the label at the festival, among them Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen. You couldn’t have asked for a better venue to host the ECM gigs than the Théâtre Gesù, a mid-sized space built inside a church and known for its dazzling acoustics. Little wonder, then, that the Norwegian trio succeeded in delivering gorgeous sound throughout what could arguably be characterised as a musical communion before a rapt congregation. Together with his two compatriots, Gustavsen supplemented a set featuring his own compositions with some brilliantly adapted Bach, calling the musical giant a famous“Buddhist”, in full control of his emotions and interior life as previously quoted by Zhu Xiao Mei, the classical piano player and Bach specialist.

Effendi Records, a fine specimen of Quebecois jazz, also reached a milestone in 2019. Over the last 20 years, founder and bassist Alain Bédard has produced 156 records and organised 1,321 concerts. The label’s big birthday was marked in joyful chorus at L’Astral, a club hosting Quebecois bands at six every evening. The double bass player chose one of his two main projects for his concert: The Jazzlab. Originally named Effendi Jazzlab, the eight-member band includes names like pianist François Bourassa, trumpet player Serge Kuba-Séguin, saxophone player Samuel Blais and drummer Michel Lambert. Some of the musicians also had their own bands featured at the festival, like Serge Kuba-Séguin with his project, Immigration. The phenomenon of immigration plays a central, positive role in the Canadian economy, and as a descendant of Polish immigrants, the trumpet player had good reason to select this theme for his latest work, which he’d showcased at L’Astral a few days earlier. 

Was it mere chance that Antonio Sanchez’s Migration project featured at the festival as well? The Mexican drummer, granted US citizenship barely three years ago, explained how lucky he felt to have migrated legally to the US. While Sanchez lit up the stage of Théâtre Maisonneuve with lengthy compositions often reminiscent of his Pat Metheny period, other Latin American virtuosos shared the even bigger Maison Symphonique de Montréal. Both venues form part of the prestigious Place des Arts.

Colombian harp player Edmar Castaneda, who opened for Paco de Lucia at the festival in 2011, gave an outstanding performance with his trio and his wife as a guest vocalist. They were followed by Cuban maestro Chucho Valdés and his latest Jazz Batá project. Is there anything left to be said about this living Cuban legend (who will turn 80 in just two years)? For sure, Chucho Valdés and his crew will never let you down.

Cuban pianists as an ilk are simply extraordinary, and we must be grateful to the organisers for inviting Roberto Fonseca on three consecutive nights to the Théâtre Gesù, where he treated us to three totally diverse sets. The best of the bunch may have been his solo performance, delivered with theatrical flair (it is a theatre after all) from a stage set made to look like his home. The Cuban pianist kept his audience captivated throughout, but especially when playing to a recording of his mother. From farther down the South American continent, young Chilean saxophone player Melissa Aldana (discovered by Danilo Pérez in a Santiago jazz club) featured her latest project, centered around famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. She is definitely a musician to follow, and not just for the swing in her hip when she blows the horn.

For obvious reasons, the Montreal Jazz Festival maintains strong ties with France, and through the years some French musicians have become good friends with the organisers, among them Richard Galliano. The celebrity jazz accordion player was invited to open the festival for the 15th time on 26 June, with a double concert that kicked off in a reunion with the no less renowned double-bass veteran Ron Carter. Within his impressive discography, the Dreyfus album Panamanhattan, recorded with Ron Carter in 1990, stands among his best works to date. To see the two reunited on stage almost 20 years after their historic recording was a treat no jazz aficionado would miss – not to mention the tribute to Michel Legrand that followed. Accompanied by a string quartet, Richard Galliano delivered spot-on renderings of Legrand’s cinematic compositions.

Another French accordion player, Vincent Peirani, hypnotised the crowd at the Gesù with his Living Being quintet. In this versatile exercise mingling original compositions and the daring arrangements of Purcell and Led Zeppelin, the tall, barefooted man was laudably supported by his close ami, soprano saxophone player Emile Parisien. Among others, that concert formed part of the night-time sessions fuelling each evening of the festival to its resolution.

Those who still believe culture is a losing business should scan the books of the Montréal Jazz Festival. Its impressive budget generates millions in tax revenue for the Quebec and Canadian government, and each year it draws crowds of a few hundred thousand people, US residents in particular.

After 40 years of intensive involvement and over 16,000 concerts, festival founders André Ménard and Alain Simard have decided to hand on the tradition. Spectra, the company in charge of the festival, was sold in 2013 to Geoff Molson and his CH Group for an undisclosed amount.

This year’s run was blessed with pristine weather throughout, which certainly helped to drive the event to record highs in terms of attendance, both indoors and out.