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Feature [Issue #22]
: Montreal Jazz Festival
By Scott Yanow

In Canada during late June/early July, the country hosts a series of overlapping jazz festivals that often stretch for 10-12 days. This year, Winnipeg’s ten-day festival (June 15-24) and a relatively “modest” seven-day marathon in Alberta (June 19-25) mostly preceded festivals in Ottawa (June 21-July 2), Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria (each of which took place June 23-July 2), topped off by the largest one in Montreal (June 29-July 9).

I n July 1, there were no less than seven major festivals going on at the same time.  While this makes it difficult for fans to go to more than two festivals, it makes it relatively easy for musicians to go festival hopping, performing at a variety of major events across the country.  Why doesn’t the United States have a similar situation?

The Montreal Jazz Festival (officially known as the Festival International De Jazz De Montreal) was founded in 1970.  The festival features huge free outdoor concerts each night (although surprisingly little takes place before 5 PM) and ticketed indoor events, attracting over 100,000 fans.  There is never any attempt to limit the roster to just jazz, particularly in the outside extravaganzas, mixing together Canadian, European, and American musicians from a wide variety of idioms.

I was fortunate enough to attend 11 indoor concerts during the first half of the festival.  Guitarist Bireli Lagrene and drummer Aldo Romano were the major guests this year; both appeared with five different groups.  Lagrene, originally known as a young teenager who had mastered the Django Reinhardt sound and style to a startling degree, has since played a wide variety of music without discarding his roots.  He was teamed with organist Joey DeFrancesco (who has no peers on his instrument) and drummer Andre Ceccarelli in a trio that offered for me the highpoints of the festival.  Lagrene and DeFrancesco, who had rarely played together before, constantly challenged and broke up each other with their virtuosity and witty ideas.  They swung up a storm on basic material (medium-tempo blues, “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “I Wish You Love,” “All The Things You Are,” etc.), exciting the audience and each other with their joyful music.

Second place in my estimation was John Zorn’s Masada, a quartet featuring altoist Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron. Using Eastern European folk songs and Jewish melodies as a base, the group played very adventurous improvisations with Zorn’s squawks, honks, and slap-tonguing often becoming both violent and purposely humorous. Douglas was not overshadowed and the rhythm section was constantly pushing the lead players.  This group was a big hit, being forced into not only two encores but a pair of curtain calls.

Although some of the other music I heard was more conventional, every group was in top form, being inspired by the enthusiastic crowds and the prestigious settings.  Singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli paid tribute to Frank Sinatra with the assistance of a big band of top local players.  Although Pizz did not play enough guitar (usually scatting along in unison with his solos), his charm and wit won everyone over.

The immortal pianist McCoy Tyner headed a septet for what was called “The Story Of Impulse Records.”  Though nothing was said about Impulse, the band (trumpeter Wallace Roney, trombonist Steve Turre, tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander, altoist Donald Harrison, the brilliant bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Eric Gravatt) played well on a variety of hard bop classics including “Stolen Moments.”  Tyner and Harrison were in particularly fine form.

Among the Canadian performers, I was impressed by tenor-saxophonist Yannick Rieu (doubling on soprano), who utilized a two-bass quintet with pianist Francois Bourassa on atmospheric originals and Sonny Rollins tunes, pianist Julie LaMontagne, whose writing for her trio utilizes tricky time signatures and unexpected rhythms, a fine up-and-coming jazz singer Melissa Stylianou, and altoist Christine Jensen, whose increasingly original approach to soloing and writing is letting her emerge from the shadow of her sister trumpeter Ingrid Jensen..

The very popular European trio E.S.T. fused together jazz, fusion, pop, folk and classical music in their intriguing and stimulating performance.  Altoist Kenny Garrett was quite intense during his blazing solos with his quartet, other than on a pair of lyrical ballads during which he switched to soprano.  Drummer Aldo Romano, bassist Henri Texier, and Louis Sclavis on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano performed purposeful and concise originals that included rambunctious free bop, folkish melodies, episodic improvisations, a mysterious Near Eastern ballad and a drunken comical march, all of it consistently inventive and colorful.

This is just a partial summary of the hundreds of performances that took place in Montreal during the 11-day marathon.  This festival is well worth attending, and further information can be gained from its website, www.montrealjazzfest.com.

Montreal Jazz Festival

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