Bountiful Montreal Jazz Fest Draws Listeners Outside Comfort Zones

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Stacey Kent receives the Prix Ella Fitzgerald from Montreal Jazz Festival co-founder Alain Simard on July 1.

(Photo: Victor Diaz Lamich)

One privilege of covering an event scaled as large as the bountiful Montreal Jazz Festival is the opportunity to leave your comfort zone. In my case, that means laying eyes on the highest-profile practitioners of the idiom’s various tributaries and adjacent pathways, regardless of whether their musical production matches my personal taste. Which makes it frustrating to have to choose when these high Q-score artists perform in the same time slots.

This was the case on Saturday, July 1, after an entertaining 6 p.m. show at Gesù, the wonderful venue in the basement of a still-functioning Catholic church, by a quartet culled from Snarky Puppy (which had played the night before) by band impresario Michael League, on electric bass, with violin wizard Zach Brock, keyboardist-organist Bobby Sparks and drummer Jason Thomas. As League explained a few tunes in, these musicians have performed together for some 15 years, and you could hear their simpatico on a scratch-improvised set that included Brock’s inflamed blues bowing on League’s recently penned Roosevelt Collier vehicle, “That Could Have Been Bad”; Sparks’ organ sermonizing on Stevie Wonder’s “All Day Sucker”; and Thomas’ amusing, to-the-point vocal — and pungently funky drumset accompaniment — of Bill Withers’ iconic “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?”

Lately I’ve been focusing on singers, so I decided to catch Stacey Kent, at 8, at the 1,450-seat Théâtre Maisonneuve, rather than trumpeter Chris Botti’s 7 p.m. show at the 2,100-seat Maison Symphonique or Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo Y Graciela’s 7:30 show at the 3,000-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (all are situated in the Place des Arts complex of theaters around which the festival’s outdoor stages are placed). It was Kent’s ninth festival appearance, as festival co-founder Alain Simard informed the sold-out house while presenting her with the Prix Ella Fitzgerald before the concert. With 2 million-plus album sales and 400 million streams, Kent rivals the First Lady of Swing in contemporaneous popularity, but little else except for the clarity of her diction. More a stylist than a swinger, she presented down-to-the-last-syllable interpretations of sophisticated MOR repertoire drawn from the American, French and Brazilian songbooks (Jobim, Leo Ferré, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Burt Bacharach) and bespoke songs with lyrics by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and music by Jim Tomlinson. Tomlinson, Kent’s spouse of three decades, played tenor and soprano saxophone and flute in her trio, along with pianist Art Hirahara (her duo partner on the 2021 album Songs From Other Places), who provided immaculate comp and pithy solos that were both creative and contextual, as on “Blackbird.” I certainly respect Kent’s exemplary musicianship and craft, but I didn’t connect with either her mannered, this-side-of-twee approach or the stories she was telling. The audience did, though, and let her know it with several standing ovations.

It had been raining torrents earlier, but not when I left, so I stopped by the Molson outdoor stage to hear 24-year-old New York pianist Julius Rodriguez, in town for a set with fellow New York youngbloods Jeremiah Edwards (bass) and Brian Richburg (drums). The weather kept the crowd sparse, but Rodriguez outclassed the situation, offering inspired readings of Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” and “Butterfly,” even as the rain returned full force.

July 2 began for me at Gesù, where drummer-beatmaker Nate Smith kicked off a three-night residency propelling a trio with Michael League on bass and Lionel Loueke on guitar, effects and voice through intelligent, kinetic renderings of compositions by each member. Smith opened Loueke’s “Farafina” with an intricate drum pattern that seemed to signify on what Mark Guiliana laid down on the 2012 recording Heritage (Blue Note) before Loueke’s solo, rich in pedal-generated synth colors and contrapuntal voices. That was the m.o. throughout what Smith described as a “mix tape” set to which League contributed the new, self-descriptive “Vamp Right There” and the rockin’ “Unfollower,” which included an organ-rattling electric bass solo. Other highlights were Loueke’s “Virgin Forest,” on which the composer lived up to Smith’s description of him as “a whole planet,” and a nuanced reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Angel Eyes.”

Melody Gardot had a 7:30 show at Wilfred-Pelletier, and oud master Anouar Brahim was at Maisonneuve at 8, but I opted for my first-ever in-person experience with 23-year-old Grammy-winner Samara Joy’s 8 p.m. show at Monument-National theatre. I’m glad I did. As much as I admire the craft and range Joy displays on the expanded release of her new album Linger Awhile Deluxe (Verve) and her eponymous debut on Whirlwind, the full breadth and depth and life force of her remarkable instrument hadn’t been fully conveyed via my compressed and sub-audiophile sound systems. Now I understand how normally jazz-averse Grammy voters awarded to a serious bebop singer whose repertoire includes songs written to the music of Tadd Dameron (“Nostalgia”) and Thelonious Monk (“Worry Later”/“’Round Midnight”) and good old good ones from the 1930s (“Stardust” and “Squeeze Me”), 1940s (“Linger Awhile”) and 1950s (“Guess Who I Saw Tonight” mashed up with Stevie Wonder’s “Lately”) the Best New Artist award. Joy framed the show around her remarkable two-year journey from up-and-coming college student to international fame, claiming space within the well-oiled arrangements to showcase a chance-taking sensibility that mirrored the approach of her stated role models Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. She has the chops and the harmonic acumen to do it. A few quibbles: Joy didn’t seem completely comfortable with the phrasing of Jon Hendricks’ lyric to Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues),” which entered her repertoire during a recent trip to Brazil. And her treatment of “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which appears three times on Linger Awhile Deluxe, was a bit over the top for me … placing me out of step with the capacity crowd, who loved the bravura fanfare that led to the climactic moment. It will be fun to watch the development of this extraordinary talent.

After hearing Joy, it was time to catch Havana-born conguero-singer Pedrito Martinez with a quintet comprising Keisel Jimenez on timbales, Sebastian Natal on bass, Isaac Delgado Jr. on keyboard and Xito Lovell on trombone. It was hot and humid, the space was packed with several thousand dancers, and Martinez — he’s pushing 50, but his sleeveless black T-shirt looked age appropriate — responded accordingly, eschewing subtlety for a force-of-nature presentation that included a paean to Papa Legba, guardian of the crossroads.

The evening ended on a cooler note back at Gesù, where Loueke and singer Gretchen Parlato played a zen-like concert of songs from their new collaborative release Lean In (Edition) that showcased the extraordinarily sympathetic rhythmic legerdemain of the co-leaders, friends and frequent bandstand and recording partners since both auditioned for and were accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute 22 years ago. Closing her eyes and handclapping in conjunction with her inner drum, Parlato phrased Portuguese and Fon lyrics as if a native speaker and addressed English-language covers by the Foo Fighters (“Walking After You”) and Klymaxx (“I Miss You”), sometimes harmonizing with Loueke’s gentle, insinuating voice with her own tensile, soft-but-full-bodied instrument. Themes of family and community suffuse the album, as denoted by the participation on several songs of Guiliana (Parlato’s husband) and their 10-year-old son Marley, who were in the audience and reprised their parts, with Père Guiliana particularly effective on “Lean In.” Also attending were members of Loueke and Parlato’s extended musical family, including Joy, Nate Smith and League, as well as Terence Blanchard, James Genus and Jaylen Petinaux from Herbie Hancock’s group, in town for a July 3 performance. After the concert, they mingled, told stories and dispersed. DB



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