A Chapter Closes at Montreal Festival as Ménard Departs


Steve Gadd performs June 27, the opening night of International Festival de Jazz de Montreal.

(Photo: Benoit Rousseau)

In 1979, Montreal’s warmer months weren’t exactly vibrant.

“Summer was very quiet here,” recalled jazz concert producer André Ménard. “Sometimes, one museum might have a blockbuster; that was it.” Even Place des Arts, the spectacular complex that remains the largest performing arts center in Canada, closed each year on June 1 and didn’t reopen until after Labour Day.

Then Ménard, alongside Alain Simard, founded the International Festival de Jazz de Montreal in 1980. It changed the city. Not only does Place des Arts remain open year-round, it’s the streets around it that close for the summer—to make room for such festivals. “The jazz festival initiated a series of other events as well that have made Montreal what it is now,” Ménard said. “Any day of the summer, you come to Montreal, and you can be sure that there’s something going on.”

FIJM is not just the linchpin of Montreal’s cultural life: It’s one of the world’s largest jazz festivals, featuring 3,000 artists and hosting more than two million attendees each year. In 2019—its 40th iteration and Ménard’s last before retiring from his longtime position as director—it hasn’t lost a step.

The sheer scope of the festival is astonishing. On its June 27 opening night alone, one could catch avant-garde pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn in the basement auditorium of the 150-year-old Church of the Gesù; see post-bop pianist Brad Mehldau hold court at Place des Arts with his new quintet (trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Leon Parker), whose meaty rendition of Oliver Nelson’s “Yearnin’” was a festival highlight; trot around the corner and see the Steve Gadd Band playing fusion at the Monument-National theater; and finish by swing-dancing to the hot jazz of Royal Pickles (complete with washboard) at outdoor stage Place Heineken. Those concerts were five among 40 that night.

The geographical spectrum was a vast one, too. Montreal’s homegrown saxophonist/bass clarinetist Samuel Blais made intricate, spellbinding music at nightclub L’Astral on June 28, leading a quartet that featured guitarist Ben Monder, and dual drummers John Hollenbeck and Dan Weiss. Across the street and almost simultaneously, Istanbul-based saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin concocted an enticing brew of jazz, Turkish folk music and psychedelia.

Back at Place des Arts was the ever-brilliant Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda, whose virtuosity on his instrument matched his intensity. Most of his trio’s songs showed a fervor from the harpist that produced beautiful sounds but was almost wild in aspect. (Saxophonist Shlomi Cohen and drummer Dave Silliman urged him on rather than reining him in.) “I’m going to say a prayer for you,” he promised in introducing his composition “Jesus De Nazareth,” mostly a quiet meditation, it still had moments of exquisite religious ecstasy.

Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca was the focus of this year’s Invitation series, the Montreal festival’s version of an Artist-in-Residence. His June 29 trio performance at Gesù was a tour de force, with cascades of melody and montuno erupting from his Yamaha grand. That said, the jewel of the set came when French trumpeter Erik Truffaz joined him for one song, a midtempo rumination with Fonseca’s luminous piano conversing with Truffaz’s pungent, Milesian tones.

Two Montreal natives made splashes on June 29 as well. Tenor saxophonist Yannick Rieu, one of Canada’s most acclaimed performers, and his quartet assayed Both Directions At Once, John Coltrane’s “lost album” of 1963; they stuck to Trane’s arrangements, but with magnificent, even violent solos by Rieu and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc on “Untitled Original 11386.” At nearby Club Soda, 25-year-old vocalist Nikki Yanofsky—who had her coming-out party at the 2006 FIJM as a 12-year-old prodigy—served notice of her maturity, steering away from the Great American Songbook, and sang originals and songs by Amy Winehouse, whose style serves as her new touchstone.

But Drummer Antonio Sanchez and his band Migration might have been the festival’s zenith. On June 30, the group performed songs from its recent album, Lines In The Sand. The bandleader took pains to explain his music as a topical work. “This is about one kind of immigrant,” he said, “one that’s been demonized by a handful of very powerful people in the name of fake nationalism and populism.” The songs—very long, with the opening “Travesía” running about 30 minutes and “The Long Road” another 10—were intensely rhythmic, but even more intensely melodic, with vocalist Thana Alexa singing wordlessly alongside Chase Baird’s saxophone and EWI. The display was evocative and moving, even aside from its politics.

All these performances at the festival and Ménard’s planned retirement close a long chapter on FIJM. “At some point you feel like you’ve done your part and you have to take a back seat,” he said. Its 40th anniversary, however, makes clear that the festival won’t fade in his absence. What he built is too powerful for that. DB

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