Montreal Jazz Fest Shapes Surrounding City—and Vice Versa

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The most inspired festival pairing we caught was an intergenerational Thundercat (33) and Herbie Hancock (78) double bill. The well-heeled audience tensed as Thundercat shuffled out in a striped tee, printed orange bathing trunks, pink socks and sandals, as if attired for a hungover poolside afternoon, and began playing trippy songs dedicated to his cat. When Thundercat name-checked his collaborator Kendrick Lamar, Grace glanced skeptically at older crowd members; I assured her that after Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win, even grandparents have heard of him. Thundercat and his power trio gradually, but decisively, won over the audience as he sang falsetto and played stunning bass runs on original prog-jazz-r&b-pop fusion tunes. Sometimes, success is about singing the inestimable song of oneself.

“I haven’t been sleeping while he was creating,” Hancock said when he took the stage, mentioning Thundercat’s role on his upcoming album. Hancock’s quartet then delivered some of his greatest hits, but so kaleidoscopically rearranged and reoriented by virtuosic soloing that the set amounted to a retrospective of his entire life’s work. Shifting between piano and synths—and yes, even the keytar—Hancock cycled through transfigured tunes like “Actual Proof,” “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” and “Chameleon” with the expert and equal support of Lionel Loueke, James Genus and Trevor Lawrence Jr.

Hancock’s show was Grace’s jazz-believer breakthrough. She raved about the communication onstage, how “the musicians seemed to be having a conversation through music.” She mentioned their sincere appreciation of each others’ solos and how the musicians “liked hearing surprises in the music as much as the audience did.” Grace also got her first taste of jazz preconceptions, when we later enthused about the show to a group of journalists. “Herbie? Really?” a colleague asked. “His show even cured my heat exhaustion,” Grace testified.

Grace’s favorite festival show was Brian Blade and The Fellowship, she said, because it was “everything jazz can be.” Maybe she admired the band’s Black Southern ECM aesthetic, its minimalist musical themes and personal expression in service to the collective. Maybe it was the excitement of Blade’s rhythmic eruptions—“One time,” Grace noted, “his drumstick even flew out of his hand and over his bassist’s head!” Maybe it was the band’s seeming conviction that spirit is the only reality.

Opening for Fellowship was the piano quartet SHPIK, winner of the 2018 TD Canada Trust award for promising jazz newcomers. For all the band’s potential, many in the crowd hadn’t bargained for so amateur an act, and during intermission some concertgoers grumbled about programming that serves a bank sponsor’s largesse, rather than the audience.

But in the show’s second half, Fellowship lifted the crowd. We left the venue with a post-concert buzz, which was heightened when we discovered a screening of Fellini’s 8 1/2 in the park across the street. It was another reminder that the essential program pairing at the Montreal festival is the one between the music and the city. Whatever pleasures the festival offers, Montreal itself always is ready with an encore, always down to improvise the rest of the story with you. DB

Additional reporting by Grace Bolinger.

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