Montreal Jazz Festival Teems with Something for Everyone

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​Snarky Puppy’s Montreal Jazz Festival set was tight and well-choreographed, and the solos were on point.

(Photo: Victor Diaz Lamich)

Torrential rain greeted DownBeat’s arrival in Montreal on June 29, the first full day of the 43rd edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival (which runs through July 8). Once in place, with barely time to get our feet wet, it was downright intimidating to route through the 23 concerts that constituted the menu du jour. How, for example, to choose between shows at 7 p.m. by the Arooj Aftab-Vijay Iyer-Shahzad Ismaily Love in Exile Trio (Monument-National), at 7:30 p.m. by George Benson (Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier) or at 8 p.m. by Hiromi’s Piano Quartet (Théâtre Maisonneuve) and James Francies (Molson Stage)? Not to mention Houston Person and local hero guitarist Michael Rud at Les Soirées au Upstairs Jazz Club (7 and 9:30), Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Malouf (9:30) on the 60,000-capacity outdoor main stage, British Funk-Afrobeat up-and-comer Kokoroko (8 p.m.) on an adjacent outdoor stage facing east on rue St. Catherine and, up the block, the wonderful Afro-Québécois singer Djely Tapa (10 p.m.) and bluesman Kingfish Ingram (11 p.m.)?

It was a no-brainer to start at 6 at Le Studio TD, a spacious columned room underneath festival headquarters, to hear local alto saxophone master Rémi Bolduc pair off with Boston tenor hero Jerry Bergonzi, performing repertoire from their superb new release Les Esprits Oubliés, with an A-list rhythm section of bassist Ira Coleman, drummer Jim Doxas and pianist Marie-Fatima Rudolf, all Bolduc’s colleagues in the jazz department of Montreal’s McGill University. They played “Game Over,” a funky medium-groove piece that referenced the harmonic legacies of Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson; the new album’s title track, a ballad that opened with a reflective, lustrous solo by Coleman; and a swinging Tristano-esque contrafact titled “In Love Like Someone” on which Rudolf’s hip solo offered launching pads for the saxophonists to channel Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh in their respective argots (Bolduc and Rudolf play it duo on the album).

Bolduc, 61, is a highly literate, inspired improviser who has uploaded to YouTube dozens upon dozens of transcriptions of solos by Charlie Parker and numerous other saxophonists (including Bergonzi); each of his solos embodied his assimilation of Parker’s preternaturally vertiginous phrasing. Himself a distinguished educator for since the early ̓80s, Bergonzi, 75, played with undiminished vigor, showcasing his original harmonic ideas, richly textured tone and storytelling sensibility.

The ambiance was radically different at the 1,600-seat Monument National Theater, Montreal’s oldest, where the Aftab-Iyer-Ismaily trio performed their much-lauded 2023 Verve release Love In Exile. As on the album, the group functioned collectively, Iyer (piano and keyboard) and Ismaily (electric bass and synth) weaving improvised minimalist tapestries that complemented the otherworldly aura of the Pakistani singer’s keening, resonant portrayals of Urdu ghazals and qawwalis; Iyer conjured several meditative acoustic piano solos that seemed like extensions of her voice. The room’s superb acoustics allowed the group to operate at various levels of pianissimo and still be heard and appreciated by a rapt audience.

Five minutes down the road at the Molson outdoor stage, a few thousand standees were moving their bodies as pianist-composer James Francies showcased his formidable conception of the piano trio function with bassist Burniss Earl Traviss and drummer Jeremy Dutton, both fellow alumni of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The trio was stretching out on “Reciprocal” (from Flight, the first of Francies’ two Blue Note albums), on which Francies placed his otherworldly chops on full display, creating strong melodies and contrapuntal passages through a whirlwind matrix of mixed meters. As the tempo gradually subsided, the flow morphed into the stately refrain of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” punctuated with quotes from “Juju.” Francies sustained the reflective mood on Korg synths positioned to his right, then executed a jump-cut to warp-speed velocity before concluding.

Named for Houston’s area code, “713” is a kaleidoscopic, somewhat autobiographical work that has evolved to symphonic proportions since Francies recorded it on Purest Form, his second Blue Note album. Francies created multiple voices on synth, counterpointing a Bachian line with massive chords. Moving to acoustic piano, he established a refrain evocative of the Black churches he played in as a teenager, where he learned to convey musical narrative for large audiences. He carved out a long, ferocious passage with the left hand; elicited rich complementary synth colors with the right; evoked powerful Romantic rumbles with his left hand only, then morphed into reflection.

The set ended with Francies’ sermon-like “ANB,” also from Flight, diverging from the recording with an opening fanfare of church-organ synth constructions that triggered spontaneous shouts of praise from the crowd. One immaculately executed passage followed another; it seemed he could go on forever, and still hold everyone’s attention.

On day two, I was able to catch partial sets by four different bands. My “speed listening” evening began at a sold-out Théâtre Maisonneuve (with 1,450 seats, it’s one of five theaters that are Montreal’s equivalent to New York’s Lincoln Center complex), where I heard five tunes (titles unannounced) by Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen’s superb Shifting Sands Trio, with pianist Guy Moskovich and drummer Roni Kaspi, both Gen Z Israelis. Jerusalem-born Cohen, 53, has projected, evolved and refined his own distinctive sound world — a melting pot of classical counterpoint, Ladino-Near Eastern modes and Sephardic melodies, leavened with a sophisticated sense of harmony and polyrhythm, a deep will to groove and a highly refined technique — for close to 30 years. Kaspi, 23, received a standing ovation for her solo on “Seven Seas.” She impressed with her authoritative beats, command of timbre and interactivity.

Snarky Puppy were performing a few blocks east on rue St. Catherine at Mtelus, a 2,350-person-capacity concert hall (built in 1884), which was packed with enthusiastic young fans. Snarky Puppy impresario Michael League brought an efficient tentet configuration (personnel unannounced) of a saxophone, two trumpets, a keyboardist doubling on trumpet; the great Bobby Sparks on organ and keys; funky drummer Jason Thomas and another percussionist on drumset and hand drums; an electric bassist; violin virtuoso Zach Brock; and League on guitar, bass and dumbek. The five tunes I heard were fabulous, showcasing League’s orchestrational and narrative abilities. The band was tight and well-choreographed, and the solos were on point. The mix was superb.

It was time to reverse course on rue St. Catherine to the Molson stage for the final half-hour of an iteration of Walter Smith III’s and Matthew Stevens’ In Common project with Smith’s long-time friends Reuben Rogers on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. As might be expected of a band consisting of four collectively minded, top-of-the-pyramid practitioners of their respective instruments, the music was erudite, soulful and kinetic. Again, the sound engineering was top-shelf.

Fifteen minutes later, at Gesù, an acoustically superb basement space in a still-functioning Catholic church, a set by drum hero Mark Guiliana’s Jazz Quartet (an all-acoustic group with Jason Rigby, tenor saxophone; Jason Lindner, piano; and Chris Morrissey, bass) was underway. Guiliana led from the drumkit with exemplary patience and dynamic control, encouraging chance-taking by his partners, who responded with high-level creativity. It was particularly gratifying to hear Lindner — most often heard exploring the orchestrational and coloristic possibilities of keyboards and synths — display his considerable prowess on acoustic piano. The witnesses clamored for encores, and received two.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is extremely well-organized, as it must be to keep an enterprise of this scale running smoothly. Sound was uniformly superb. Befitting a festival with a sizable free, outdoors component, the programming offers something for everyone, from connoisseurs to neophyte, with very little dumbing down. It’s no accident that the streets are filled with young people, reflecting Montreal’s diverse ethnic mix and 200,000-student population. DB



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