It was one thrill after another at the 40th Montreal Jazz Festival, which wraps up this year’s 11-day extravaganza on July 6 after serving up some 500 concerts on 20 different stages in the sprawling Quartier des Spectacle, two-thirds of which were free of charge.
From the moment my family arrived on Sunday to our departure 48 hours later on Tuesday, the festival — and the surrounding area, in general — vibrated with a vital energy that stimulated the senses.
On Sunday, diverse Harlem-based collective Mwenso & the Shakes served up its stirring mix of jazz, blues and African music to a rapturous audience at the packed Rio Tinto Stage. Following that free show, Chicago’s LowDown Brass Band brought its festive blend of street funk and hip-hop to the larger TD Stage on a gorgeous, balmy evening.
Meanwhile, at the impressive indoor venue Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, longtime festival favorite Melody Gardot delivered a spellbinding performance with her band and a 12-piece string section. The festival had earlier awarded the sultry singer-songwriter its Ella Fitzgerald Award, which it confers on “a jazz singer of significant talent who has had a major impact and influence on the international scene.”
ÌFÉ, a collective led by drummer/producer/singer/Yoruban priest Otura Mun, electrified the rapt audience at the intimate nightclub L’Astral with an addictive sound that synthesizes electronic music with Afro-Cuban rhythms. And rising Chicago-based drummer, producer and “sonic collagist” Makaya McCraven — a highlight of this year’s Burlington Discover Jazz Festival — brought his justified buzz to the acoustically superb venue Gesù
Monday was extra festive as it was Canada Day. At the steamy Club Soda, legendary old-school soul singer Lee Fields proved he’s as vital as ever with choice cuts from his excellent new album, “It Rains Love.” And tuba player Theon Cross, a rising artist on the London jazz scene, mesmerized with a genre-blurring set at L’Astral.
A major Monday highlight was the free outdoor show by Cha Wa, a Grammy-nominated New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian funk band fronted by 22-year-old singer Spyboy J’Wan Boudreaux, which held court at the TD Stage. “Some people call them costumes, but we call them suits,” said Boudreaux of his and a band member’s elaborate attire. “When we put on these suits, we’re paying homage to the Native American Indians.”
Another major highlight was Sax Machine, a French-American hip-hop jazz funk trio that closed out the festivities in style with a topnotch set at the smaller Place Heineken stage.
Kids inspired an early start to the festivities, soaking themselves silly in the interactive fountain system in the spacious Place des Festivals, where Canada’s largest programmable fountain makes a huge splash daily with its playful “dancing” water display.
Families also flocked to the sizable musical park and play area, drawn by an array of interactive activities and installations that include everything from a giant piano, face paintings and mango flowers to a bounce house and giant sandbox (all free of charge).
Not to be missed is the daily parade featuring the popular Montreal group Urban Science Brass Band, a traveling party of rappers, musicians and dancers that performs spirited hip-hop cover songs every day at 5 p.m.
Food is also a major attraction of our jazz fest visits, and the area surrounding the Place des Arts abounds with compelling dining locales. We feasted on stupendous made-to-order Chinese dumplings at Chinatown hot spot Mai Xiang Yuan (twice!), and had a stellar brunch at Eggspectation, a great place for soaking in the festival sights and sounds. And my wife and I discovered a fantastic French restaurant called Cadet, which proved a perfect spot for a late meal of distinctive shareable dishes and delicious drinks.
After dark, the stunning and elaborate lighting system throughout the Place des Festivals area beautifully enhances the plaza during free nighttime concerts. Free outdoor music — and a plethora of other outdoor performances — is seemingly everywhere, and there is nary a lull in the nightly action.
This year’s fest marks the last to be run by co-founders André Ménard and Alain Simard, who plan to retire at the end of this year. Started in 1980 as a series of concerts designed to liven up a sleepy summer music scene, the Montreal Jazz Festival has soared far and beyond that simple goal — “their beloved event has come to define summer in our city,” said the Montreal Gazette last week.
So cheers to both of them for that, and to 40 years of one of the best music parties around.