The best city festival in the world? Quite possibly
Cai Trefor

12:06 19th July 2017

The 38th edition of the Montreal Jazz festival has cast its magic on hordes of music lovers for another year. More than two million people descended on this city in the province of Quebec, Canada, for close to two weeks as a staggering 500 gigs took place. Gigwise was there for the full shebang, soaking up the best it had to offer.

What pulled us to this event - in addition to its staggering line-up (Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, King Crimson, Anderson .Paak is just the tip of the iceberg) - is Montreal itself, a charming city that wraps itself around the towering Mount Royal.

This sprawling, scenic metropolis in French Canada, never far from natural beauty, is fast becoming the epicentre of the most original, creative music and art of our time. Being host to the jazz festival is a match made in heaven.

Its progressive culture is even quantifiable. The most obvious example of this we find out through a local tour guide who has a love for the Mile End neighbourhood – which is where Arcade Fire played their first gig and have their HQ. He tells us that a massive seven percent of its residents earn a living from creative arts. A consequence of this is that it creates the most exciting nightlife, with parties around the clock every day of the week.

This left us at a crossroad. One side is eager to discover the Montreal of Arcade Fire and Leonard Cohen, which is a short walk down the road in Little Portugal. This area contains one of the quintessential tourist must-sees: the iconic Schwartz’s smoked meat deli. The other of part us was entranced solely around the festival; we did attempt to explore both.

But naturally the presence of the jazz festival was our main focus and our experiences down in the area known as Quartier Des Spectacles - with its infrastructure purposefully sculpted to host a massive outdoor music event - will live on forever.

Never in our gig going lives have we felt so spoiled with music choice in a place so extraordinarily appreciative of its live music. And that's taking into account the broad spectrum of music not strictly dedicated to jazz. To deal with the mind-boggling numbers, we honed in on acts that we feel most passionate about. Here's what we learned on our journey:

The line-up was spectacular in every sense

With new and new(ish) artists such as Puma Blue, The Barr Brothers, Portico Quartet, Tigran Hamaysan, Colin Stetson, Anderson .Paak, and Acid Arab they already had us hooked. Then we discovered legends we’ve wanted to see for years like Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, and King Crimson and we’re besotted.

The line-up seemed to reflect the diversity of knowledge they have in their programming team. Some are young, pushing for acts as they break or have had a profound impact on them in the last decade or so. Meanwhile, the senior creative directors, including André Ménard, the man who famously booked Hawkwind in Canada for the gig that caused the arrest of Lemmy, play a different role. In addition to great new band knowledge, they have deep encyclopaedic minds to make even the most intrepid music fans feel inadequate.

Subsequently, the line-up remains a document to be cherished whilst you’re there and once you get home for discovery. What’s more, this astounding line-up is for the enjoyment for people all over the world and any background – the outdoor shows are free. Remarkable.

There’s some huge bands, but where’s the jazz?

“We have a very loose definition of jazz,” says the festivals CEO Jacques-André Dupont.

This freedom the festival programmers gain for not rigidly accommodating solely pure jazz is of huge benefit. It means the line-up is about as eclectic they come. The festival invites musicians that apply jazz’s philosophy of rebellion and counterculture, or bands that have directly or indirectly been influenced by the genre. Arguably, jazz has a inextricable link to nearly all modern music so it keep the options broad, but if one thing unites all the bands here it's that there’s little room for tacky radio-friendly unit shifters.

This isn’t something that’s new to them either – the founders have very much stuck to their guns and vision of creating a music festival that excites them. A quick glance back to earlier line-ups, including the first ever one in 1980 when Ray Charles was headlining, affirms this.

The heterogeneous event reflects the personality of the organisers, too. Dupont explains how much he enjoys seeing people of all backgrounds coming together once a year. This kind-heartedness very much suits his personality.

Montrealers have an infectious lust for life

The French term "Joie De Vivre" is often used to describe Montrealers. They have music culture in their DNA that stems back from the years when the city was visited by Americans looking to escape the prohibition in the 1920s, resulting in the birth of jazz in the city. Despite vast changes to the downtown area since those heady days – the red light district was wiped out – the love of a drink and a boogie remains intact.

Helping them go at the days bracketed within the Montreal Jazz Festival schedule with such zest are a number of outside variables.

Summer is a big thing here, appreciated more than most places since Montreal endures some of the planets harshest winters; the words “it takes a special kind of person to endure Quebec winters” probably litter too many documentaries and articles to mention. So, when the weather is good, they make the most of it by being in the streets – and this isn’t contained to downtown. There are neighbourhoods where parking spaces are rented from the council, decking is installed, and outdoor seating provided to make places great for block parties.

Secondly, the festival sits close to some major national holidays. These include Saint Jean-Baptiste Day, Canada Day and the US Independence day. With so many people from Montreal and neighbouring cities finding time off around the jazz festival, the spirit of freedom seeps into the national holiday and the subsequent days after it. Next to Christmas, the end of June and early July is the time to let your hair down here. Everyone seems to be on a good vibe and that can’t help but rub off on you as you cruise around the downtown.

Quartier Des Specacres is an urban utopia for the arts

In contrast to the UK’s culling of venues, the respect with which Montreal holds the arts is second to none - after all, the city's had a long history as a go-to destination for live entertainment and cinema.

The city's emphasis on this is so strong that it houses a purpose-built cultural quarter called Quatier Des Spectacles, which is one square km, holds 30 arts venues which all adds up to 28,000 seats: perfect for hosting all the paid-for indoor gigs.

The free outdoor gigs are held in any place they can find to put a stage. They're comfortably clustered which makes wandering from one style of music to another so much easier. Consequently, the ability to see so much music in such close proximity is an exciting opportunity and a large part of the draw. Little wonder it’s the most visited jazz festival in the world. After all, who wants to get on public transport to go from one place to another at a festival? Not us. What’s more, there are no queues to get anywhere as the ticketed indoor shows mean there’s none of the over-demand you get for inner city festivals where a wristband gets you anywhere and the sheer number of venues outdoors spreads the crowds out.

Bob Dylan is on his a-game

The first show of the week is the incredible Bob Dylan who kicks things off. We arrive as thousands of Dylan's faithful line up to get through airport-style security measures and into the 21,000 capacity Bell Centre.

As soon as he comes on dressed in a white blazer and belting out his first note, a friend who’s seen him on multiple occasions, whispers, “He’s sounding better than in a long time.” We take their word for it and immediately feel transported into Dylan’s own theatrical parallel universe.

Helping this sense of transcendence is a simple stage set up. The set is done in the style of how you’d expect his living room to look if he had his band around for rehearsal and it feels intimate despite being an arena gig. Moreover, a photography ban, no between song interaction, no screens, and Dylan's deep meditative stare into everywhere but the audience, help to enchant. He takes us on a mosaic journey through his influences, including country and western, rock 'n' roll, jazz, and folk reinventing his back catalogue along the way. His distillation is quite particular and he sounds cooler than anyone he's referencing, thanks, in part, to his nonchalance.

It’s this constantly challenging and surprising musical leadership to explore new spaces and create the most hypnotic rock n roll show in Montreal Jazz festival so far that Dylan truly excels.

Blues guitar legend Buddy Guy shows no sign of slowing down

After Bob Dylan, it’s straight over to Place Des Arts – the main indoor hub in the Quartier Des Spectacles. We’re sat in one of its larger venues and within touching distance of the blues legend Buddy Guy. The icon rose from the 60s Chicago blues scene that influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards among others.

Being in Montreal has a special significance for Guy. He praises the city for being a key influence on him pursuing his career as a guitarist.

“Y’all convinced me to keep playing and I did,” he smiles.

This love gives him the youthful exuberance of someone half his age, and nothing seems to delight him more than being the centre of attention. Guy – much in contrast to Dylan – is a showman, a natural. His chat between songs for love at a tumultuous political time (he makes reference to recent spate of attacks in England) is top notch. His sense of humour is massively important, too, as he taunts the security at the front, and laughs at himself singing songs about young women now he’s in his 60s.

Guy’s also incredibly playful in a technical sense. Whilst shredding solos, he likes to be unconventional, and he uses his towel or his teeth to play or spins the guitar around 360 degrees, like a ferris wheel. Nothing beats him coming out into the crowd and spending close to 15 minutes wondering up to every area on the venue floor for a close bonding experience. The fans, who can barely believe his confidence and energy, soak up the extraordinary inimitable style. Check out the footage below of him playing the show of his life below.

King Crimson's three drummers are spectacular

Another legendary band we get the pleasure of seeing live is King Crimson. “The standard of musicianship is just so high,” claims woodwind and brass player Mel Collins in a press conference shortly before the show. Collins’ comments are immediately apparent as the extraordinary individual talent is breath-taking.

What’s impressive is watching three drummers, who take the front position in a two-tiered stage. Each percussionist plays separate parts and when it comes together it’s a more emphatic melodic whole that it would be than without, thus adding more excitement to their back catalogue than ever before. It helps, though, that they are driven by band leader and sole constant member of King Crimson, Robert Fripp, who is an "autocrat with exacting standards."

Out of the three drummers it’s Gavin Harrison that catches our eye most frequently. In terms of speed and accuracy he’s difficult to top. Elsewhere, Fripp’s guitar parts are incredible. He sits next to a studio rack that looks like it’s been lifted out of Abbey Road – no measly little pedals here. But although Fripp is the most revered legend, everyone on stage seems to be just as important with each exhibiting extraordinary skill, and Jakko Jakszyk, who sings the majority of songs with the lung capacity of a free diver, deserves special praise. He’s a younger member who joined King Crimson from the perspective of a fanboy, but his prowess on his PRS and vocals make this musical genius and amazing record producer feel very much a key to tonight’s success

People, are left breathless at the end and, after three hours of dedicated concentration and standing ovation between every song, the praise just keeps flowing. King Crimson and Montreal Jazz festival is a well-chosen combination.

'Safety Dance' heroes Men Without Hats are fun

Not being part of the generation that remembers them first time around, it's difficult to know what to expect with Montreal 80s pop legends Men Without Hats. We go into the Club Soda venue in a semi-seedy part of town and opposite the oldest strip club in Canada that’s survived the mayoral whitewashing of anything pornographic.

As for Club Soda, it’s pretty damn hip – it’s the Apollo in Barcelona or The Ritz, Manchester. They’ve hosted some hip names like Her, and Shoeblader One. The latter make dense, clever, instrumentals that couldn’'t be more opposite than Men Without Hats who manage to be the coolest band we’ve seen all week - and also the most ridiculous.

Frontman Ivan Doroschuk wears a Bowie t-shirt, aviators, and leather trousers and he looks like he's escaped from Judas Priest. His musical style also veers towards classic rock, with his guitarist delivering distorted power chords over the top of the two lead synths. Their music is best pigeonholed within the new wave/synth pop bracket despite some cross over. The sound they're flaunting, in its purest form, may not be likely to gain any massive resurgence soon but it is a hell of a lot of fun to dance to and the loose, unhinged dancing from the frontman on stage is echoed by the crowd. It’s the perfect soundtrack to late night clubbing. Hearing the all time classic ‘Safety Dance’ live three times in one set is a special one-off too.

Colin Stetson is the best one man band

Not many people can hold the attention of a symphony hall by themselves in a way that Montreal resident Colin Stetson does. His set in the Places Des Arts is full to the rafters, and he embarks on the kind of polyphonic masterpieces that would impress the innovators at the Berlin Arts Club in terms of how anti-bourgeoisie and avant garde he is. The sonics from his latest album, All This I Do For Glory, sound like an orca whale going through a nightmarish comedown. It's out there, but Stetson takes us with him. Despite the darkness, there’s a melodic undercurrent that's undeniable.

The Eagle Of Soul, Charles Bradley, brings tears of joy to spectators

The anticipation inside the venue Metropolis venue ahead of Charles Bradley’s arrival on stage is palpable. The band, who are at least 20 years younger than the singer, arrive on stage first to drum up the levels of applause to greet the Screaming Eagle of Soul. When Bradley does eventually appear, sharply-dressed in a dapper red suit, there’s deafening applause. The heightened appreciation is due to the fact this is Bradley’s first tour since overcoming a battle with stomach cancer. He famously said that if he survived then he would tour the world, and here he is fulfilling his promise, giving absolutely everything to the audience as his backing band provide.

The most immediate thing about Bradley that gets us is the way he so visibly bears his soul on stage with his body language and vocal delivery. A couple of friends next to us get goosebumps then break out in tears they're so moved by the 68-year-old former James Brown impersonator who despite being a singer since 1965 didn't get a break and put out his debut until 2011. And he truly found his stride with his latest Daptone-released album, Changes - one of the best albums of 2016, and live the tracks from it sound even more powerful. It's as if Bradley's  survival from cancer has given him the zest to push his ability to the outer limit. Make no mistake - he’s not revivalist; he’s just arrived late.

Tony Allen’s jazz quartet melts minds

Not one show the whole weekend felt as virtuoso and original as this one. Seeing Tony Allen step away from Afrobeat because he is “bored” of playing it in favour of jazz is the best decision for the final night of the festival.

We step into the 1600 cap venue Monument National, which was built towards the end of the 19th century, for the please. Playing inside the venue soaked in history are a quartet features a double bass, sax, a Steinbeck piano and Allen’s inimitable drumming. Never indulgent, each passage of music seems to come from deep within the players and creates one of the most emotional atmospheres possible as he plays from his four track EP, A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers.

Similarly to the EP, when on stage he plays the jazz standards through his own style of groove. For anyone wondering where Tony Allen's love for Blakey comes from, he tells us in an interview prior to the show that Fela Kuti used to play his music on a radio show he ran when they were both early in their career.

Allen also has a jazz album of original material on the way and he incorporates spell-binding jams tonight. It's a mesmerising way to cap off the festival before shimmying off to catch a free Anderson .Paak show in the street. This combination of legends and masterful newcomers is characteristic of the opportunities you have aat Montreal Jazz festival.

We leave feeling enriched with so much more music to appreciate than ever before. Montreal Jazz festival has been a phenomenal journey that is simply unforgettable.  

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Photo: Press