An eclectic line-up that is difficult to surpass in quality or stature made for a music lovers dream. Cai Trefor reports from the world’s best jazz (not just jazz) festival.
Cai Trefor
01:04 17th July 2018

In Montreal summer is a time for celebration with myriad festivals held in the city’s downtown. Not one draws a bigger crowd, though, than the legendary Festival International De Jazz De Montreal. Over the course of 10 days, 2 million visitors attend gigs at indoor and outdoor stages in the two square kilometer area named Quartier Des Spectacles (the entertainment district). The outdoor stages are on and around the Place Des Festivals, a pedestrianised square perfect for hanging out in. The indoor gigs are held at the adjacent Place Des Arts and in legendary venues on streets acting as tributaries to this main hub. Remarkably, 500 + performances are programmed across all stages, and the line-up is remarkably consistent with little to no filler. There's a mad maelstrom of genres on offer - Turkish psychedelia, jazz, electronica, rock, desert blues, and hip-hop - with  acts that are both stalward mainstays and others just peeking out from the underground.

I arrive at the festival, auspiciously, on Canada day, and stay in a hotel on lower St. Laurent Boulevard, which is right in the midst of the action. It’s the main part of Montreal that reminds me of the more mischievous aspect of its history: a hundred years ago the whole entertainment district was known as the “Sin City of The North”. In fact, Montreal was actively promoted as a sinner’s paradise in order to profit of the dry years, meaning gambling, burlesque, brothels, and jazz music had a big presence here. Standing on lower St. Laurent, gazing in between new big business developments, into what’s left of the area’s original architecture, I get a sense of this past, and it’s a place to observe the diversity of venues that remain active for use at Montreal Jazz as part of a simultaneous cultural push to keep the old infrastructure alive.

The neon sign-covered Café Cleopatra – a strip joint – is one of its main historical landmarks. Café Cleopatra didn’t operate as a business during the early 20th Prohibition years. But standing as the last strip club on the street to survive – and as the last small business not to have moved to make way for new development on its side of the street – it’s a place that many Montrealers are proud to keep. It’s a symbol of defiance at a time when its downtown identity is fast changing into something more sanitised.

Bulgarian fast food joint Montreal Pool Room, however, was less stubborn towards the developers and moved location across to across the street. It has a sticker saying “est. 1912” on its window and as a cult haunt, partly, because Leonard Cohen is famed for having dined in its original spot. Plus, it’s another place to feel wistful and feel part of a long line of people who’ve traipsed these grounds for their cheap, great hot dogs – they’re under 2 dollars – and wash it down with some booze.

Of the music venues channelling this same kind of wistfulness, Monumental National, Quebec’s oldest show venue (est. 1893) is incredible. A beautifully restored is pristine examples of late 19th century decadence, it’s probably the most valuable cultural landmark and the best seated venue to see shows at the festival. But you can’t ignore the larger MTelus (formerly Metropolis) which is situated on Saint Catherine Street a few hundred yards away. Also from the late 19th century, it once served as an adult cinema under the name Eros, but now is the best mid-sized venue in town and utilised spectacularly. It’s since seen shows by the likes of Bowie and Prince and the late Eagle of Soul Charles Bradley who slayed there for Montreal Jazz last year.

There’s only so long you can spend staring at buildings, though, so I leave Saint-Laurent behind, and venture up Saint Catherine towards the modern Place Des Arts. En-route I pass busking breakdancers, jazz trios, and loop-peddlers. Drawing sizable crowds, they might not be an official part of the programme but they are an important aspect of Jazz festival. Afterall, I once heard Colin Stetson was a busker here.

Arriving at Place Des Arts, it’s hard not to be taken aback by its slick chrome black exterior and sleek angular design, and the streets outside make the commute there a part of the excitement: I see amazing commissioned street performers and bands on stage for free.

I walk inside Place Des Arts to see banjo visionary Béla Fleck with his band the Flecktones. They are a long-since-established four-piece with an inventive, boundary-pushing approach to jazz, Eastern European folk, and Americana – and are a great live band. Seeing the fabulously-monikered Future Man play the Synth-Axe-Drummitar, an instrument he invented – and essentially a drum kit on a guitar – is spectacular. It allows his fingers to be the drums sticks to re-create his impression of a drum kit. Dressed like Jack Sparrow, he is able to just play that or play it in tandem with rest of his custom made regular sized kit. Future Man’s brother, the iconic Victor Wooton, is inimitable on the bass, too. His playing is what any aspiring bassist is taught to listen to when first picking up the instrument, before putting it down again and going ‘there’s no way I’ll ever get that good’. Tonight, Wooton achieves mind-bending runs that defy what ought to be humanly possible. And still has a melodicism and groove that’s easy on the ear and defies stereotype that over-expertise can null creativity.

Meanwhile, head honcho Béla Fleck, famed for being the most notable person to play the banjo in jazz and be taken seriously, is a singular talent: the Steve Vai of the banjo world; a musical genius. Completing the group is Howard Levy, an outstanding pianist and harmonica player, who befuddles my mind drawing out this most modest of instruments to create harmony and polyphonic splendour. With said individual prowess aside, ultimately, it’s the meticulous sense of timing and spectacle of them all playing in tandem that you get the real magic. This first gig is proof yet again that Montreal Jazz’ ability to draw artists with virtuosity and an inventive approach is second to none.

It’s back out through the streets which are full of life since it’s Canada Day. The heightened atmosphere seems to be of benefit to the band commonly referred to as the Radiohead of UK Jazz, GOGO Penguin. The Mancunian trio are able to draw off the positive energy that’s permeated from the streets into this dimly-lit venue, which has two bars and a balcony level, and all areas packed with attentive fans.

Tonight’s set comes a few months since they release a career best album in A Humdrum Star: they ventured into more left-field territory than ever and got a lot of positive album reviews, and if it doesn’t get a mercury Prize nomination it’ll be a crying shame. It’s also their second LP for the iconic jazz label Blue Note label. But jazz can only be loosely applied when deciphering their musical anatomy: their music taste that draws on so many contemporary elements into the aesthetic of pure jazz. The drums that are on the driving foot and are hard-hitting often veering towards techno or math rock. The tricky rhythms are met with a bass that’s as effect laden as most shoegaze bands’ guitar. And the mesmerising grand piano that goes on a stark Nils Frahm-esque journey.

It’s the club-y rhythms that seem to draw a young energetic crowd and the grungy aesthetic of this standing venue helps along jovial heavy drinking vibe. Again, it’s testament to the Jazz Festival to be a programming these sorts of shows alongside the old school stuff that makes the festival such a great place for people of all interests to come together.

Keeping in theme with bringing in more young people to Jazz fest, the next night, Daniel Caesar is down to play the first of two headline shows at MTelus. Having played much lower down the bill last year, it is a remarkable step up and indicate of how well his neo-soul/gospel album Freudian has done.

Despite being from Toronto, the skinny dreadlocked 23-year-old is treated like a hometown hero. The singer’s not oblivious to how well his album’s been received in this city, either: within a few bars of the first cut, Caesar allows the crowd to sing his parts and this fan-choir bolster the impact of his incredibly personal lyrics in his slow-ballads. Much of the set seems to narrate being let down by love, before later in the set – with the tracks ‘Blessed’ and ‘Freudian’ – providing light against the merky shade of some of the songs. But things never get too introverted: come the close of his set, he’s singing his mega-hit ‘We Find Love’– a sad song, technically – slugging on a bottle of Jameson, glowing with self-confidence. Whatever was troubling him at the time of writing, he seems to be over now.

Along similar lines to the phenomenal vocal ability and charisma of Daniel Caesar, the backing bands ablity is never in question. It’s under a year since his album’s been released and yet he’s managed to translate all the nuances of it to his group. With guitar, drums, keys, and bass all attacking their instruments viscerally at times - there’s flash lead guitar playing, and interesting challenges in terms of timing for the musician, with sudden stops all over the place. It’s their virtuosity to pull this off that make it a show fans of just about any genre can appreciate – and a show those who feel the lyrics in his songs of love and loss will adore.

Some actual jazz is up next: the jazz label Blue Note always have a good presence at Montreal Jazz, and the next evening, the remarkable Brian Blade and the Fellowship band are down to play at the sultry, red velvet seated Monument National. Blade is the star in this in one of one of the most soulful, heartfelt jazz groups in the world – up there with Charles Mingus. Employing an ear for an arresting melody, their sound is cathartic, timeless and thrilling. It meanders from sombre, haunting tones on the pump organ, to hearing the woodwind, as grand piano and woodwind players reign it in to bring frenetic drum solos to the forefront. The crowd are positively gushing with excitement, and it’s gold to be around.

In contrast to the decadent theatre, Blade dresses rather plainly, but his with his low stool, high knees and upraised elbows lend the player a truly distinctive style as a player, that would render elaborate attire rather superfluous.He's not only a great live performer, but a reliable studio hack at the top of the game, having played noted for having played drums for the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan and Marianne Faithfull. Ultimately, Blade makes jazz feel more rock ‘n’ roll than anywhere else in the festival.

This festival is always an opportunity to see styles of music that are under represented and offers an insight into a scene that could enhance your music listening forever. One of these is Altin Gün, who’ve opened a new audience to the oft-overlooked archive of 70s Turkish psychedelia. Formed of four Dutch musicians, and two Turkish (singer Nerve Dasdemir, and multi-instrumentalist and singer Erdinc Yildiz Ecevit) their set is a compilation of covers. Covers of tunes from a beguiling likes of Selda, Barış Manço and Erkin Koray, who mixed Western psych influences with Turkish music. And Altin Gun take more traditional songs, with their own psych references. There’s a bit of Tame Impala in there somehow.

Mostly it’s massively high energy but there are some interesting lulls: an especially arresting moment occurs when male singer Ecevit takes the mic whilst keeping his Roland Juno synth and saz – a kind of long-necked lute on the go. He projects well as a vocalist, posessing one of the strongest sets of pipes I’ve heard all festival. The band end on a high by getting everyone to raise their arms to a rabble-rousing rhythms before conceding this is the best crowd they’ve ever had – and who could argue? It’s difficult to imagine a more receptive audience than this Montreal crowd.

The next day’s highlight involves returning to the wonderful Place Des Arts, in the swanky 2,990 seater Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier venue, for production wonder Bonobo, real name Simon Green, who is promoting his new album Migration with a full-live band tour. The set is a rich palette of ideas swirling in and out of sparse, ethereal dream-like comedown music, and the highs of a night out in full flow on the dancefloor with elements of dub and breakbeat. It connects emphatically with Montrealers who themselves have a strong dance scene coming largely out of the artsy Mile End and Mile Ex neighbourhood.

It’s great witnessing how globetrotter, knob-twiddler and bass player-cum-band leader has angled his music to be more global and timeless than ever since the release of his new album Migration. He's shown himself to be amore gripping composer than ever. Ever the audiophile, Green delivers these gripping new compositions through an incredible rig - the best studio sound on stage.

Of the cuts that connect the most, ‘Kiara’ from the Black Sands album has an unforgettable hook that will live on as a fan favourite forever. And new album cut ‘Outlier’, when it’s in full flight, is an astonishing example of tastefully produced high-octane dance music. But it’s the way he’s built the set dynamics and the impact of the piece of music connecting together that’s best. Magnetic stuff.

The next night I see Kimbra, who, compared to Bonobo, has a much more modest set up. She used to have a massive touring band but now keeps more synths than band members.

With just two backing musicians behind her only, playing solely electronic gear, Kimbra is the main focus in dim light and strobes. The austere aesthetic of an electronic performance over a pop performance seems to be favoured.

The set seems to be the result of doing things she wants as an artist. It doesn’t reek of compromise or commercialism whatsoever, which is refreshing for a major label artist pushed to make sales. This attitude comes forth when instead of playing Gotye’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ as it usually is she does a sort of K-hole take for a handful of bars then segues into a more warped version of ‘Settle Down’. The majority of the set from hereon-in draws off third album Primal Heart, and her vision takes flight as a true artist, belting mesmerising melodies with real bite over a soundscape canvas that could pass for Björk or Onephrix Point Never wouldn’t seem out of place being credited to. It makes the whole pop, jazz and soul billing she’s been put under on the venue seem a bit superfluous really.

Whilst most of the time at Montreal Jazz Festival is spent seeing music, there has been some controversy. As I arrived a few days into the festival, I wasn’t there when all this kicked off, right at the beginning, but there was a massive protest against SLAV, a play running 16 shows about slavery played by a majority white cast. The lack of black representation of subject matter so sensitive riled this politically astute city and protests prevailed. At 4pm on Saturday afternoon 7 July, a week after I’ve been here, the festival wrap up conference focuses on the issue of SLAV, before leading into the usual proceedings. Mainstream TV news channels are discussing it, and there's canvasing all around the city. Moses Sumney's cancelled his performance at the festival because of it. It’s a big deal and no wonder the first thing talked about by the CEO of Montreal Jazz Fest, Jacques-André Dupont. Deeply moved, he explains their decision to cancel the performance isn’t to do with censorship of content, more that the psychological impact of the movement that co-creator Betty Bonifassi was suffering from, coupled with the safety of those involved made it untenable to carry on. The CEO concluded his speech by pointing out that the rift was part of a much broader issue than what's occured at Jazz Fest, implying racial inequality and subordination of black and indigenous voices in the arts as a whole. “We need to do better,” he said sincerely as a rallying call to everyone.

After the intensity of the wrap up conference it's off to decompress with with Hammond B-3 organ maestro Dr. Lonnie Smith, who has been with Blue Note first in the late 60s, before returning in 2016 and and releasing two albums

The gig is held in Gesù theatre, and entering involves pulling more heavy soundproofing doors than one would care to after a long week out on the town. The cave-like atmosphere that this soundproofing gives though is worth it and the turbaned Dr. Lonnie Smith, who is in command of the room. Immediately striking is his wide child-like smile which shows a playfulness that’s never left him. Flanked by a wizardry jazz guitar lead player and a drummer who plays with all his toms and cymbals laid out flat - weird - it feels like they’re right in the moment using past standards and charts as a loose guide. The virtuouso touch and speed in deliver funk and jazz odyssey that is full of happiness and light. An essential antidote to an epochj marked by trouble. If the artist job is to be a chemist of emotion, I think, and a dispensr of pure love then Dr Lonnie Smith is just te antidote we need.

Leaving Gesù, it's off to soak up the prog (prog is massive in Montreal) of England’s Soft Machine and a 50th anniversary set from Jethro Tull. The former are a bit more loose and volatile, like the sonic youth of Prog tonight, whilst the latter’s show is a chiseled spectacle with video phone ins from the likes of Slash and Toni Iommi saying which of Tull's tunes influences them. Slash gets his pick dead on with saying ‘Aqualung’ is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time – and you can hear how much Guns ‘N’ Roses’ have paid homage to Tull over the years when this song rings out. Iain Anderson, the only original member left, dazzles with his flute playing as usual, and confidently goes out with enough energy to suggest they may well have another 10 years left in them.

In contrast to the tight-knit lifelong fans who are attentive to every word of the Jethro Tull show, the next involves a more mixed audience some of whom are War on Drugs obsessives and others that have been drawn in for the spectacle of a free gig for 60,000 people. Luckily it isn't one of those painful free gigs where you have to sign up to a corporate mailing list and apply for free tickets, then stand in a queue for hours. It's just a free for all on Place Des Festivals, and sure enough the turn out does not disappoint. This closing slot of the festival tends to go to artists that are ion the brink of superstardom. Last year it was Anderson .Paak, and this year War On Drugs – already superstars to my mind.

Being a band booked to play in front of 60,000 + people is largely a result of Adam Granduciel' extraodinary second album Lost In The Dream taking off so well. It landed him a deal with Atlantic who've splashed out on marketing for a third and that went down well too. He's managed to bring a live show that lives up to the impact of the records to create a mix of Sprinsteen, Neil Young and space rock.

It's still second album cuts that cut through in the set. It's likely this album will be difficult to surpass in his career, and the incredible 'Red Eyes’ and ‘Under The Pressure' are real high points. But it's the set structure as a whole that's magical: deploying a mixture of concise songs and a more anarchic space that people can trip out to is a strong move front the band. Throughout the wig-outs , the singer maintains a great synergy with his keyboard player who helps ram the hooks out to the obeying crowd. Granduciel's ability to command the attention of 60,000 comes not only from having a massive band sound – he does, anyway – but from being a proper singer who's more theatrical in his measured understatement than he could ever be strutting around the stage. In between songs he's able to snap out of the drama, though, for some light-hearted respite. Introducing his band it seems everyone in the camp is in good stead with each other an the it bodes well for the future. With Granduciel who is an amazing songwriter, lead player and vocally is probably the best at what he does since Springsteen, it's great to see he's on the road with people who'll help him live out his dreams and temptations however high they stretch.

With War on Drugs the main gig to wrap up the 39th edition of Montreal Jazz Festival it caps off an unbeatable run of gigs. THe sheer breadth and quality of bands you end up discovering is astonishing. It’ll keep me nurtured until next year comes and beyond. If there was a Seven Wonders of the World in music then Montreal Jazz would definitely get one of those spots.

Photo: Alexis Aubin