While all this comes under the banner of jazz, the Montreal festival is populist in its appeal and expecting two million attendees over 11 days. Starting things off with a “pre-opening” show featuring Beck, the festival has been trotting out heritage artists like Earth Wind & Fire, singers Tony Bennett (joined by Lady Gaga for a surprise duet), Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, hometown favorite Michael Buble (performing July 4 and 5) and solo concerts from pianists Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau.
The biggest events have been part of the free outdoor Les Performances series. French artist Woodkid put on a visually mesmerizing performance for the Opening Event, and Sunday night’s Grand Event featured Canadian sweetheart Diana Krall playing her first free concert in Montreal — in front of 100,000 people. Supported by a quintet that included guitarist Marc Ribot, Krall was boosted by a “surprise” appearance from husband Elvis Costello, who’d been playing his own solo concert earlier that evening. Costello accompanied Krall’s encore, which included The Band’s “Ophelia” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Another unexpected appearance came during Bennett’s Sunday night performance at the Wilfrid-Pelletier venue: one Lady Gaga, reportedly wearing a wedding dress. (The two have a forthcoming duet album, "Cheek to Cheek.") Gaga performed a solo version of “Lush Life,” which had the 87-year-old Bennett gushing that she is “one of the best jazz singers I ever heard.” They sang “But Beautiful” together and then Bennett serenaded Gaga with “Sophisticated Lady” and dedicated his version of “The Good Life” to her as well.
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Other respected elders The Heath Brothers, singer Sheila Jordan and the Fred Hersch Trio played gigs at the cozy Upstairs jazz venue, while contemporary vocalists like Trixie Whitley, Beth Hart and Jose James played sets at the Club Soda cabaret. Ms. Whitley, daughter of the late Chris Whitley, strangely confessed to being newly pregnant while onstage, and played another show supporting Quebec legend musician Daniel Lanois.
Jarrett’s Saturday concert at the Maison Symphonique was highly anticipated, as the esteemed pianist hadn’t played a solo show in Montreal for 25 years and the event was to be recorded. His performance was completely improvised and quite compelling, providing the audience with three encores. Pianist Mehldau played the same venue in the same solo fashion a few nights later, with equally ecstatic results. Mehldau also appeared at the Gesu theater in a piano duet with featured musician Tigran.
Modern soul man Cody ChesnuTT brought his band to Club Soda for a funky late-night set, while reggae mainstay Burning Spear appeared at the Metropolis nightclub along with the supreme Jamaican rhythm team Sly & Robbie. Trombone Shorty returned to rock Montreal for the third year in a row — the New Orleans star is clearly becoming a festival favorite.
Drummers also led the way with performances from the Jack DeJohnette Trio featuring bassist Matt Garrison and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, the Jeff Ballard Trio featuring guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon, and Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion featuring Pee Wee Ellis. The aging Mr. Baker led his quartet through some jazz standards and also displayed his love for the music of Lagos and Nigeria. Baker’s interludes with African percussionist Abass Dodoo were faintly reminiscent of his playing with Fela Kuti’s band so long ago.
Hardcore jazz fans were treated to saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and his Gamak project, fusing Indian classical music with jazz fusion and showcasing drummer Dan Weiss. The Children of Light featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade dazzled the crowd at the Jean-Duceppe auditorium, and young trumpet sensation Ambrose Akinmusire hosted three nights at the Gesu for his portion of the Invitation Series. Akinmusire played with his own quintet and hosted duets with both Tigran and veteran guitarist Bill Frisell, calling his show with the latter a “life-changing event.” It would seem like Montreal has more life-changing events planned through Sunday, with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Joe Lovano, hip-hop supergroup Deltron 3030, Andrew Bird and many others.