Lauryn Hill & Brian Wilson Help Keep the Montreal Jazz Festival Humming

Lauryn Hill performs at the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival.
Denis Alix

Lauryn Hill performs at the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival.

Smart programming draws nearly 2 million people to the 2016 edition.

The arrival of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal means the summer festival season is officially under way, but as with other multi-genre offerings, it also faces shifting dynamics between commerce and curated performance.

Thanks to smart programming, the 37th edition of eleven-day event managed to hold its own, bolstering its reach -- between June 29 and July 9the festival drew almost two million attendees -- via a mix of pop, rock, blues and soul acts, as well as plenty of hip-hop, indie, dance and world music without sacrificing its commitment to jazz. 

A dependable tourist attraction for the Quebec city, the hip-populist extravaganza showcased mainstream artists like Lauryn Hill, Brian Wilson and Rufus Wainwright alongside perennial jazzmen like Canadian pianist Oliver Jones, Branford Marsalis and Chick Corea. 

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Opening night kicked off with shows by heralded Daptone funk mistress Sharon Jones and contemporary jazz-soul singer Gregory Porter. Dominating downtown Montreal with a number of free outdoor stages, concession booths, paid indoor venues of various sizes and plenty of extra-cultural attractions, the Jazz Fest presented more than 600 performances and transformed the city centre into a maze of arts and celebration.

Longtime Jazz publicist Ann Braithwaite has worked with the Montreal Jazz Festival on the American side for more than two decades and affirms, “I love how broad the fest is and how it brings people together. You can see ten shows a night and catch artists like Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith improvising with Vijay Iyer, all in the same evening.”

Indeed, popular performers like bluesman Taj Mahal and New Orleans bandleader Trombone Shorty provide better opportunities to honor the likes of respected saxophonist-composer Steve Coleman and veteran bebop pianist Kenny Barron.

Singer Lauryn Hill sold out the sizable Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier concert hall on July 5 and 6, but then kept her adoring audiences waiting with unusually late appearances on both nights. Beach Boy Brian Wilson started his show on time, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Pet Sounds album along with original band-mate Al Jardine and early 1970s Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin. Despite Wilson’s wooden presence, the show was enlivened by crystalline harmonies from eight capable singers and solid lead vocals from Jardine, his son Matt Jardine and Mr. Chaplin playing the rock star on odd favorites like “Wild Honey” and “Sail On Sailor.”

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Contrasting jazz shows were the norm, with 75 year-old keyboard legend Chick Corea appearing the same night as Joey Alexander, a 12-year-old piano prodigy. Pianist Kenny Baron was presented with the festival’s Miles Davis Award. Barron also played three nights in a row with a rotating cast of handpicked musicians as part of the fest’s celebrated Invitation Series.

One of the more exciting shows featured the Campbell Brothers performing John Coltrane’s classic, “A Love Supreme.” Enlivening Coltrane’s ecstatic tone poem with vibrant sacred steel guitars, they included portions of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and the old spiritual “Wade In The Water” as well as pedal steel guitar theatrics, booming electric bass, and a drum solo to boot. From a free outdoor stage on a hot summer night, the Campbell Brothers thrilled thousands of unsuspecting onlookers with a jazz performance unique to the 21st Century -- as it should be in Montreal.


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