“I am Louis Armstrong,” joked legendary bassist Stanley Clarke after introducing his band at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal on Monday (July 3). His irreverence hit on a truth of the festival — that its jazz is framed as both pilgrimage-worthy and codified, much as it is (fittingly) across the pond and in contrast to the looser and occasionally even flip response the music receives in its native U.S. of A.
Cultural differences felt more acute (for this American writer, at least) given that the 10-day fete (June 28 to July 9) included both Canada’s 150th anniversary (July 1) and America’s 241st (July 4, also known as Louis Armstrong’s self-proclaimed birthday). Patriotism of some form or another was nearly inescapable — a strange subtext when most of the music is American (whether most of its residents choose to claim it or not) and you’re in Canada.
The festival hardly wants for breadth: its long schedule and dizzying array of venues offer something for quite literally everyone, from hip-hop fans (Anderson Paak and Joey Bada$$) to salseros (Gipsy Kings) to those looking for a classic big band (the reprised Cab Calloway Orchestra, participating in a battle of the bands of all things). An app helps festivalgoers decipher exactly what is happening where, though most of the larger concerts require ticket purchases in advance.
Shows all start exactly on time, there are never lines, and you are usually seated in a symphony-style theater, assigned to a place where you must sit, facing the stage. This is in pretty stark contrast to most American festivals, which even when well run, tend to rely on an air of chaos that ideally produces unrepeatable spontaneity (think the unannounced guests at Coachella or Summer Jam, or the jam sessions after the Detroit Jazz Festival). Worst case, that chaos devolves into catastrophe (the Fyre Festival being an extreme example).
In Montreal, though, even what appears to be spontaneous is actually orchestrated. A quick glance at the schedule tells you that the brass band weaving its way through the rainy street performing Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” and Future’s “Mask Off” is the Urban Science Brass Band, slotted each day at 5 p.m. to add a little New Orleans-style flair. The special guests are announced, if they exist, as with John Pizzarelli’s polished series of tributes to jazz greats featuring Catherine Russell, Daniel Jobim, and Jessica Molaskey.
A “Discotheque” tribute to Canadian music on Canada Day was an impeccably executed medley of Canadian hits featuring back-up dancers, confetti, and glow-sticks — the music included a cameo by Len, who performed his 1999 hit “Steal My Sunshine,” Men Without Hats (“Safety Dance”) and squeaky-clean covers of both Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and The Weeknd’s “Earned It’ (curiously enough, no Drake). No minute or song was unaccounted for or left audiences waiting, which meant perfect timing for the downpour that accompanied Carly Rae Jepsen’s cameo (“Run Away With Me” and “Call Me Maybe,” naturally).
Insofar as music can be divorced from atmosphere, it was exceptional. Dynamic contemporary jazz artists like Kendrick Scott and Ambrose Akinmusire overcame the staidness of the large theaters they were housed in, which came complete with larger audiences than they can’t always draw across the border.
U.K./South Africa group Shabaka and the Ancestors shook up the house with a typically rousing set, offering a flash of what jazz — in its most global state — is becoming, while maintaining a lifeline to what it’s always been. Good time grooves could be found with the (both ecclesiastically-titled) Sammy Miller & the Congregation and Cory Henry & the Funk Apostles. International ensemble Bokante (which features members of Snarky Puppy) offered a bit more depth from the same danceable well. The festival’s concert hall-centric setting was best served by Colin Stetson’s awe-inspiring solo performance — his cinematic, fluid, and lush compositions filling every corner of the Maison symphonique.
One of the festival’s largest concerts came from an American legend Bob Dylan, whose performance took place in the Centre Bell (home of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team). As gruff as ever, Dylan still readily played nothing but the hits, reprising the same tunes that have been in his repertoire for 50 years with roughly the same amount of enthusiasm he’s had all along. By the time he got to “Autumn Leaves.” he was positively crooning, chrome mic stand held at a rakish angle as he offered a reverent rendition of the standard. It was a performance in line with the Nobel Prize winner’s most recent albums Triplicate and Shadows In the Night, both tributes to American classics.