It was, it turned out, very good advice. Now in its 40th year, the event has a distinct air about it: one sprawling street party, where Montréal’s residents – emerging from a winter battling sub-zero temperatures – dance and drink their evenings away under the city’s glinting skyscrapers.
Montréal Jazz Festival has become both a mecca for the world’s most formidable jazz musicians, and a showcase for artists doing great things in peripheral genres. From Manu Katché and Buddy Guy to First Aid Kit and alt-J, this year’s line-up brought together veteran jazz scholars, nu-school innovators, and the occasional big pop headliner. Quality was the common denominator: whether catching a gig in the local shopping mall, or seeing out an evening under the bright lights of the main pavilion, every single venue was immaculate, and every single musician deserved their spot on the stage: it was easy to stumble upon something remarkable.
What’s the setup?
This year’s festival lasted 11 days and consisted of a whopping 500 gigs, with free outdoor shows and a number of ticketed indoor events across various local venues. Most venues – indoor and outdoor – are set around the Quartier des spectacles, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes on foot to navigate between them.
With the indoor shows, thought, it’s vital to book to avoid disappointment: big shows fill up quickly and are mostly seated.
Who we saw
Delirious with jetlag, I wandered around the Quartier des spectacles on my first night to try and drag myself into a new timezone. This is when I stumbled upon The Brooks, as the sound of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” wafted over the evening air and sent me tripping towards the main stage.
The band – hailing from Montréal – were phenomenal, charting the history of funk and soul through from Diana Ross to Erykah Badu: an appropriately accessible set for the event’s opening night, propelled by a heavy-ass brass section. A crowd – young lovers, octogenarian couples, the occasional pissed tourist – swung each other about in the front rows, and an ensemble of vocalists took turns in the spotlight, smooth granddaddy Alan Prater, dressed in matching denim and sparkling with soul, making a notable impression. I left at 12am – 5am on my bodyclock – feeling more awake than I can describe.
Richard Reed Parry
As one of the festival’s concierges told me, Montréal Jazz Festival isn’t really a jazz festival anymore. The organisers continue to go out of their way to welcome talent that’s tangential to the event’s nominal genre: blues, straight-up rock, hip-hop, pop and folk were all present.
In the latter camp, Richard Reed Parry, of Arcade Fire, gave a performance unlike any other – and certainly one that would have chimed with those a bit adverse to jazz standard navel-gazing. On my arrival to Société des Arts Technologiques, I was given a small cup of floral tea and instructed to lie down on a big beanbag, to stare upward into the huge, domed ceiling of the Satosphère. Onto it was projected the still surface of a river, as if viewed from below: fishes and tadpoles darted out of the peripheries, and the throb of water pumped from speakers that encircled the audience.
When Reed Parry arrived and his band assembled, the visuals lifted my fellow attendees and I up to the river’s surface. Over the next hour we were taken on a voyage – floating through forest canopies, tossed in violent surf, and eventually spat out into the sea. The music, which was adapted from Reed Parry’s album A Quiet River of Dust Vol 2, locked together with the visuals: cymbals crashing along with waves at the performances’ victorious apex. Completely unique and an affecting accompaniment to an already solid alt-folk offering.
It would have felt rude to attend Montréal’s annual jazz event and not see any actual jazz, so I closed my Friday night by catching stalwart drummer Steve Gadd – perhaps most well-known to novices like myself as the sticksman behind the first shuffling bars of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave your Lover”. Gadd’s set was a mixture of original compositions from various band members, and takes on jazz standards, each song demonstrating his famed fluidity and sensitivity on the kit.
Gadd himself was jocular and modest, taking every opportunity to thank his ensemble (“I just love playing with these guys”, he beamed, midway through) – the familial vibe enhanced by the low-lit, more traditional atmosphere of Monument-National. A chance to catch one of the world’s greatest instrumentalists in his element.
My encounter with Seamour was entirely accidental. Overcome by the city’s oppressive heat, I dipped into Complexes Dejardins – Montréal’s über-slick mall just off the main festival drag – to cool off, and was suddenly captured by the sound of The Internet’s “Girl” floating up from the centre’s lower ground floor. This was Montréal native Seamour, armed with just an MPC and a killer voice, and dressed in an unassuming outfit of red shorts, t-shirt and trainers.
After this stripped-back introduction, her backing band whirred into action, firing off an original repertoire that sat deliciously between soul, nu-jazz and trap. Seamour belted the hooks (the quality of musicianship was astounding, not least for a band playing in a shopping centre) but also dropped a few shy raps, eliciting some delighted ‘whoops’ from the ever-increasing crowd. Towards the end of her gig, she also smashed out a cover of Anderson .Paak’s “Make Room”, playing it dangerously close to the original and absolutely nailing every bar.
Despite the sterility of the environment – you could hear the faint rattle of the food court over the music, and at one point I absent-mindedly cracked out a miniature bottle of wine before a security guard appeared from nowhere and reprimanded me in French – Seamour had the hodge-podge clientele transfixed, and injected an intimacy into the venue’s polished surfaces. A stand out fave.
Yaron Herman Trio
It’s every band’s worst nightmare: you’re about to take to an outdoor stage when the clouds open on your awaiting audience. But Israeli-Franco pianist Yaron Herman’s fans came prepared: a canopy of umbrellas shot up at the first sign of rain, and his trio’s sunny energy kept attendees rooted through the brief, ill-timed interruption.
Though Yaron is definitely Making Jazz – roping in drummer Ziv Ravitz and bassist Joe Martin from New York to accompany his performance – he cites James Blake and Thom Yorke as primary influences, his latest solo offering, Y, augmenting contemporary piano compositions with distortion, delays and ghostly electronics.
Though a touch more traditional in their set up, Yaron’s live trio retain his knack for balancing sheer technical proficiency with sturdy emotional core: highlights of the set included “From the Sun”, a snail-pace romantic ballad tinged with some faint, unsettling melancholy, and “Our Love”, in which flickering keys and stuttering brushes rumbled, slow, towards an ecstatic crescendo.
The trio’s chemistry added yet more warmth: Yaron himself charming and self-effacing whilst having to wipe the rain off of his grand piano, and the band exchanging brotherly nods of affection – Ziv, especially, was fixed with a glorious, almost disbelieving grin throughout. Knowing the trio were also billed to support Madeline Peryoux the previous evening, I’m glad I took the trip to one of the festival’s more out-of-town stages, the new, free Loto-Quebec Scene, to catch them in full.
As you’d expect, I met a heap of local jazz nerds in Montréal, and – for a good number of them – Chicago producer/drummer Makaya McCraven was the show they were bee-lining for. After being introduced to the Doubletree Hotel’s extravagant rooftop bar by a pair of said nerds (a surprisingly-underutilised viewpoint from which to overlook the festival’s main stage), I rounded out my last night at church-cum-gig-venue Gesù, to catch the much-anticipated show.
Perhaps most well known to Brits for his affiliation with Total Refreshment Centre, McCraven was one of the artists representing London jazz’s new wave at this year’s event, alongside tuba firestarter Theon Cross and saxophonist Nubya Garcia. His set was blinding: a gentle start came in the form of the crisp “Young Genius” – taken from his LP Universal Beings – and a soft, waltzing “Hungarian Lullaby”, which McCraven explained was inspired by the songs sung to him by his mother, folk artist Agnes Zsigmondi.
But as things progressed, the reigns were shaken off, McCraven combining dexterous and often delicate playing with fast-and-furious licks. A heavy-as-fuck rendition of “The Bounce!”, from his fiery mixtape Where We Come From, provided a rowdy centrepiece – the absence of original players Cross and Garcia not denting any of its potency.
Afterwards, fans were noisy with praise, clutching coveted rare vinyl, the pulse of London’s underground felt thousands of miles away as we poured out into the still-warm night.
What to do
One of the nicest things about Montréal Jazz Festival is that it allows you so much space to enjoy the city, with most stages and venues firing up late afternoon.
There’s a lot to see – from Montréal’s contemporary art museum and the botanical gardens, to pretty regular performances from native circus pioneers Cirque Du Soleil. But personally, I enjoyed my short stay eating excessive amounts of vegan poutine (Québec’s bougee take on chips and gravy) and wandering around the city’s heaving second-hand stores. Thanks to the local community’s almost-alarming levels of kindness and hospitality, it’s possible to let residents’ recommendations guide your way once you’re there, rather than drawing up some exhausting itinerary.
For wholesome nosh, both St Catherine and St Denis have a host of outlets – I particularly loved local chains Copper Branch and La Panthère Verte, where you can get head-sized portions of tempeh, guac, rice and salad (albeit at a slightly elevated price). If you’re mid-festival, the aforementioned Complexes Jardins has less hipster cred, but a commendable dearth of junk food: here you can grab tacos, burritos and salads before heading steps out the door to rejoin the jams.
Shopping-wise, Mile End is – fittingly – Montréal’s answer to East London: check out Annex for tote bags splashed with indie illustrations and an array of patches blazoned with memes and pithy political slogans. On Mount Royal you’ll find hippie garb and fantastic silver jewellery – shout out to Tony at Abra Ka Dabrah and his seemingly endless haul of vintage leather bags. Eva B’s is also worth a gander: doubling up as a vegan café, this cavernous, wallet-friendly store hosts more traditional vintage downstairs, with a big backroom dedicated to general second-hand. And every year, to coincide with the fest, local artists gather along the strip of St Catherine to sell their wares: from collages to watercolours, this was a delightful place to meet and greet potters, painters and graffiti artists.
Also: definitely hop down to see the Tam-Tams on Sunday, where drummers (and the occasional novice like myself who’s ill-advisedly been handed a guiro) gather to bash out ever-evolving, non-stop rhythms in and around the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Monument. I feared the worst stoner love-in, but – despite the pungent aroma of green – this little community get-down feels incredibly pure and open, as tourists and locals dance and play together, surrounded by the verdant slopes of Mount Royal park.
Montréal Jazz Festival’s 2019 edition was one of the best festival experiences I’ve ever had. It’s notable that every local I spoke to had nothing but praise for the event: despite the unavoidable disruption caused by the influx of thousands of tourists each year, the dates were etched in their calendars, a proud marker of the city’s rich musical history and the talent it still incubates.
From the calibre of the musicians to boring logistical bits like navigating between venues, the organisers have it nailed, meaning its very easy to simply wander out from your hotel and into something mind-blowing. And the line-up’s eclecticism means there are very few music-lovers who won’t find their taste represented. All in all, a vibrant carnival of culture, and the best way to see Montréal in its summer skin.