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Montreal Jazzfest Was a Musical Buffet and We Consumed All of It

Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Kamasi Washington, and more played the fest's 37th edition.

Terrace Martin. All photos by Sharonne Cohen.

If you've never been to the Montreal International Jazz Festival—the largest in the world, according to Guinness world records—picture this: nearly two million festival goers descending on a few square blocks in the heart of downtown Montreal for 11 days and nights of music. This year's 37th edition took place June 29-July 9. The festival is a massive celebration of music: jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, soul, hip-hop, rock, and pop from artists from around the world who brought their distinct flavours. Over 350 bands performed a total of 800 concerts in different venues and stages, the majority being free, outdoor performances. Intent on maximizing my experience, I explored the mammoth program ahead of time, crafting a daily schedule of non-stop music.


The jazz programming represented all types of sounds and styles. One of the festival's highlights was Oliver Jones' farewell concert on July 7th. Jones, is a Montreal treasure; a pianist, organist, composer and arranger, he was born and raised in Saint-Henri—a mostly working-class neighborhood of Montreal. He lived only a few blocks from another Montreal legend: pianist Oscar Peterson. Jones has had a rich and diverse career, and the festival honored him with a double bill: a set with his tight trio, followed by an appearance with the Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal. The technique, soulfulness, and swing of this hometown jazz giant was clearly on display. Other living legends headlining the festival: New York organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, a guru of the Hammond B-3. Smith has recorded a slew of albums—mostly jazz but also covers of the Beatles, the Stylistics and the Eurythmics, and tribute albums to Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck. His music has been sampled in rap, dance, and house music. Wearing his signature turban, Dr. Smith performed two sold-out nights at the Upstairs Jazz and Grill in trio format, many in the audience saying it was the best concert they had ever seen.

Danny Brown

The legendary Taj Mahal, Grammy Award-winning blues/world music guitarist, songwriter, and singer, received the B.B. King Blues Award; the previous night, jazz and fusion pianist, keyboardist, and composer Chick Corea, featured a trio with two musicians he has collaborated with extensively over the years: bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, themselves icons in the jazz world. Many of Corea's compositions have become jazz standards; you might recognize "Spain" (off Light as a feather). Another prominent pianist featured this year was nine-time Grammy nominee Kenny Barron, who at only 19 was playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Barron was honored by the festival in two ways: an Invitation Series (a three-night residency with invited guests), and the Miles Davis Award presented on stage prior to Barron's concert with Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke.


The festival showcased jazz artists representing everything from vocal jazz to straight-ahead combos to avant-garde. Vocalist and songwriter Gregory Porter, who received the Ella Fitzgerald Award, delivered on the range, sensitivity and warm tone he is known for, performing material from the recently released Take Me to the Alley, as well as his previous three albums (including the Grammy-winning Liquid Spirit, 2014). Chicago-born, NYC-based Jamie Woods opened for Porter, in duo with her equally talented brother Solo (Daniel) Woods on guitar and vocals, performing tender, soulful r&b tunes taken mostly from her debut EP Troy. In the traditional Big Band department, there was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (active for nearly 30 years), led by world-famous composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Into something a little more adventurous? There was the spacey late-night set by the London-based trio The Comet is Coming, mixing electronica, dub, psychedelic rock, funk and African grooves with an improvisational jazz sensibility. Inspired by cosmic jazz visionary Sun Ra, guided by the idea of cosmic interconnectedness, and with the beat at its core, the trio delivered an inspiring set charged with hypnotic cycles emulating the cyclical movements of the cosmos. It was as if keyboardist Danalogue the Conqueror and drummer Betamax Killer crafted the setting for saxophonist King Shabaka to come in with his raw, wailing horn, taking us to distant realms we were able to sense, somehow, on more than an auditory level. Funk-soul queen Sharon Jones and the Dapp Kings played the festival's mega-opening outdoor concert, drawing thousands to the festival's main stage. Jones, A Daptone Records artist, leads a revivalist movement embodying the essence of 1960s and 70s funk-soul.


Another standout this year was Barron's second invited guest, flutist and vocalist Elena Ayodele Pinderhughes—Presidential Scholar and student at the Manhattan School of Music. At 21, she is not only a technically skilled musician, but also plays with much depth and imagination, and a clear and beautiful tone.Pinderhughes also played three nights as a member of New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott's band (Scott had his own Invitation Series). She'll be featured on an upcoming recording by her brother, promising young pianist Samora Pinderhughes.

If you've listened to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, you've heard West Coast saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose pre-opening bring-the-house-down concert tipped us off to some of the flavor the festival had in store, highlighting young artists taking jazz in different directions. Washington has worked both with jazz (Herbie Hancock) and hip-hop artists (Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill), and is an integral part of the sound on Lamar's recording. Playing for about 1,500 people at the Métropolis, he explored music from The Epic (Brainfeeder), inspired by jazz as well as funk and r&b. Several days later the festival welcomed multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin, who co-produced Lamar's album. Playing keyboards and saxophone, and supported by a tight unit, Martin played a soulful jazz-funk set at Club Soda, with music from his recent Velvet Portraits. Taylor McFerrin, son of Bobby McFerrin—a beat boxer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer—played a set with drummer Marcus Gilmore, also the son of a jazz legend: drummer Roy Haynes. With Taylor on synth, a sampler and occasional vocals, the two revisited material from McFerrin's 2014 album Early Riser, improvising on compositions such as "Florasia" and "Decisions," and closing out with a recent remix for Hiatus Kaiyote.


Grammy award-winning keyboardist Cory Henry of Snarky Puppy took the audience to church with a gospel-meets-Stevie set, playing mostly Hammond B-3. Henry opened with "Amazing Grace," followed with music from his new album, The Revival, Stevie Wonder's "You can Feel it all over" and D'Angelo's "Untitled." By the time the encore came around, the entire audience was on its feet, clapping and singing "We Want the Funk!"— George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic's legendary tune. Earlier in the set, Henry spoke about the current state of music distribution, commenting on how consumers often stream music rather than buying it. "Support the artists!" he said. "CDs still matter. Tell everybody."

Cory Henry

Unsurprisingly, trying to see Lauryn Hill and Bilal perform the same night was tricky. Hill's chronic lateness prevented this ambitious reporter from catching two full sets; sneaking out an hour into Bilal's underwhelming 10PM show at Club Soda, I rushed over to Place des Arts to catch the tail end of Miss Hill's performance, her mega band sounding strong as she delivered Jacques Brel's nearly 60-year-old song "Ne me quitte pas" in close dialogue with Montreal's own Jordan Peters on guitar, "Feeling Good" (recorded most famously by Nina Simone) and "That Thing," the adoring crowd not wanting to let her go.

With more emphasis than ever on well deserving local artists, and a focus on and up-and-coming musicians as well as established veterans working within the jazz sphere and beyond, the festival's jam-packed 11 days had something for everyone—jazz fiends, world music lovers, pop/soul/r&b fans, and everything in between. There's already buzz about next summer's edition, coinciding with Montreal's 375th anniversary and Canada's 150th. But this year’s edition of Jazzfest proved that the event is always a special time, no matter what.

Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.