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Though Montreal is a remarkably manageable (even for a solitary driver) six hours trip from New York, it is foolish to lollygag at home thinking that arriving at 5 pm on a Wednesday will not present problems. Montreal is a metropolis like any other, with its attendant traffic problems (though denizens stuck in said traffic seem to be more civilized... your correspondent was even waved into a turn-only lane). But after having arrived, one is again struck by how completely given over the center of the city is to jazz.
New York in 2006 was the host of the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference, a gathering attended by almost everyone in the industry. Walking around the conference hotel, you could almost be excused for thinking that jazz was universally popular. Then you walked out of the hotel to get a sandwich and were hit by reality. In Montreal however, for ten days, it is a jazz city and jazz does matter here. For this alone, it is worth it, for jaded New Yorkers or jaded anybodys, to make that picturesque drive through upstate New York.
The festival runs this year from June 28 to July 9th, with the 4th acting as a divided with a lighter load of concerts. Things begin in earnest on the 29th, allowing the multitudes who come for all points international to get settled. That does not mean however that the first evening is a throwaway. There were only three concerts but they serve as a good introduction to the festival and its breadth. Pianist Brad Mehldau's trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard opened the 2006 edition of the festival with a marathon performance at Theatre Maisonneuve (as well as the first of many musicians addressing the Francophone audiences in charmingly halting French). Guitarist Birele Lagrene had an evening of solos and duos with accordionist Richard Galliano at Theatre Jean-Duceppe. And B.B. King closed the evening with a sold-out performance of his inimitable blues stylings at the mammoth Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.
These three concerts are a microcosm of what the festival offers. Mehldau is the 2006 recipient of the Miles Davis Prize, an honor conferred each year at the festival and previously won by Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, to name a few (Mehldau is by far the youngest recipient and was praised by Festival Organizer Andre Menard for his "constant evolution at a press conference awarding the prize). His particular brand of swingingly cerebral neo-classicism appealed to the traditionalists as well as those seeking a little adventure. Lagrene is the first of two Invitation Artists in 2006, a wonderful concept that allows a musician several nights of performances with groups of his choosing. The second half of the festival will feature drummer Aldo Romano for four evenings. 2006 by the way is the first time that both Invitation Artists are European and after the rousing success of Zakir Hussain's week at the 2005 edition, they have their work cut out for them. B.B. King's appearance, while not strictly jazz, is a common occurrence at major jazz festivals (some of which don't even have any jazz players!). Putting on a festival of the size and scope of Montreal is an enormous undertaking and the organizers can be excused for putting performers on the bill that will appear to the broader populace and bring economic benefits. And it's B.B. King so...
As we report on this Thursday, the festival is about to get underway, with the Place Des Arts closed to traffic and filled with stage after stage of free music. The weather is not the bright sun we have become used to at the festival but somehow really inclement weather is always staved off. Tonight your correspondent will see John Zorn's Acoustic Masada, Birele Lagrene's New Gypsy Project, Joost Buis' Astronotes and the Ravi Coltrane Quartet. A report tomorrow.