Amid the soothing July sun and a program befitting of a silver anniversary, this year's edition of the Montréal International Jazz Festival proved to be among the most memorable in recent history. As always, the streets were teaming with a heady blend of veteran jazzniks, thirsting first-timers, ambivalent teenagers, and sugar-laced children. Outdoor stages played host to melodies of all types and fashions; street performers delighted passersby with limb-twisting tricks; beer stands offered simple solutions to the prevailing madness, while merch tents belched out everything from official festival mugs to embroidered baby blankets.
The bill of fare for the first week of action offered a customary mix of traditional, modern, smooth and avant-garde jazz, as well as the measured dose of pop, rock and folk that has forever set the purists afire. Headliners like Ani DiFranco, George Thorogood, and the Four Tops were among those discussed and disputed as the festival got under way, though news quickly turned from who was to play to who hadn't.
Mere minutes before his sold-out concert was scheduled to begin, Wynton Marsalis was forced to cancel on account of a split lip. Disappointed audience members left the theater glassy-eyed and glum, while the jazz public at large were left to either snicker in karmic concern, or hope hard for a mild prognosis.
Chairing the first installment of this year's Invitation Series was piano legend Chick Corea. With four straight nights to fill with friends of his choosing, Corea took a curiously numerical approach to the task: a solo concert to open the run, an evening of duets to follow, an acoustic trio as a third, and a reunion of his famed Electrik Band to cap it all off. And though each night bore its own brand of fruit, it was the pianist's solo venture that proved sweetest.
Lush, meandering takes on Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" and Richard Rodgers' "But Beautiful" were cleverly balanced by the compelling, wayward fragments of Bud Powell's "Dusk in Sandi" and "Oblivion". Two preludes by Russian composer Scriabin had a similarly wowing effect on the crowd, only to be eclipsed by Corea's rousing encore, which included divvying the audience into a five-part choral accompaniment. An aural treat to say the least...
Another highlight of the opening week was the Keith Jarrett Trio's long-awaited return to Montréal. Over a decade had passed since the unit's last appearance, leaving festival founders Alain Simard and André Ménard with no choice but to present piano great Jarrett with the coveted Miles Davis Award.
Once the preambular dust had settled, Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette got down to business. For near three hours, the sellout crowd was left to marvel at the trio's unique and lyrical synergy. Glowing versions of such classics as "From The Body" and "On Green Dolphin Street" were met by ovation after ovation, confirming the city's affinity for the ensemble's singular wares, as well as its lamentation over their extended absence.
On the more intimate club scene, legends of a different kind were handed the spotlight. The genre-busting Euro-jazz summit starring multi-reedists Michel Portal and Louis Sclavis, drummer Daniel Humair and bassist Henri Texier was among the most intriguing acts to hit the smaller venues, and with good reason. Each man was a force in his own right, capable of a cacophonous range of slanted notes and expressions. Collectively, the result was absorbingly polyrhythmic, polytonal, poly-instrumental...well, poly-everything!
Other notable appearances included bands led by saxophonists Greg Osby and Chris Potter, pianist Kenny Barron, and a memorable gathering of young moderns that involved Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Joshua Redman (tenor), Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass) and Ali Jackson (drums).
As the first half of the festival came to a close, organizers, fans and critics alike licked their chops in gluttonous contentment. So much quality music had already been served, and much more was still to come.
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