Why would a New Yorker make the trip up the thruway for six hours to see jazz in another country? Maybe most performers will come through the city eventually but there is something about Montréal. Perhaps it is the easygoing vibe, almost European, of the city or its lovely weather. But the main reason to attend for some or all of the annual Montréal Jazz Festival is that it is the best organized, most user-friendly of its kind in North America. Several venues of varying sizes (2,000 person concert halls to 200 person art gallery spaces) house a cornucopia of performances every late June to early July. There are the big names that make the rounds of all the summer festivals and some acts that are unique and much more interesting. What doesn't vary though from performance to performance are the amazingly attentive audiences that attend. This is what separates the Montréal Jazz Festival from its competitors and reinforces the city's European patina. New Yorkers may get to see everyone but they rarely pay any attention. In Montréal, every concert is treated like a special occasion (even after 26 years of the Festival and all the luminaries that have performed in it). This fact is why certain performances that can be lackluster in a New York club environment become spectacles of the highest order in one of the halls in the Festival. Notable examples of this phenomenon are the Dave Holland Big Band and Charlie Haden's new Land of the Sun Project (the two bassists are perennial favorites at the Fest). Holland's band has become the premier large ensemble playing today, setting new standards in precision and presence. Even with changes in personnel since the group's founding (in Montréal as it happens), the big band keeps getting tighter and tighter. Antonio Hart on alto and Steve Nelson on vibes are what make it cook. Maybe one pines for a little ragged energy now and again but it is an acceptable tradeoff. Haden's group, ostensibly co-led with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, is an experiment in understatement. A cough can overpower the entire group. Maddingly beautiful, it is remarkable to see saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Antonio Sanchez play below a whisper. Another highlight of the first week was Charles Lloyd's quartet. This group, with different personnel, played in Montréal a few years back and did not excite. Now Lloyd has found simpatico partners in pianist Geri Allen and drummer Eric Harland. The set took place in the Spectrum, a rock-type venue that always makes shows seem more exciting.
There were many other performances, both inside and outside (Montréal puts on numerous free shows in the Arts Complex during the Festival), which were of varying quality. Guitarist Bill Frisell played a set of his jam-band-from-the-heartland music. Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir represented Philly style. The main attraction though of each festival is its Invitation Series, an opportunity for one musician to spend four nights with groups of his choosing. The second week was Pat Metheny and promised some interesting combos. The first week however was somewhat of an experiment with the selection of Zakir Hussain. His first night was an instructional evening of Indian classical music with Sultan Khan. The second was an exploration of Indian percussion music with several of Hussain's countrymen. Day three joined Hussain with Lloyd and Harland in a deeply spiritual and musically satisfying journey. However, the final day collected all the previous energy to exceed any other Invitation Series concert in recent memory. Hussain's musical brother John McLaughlin joined him for an astounding display of Western/Eastern fusion. The two inspire each other in ways that they aren't when apart and when the duo (special guests joined later) played the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic "You Know You Know , your correspondent was reminded why the drive up the interstate didn't seem that bad.