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2016 Montreal Jazz Festival: June 29 - July 1, 2016

Mark Sullivan By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
June 29-July 9, 2016

When they say the Montreal Jazz Festival is the biggest in the world, they're not kidding. Several city blocks full of concert venues, outdoor stages, and vendors. There are six seated concert venues on the grounds, and another six just offsite (literally down the block)—so many that I didn't get inside all of them in three nights of concerts. There's simply no way that a map of the grounds can prepare you for experiencing it for the first time.

The festival has always had a stellar lineup of jazz musicians on the bill. But with so many stages to fill—and a street party that draws many who may not be jazz fans—there's also plenty of folk, world music, and pop music of all sorts. Other genres were strongly in evidence during the opening festivities.

June 29: Melody Gardot/Lisa Simone; Gregory Porter; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

The festival's Opening Concert was headlined by the American singer Melody Gardot, with singer Lisa Simone opening. Simone's introduction mentioned her "good DNA," and as the daughter of the legendary Nina Simone it's hard to argue with that. She shares some of her mother's jazz/pop approach, but without the dark corners, and is almost exclusively a singer-songwriter rather than an interpreter of others songs. Most of the material in her set came from her recent album My World (Sound Suveyor Music, 2016), beginning with opener "Tragique Beauty." Electric/acoustic guitarist Herve Samb began the tune to bring Simone onstage, and was her right-hand man throughout the performance. The group gave an energetic reading of their first Nina Simone cover, "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" (a medley from the musical Hair that became a surprise hit). Samb brought the song to its climax with a high energy wah wah solo, one of several times he took his acoustic/electric guitar into pure electric territory.

"Hold On" displayed Simone's comfort onstage, as she moved freely beyond center stage during the performance. Bassist Reggie Washington got the spotlight with a solo introduction to "Expectations." Simone is generous to her band members, contributing to the unified stage vibe. She took her stage wandering to another level with "Unconditionally" (her song about becoming a mother). Most of it was sung from the audience with a wireless microphone as she moved around the perimeter of the main floor, shaking hands with audience members as she went. She returned for a quick encore: "Work Song" by Nat Adderley, with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr., a classic jazz blues that had also been performed by her mother. Great energy and showmanship: the audience was definitely warmed up.

Melody Gardot is clearly a Montreal favorite. As she entered the stage in dramatic, bright lighting she was greeted with a standing ovation. She immediately picked up an electric guitar and launched into "Same To You" from her recent album Currency of Man (Verve, 2015). Gardot is often labeled as a jazz singer, but there was no jazz flavor in the music I heard. The opener was rock all the way, and she moved to piano for the funk tune "She Don't Know" (a song about a street walker, which she sang after a saucy spoken introduction). She switched back to guitar for the blues "Bad News," a sultry slow burner. Still not jazz, but she definitely has some range.

Scheduling overlap caused me to miss American singer Gregory Porter's opening act. I came in as he was singing his song "On My Way to Harlem," a song about all the great African-American artists associated with the place—Duke Ellington, poet Langston Hughes, even Marvin Gaye (including a quote from "What's Going On"). It's a great statement of what Porter is about: respect for the past, but with a contemporary sensibility. It's immediately apparent that Porter is a jazz singer, albeit one with equal love for classic black pop music and gospel. He possesses a marvelous vocal instrument, a rich baritone that immerses the listener like a warm bath. Porter sang two selections from his current album Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note, 2015) next: the title tune (about seeing the humanity in the man on the street) and "Don't Lose Your Steam" (inspirational advice to a young man about following his dreams).

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