Day 12 - Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, July 9, 2006

John Kelman By

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With the exception of Calexico, a curious blend of country, post-rock and mariachi music performing as a ticketed event at Metropolis, and a small handful of free shows on some of its smaller outdoor stages, the 27th edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival's final day was dedicated to its Le Grand Concert de Cloture. As in previous years, this closing spectacle takes place on the festival's largest outdoor stage, Scene General Motors, and draws tens of thousands of people—sometimes more than a hundred thousand. Last year's closing concert featured the final show on the Pat Metheny Group's The Way Up tour—in many ways an anomaly, since the closing show is rarely associated directly with jazz, despite the festival's primary raison d'etre.

This year, Sarajevo-born guitarist/composer Goran Bregovic brought over forty musicians and singers—his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals—to Montreal. The performance focused on the rich diversity of Balkan music and drew a huge crowd which spread out from the grounds of Place des Arts to multiple blocks of St. Catherine Street and a good part of Bleury, which is the cross-street behind the Scene General Motors stage. Speakers and video screens were situated throughout this large area, so those who could only see the stage from a distance could still enjoy the show.

One of the festival's most remarkable aspects is its ability to manage crowd control without appearing strong-armed. Corridors are maintained on both sides of St. Catherine Street, so that those who want to leave the site can do so without having to navigate their way through the large crowd. There are setups for medical assistance as required. And despite the beer being sold by vendors who wind their way throughout the crowd, people behave themselves and enjoy the show—you never see fights breaking out or any other kind of drunken misbehaviour. While the audience members are respectful, they're clearly there to have a good time, and Le Grand Concert de Cloture is one heck of a street party.

Bregovic bears comparison to Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal in the way he writes music for large classical ensembles, but also introduces a rocky edge in his guitar playing at times. He utilizes modern technology, integrating drum programming with the acoustic instruments to create thoroughly contemporary music that still draws from classical and Balkan folk traditions. For this show he brought a conventional string and horn section, a twelve-part choir, three female singers, and a number of musicians playing traditional instruments like the duduk. This was probably the largest show Bregovic has had the opportunity to present, and it was an incredible feat of logistics. It went off without a single hitch—a remarkable achievement considering the diversity of the music and the shifts in instrumentation throughout. ALIGN=CENTER>

As the show began with a funereal dirge for strings, a number of musicians playing euphoniums, trumpets, tubas and other horns wound their way through the crowd. It was simply remarkable to see them winding a clear path through tens of thousands of people. Not only did this maneuver get the audience's attention in a big way, it was also a clever sleight of hand. By directing people's attention to their own space, Bregovic could bring other members of the ensemble to the stage unnoticed until the street musicians found their way to the stage and the music became more dramatic and joyful. The music resolved into a Balkan polka, but with an absolutely visceral programmed drum and bass sequence fed through huge subwoofers. Anyone within a few hundred feet of the stage had their stomachs and eardrums shaken by the full ensemble's potent sound.

It was, however, something of a curious performance. In some ways Bregovic's music seemed out of place in this rock-like spectacle. While the music occasionally dissolved into delicate passages of melancholy beauty, it lost much of its subtlety at the volume required to reach the festival audience. The more powerful songs, drawn from Bregovic's discography and material he's written for a variety of films, gained strength from the very physical impact of the performance's volume. But one has to wonder what this music would sound like in a smaller venue with a more acoustic approach.

Still, the Montreal Jazz Festival's closing show is always more about the spectacle than the music, though the crowd—which looked to be in excess of 100,000—loved every minute of Bregovic's show. They joined in when Bregovic encouraged them to, and many already seemed familiar with his songs, singing along of their own accord. It was actually quite intimidating to see an audience this size swaying to the music and clapping their hands to the more boisterous songs. ALIGN=CENTER>

In terms of sheer entertainment value, Bregovic's show was a massive success. It ended after nearly two hours, but not without an encore—and when an audience that size demands one, you'd better be prepared to get out there and give it up. Bregovic complied with a performance that was even more visually arresting than the main show. As always, Montreal audiences are appreciative, but they also know when the artist has had enough.

Another remarkable aspect of the festival's final performance was just how quickly the crowd dissipated when the show was over. Within an hour, the streets were empty and clean. The festival's large staff ensures that the streets are cleared of debris every night—although the Montreal crowd is among the most respectful in North America, making use of the numerous garbage containers spread throughout the site.

And so, with the 27th edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival over—and the city gearing up next for its Just for Laughs Comedy Festival—how did the event shape up to previous ones? For many years, Montreal has expanded its focus beyond jazz, and the 2006 event went even further in that direction with a number of world music artists at the Spectrum's 6 pm series. And the big-ticket events, which highlighted artists like John Zorn's Masada, John Pizzarelli and Dave Brubeck, also included a number of non-jazz performers, including Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello and Daniel Lanois.

The wealth of music here, just like the events at the recently completed Ottawa Jazz Festival, gave Montreal audiences an opportunity to experience the true diversity of jazz. The featured artists ranged from clarinetist Don Byron and vibraphonist Stefon Harris to saxophonists Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Garrett and Wayne Shorter. Perhaps even more important, lesser-known artists performed at events like the Suono Italia series and the 6 pm Jazz D'Ici series, which featured local talent. The nightly jam sessions at the Hyatt (the festival hotel) by the formidable piano trio of John Roney, Zach Lauber and Jim Doxas—along with artists both known and unknown—made it a hopping place to be.

Some people will continue to complain about the harsh reality which faces jazz festivals today: in order to remain viable, they need to bring in artists outside even the broadest definition of jazz. But Montreal has at least done so in an organized fashion, tending to focus on specific areas like blues and world music. And all the better if these shows draw people to the festival and encourage them to check out more jazz-centric performers.


Montreal also increased the size of its second annual free Salon des Instruments de Musique et des Musicians de Montreal (SIMMM), a trade show for instrument builders that also includes workshops and Q&A sessions with notables including Bonnie Raitt, luthier Oskar Graf and Pat Martino. By expanding into more spaces, this exhibition is already putting the heat on longstanding shows like NAMM.

And so, with the 2006 edition over, what will Montreal do for 2007? At this point nothing is certain, but without doubt, there will be plenty of familiar faces to look forward to—and the surprises, like this year's Suono Italia series, that make attending the festival an enriching experience which expands the minds of even the most committed jazz fans.

Visit Goran Bregovic and Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on the web.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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