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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2016

John Kelman By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Montréal, Canada
July 3-7, 2016

In many ways, the front of one of the festival's new T-Shirt designs said it all:

swing
blues
soul
improvisation
latin
gospel
R 'n' B
crossroads
silence
groove
world

Many festivals once known primarily as jazz festivals have broadened their scope. Whether or not it still gives a festival the right to continue using the term "Jazz Festival"—or, as is the case in Québecois Canada, Montréal's "Festival International de Jazz"—is a topic for some occasionally heated discussion. But perhaps longer than most jazz festivals— certainly for more years than any other North American jazz festival—the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has significantly expanded its purview; if anything, the words on the above-mentioned T-Shirt aren't sufficiently inclusive, as over the past 37 years, FIJM has spread its reach to also include tangential or completely extracurricular musical genres including electronica, progressive rock, hard rock, pop and many, many others.

Still, despite the shrinking Canadian dollar, reduced funding and other challenges, FIJM has managed to meet the litmus test of a 2011 All About Jazz article, When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival : that, for those looking to ignore all the extracurricular shows and focus solely on jazz, there are more than enough choices to keep the broadest-minded jazz fan happy, whether they're visiting the festival for a day, a weekend, a week or the entire 10-day run of FIJM's 2016 edition.

That said, FIJM has not emerged unscathed from some of the challenges that face all festivals today, but are perhaps particularly significant for one the size of Montréal's festival—one that has seen literally millions cross, each year, into the six square blocks of a downtown core that are closed by the city every year, so that numerous outdoor stages (nine, at last count) can be erected for the multiplicity of free shows that the festival sponsors every year, augmenting a similar number of indoor venues where multiple ticketed events take place every day. These days, when you're as big as FIJM, it's hard not to make each year somehow bigger, somehow better.

And therein lies the rub. FIJM is world-renowned, especially since the completion of its Maison du Festival and Promenade for its 30th Anniversary year, which acts as the rallying point for the festival's largest outdoor stage—where acts like Stevie Wonder have drawn a quarter of a million people to the streets of downtown Montréal for shows that are replete with spectacular lighting and, occasionally, choreography that uses downtown buildings as projection screens and dance stages.

The cost to fund these festivals continues to rise and, with the expectation that FIJM will put on three of these "Grand Spectacle" outdoor shows each year (one at the beginning, one at midpoint, and one at the end of the festival), in addition to plenty of top-drawer acts in their ticketed venues----has resulted in one apparent casualty: a lack of some of the more intriguing small acts that often made the festival so appealing to those able to see the bigger names more readily in their own home towns.

That's not to say the 2016 festival was without its share of unique performances...especially when one considers that many of them did not appear at any of the other Canadian festivals that largely ran concurrent with FIJM. But, barring the overdue but most welcome appearance of Punkt Presents, at the Maison du Festival's own club venue, L'Astral—where Jan Bang and Erik Honore, the co-artistic directors of Kristiansand, Norway's world-renowned Live Remix festival (coming up on its 12th year), were invited to bring two acts so that Montréal audiences could hear what All About Jazz has been covering (and raving about) every year since 2006—there was precious little Norwegian content to be found...a presence that, for many years, was a given, a constant.

But it wasn't just Norwegian artists that were missing. While there was sufficient international presence at the festival to justify its moniker, the number of big name acts dwarfed the smaller ones and the weight seemed to be more emphatically North American than in prior years. Perhaps it's the inevitability of an event that has grown into the largest jazz festival in the world, but the programming this year felt a bit like a festival struggling to maintain a balancing act that must be increasingly difficult, year after year.

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