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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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Part 1 | Part 2

2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal,
Various Venues,
Montréal, Canada
June 29-July 3, 2018

Every return to Montréal for the city's annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is much-anticipated. Closing off six square blocks in the downtown core is rare enough; but, over the past 39 years since the festival's first edition in 1980, the program has grown to the point where it's a serious challenge to choose what to see, especially when limited to just one show per evening. There are literally hundreds of shows presented every year, ranging from ticketed events in a bevy of superb indoor venues (all within easy walking distance), accommodating from a few hundred people to over three thousand, to free concerts on seven outdoor stages that draw anywhere from a few hundred people to, some years, as many as a quarter of a million for FIJM's Grand Spectacle performances.

Many jazz festivals having to come to the realization, over the past decade or so, that in order to continue to survive they must program not just jazz (even if it's still their primary focus), but music either tangentially related or, in some cases, bearing no connection at all. FIJM has always been a broader-reaching festival, with more than enough jazz in any day's program to justify its name, to blues, soul, rock, pop and world music: truly, almost anything that the programming team thinks would be a good fit.

As with any festival, some years are better than others, and FIJM, amongst the world's largest jazz festivals (if not the largest) has been forced to face many of the same challenges that others do, in particular Canadian festivals that have to deal with artists whose contracts demand, irrespective of where they originate, payment in American dollars. Fluctuating, in recent years, from near-parity with the Canadian dollar to variances as wide as 35% (currently it's about 25), that alone has been enough to sink at least one Canadian festival in the past decade. For a festival like FIJM, which sees as many as 2.5 million people enter its grounds over its ten-day run, its very size and international reach, with many of its regular attendees coming from around the world, definitely helps it secure private support that dovetails with federal arts funding and, in particular, provincial support in Québec that far exceeds any other Canadian province.

Still, every year remains a challenge, and while its impact is rarely felt, those who've attended it for many years have seen changes ranging from shortening the festival from a peak twelve days to its current ten to fewer tickets being made available to the hundreds of journalists and photographers who come from the USA and farther afield to cover FIJM. Still, these changes have not only allowed the festival to continue, but to do so in the big way that has defined the festival, especially since the '90s.

And, truly, nobody does big the way FIJM does. With tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of people on the festival grounds on any given night, all the essential services are there, from ensuring proper ingress/egress to security and medical services, though the latter two remain largely invisible unless they are actually needed.

The festival staff—from paid annual employees to its many volunteers—keep everything running like clockwork, also ensuring the grounds remain remarkably clean. Within a couple of hours of the last outdoor show of the evening, the streets look as clean as they were before people began coming through its numerous entry points. Even more so, after the final night's Grand Spectacle, it's a remarkable thing to witness how, by early morning, the stages are torn down and the streets reopened to traffic, with almost no sign of the festival's existence beyond the outdoor promenade, built for FIJM's 30th anniversary, that remains in use all year around.

Each year, the festival delivers a number of awards that reflect its open mind and broad preview. Amongst this year's awardees were: blues rocker George Thorogood, recipient of the B.B. King Award; Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain, awarded the António Carlos Jobim Award; Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which has collectively won the particularly prestigious Miles Davis Award; pianist Renee Rosnes, who has been recognized with the Oscar Peterson Award; and Ben Harper, this year's winner of the Ella Fitzgerald Award.

But it's the Montréal Jazz Festival Spirit Award which best represents FIJM's expansive reach, presented to artists of any discipline who, as per the festival program, "underline a popular artist's extraordinary contribution to the musical world."

June 29: Ry Cooder, Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve

And so, it was particularly serendipitous that the first show covered for FIJM 2018 was Ry Cooder, presented with the Montréal Jazz Festival Spirit Award just minutes before his outstanding concert in Place des Arts' second-largest (but better-sounding than its biggest) hall, Théâtre Maisonneuve. Cooder has built a career, now in its sixth decade, that represents a complete and utter disregard for stylistic boundaries and, instead, has explored any and every kind of music that's been a draw for the guitarist/vocalist. If a single word can be used to describe Cooder, it's archivist.

Drawing upon American music spanning the last century or more, Cooder has also gone deep into music from other countries, in particular Mexico and, with his Grammy Award-winning Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch, 1997), Cuba, bringing a wealth of artists from the Caribbean island to international attention, through the album, the many more it spawned from individual participating musicians, and Wim Wenders' marvelous 1999 film of the same name.

In his own seventeen album discography as a leader, Cooder has reworked music from artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Ben E. King to Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell, Vicente Fernández and Burt Bacharach. Cooder's own writing, never been particularly fecund, has always been compelling and, in recent years, more prolific. He has also been involved in cross-cultural collaborations like the two Grammy-winning albums A Meeting By the River (Water Lily Acoustic, 1992), with India's Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Talking Timbuktu (World Circuit, 1994), where the guitarist collaborated with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
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