Montreal's OFF Jazz Festival 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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The Montreal Jazz Festival is billed as the world's largest, with more than 200,000 people watching 2,000 performers during 10 days. But National Post columnist Graeme Hamilton notes that while flower-shaped mangos and massage booths are everywhere, actually finding jazz can be difficult.

"For every Pat Metheny there is a Paul Anka, and for every Sonny Rollins a Mark Knopfler," he wrote in a column on page two of the July 2, 2005, edition. "On the free outdoor stages the scales are tipped even further in favour of blues and world music, with the odd rapper thrown in to keep kids happy. It all means that the bulk of the two million spectators expected this year will leave having heard barely a note of jazz."

"As it has grown from its humble beginnings 25 years ago, the main jazz fest has abandoned small nightclubs, meaning lesser-known musicians end up playing on outdoor stages while the stars play mostly in soft-seat halls. Audience members can quickly grow bored and wander off to see what's happening on the next stage."

General Motors isn't just putting on a lot of cars as the main sponsor - it has it's own 10- piece band incorporating horns, engines and screeching tires into its music as it's hauled around on a truck-pulled stage. Alain Simard, a pianist and member of a non-profit musicians' organization called L'OFF, derisively refers to it as "the festival of T-shirts."

"It was to counter the festival's move away from jazz that a group of local musicians created the OFF Jazz Festival five years ago, an event where music purists could be sure to hear jazz in an intimate jazz setting," Hamilton wrote.

The L'OFF "signature," according to its Web site, is "to showcase exceptional concerts by Quebec's professional artists in a festival that offers jazz amateurs with the best and newest original works from local jazz professionals."

The 2005 lineup for the OFF festival, which hopes to attract 5,000 mostly local spectators (compared to more than 200,000 for the "official" Montreal festival), features perhaps 40 acts during 10 days likely to unfamiliar to most outsiders. The only names I recognized immediately were saxophonist Joel Miller and a quintet known as Nordic Connect, and only then because I heard both during the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival in Alberta - another small event.

A random sampling of other performances includes American violinist Mark Feldman and Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier playing John Zorn compositions, an accordion/bass/two- guitar quartet incorporating Romanian folklore into their work, and violinist/laptop electronics artist Josh Zubot sitting in with the modern improvisational quartet Tentaculaire.

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