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On The Local Scene At The 2018 Montreal International Jazz Festival


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The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) is a magnificent celebration of jazz as well many other musical genres. The festival celebrated its 39th anniversary this past year. I have had the distinct pleasure of attending over 30 of them. FIJM has been an indispensable part of my musical education and life experiences since my days of youth. The festival spans 10 days and offers well over 500 concerts that begin in the early afternoon and end in various clubs around town in the wee hours of the morning. These include indoor paid concerts located in 10 venues and outdoor ones spread over 6 stages distributed across the festival grounds, which are open to everyone. An outdoor concert can attract more than 100,000 people for some of the performances and more than 2 millions visitors attend the festival over the course of 10 days. The festival grounds cover 6 city blocks in the heart of Downtown Montreal and resembles a little village with an ample variety of food and beverages kiosks, souvenir stores and vendors of all sorts. There are also a wide assortment of street musicians and performers (e.g., jugglers and acrobats) ranging from the merely unusual to exceptionally good. FIJM is a celebration for the city of Montreal and its visitors as much as it is a music festival.

This was my eighth year covering the festival as a photographer for All About Jazz (AAJ). My privileges as a photographer range between 5 and 15 minutes for the paid shows and are largely unrestricted for the free concerts. I took pictures at 40 different concerts and was fortunate to see about 20 shows in their entirety. I took about 5000 photos which I culled down to 150 or so for the purpose of publishing at AAJ. According to my Steps app on my iPhone, I logged more than 5 miles on several nights during the festival. To compound things, Montreal was hit by the same heatwave that hammered the east coast and temperatures were in the high 90s with high humidity for the few days of the event. The festival is both an exhilarating and exhausting experience, but it's never less than incredibly rewarding and that keeps me returning year after year. John Kelman and Mark Sullivan both provided excellent in-depth coverage of this year's festival. My intent is not so much to review performances, but to convey my experiences in both images and text.

In this first of four "In Picture" series, I pay tribute to musicians who are part of the local music scene. I was born and raised in Montreal, but moved out in 1996. Whenever I return for the jazz festival, I make a point of checking out local artists. I am immensely impressed by how vibrant the musical scene has become across musical genres, reflecting a broad range of cultural influences. I was very fortunate to sample a subset of the "local" musicians who played at this year's festival. Montreal has a long and celebrated jazz tradition going back (at least) to the thriving club scene of the 1940s and 50s. My father frequented these clubs as a youth in the 50s and saw many of the jazz greats of that era. Like any other city, the jazz scene has waxed and waned over the years with the rising and falling fortunes of jazz. However, it seems to be flourishing artistically these days with many great artists either rising from the local community or those who choose to make Montreal their home base. The scene is bolstered by outstanding university and college jazz programs which both attract notable talent such as Jean-Michel Pilc and John Hollenbeck and continue to produce a multitude of young musicians who will be the next generation of leaders on the local scene. There are several dedicated jazz clubs, most notably Upstairs and Diese Onze which help keep the music alive when the festival leaves town.

On the opening night of the festival, I had the great pleasure of seeing the Al McLean Quartet pay homage to the album Coltrane Plays the Blues. The performance took place at Diese Onze, a great Montreal jazz club and one of my favorite places (anywhere) to listen to live music. In just the week prior to the festival, the stage in the club was repositioned in way that greatly improves site lines and enhances the overall listening experience. Kudos to club owner Gary Tremblay for the insight and hard work. Although I immensely enjoy listening to music in theaters, concerts hall and even on outdoor stages, it's hard to beat listening to great jazz in an intimate club setting. Coltrane Plays the Blues is perhaps, the least well known of the Atlantic-era Coltrane recordings. It is a beautiful album—sort of a meditation on the blues rather than a literal rendition with songs that pay tribute to Elvin Jones and Sydney Bechet among others. I was fortunate to see two outstanding sets by this very capable quartet. They played the album in its entirety from beginning to end and added a couple of other songs from Atlantic-era Trane. McLean, an exceptional tenor and soprano saxophonist, is deeply rooted in the Coltrane vernacular. He was just masterful and demonstrated a total command of this music. Pianist Paul Shrofel is a remarkably dynamic and creative musician. His lengthy solos were among the great highlights of the evening's performance. The rhythm section Rémi-Jean Leblanc and Alain Bourgeois rounded out this fine ensemble.

Earlier in the evening, Jean-Leblanc (on bass guitar) lead his own quartet with special guest, guitarist extraordinaire, Nir Felder playing a kind of forward-leaning fusion. The group included Cuban-born Rafael Zaldivar on (acoustic) piano and Simon Joly on drums. Joe Sullivan leads a muscular big band constituted by excellent Montreal-based musicians and soloists. The band has been a notable presence on the Canadian jazz scene for more than two decades. They kicked off the festival with a great set comprised of mostly original compositions and arrangements, but also moving versions of standards such as (the Miles Davis inspired) Bye Bye Blackbird.

As a working photographer at FIJM, timing is key in getting from one venue to another. Opening acts seriously mess with that timing. Despite my grumblings, I have to say that I enjoyed every single opening act. Tuesday, July 3rd marked the halfway point of the FIJM marathon and I elected to see only one show, the Brian Blade Fellowship. SHPIK, a Montreal-based quartet, opened the show. They who were the winners of this year's TD Jazz Competition for up and coming groups. The group, led by lyrical pianist Arnaud Spick-Saucier, create electro-acoustic soundscapes influenced by film music, progressive rock and to an extent contemporary European piano trio jazz. The group includes Alex Dodier on tenor sax, flute, keyboard and assorted electronics, Etienne Dextraze on bass and Philippe Lussier-Bailargeon on drums. The group drew liberally on their excellent debut album (released in late 2016), Fabulation, a term that connotes a certain awe of the magical possibilities of nature and the universe (to paraphrase their own press release). The atmospheric music defined by finely crafted melodies and characterized by shifting musical dynamics juxtaposing acoustic and electronic sounds was further enhanced by ambient lighting effects. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

Montreal has a longstanding tradition for producing great pianists including Oscar Peterson, Paul Bley and Oliver Jones. The tradition has continued in recent years/decades with pianists like Lorraine Desmarais, Francois Bourassa and Marianne Trudel (to name just a few). Their music reflects both classical training and a deep appreciation for the jazz tradition. Emie Rioux Roussel is a young veteran of the Montreal jazz scene and continues in that tradition. She also takes her music in new directions incorporating both acoustic and electric sounds in her distinctive compositions. The trio, which includes Nicolas Bédard on bass and Dominic Cloutier on drums, put on a fine performance drawing on her latest album, the musically expansive Intersection. The Trio has been together since 2010 and their stature has grown steadily both across Canada and internationally. The Trio were the recent recipients of the Stingray Rising Stars Award at the 2018 TD Halifax Jazz festival.

John Kelman provides an excellent in-depth review of the concert by Christine Jensen and Montreal's Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal paying Homage to the great Carla Bley. Bley was taken ill just prior to the concert. Jensen was recruited at the last minute and a heroic effort from her and the musicians were needed to make this concert a great success. The Orchestre features some of the finest musicians in Montreal. The concert also featured several special guests including Jensen's sister, Ingrid, on trumpet. Christine Jensen is increasingly recognized as one of the finest jazz composers, arrangers and band leaders. She was the 2017 recipient of the prestigious Oscar Peterson award presented at last year's festival. Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts, I was only able to see the first 30 minutes of the two hour performance. I did take notice of a young pianist, Gentiane MG, the first of six pianists to be featured in this evening's concert. The prodigiously gifted pianist played with great confidence, command and sensitivity. Although I was unaware of her prior to this show, Gentiane MG has received considerable accolades and is clearly a rising star on the Montreal jazz scene. I am enjoying listening to her debut album, Eternal Cycle, which demonstrates a burgeoning mastery as a composer and musician.

Although I only caught the first 15 minutes of their set, I was captivated by duo performance by pianist Jérôme Beaulieu and guitarist François Jalbert. They play a kind of folk jazz, strains which are reminiscent of Bill Frisell and even Bela Fleck. I look forward to hearing more from this duo.

Nomadic Massive is a multilingual and multicultural hip hop collective based in Montreal. They have been festival regulars since 2007 and their reputation has continued to grow steadily. This year, they were featured on the main event outdoor stage and performed before tens of thousands of enthusiastic participants. The group which includes four rappers/singers, have an incredibly dynamic stage presence and great flow. They put on an outstanding show. The musical diversity coupled with socially conscious, but uplifting message serves to erase borders and is inviting to music fans who may not otherwise appreciate this kind of music. Pierre Kwenders is a Congolese-Canadian rapper, singer and composer. His music draws on both African and Western (hip, electronic) music traditions. He is a very charismatic front man and played before an appreciative crowd at the Monde Stage.

Although I was fortunate to see much great local music, I was unable to see several artists that I had been looking forward to see perform including pianist Marianne Trudel, saxophonist Yannick Rieu and guitarist Rene Lussier.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't note the passing of guitarist Richard Ring during this year's festival. Ring, known for his impeccable taste and sensitive guitar work as a leader and accompanist, had been a fixture on the Montreal scene for around 50 years and will be sorely missed. His daughters put together a moving musical video tribute:

Our Dad Richard Ring
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