The 38th annual Montreal Jazz Festival — an 11-day event ending July 8 — featured 150 indoor concerts in 11 concert venues ranging from small boîtes to large concert halls, as well as many free, open-air presentations. The musicians ranged from the world-famous (Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, King Crimson) to those not that far removed from their garage-band days — not all of them, obviously, performing what is commonly considered to be jazz.
After a truly stunning set by American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, I moved on to the final performance of my first evening at the festival, by the French group Her. Her is Victor Solf and Simon Carpentier, who sing in English and who could be mistaken for an energetic ‘80s Europop band.
If you want to get into a flying carbohydrates fight, just say that you prefer New York bagels to those made in Montreal. Simply put, the Canadian wood-fired version has a crisper outside and is sweeter. Sorry, Montreal, but I’ll have to pledge allegiance to the Brooklyn dough boys.
Montreal is famous for its smoked meats, and Schwartz’s is king of the category, providing its choice cuts with a 10-day cure. There is only one location — where the lines stretch forever — but you can buy their meats by mail. There’s also a musical connection: Céline Dion owns the place.
Montreal may not care for graffiti, but it loves its wall paintings, nowhere more than around Mile End. Montreal even hosts a mural festival each June, and jazz singers are part of the art.
It was still drizzling in the early evening, but festivalgoers took it all in stride. After an early dinner at Le Blumenthal brasserie — try the duck salad and the steak tartare — I was off to a standing-room-only performance by Canada’s newest chanteuse, former model Charlotte Cardin.
Come Saturday morning, it was a 20-minute walk to Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, where Montreal’s upscale fashion shops, restaurants — like Daniel Boulud's Montreal outpost — and many hotels are located. It’s also home to McGill University — the campus is a nice walk-through — and the Museum of Fine Arts, my destination.
I charged up for my last evening with a sugar and alcohol cocktail — a shot of Amarula, a South African cream liqueur, over soft ice cream. The festival has several sponsors who each have prime kiosk spots along the avenue, including Amarula, Heineken, Bolla wines, Cabral ports, Quebec pork, and Président cheese.
One feature of the fest is an “invitation” series, where a band invites different guests for its shows. I was fortunate enough to catch the Minneapolis trio The Bad Plus and their guest, American Kurt Rosenwinkel, one of the most talented and versatile guitarists of his generation.
What is a music festival without performances that live on the edge? That best describes the work of saxophonist Colin Stetson, whose multiple reed instruments and his unique way of “singing” accounted for a variety of sounds from the sublime to the animalistic. Invigorating!
My last show before saying “bonsoir” to Montreal featured the lively Gypsy Kings, Andalusia-bred, Camargue-raised, and salsa-influenced with a highlight of dueling guitars. As I walked back to my hotel, I reflected that I’d never attended a festival so well-run and with so much great content.