The best jazz shows at the Jazz Fest

Highlights from the limited but varied jazz programming at this pop-oriented summer music festival.

Lonnie Smith

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is all set to go from June 28-July 7 with a wide array of music in the indoor-concert venues.  For jazz aficionados, most of the concerts elicit a “thanks but no thanks” response, because if you’re going to put down the serious money these concerts cost, you have to choose carefully.

Out of the 12 series of events, half feature jazz. Here are some personal takes on worthwhile jazz content at this pop-oriented music festival.


Molly Johnson

The Jazz d’Ici series (6 p.m. at l’Astral) is commendable for showcasing local talent. Some shows I’d check out are the René Lussier Quintette (July 1), if only for the fact that the guitarist-leader is a local legend having made some creative music in his time, including collaborations with people like woodwind player Jean Derome, who is also playing with Felix Stussi and les Malcommodes (July 4). Another local icon, this one steeped in the jazz tradition going back to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, is Ranee Lee, who will be performing with her Octet (July 6). The up-and-coming pianist Simon Denizart (June 29) could be interesting for the energy and melodicism of his playing.

Some fine international talent can be heard during the Invitation series at the Gesù (6 p.m.), most notably, in my books, guitarist Marc Ribot, a guest of John Medeski (June 29) and organist-dynamo Lonnie Smith, especially with his big group (July 6), which includes Robin Eubanks, a trombonist well worth seeing/hearing.

At the Cinqième Salle (7 p.m.), I might check out Laurent de Wilde’s New Monk Trio (June 28), since the French-American musician usually pushes the envelope trying new things each time out. I might also consider Molly Johnson (July 3) if I wanted a Billie Holiday vibe, although Johnson has matured and developed her own style over the years.

In the Maison Symphonique series (7 p.m.), I might catch Al Di Meola (June 28) for nostalgic reasons, harkening back to the days when I listened to jazz fusion, but didn’t know better. More daring music will likely be in the offing with the Archie Shepp Quartet (June 30), and the show opener, pianist Wray Downes sweetens the appeal. For historical interest I might catch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 3).


Cécile McLorin Salvant

A couple of special events at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier might be amusing: Herbie Hancock will be milking the same funk fusion vein he’s been at for a while, but this time sharing the bill with the soulful bassist/singer Thundercat (July 2). Weird as it might seem in a jazz context, the classic rock band Jethro Tull (July 7) could be fun, again for nostalgic reasons, although it should be noted that they were an awesome jazz-blues-rock ensemble in their early days, covering tunes by people like free-jazzer Rashaan Roland Kirk.

Be forewarned that the theatrical show SLAV at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (July 2–7 and July 10–14) — although sonically appealing and featuring the admirable talents of Robert Lesage, Betty Bonifassi and Ex Machina — could take the dubious taste award, since it appropriates slave songs collected in the field by John and Alan Lomax. For a more authentic Afro-American vocal experience I would catch Cécile McLorin Salvant (June 28), or Dee Dee Bridgewater (June 30) both at the Théâtre Maisonneuve, or the previously mentioned Ranee Lee and Molly Johnson.

Most of the Jazz Beat series features some worthwhile shows, and I would not miss the  composer/bandleader Carla Bley (July 2) conducting the Orchestre national de jazz  de Montréal, adventurous pianist Steve Kuhn (July 5) and Soft Machine (July 7), a creative, risk-taking British band that pioneered jazz rock fusion before the practice had a name.


Keyon Harrold. Photo by Deneka Peniston

A satisfying way to end the evenings at the MIJF might be with the Jazz Dans la Nuit series at 10:30 p.m. at the Gesù theatre. Five shows in particular stand out: young trumpet players Keyon Harrold (June 28) and Theo Croker (July 4) both appear to have something interesting to bring to the table; Marc Ribot’s solo guitar project Songs of Resistance looks interesting (June 30); and maybe I’d also catch Avishai Cohen’s former sideman, keyboardist Shai Maestro (July 6) and local sax hero Chet Doxas (July 3).

All told, as far as jazz content goes, it’s not an ideal festival, but there are definitely lots of shows that might be worth plunking down good money for. ■