Saint Henri Jazz Week Billy Drummond

Saint-Henri Jazz Week transported the genre into the present tense

A review of the festival’s show led by master American drummer Billy Drummond: “A bit of cool reborn.”

The communities surrounding Griffintown, Petit Bourgogne and Saint-Henri have contributed a weighty chapter to the jazz songbook. 

Murals dedicated to Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson painted on housing block walls celebrate this. A disc-shaped park tucked away further west nearer the old RCA factory commemorates Emile Berliner, the Gramophone’s inventor, who spun these and other recordings into popular music mythology — or liquid gold, depending upon your perspective. Either way, Montreal’s jazz credentials are inscribed right into this neighbourhood’s infrastructure.

I had never myself experienced Saint-Henri’s storied spirit of jazz much more than these minor monuments, even after living in the neighbourhood for the 10 years prior to this pandemic. Scat in the streets of Saint-Henri more often meant inconsiderate pet owners, or broken toilets left on the sidewalk. 

Saint-Henri Jazz Week Montreal Billy Drummond

All that jazz seemed like a thing of the past. The murals and the parks conjured the memory of a once vibrant jazz scene. But despite these empty urban gestures, the city always balked at something more significant, like, for instance, renaming the Lionel Groulx metro station after one of this neighbourhood’s better legends.

With its first annual festival, though, the Saint-Henri Jazz Society has managed in 2022 to transport the quartier’s signature musical genre into the present tense. In doing so, they have created the space for new moments, and a living monument to Montreal’s unique pedigree.

In jazz, timing is everything. This little-festival-that-did, Saint-Henri Jazz Week, has beaten the city’s best-known gala, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, by a month and a half. They are not the same. There is a palpable difference between sweat-watching Pat Metheny on an enormous outdoor stage, and gathering in a cool, darkened basement to take in a jam session among top-flight local and international players. One is a manufactured event; the other is an unfolding experience. 

On May 7, the latter was the scene at the nicely refurbished downstairs den on Notre-Dame, le Basement, for the master American drummer Billy Drummond’s second live performance, alongside saxophonist Caoilainn Power, Rachel Therrien on trumpet, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and Ira Coleman manning upright bass. What took place that night was a bit of cool reborn.

Saint-Henri Jazz Week Montreal Billy Drummond

Festival organizer and society founder Sam Kirmayer generously left two tickets for us at the door. I did the cool thing and brought my mom, my favourite lady who was coincidentally visiting from out of town. (Hey, Javier Bardem and Daniel Day Lewis take their moms to things, too, if not least to prove to the world that they have moms.) My mom gifted me the love of music, and this could not have made a better Mother’s Day present, as well.

The quintet took the stage and did not relinquish it for the show’s entirety. I do not know the name of every composition they played, although I do recall Drummond introducing something by Thelonious Monk. However, titles didn’t matter much. Drummond and Coleman laid down a steady set of tracks for the local trio to play on, Pilc hammering away artfully at the baby grand and standing up at the instrument as the horn section traded adroit verses. There were several moments during the evening where the musical looseness that jazz affords paid off in an ecstatic crescendo, eliciting genuine cheers from a captivated crowd.

We sat near the back of the room and surveyed the audience, a diverse and peaceful group of people engaging in a common interest, this creative pursuit. While Pilc’s daughter taunted her younger brother, flicking her long brown locks in his face, we sat, listened and watched, amused. The jazz of the moment was not just in the music. 

Saint-Henri Jazz Week Montreal Billy Drummond

The pandemic robbed us of these collective experiences, rendering the quotidian that much more entertaining, endearing. This was a model and a microcosm of how the world works together best.

After the show concluded, I was able to ask Drummond a question that had been on my mind, about a drum technique in which the drummer quickly taps the snare’s rim in a syncopated rhythm. You hear many of jazz’s most famous drummers do this, and I was curious if it was meant to signal something to the rest of the band. 

Drummond considered my question and said that it could, depending upon the drummer and context. But it was also another sound colour with which to paint the performance. It was a thoughtful answer to an amateur inquiry, but also a small exchange of ideas that would not have happened were it not for this event.

Maybe this was an event, after all, in addition to an experience. I bought a CD for my mom from the merchandise table, feeling once again out of time. ■

For more on the Saint-Henri Jazz Society, please visit their website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.