Montreal Jazz Fest festival reviews Cimafunk

Montreal Jazz Fest Reviews, Pt. 1: Elements of excellence

Here are some highlights from the first three nights of Jazz Fest, as the proceedings progressed through the long weekend, stormy weather be damned.

Last Thursday, as the heaviest round of smog cleared and the day’s grey skies dissipated, the 43rd edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival launched its nine-day run. 

And festival-goers ready to bask in the sultry humidity of live music by half-moonlight gathered in droves.

Quartiers des Spectacles was bursting at the seams with people eager to take part in opening night activities and to officially welcome summer back to the city. 

With the impressively easy-to-navigate layout of the site’s six outdoor stages, the heavy early evening air echoed the flurry of crowd excitement as this first wave of music fans found its collective footing.

With enough simultaneously scheduled free entertainment to please almost anyone and a great lineup of ticketed indoor events, sour pusses were few and far between

Despite some long lines at bars, concession stands and porta potties, and often shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic, the sweaty people milling about to enjoy this penultimate night of June were a happy lot. 

Here are some highlights from the first three nights of Jazz Fest, as the proceedings progressed through the long weekend, elements be damned. 

Thursday, June 29

HAWA B at the Montreal Jazz Fest 2023 (Reviews Pt.1). Photos by Cindy Lopez

On the plaza of Place des Arts, the Club Montreal TD stage welcomed Hawa B for a 7 p.m. show that set a sleek mood for a humid evening.

The singer/composer is a relatively new name on the local scene, increasingly visible by way of guest spots and backing vocal duties in concert with some of her more established peers. 

But that shouldn’t last long. This lady is a force of nature. I don’t use the word “soaring” too often to describe a great vocal performance because it’s kinda played, but there’s no better way to describe the level of confidence Hawa B brings on the mic. 

Backed by a badass band that wasn’t afraid to play around in the low end with minor chords and distorted riffs, Hawa B’s live act is informed by equal parts soul, offbeat instrumental Dilla-esque grooves and just enough throwback, tasteful grunge to give her a truly distinct edge that walks the line between the invitingly familiar and the dangerously raw. More, please. 

The Franklin Electric at the Montreal Jazz Fest 2023

A little later on, hometown heroes the Franklin Electric packed MTelus with a devoted fanship, celebrating the imminent arrival of a fifth album, Oh Brother, which dropped that night at midnight and is available now. 

The Franklin Electric is, somewhat oddly, a sleeper hit band right here in our own backyard. Their following at home and abroad is as devoted as any rock band can reasonably hope for, turning out in droves whenever they grace a stage. 

The creative heart of the Franklin Electric is Jon Matte, who pens highly listenable, well-conceived folk-rock compositions that are more complex than they need to be, giving the music a coveted mix of artistic credibility and irresistible catchiness. 

And yet, Matte’s project still doesn’t get as many nods of recognition as local peers like Half Moon Run or the Damn Truth, who enjoy a comparable level of local and international success.

At any rate, when Matte’s band plays, people show up. Lots of them. The excitement at MTelus as showtime grew closer was mounting by the minute.

And when the Franklin Electric burst onto the stage, that energy didn’t let up. Rarely in my show-going experience have I seen an audience respond so positively to never-before-heard new music. 

Matte seized on the well-earned confidence fans bestowed him to roll out several new numbers early on in the set, and it proved to be a winning choice. Of course, it was an album launch. But the fan reaction wasn’t just good manners.

One new song, a stripped-down acoustic number, was played so quietly that you could hear a feather rustle in the packed hall. 

“Shhhhs!” and “Shushes!” came from pockets of the crowd where anyone dared whisper to their neighbour, and at one point a very annoyed “Shut up!” was as audible as the song being performed. 

It was at once hilarious and telling. Matte interacts with his audience sincerely and engagingly. And in this intimate setting, at the Jazz Fest, they only had eyes and ears for him.

I wanted to catch at least the last half hour of opening night’s outdoor headliner, Lebanese-French brass master and Grammy winner Ibrahim Maalouf, so I left MTelus at what I guess was the halfway mark.

Forget it. There was no getting anywhere near even the fringes of that big huge block party by then. 

But the ferocity of the music and the rapt crowd said it all. Things were going very well for Malouf and his newfound Montreal audience.

I instead made my way around to the Loto-Québec stage, drawn by the vivid Afrobeat of Malian singer-percussionist Djely Tapa and her band, who dripped urgency, joy and unrelenting rhythm. Spectators followed suit, dancing the night down, all smiles.

Friday, June 30

Cimafunk at the Montreal Jazz Fest 2023 (Reviews Pt.1)

Late afternoon obligations elsewhere kept me from experiencing the earlier hours of Day 2, but I made it in time to take in TD Stage headliner Cimafunk, whose take on traditional Cuban and Afro-Caribbean brass-heavy jazz swing fuses old-school funk/soul charm with modern club music appeal. 

As a frontman, Cimafunk stands competently beside some of the greats. His presence easily won over a Friday night party crowd populated by people of all ages, cultures and, presumably, musical interests. 

With a fantastic stage show, complete with dancers, incredible backup vocalists and a J.B.s-worthy band, Cimafunk held this Jazz Fest crowd in the palm of his hands, an entertainer in the truest sense. 

Alias at the Montreal Jazz Fest 2023 (Reviews Pt.1)

Afterward, at the entire opposite end of the sonic spectrum, Montreal’s Alias turned their amps up, tuned their guitar strings down and tore up the Club TD Stage with a sharp (but no less exhilarating) left turn from the bliss Cimafunk left in his wake.

Hundreds of passersby stopped, gawked for a minute, and formed a gathering. 

Fronted by eminently watchable and effortlessly cool weirdo Emmanuel Alias, the band whipped straight into a loud, heavy, jangling fuzz assault, staffed by four raunch peddlers fully committed to their roles. 

Oscillating between straightforward riff rock and tastefully grungy pop with deadass nods to the heyday of American rock ’n’ roll peppered intelligently throughout, and veering into cheeky moments of not-quite-new wave disco-punk, Alias struck awe in a super diverse crowd that likely would not have stuck around if a lesser act had attempted the same thing on the heels of a showstopping, arena-worthy performance the likes of which Cimafunk had just laid down. 

The wolves came out and stayed out, nary a sheep’s outfit to be spotted. And if it weren’t for that pesky pandemic, Alias would have gotten away with it sooner, too. But they’re here now. And their new fans from the late-night Jazz Fest crowd damn well know it. 

Saturday, July 1

Trio Bruxo at the Montreal Jazz Fest 2023 (Reviews Pt.1)

Set for an entire evening of entertainment that was meant to include Korean ensemble ADG7 and Dawn Tyler Watson, I headed downtown early for a 5 p.m. set by Montreal’s Trio Bruxo on the covered outdoor stage known as Pub la Traversée Molson Export.

I’m no jazz connoisseur. At best I’m a curious listener, one who has largely caught up on the classics during the streaming era.

My understanding of the genre, its forms and what it takes to adequately critique jazz music is child’s play compared with the institutional knowledge held by a guy like Trio Bruxo pianist and Montreal music scene vet David Rhyspan.

But I know what makes a festival set special, memorable and unique. And as Saturday’s heavy rain and severe storm alert began to manifest in the downtown sky, Trio Bruxo seized the moment.

Informed by the sounds of the 1960s and ’70s Brazilian jazz movement, the group had already begun setting the mood as a light drizzle turned into heavier rain. The crowd under the large tent easily tripled as people who’d been relaxing at cocktail tables and on benches and chairs around Espace Tranquille moved in to get away from the rain and up close to the performance.

Trio Bruxo plays the very type of grooves perfect for rainy weekend afternoons in your living room actively listening to records and not just spinning them in the background. And the atmosphere under this sizable cover (and populated by a great many Portuguese-speakers) became downright home-y.

Taking time to address the crowd, Rhyspan explained that in the early days of the pandemic, the band was privy to a residency at l’Entrepôt Lachine through the Maison de la culture network. 

Some of these spaces opened their theatres for creation, rehearsals and residencies. 

“Even though we couldn’t give shows, we were allowed to work in a space,” Rhyspan explained.

“It kept the lights on and the techs paid and on the artists’ side it was much easier to get grants to fund the residencies because Maison de la culture is a trusted partner.”

New original songs and arrangements from that period were in the air until almost 5:45 p.m. and two numbers short of the intended conclusion of Trio Bruxo’s set. 

The looming weather conditions gave Jazz Fest no other choice but to shut things down for what would become several hours of uncertainty.

Always leave them wanting more, I guess. And although the elements conspired against us, right before the lightning cracked and the thunder rolled, instead those who had braved the forecast shared a moment.

Et après eux, le déluge.

The storm was a free form spectacle of its own kind. The waiting game was played. And then a glimmer of hope was revealed as the powers that be lifted the storm warning.

About a half hour later, one of hip hop music’s most notable architects, DJ Premier, — accompanied by his loyal troubadours the Badder Band — took their place on stage for Saturday night’s headlining free show. For my full review of that landmark set, please click here.

Early this coming week, big free shows starring DOMi & JD Beck, Thundercat and many more await. And that’s not even scratching the surface.

Check back mid-week for more reviews, more stories, more fun and hopefully a little more sunshine, or at least a little less rain. ■

The Montreal International Jazz Festival continues through Saturday, July 8. For a full list of performers, schedules, venues and ticket information, please visit the festival’s website.

To see CultMTL’s list of Montreal Jazz Fest recommendations and festival favourites, please click here

For our latest in music, please visit the Music section.