The Montreal Jazz Festival takes a decidedly broad view of "jazz" when it comes to booking acts. On the festival's opening night, Montreal-native Rufus Wainwright played before a crowd of 100,000+ on the Place des Festivals; five nights later, Brooklyn's own Escort did the same. And, it`s not just the free shows: many of the big paid venues here present artists such as Norah Jones and Seal that are rooted in the pop world. A cynic might say that this is all about attracting larger, younger audiences in an age when there are no more Miles or Dizzys who can pack auditorium-sized venues.
Whatever the motivation, any festival worth its salt needs to create an atmosphere of excitement and discovery, and this festival does that as well as any I've ever attended (and I've been at more than a few.) So what if the genre-lines get a little messed up here and there: there's plenty of everything here to make everyone happy: from the occasional dabbler, to the dyed-in-the-wool jazz head. And, all this genre-mixing means you never quite know just what`s around the corner.
As it happens, I spent the bulk of yesterday bouncing around stages that offered up everything from groove-rock, to international hip-hop, to indie-twang. And, oh yes, a set of some of the best hard-bop I ever hope to hear.
As the sune went down, I caught a set by local singer Emmanuelle Julien, in front of a packed crowd at the Scene Loto-Quebec: an outdoor stage just north of the Maison Symphonique. The music was benign, if no more interesting than your average bar-band, and the easygoing crowd seemed content to sip their picnic wine on the sloping grass, swaying back and forth. Which is precisely what most of these outdoor shows are going for: nothing too weird or experimental, just a crowd-pleasing good time.
That`s because I was also holding a ticket to Toronto indie-folk darlings Timber Timbre at the Theatre Maisonneuve, the sort of big stage they`ve grown accustomed to playing since opening for Feist on her most recent tour. Like it or not, frontman Taylor Kirk has one of the most distinctive voices in indie rock: a high-pitched, muddled take on Leonard Cohen, whose creepy doom sound is clearly an influence. But, after the fifth song sounded pretty much like the four that came before it - plinking piano, reverb-heavy twang guitar, marblemouthed vocals - it was time to move on.
Which brought me to my final stop of the night: Le Gesu - or, as WBGO`s Michael Bourne likes to call it: the "Jesus Room," situated in the basement of a Jesuit church around the corner from Place des Arts. It`s a medium-sized venue, with stone walls and seats descending down to the stage, which is where I saw the legendary pianist Cedar Walton make his Montreal Jazz Fest debut. As great as Oliver Jones`set was on Thursday night (using the same setup), Walton`s set was in a class of its own: a miracle of elegance and effortless skill built over six decades of playing with everyone from Art Blakey to Abbey Lincoln, not to mention his own trio. Walton played mostly his own compositions, including classics such as "Ojos de Rijo" and "Mosaic," while throwing in a trio of Billy Strayhorn tunes that included the most delicate, exuberant version of "Lush Life" I`ve ever heard. The air conditioning may have been out at Le Gesu last night, but not once did I see Walton break a sweat.
Tonight`s lineup is another mixed bag: everything from guitar great John Pizzarelli at Club Soda to a massive festival-ending concert with Chromeo on the Place des Festivals. Stay tuned for updates here and on Twitter. More pics below and on the photo page.