As anyone who's ever been to Montreal in early July will likely tell you, there are essentially two Montreal Jazz Festivals. By far, the most popular are the outdoor shows in and around Place des Arts, starting around 11am each day and ending well past midnight. Indeed, it's not a stretch to say that the Jazz Festival has helped give shape to this part of town, carving out huge plazas with permanent lighting structures, such as the CBC/Radio Canada stage (pictured above) where Halifax's post-Manouche Gypsophilia played last night. Indeed, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) even has it's own permanent structure, La Maison du Festival, right on the corner of Rue Ste-Catherine and Balmoral.
But, as fun and relaxing as it is to sip on a Heineken listening to some Balkan or Swing band while the sun goes down behind one of these five festival stages, the real action at FIJM takes place indoors, where everyone from Liza Minnelli to Seal is performing this weekend. Unfortunately, you need to pay to get into those shows, but if my experience last night is any indication of what normally goes on here, it's well worth the price.
At the unusually-early hour of 6pm, Russian-born, Israeli-bred singer Sophie Milman packed the cheekily-named Club Soda: a large but intimate theater on the eastern end of Blvd. Saint-Laurent, with table seating and a wrap-around balcony. Settling in with her crack backing band of drums, bass, guitar, and piano, Milman rifled through a 90-minute set built mostly on the back of the Great American Songbook, with occasional forays into the music of Bruce Springsteen ("I'm On Fire") and fellow Toronto-resident Leslie Feist ("So Sorry"). Milman, a five-time FIJM veteran with four studio albums to her credit, managed to add her own swinging stamp to these songs without diluting their message. Which the crowd responded to enthusiastically, cheering her on throughout and standing en masse at the end. (Standing O's, my friend Amy told me, are a staple of FIJM's seated shows.)
After dark, I made my way to the Théâtre Maisonneuve on Place des Arts. Named after the founder of Montreal and normally home to the city's ballet, the Italian-style theater made a majestic setting for a double bill featuring two of Canada's jazz giants. Vibes player Peter Appleyard received the annual Oscar Peterson Award onstage, in recognition of his contributions to Canadian jazz, then went on to play a set of standards with his quintet. Appleyard, who turns 84 next month, was a bit slow and uncertain at times, but sent the crowd into stitches during "Sweet Georgia Brown," when he left his stool to take his turn at first the piano, then the drums (which was his first instrument.) Of course, we all gave him a big standing O.
But, for those seeking the true spirit of the late, great, Oscar Peterson, one need look no further than the evening's closer, Oliver Jones. Without a doubt Canada's leading jazz artist (unless you count a certain girl from Nanaimo), Jones - a Montreal-native - played a full, tight set of originals, together with drummer Jim Doxas and bassist Eric Lagacé. Jones, 77, looked like he was having the time of his life, smiling and laughing while ripping out ridiculous runs incorporating everything from blues to boogie woogie. With the houselights down and simple spots on the three tuxedo-wearing players, this was jazz at its most artistic and elegant.
Jones ended his set with Peterson's most famous composition, "Hymn to Freedom," getting the entire audience to clap along to it's gospel-tinged rhythms, even getting us to shout "Amen" at the end. I didn't expect to find religion in Montreal, but you can sure call me a believer now.
More pics on the photo page.