At 40, the Montréal Jazz Festival is Global Fusion in Motion

By Victoria Wasylak

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It’s a gnarly endeavor: planning one last edition of a beloved festival – your beloved festival, specifically – before you retire and hand the reins to a worthy successor, but fest co-founder André Ménard tackled the 40th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM) with about as much global grace as possible. Running from June 26 to July 6 this summer, Ménard, in tangent with FIJM, mapped out the newest, expanding realms in the jazz world. But for four decades, that’s been the plan the whole time.

“I see that jazz has become an international music, it’s no [longer] American-only,” he had told JAZZed in April. “America invented jazz, but it has traveled, and it comes back in echoes in many forms and ways. What would differentiate the Montréal Jazz Festival from the festivals in America was that we were not only America-centered. We would have musicians from Europe, and from Africa, and from Australia, and from Japan. This is the true nature of a festival – to offer discoveries, not only artists that you know about.”

This isn’t a North American game anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time.

Cuba, Holland, Kenya, Chili, Turkey, South Korea, Nigeria: All these countries are the new landscapes for jazz and the genre’s copious offshoots. FIJM’s acknowledgement of the phenomenon – due, in part, to the magic of the more prevalent availability of internet and social media – is major. When an authority on culture speaks, guests listen. Even better, when that same authority imports ten days’ worth of internationally acclaimed musicians, guests listen from a front-row seat and witness the evolution of a genre directly in front of them.

Spinning in an earthquake of percussion and electronica, Afrikana Soul Sister and special guests Mélissa Lavergne and Élage Diouf cooked up a towering monsoon of clashing rhythms gleaned from their native Mali. Pausing amidst his set, trumpeter Lex French spoke of the devasting Christchurch Mosque shooting that happened earlier this year is his own native New Zealand. Chad-born, Montréal-based quartet H’Sao harmonized with bars of their reggae-rock and world music fusion.

The audacity of German group WellBad juxtaposed to the unassuming solo act Munya, a “synth-folk” artist of sorts, perhaps sums up the musical assortment succinctly. Splitting her attention between a set of keys and a guitar, the Québec-based singer represents one of the many directions where young music is heading in these late 2010s – towards bedroom-based swirls of genres and bilingual ballads.

Even when the acts are close to home, they pack surprises. More strange sounds bent over the landscape of the TD Stage, carrying over to the contemporary art museum, as Ontario’s Laila Biali sang “Nature Boy,” in the mystic way it was intended. Then Coldplay’s ballad “Yellow” gets sweetened on the piano, and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” received the free-falling funk treatment. How about a sensual longue cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” the greatest ode to loneliness, provided by Québec group Big Band Intersection?

Standing as the greatest wildcard of them all was alt-J, a critically acclaimed pulsating experiment in rock. They’re the alternative to alternative music, offering barely audible vocals, heavy instrumentation, and a steady, heady drone. The English group are the artsy and avant equivalent of a living MoMA exhibit, yet still somehow sonically accessible enough to fill the Salle Willfrid-Pelletier twice in a row. Performing both July 2 and 3 at the 3,000-seat capacity theater in Place des Arts, the trio’s oddball strain of storytelling took center stage at FIJM. Incessant clanging, thundering hums, lush flute (albeit canned) all constitute the soundscapes that alt-J dabble in, often wordlessly for spans of minutes.

Are they pioneers of a newfangled futuristic genre? Are they try-hard art-rock derivatives of their musical predecessors? Who’s to say? But they’re here, at the 40th anniversary of one of the most treasured festivals on the face of the globe, anyway.

Their opener, for what it’s worth, steered their sonic ship in an entirely other direction; Chicago-based duo DRAMA filled their 50 minutes with funk-driven live looping, with vocalist Via Rosa singing over an endless stream of electronica, like a never-ending dance sonnet.

For all of its musical risks, though, FIJM still reels it in when it comes to honoring living legends in the music world, household names or not. Alan Parsons, Chick Corea, and Peter Frampton shared their respective moments in the spotlight as prominent FIJM concerts. The fest commemorated “25 Years of Trip Hop,” specifically the major anniversary of Portishead’s record Dummy.

Lee Fields and his band the Expressions shook Club Soda on July 1, flaunting a legacy that started with his first single, released fifty years ago in 1969 – a whopping ten years before the conception of the festival. Now in his late 60s, Fields can (and does) still jitterbug behind a mic stand and do the old-timey side steps, both moves only a longtime pro can pull off without looking like a complete ham. With a new record out (It Rains Love), he’s a still-thriving, ever-adapting gem of the James Brown and Little Richard soul era, a huge rarity preserved in part by events like these.

Away from the crowds and in the media room, Canadian pianist Wray Downes was honored with the Oscar Peterson award on July 2 at the festival. In a private press conference, the 88-year-old discussed his lengthy career and teaching – even though he describes himself as “still a student.” As far as nostalgia goes, though, Downes isn’t stuck in the past, no matter how long ago people insist the “good old days” of jazz were. “Right now, it’s the good old days for me with the group I have,” he explained.

Upon receiving the award during the conference, Downes’ words were few but his emotions were many. “Thanks, OP, wherever you are,” he said. “I’m just overwhelmed.”

Nick Murphy (fka Chet Faker) also sat down for a chat, although his connection to jazz remains far less obvious. The Aussie singer first went viral after he submitted his cover of “No Diggity” to precisely one blog, from there boosting his career under his old moniker, when his “Chet Faker” project “wasn’t even meant to be singing.” Since then, he’s released an album under his real name and proceeded to take the TD Stage on July 3. You can’t file Murphy’s record, Run Fast Sleep Naked, under any jazz subset by any stretch, making him one of the many acts on the pop-rock spectrum to pepper the lineup, along with other standouts like First Aid Kit, The Strumbellas, and Courtney Barnett. Instead, he likens the genre to more of a mindset – which just proves how 1) how FIJM is able to expand to include more non-traditional jazz artists with every year, and 2) how the genre as a whole is so easy adapt in every part of the world.

“Since my early 20s, I really enjoyed jazz,” he said, also recalling his earlier stint at the festival a few years prior. “I think there’s definitely something about jazz – there’s an attitude that has to come with living inside that kind of performance, and a confidence. Certainly, as I get a lot older I get a lot better at that. It’s definitely a part of my background. I’m trying to show a lot of the kids that are fans of my music maybe some of the stuff that gets left behind – like performance, or actually playing an instrument, or expression in the moment – and I they think are all key elements of jazz music.”

It’s that very concentrated confidence from every act at the Montréal Jazz Festival that keeps music – jazz or not, North American or not – at the heart of Montréal, even after a lengthy run of 40 years. Well done, Mr. Ménard.

The 41st edition of the festival will take place from June 25 to July 4, 2020.

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