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Montreal Jazz Festival Stacks the Deck With Bob Dylan, King Crimson, Buddy Guy and a Cast of Thousands

Variety logo Variety 7/3/2017 Mitch Myers
© Provided by Variety

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is in the midst of celebrating its 38th year, and now enjoys the status of a summer destination for music lovers of all stripes. Running from June 28 through July 8, the fest will host more than 500 concerts featuring thousands of musicians in a variety of contexts and venues. While the indoor, ticketed shows are a splendid cross-section of jazz, blues, rock, and pop music, more than two-thirds of the events are on outdoor stages and free to all. Family-friendly without sacrificing the quality of performers, this year’s festival has already showcased veteran jazz heroes Charles Lloyd and Jack DeJohnette, rock icon Bob Dylan, bluesmen Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite, and electro-funk pioneers the Thievery Corporation.

Balancing the festival program between solid local musicians, respected Canadian stalwarts (like singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith) and internationally acclaimed artists, the surplus of talent performing here is impressive. And while socially conscious musicians like up-and-coming trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire are well represented, a group of protesters supporting Black Lives Matter took over one of the outdoor stages on Sunday afternoon chanting “Jazz Is Black,” and objecting to last week’s killing of a Haitian man, Pierre Coriolan, by Montreal police.

Still, the emphasis on quality music was not deterred. Drummer Jack DeJohnette was feted with the festival’s Miles Davis Award and, celebrating his 75th birthday, performed with his jazz-rock supergroup Hudson, featuring guitarist John Scofield, keyboard wizard John Medeski, and bassist Larry Grenadier. On the same bill, saxophonist Charles Lloyd dazzled the crowd with his own group of all-stars including pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer extraordinaire Eric Harland.

Mega-troubadour Bob Dylan was in and out of the Bell Centre in less than two hours, said nothing to the crowd, but still serenaded the appreciative Canadian audience with a selected array of old hits, recent compositions from his album Tempest, and several selections from the Great American Songbook including vintage compositions “Autumn Leaves” and “That Old Black Magic.” Elsewhere, celebrated jazz band the Bad Plus, in some of their last gigs with pianist Ethan Iverson, played three nights in a row at Le Gesù — first as a trio, then with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and finally with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Local pianist John Roney took on an imposing task by recreating Keith Jarrett’s legendary 1975 performance, the Köln Concert, and succeeded greatly performing solo without a net. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin is still riding the wave after having performed on David Bowie’s “Blackstar” album, and he performed a thrilling, late night set at Le Gesù. Bursting with energy, McCaslin’s fusion band even played two Bowie tunes, “Lazarus” and “Look Back in Anger.”

The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir made a standout appearance Sunday night at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal, treating local fans with a spirited farewell show to vaunted choir director Trevor Payne. American recording artists Thievery Corporation, celebrating 20 years of music-making and a new album “The Temple of I & I,” got people up on their feet with their distinctive funk-dub-reggae hybrid. Showcasing several different singers and hip-hoppers, the band did especially well bringing out Boston-based rapper Mr. Lif.

Besides the live shows, award ceremonies and late-night jams, the festival also brings a cinematic angle to the proceedings: Sunday night’s “La La Land” concert at the cavernous Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts, for example. Another crowd-pleasing success for the festival, the Damien Chazelle-directed film played in its entirety, while all of the music was performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain, conducted by Erik Ochsner. With an accompanying jazz ensemble playing alongside, it was quite a sight — totaling around 80 musicians on the massive stage.

Elsewhere in the visual program were also screenings of the short, animated film on the life of Montreal piano legend Oscar Peterson; a John Coltrane documentary, “Chasing Trane” narrated by Denzel Washington; and a new documentary on the soft-spoken guitar legend Bill Frisell, who also appeared at the festival for the 20th time. Playing in quiet tandem with bassist Thomas Morgan, the duo showcased material from their new album “Small Town,” including a hypnotic version of “Goldfinger,” and a plaintive “Moon River” for an encore.

With another week to go, the festival anticipates good things from prog-rock rulers King Crimson, saxophonists Joshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane, singer Lizz Wright, soulman Charles Bradley, Melissa Etheridge, the O’Jays, the Four Tops, and many more.

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