The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is the largest jazz festival in the world. This year, I attended five of the ten days of the Festival, including indoor and outdoor shows and there were so many world-class artists that it was hard to decide which ones to pick. The events all take place in a concentrated area of downtown Montreal, where there are 15 concert halls and 8 outdoor stages. It must be daunting to open for a popular singer like Gregory Porter, who won the Grammy for best vocal jazz album in 2015, but vocalist Jaime Woods immediately charmed the audience. She was accompanied by her talented brother Daniel on guitar and they had the audience snapping their fingers and singing along. Like Porter, she writes most of her own material. Porter was splendid, singing numbers from each of his albums. An unusually thoughtful songwriter, the title track of his new Blue Note album, “Take me to the Alley,” which he performed at the show, is basically a call to help the “afflicted ones” of our society.
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, appearing at the Symphony Hall, showed why they have been a beloved New York institution for the past 30 years. Marsalis, sitting in the trumpet section at the back, acted as m.c. and, while not stinting on his own solos, also gave other members of the ensemble a chance to shine. The Orchestra played pieces and arrangements by various band members. There were works by Duke Ellington (whom Marsalis cited as the inspiration for the LCO) as well as Thelonious Monk. They also performed “Windows,” a piece by Chick Corea.The next night, I returned to the same hall to see Corea himself in a superb trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. The trio again proved the primacy of Ellington and Monk. Corea paid tribute to Miles Davis as well as the late pianist Bud Powell before performing his driving “Tempus Fugit.” In the second half, Corea announced, “I am going to play a tune by one of my favorite composers …me” and played “The Enchantment.” As an encore, the band did “Spain,” Corea’s adaptation of the theme from Rodrigo’s “Concerto for Aranjuez.”
Trumpeter Christian Scott has a hot group but they reached a higher level when they brought on the guest star, Lizz Wright. She has a powerful contralto and sang the opening and closing numbers from her latest Concord album, “Freedom and Surrender” and Neil Young’s “Old Man.” The standout in Scott’s band is his flute player, Elena Pinderhughes. Her brother Samora is the fine pianist in the group.
Mexican singer Lila Downs is another force of nature vocalist. Addressing the audience, she acknowledged her native country’s problems, but she chose to honor its positive contributions, such as the women who grind corn and make tortillas in the morning. Other pieces were about iguanas, mescal and Emiliano Zapata. Her set had elaborate filmed projections.Pianist Kenny Barron and guitarist Lionel Loueke joined for a memorable concert of duets. There was more Monk (including “’Round Midnight”), Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps” and a Barron original. They ended with the Caribbean favorite, “St. Thomas.”
Stacey Kent (a singer in the Peggy Lee mold) presented a sophisticated set with songs in English, French and Portuguese. She feels so comfortable in a samba beat, she opened with a Brazilian flavored “People Will Say We’re in Love.” There were several Jobim songs and more Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Happy Talk”). Her graceful band is led by her husband, saxophonist Jim Tomlinson and Kent occasionally played guitar.
Those were just the concerts I attended with admittance fees. There were non-stop free shows and I enjoyed a number of these, especially the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers. A number of events were geared to children,
including a show featuring teenage performers and a wonderful performance by Turkish folk dancers in colorful costumes. The Montreal Jazz Festival certainly won me over.