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Festival International De Jazz De Montreal

By Benson Knickerbocker

A few hours north, across the Canadian border occurs an annual event known as the Festival International De Jazz De Montreal. After years of living within a half of day’ drive from Montreal and not making the journey, I now know that I have deprived myself of one of the finest festivals around. For a city that already boasts impressive art and history museums, a vibrant night life and some of the nicest people on the North American continent, a week long Jazz Festival is an exciting bonus to an already fun-filled city. The festival occurred from June 29th to July 9 and provided so many activities that would make the most gung ho individual grow weary to the abundance of fun.

One of the Montreal Jazz Festival’s pleasant surprises was the event’s close ties with Louisiana culture. The Montreal-Louisiana connection has deep roots that stem back to the 17th Century when French settlers arrived in the New World, which they referred to as L'Acadie. These settlers became known as Acadians and they lived on the Nova Scotia land throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. In 1682 Robert Cavelier, a French explorer, left the Great Lakes region, headed down the Mississippi and discovered the land known today as Louisiana. For the next fifty years, the region was vastly settled by French and Germans who were looking to settle the new land. When Queen Anne's War erupted in Europe in 1713, the conflict manifested itself in the New World as the French-Indian War. During this conflict, many Acadians refused to swear their allegiance to the King of England and migrated south to Louisiana. For the next 200 plus years, the Acadians retained their cultural identity in the south through language, food and customs. Today, the Acadians are known as Cajuns, who are synonymous with the Louisiana experience.

For this year’s Montreal Jazz festival, the organizers teamed up with the Louisiana tourism department and brought a little bit of the Crescent City/Bayou culture to the banks of the St. Lawrence River. On a musical level, the Dixieland band, Bourbon Street, played for free on the streets while Louisiana food was served right in the vicinity. The evenings featured riverboat rides with the Newbirth Brass Band providing the entertainment while blues legend Coco Rochibeaux ripped it up one at one of the many free stages. Other featured Louisiana acts was the gospel of the Zion Harmonizers; the hard bop trumpeting of Nicholas Payton and an evening showing of the 1947 film, New Orleans, featuring Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Billy Holiday. The whole Big East feeling was capped by the daily occurrence of a Mardi Gras-style Louisiana parade.

Outside of the great Louisiana acts, there was so much more music to be had in Montreal. During the ten day festival, there were over 350 free outdoor shows, 100 indoor concerts featuring the biggest names in jazz, 30 free indoor concerts, 60 showings of movies and videos, 30 concert cruises on the St. Lawrence aboard the Nouvelle-Orléans, and 10 Jam Sessions. The festival brought big time acts like Al Jarreau, Rickie Lee Jones, Sonny Rollins, Sting, and Ray Charles. It brought a little bit of the New York City downtown scene with performances by Mark Ribot, MMW, John Zorn, the Sex Mob and Don Byron. The local music flavor was represented by performances by Gangtser Politics, Brad Mehldau and Steve Rowe Blues Band.

Another great feature of the Montreal Jazz Festival is that it highlights a different artist each year. In the past guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Joe Lovano have been the featured performer at the fest and this year is was bassist Dave Holland. The English born veteran Holland hit the stage with numerous formats. One night, he was with his big band and on an other night, he performed a duet with guitarist Jim Hall. Another evening had Holland teaming up with old time friends, guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette. One of the most exciting nights was when he had the opportunity to play with his working quintet, which consisted of primarily younger players. Since the quintet was Holland’s working recording band, the sound was really tight and the improvisations were unbelievable. Extra kudos go to Holland’s drummer, Billy Kilson, who redefined the ways that the drums can be played. The drummer was bursting with energy, élan and enthusiasm and he led the band into unimaginable rhythmic directions.

The first three days of the event were slightly hampered by a nightly ritual of torrential downpours, but the weather may have seemed as a potential disaster, but it did not keep the kids off the streets. As the water came pouring down, the music kept on playing and the kids kept on dancing. Although this author was more prone to head for warmer and drier locales, the indomitable display put on by fans, musicians and organizers alike was one of the most impressive occurrences of the entire festival. For once, people’s hairdos, new shoes and cellular phones did not matter – only the spirit of togetherness and music was required. That was the vibes of the fest throughout and that is the vibe that will keep me coming back for more.