“Clear days are so good and free.” — the iconic lyric sung by Flora Purim on Chick Corea’s iconic album Light As a Feather. Especially in northern climes, the lyrics evoke those perfect days we associate with the summer that comes and goes all too quickly.
When it comes to celebrating summer, there’s nothing like the now world renown 10-day Montreal International Jazz Festival (MJF) that begins a week after the solstice. What makes the festival special is that not only are the “clear days so good and free” but there are hundreds of free concerts that begin at noon and continue until closing time. Yes, for the duration of the festival there’s a Havana Moon hanging high over Montreal. Unnoticed in the 1000ds of positive reports the MJF has generated over the years is that it is above everything else a people’s festival. On any given day, you (family and/or friends) can attend the many free outdoor concerts that are strategically embedded in the heart of the festival. Along with the music you’ll also discover that the city is a magnet for the world’s polyglot of languages, which redounds to the festival’s continually evolving creative programming that attracts music and culture lovers from the four corners of the globe.
THE FREE SHOWS CONCEPT
In the early 1980s, when festival founders Andre Menard and Alain Simard were growing the MJF, they had an idea which would become the template for all festivals looking to survive the financial burdens mega-events invariably generate. They understood that the best way to introduce listeners raised on pop, rock or rap and hip-hop to the more demanding and complex language of jazz would be to provide it free. If jazz is now one of the mainstays of the city, it’s because Menard and Simard created the ideal conditions for listeners to expose themselves to an unfamiliar musical language while having fun. Jazz is a constantly evolving form with many different approaches to structure and expression (free-form, bee-bop, manouche, fusion, cool, swing, The American Songbook); and thanks to the free shows listeners can try them all out and then pick and choose.
LOCATION = CLUB JAZZ CASINO
Location location location is not only the buzzword in real-estate, but also for festival venues; and where steel and cement make up the core of the city centre, anything that is green and grows will attract the undivided attention of city folk starving for the natural world. Three years ago, the festival brain trust presciently introduced a new venue called Club Jazz Casino of Montreal.
It features grassy knolls, an arc of stately trees that backs up the stage like a warm embrace, behind which soars the city’s spectacular skyline. More importantly, the seating is plentiful, and there are all sorts of nooks and crannies to settle into, and of course food and drink. To say the least, the mix of music with this preciously intimate venue has been a winner since day one, and it’s about to get happier come October when Canada officially legalises cannabis. Rumour has it that music and marijuana go rather well together.
Among some of the great shows and performers to put on your “must see list” is John Roney (July 7th, 6 pm). Easily one of Canada’s most versatile and distinguished jazz pianists, who, by the way, is equally at home in the classical repertoire. Last year he performed, note for note, Keith Jarrett’s classic Koln Concert. This year he’ll be in duo with saxophonist Tevet Sela.
Another jewel in the crown of Montreal music is Papa Groove. When lead singer Sebastien Francisque gets it going, wardrobe malfunctions among the female contingent of the audience are an occupational hazard. The best way to describe their music and its brain-friendly effects it to imagine Frank Zappa, Snarky Puppy and James Brown injected into an unstable particle accelerator and spun out as anti- matter. Don’t bet on staying seated for too long during their back to back 10 pm performances June 28th and 29th.
If it’s voice you like, you can’t go wrong with England’s Zara McFarlane (June 28th, 6 pm). Hers is a jazz-inflected world music that benefits from the tight chemistry generated by her band. Zara isn’t afraid to be herself in her ear-arresting original material.
July 3rd at 6 pm will feature the solo guitar wizardry of Thomas Carbou: he’ll be playing his haunting original compositions plus a couple of covers.
If raunchy, infectious Cuban is your thing, Cuban-born now living in Montreal Rafael Zaldivar (July 3rd, 8 pm), in his latest reincarnation (he also plays straight-ahead jazz) is guaranteed to deliver the goods.
And don’t miss the electric soul-funk-rock of Fredy V and the Foundation: (July 6 and 7, 10 pm). Along with Fredy keep your ear trained on the voluptuously vagrant voice of his backup singer Melissa Pacifico. She is no less important to the group concept than Jordan Officer to the Susie Arioli sound.
Finger-agile, French-born guitarist Stephane Wrembel modernizes Gypsy Jazz on July 7th, 8 pm. He’ll make you forget about Bireli Lagrene. And finally, in the spirit of jazz the way it was, make a point of catching the straight-head, no-nonsense playlist of MTL HB5 (July 4th, 8 pm).
With 40 concerts on slate at the Casino Jazz Club, it can be likened to a mini festival all unto its own. There’s nothing quite like it in Montreal for both the music and ambience.
Better yet, Club Casino is only one of many outdoor venues that features free shows — more than 350 — throughout the festival.
Thanks to the free-show concept, one of the jazz festival’s enduring note-perfect rites of summer, it’s all yours for the taking, the people’s festival.