Montreal Jazz Festival heats up the music

City syncopates with ever-growing event

Montreal has never been called the birthplace of jazz. But for the past three decades, the city has been pivotal in stoking the genre’s flames via the ever-growing Montreal Jazz Festival.

Kicking off this weekend, the fest — which swells to 12 days this year — will present more than 650 shows spread across nearly two dozen stages, making it North America’s most expansive music event.

“Our festival differs from most of the others in that it’s not a package deal in any way,” says artistic director Andre Menard, who launched the concept 31 years ago. “We decided a long time ago that it would be an interesting laboratory to have separate box offices for every show and to have no multiple bills, which means no time limits on artists, who can play whatever they wish.”

The festival has no shortage of prestigious jazz names — from Sonny Rollins, who headlines a show at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier on Sunday, to Keith Jarrett, a headliner July 3. But attendees will also see a smattering of marquee names from the mainstream, including Cyndi Lauper, Boz Scaggs, the Doobie Brothers and Brian Setzer, the headliner of tonight’s free kickoff program.

“Festivals can be a bit like supermarkets in their presentation of music, but there’s definitely more consideration for the artist (in Montreal),” says guitarist Ralph Towner, who performs Saturday. “When times are tough, some lose their fundamental interest in improvised music, but that commitment remains strong in Montreal.”

Indeed, for every purveyor of smooth sounds, this year’s festival offers a spikier alternative — many included among the 360 or so free performances sprinkled across the 12 days. The more adventurous bookings include a large-hall teaming of avant godfather John Zorn, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, and a rare Canadian appearance by Polish trumpet master Tomasz Stanko, who’s making his Montreal debut.

“I always enjoy the festival atmosphere, particularly in North America. “It’s a pleasure to play larger halls as opposed to bars, and I do feel like the listeners here are more knowledgeable,” says Stanko.

Montreal’s tourism board estimates that nearly half of the festival’s attendees — a number that peaked last year at the 2 million mark, according to Menard — consists of folks who traveled to the event from outside a 50-mile radius. The fest ran at a marked deficit in the mid ’90s, coinciding with the slashing of funds by the Canadian government. That support was restored by the turn of the millennium.

In fact, the government has stepped up its backing considerably in the last couple of years, funding the Maison du Festival, a new permanent headquarters for the event that serves as an archive and a venue, as well as a 100,000-capacity outdoor plaza with a decided European flair.

Although the economic downturn has impacted some of the larger festivals this year — attendance at the seven day, single-venue New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival dropped about seven percent to 375,000 — Menard says advance sales are on par with last year’s. He says “it’s too early to tell” if the resurgent CareFusion Jazz Festival in New York City will have an impact.

“I tend to believe that a healthy climate is good for everyone,” Menard reasons. “With George Wein (the octogenarian Gotham entrepreneur who relinquished JVC a few years ago) back in control, that festival seems to have new life. I think it’s a positive thing to have more stages available.”

Besides CareFusion, centered around larger Gotham venues like Carnegie Hall, June’s Big Apple calendar also featured the 15th annual Vision Festival (an avant-garde staple) and the inaugural Undead fest, a bridge of sorts between the two poles. Canada has several established programs as well, notably concurrent festivals in Vancouver and Ottawa. But these days, Montreal is the big fish.

“One of the keys to our success is the entertainment district itself,” says Menard, who notes that virtually all the festival’s stages are within a five-minute walk. “Many major gestures were made in order to protect and preserve the festival in its place so we can organize the events there forever.”