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Montreal Fest Looms Large in Its Mix of Jazz and Pop

Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd share the various stages with hybrid acts like Pink Martini and Holly Cole

In recent weeks, this reporter has received seemingly conflicting statements about summertime events claiming to be the grandaddy of music festivals. Festival Intl. de Jazz de Montreal, the 34th edition of which commences Friday until July 7, bills itself as “the world’s largest jazz festival,” using the Guinness World Records as validation. It’s Quebecois cousin, Festival d’ete de Quebec (July 4-14), claims to be Canada’s “largest outdoor music festival,” which might offer a subtle blanket distinction. Then there’s Milwaukee’s Summerfest, which kicked off Wednesday for 11 days, with its self-proclaimed definition as “the Guinness-certified world’s largest music festival.”

Who’s right? Does it really matter? And shouldn’t it be quality over quantity anyway?

“We have over 3,000 musicians who are attending and the crowds are in the neighborhood of 2 million, depending on the weather,” says Montreal’s artistic director Andre Menard, who adds that the 10-day event annually hauls in approximately $100 million into the city’s coffers via restaurants, accommodations and the like.

The various bills — about 70% sold as of Thursday — will perform at 12 concert halls ranging from 100 to 3,000 capacity, as well as seven outdoor stages, all within three blocks of downtown Montreal. All the outdoor events are free, while the indoor shows are ticketed events. Not unlike South by Southwest’s annual music extravaganza, where virtually every block of downtown Austin, Texas, is a platform for live music, so, too, does central Montreal become a veritable musical theater in the round.

And for a few days, at least, class and cultural distinctions are blurred. “Most kids are raised in French or in English culture but they have a great sensitivity towards the other culture,” Menard says of the city’s citizens. “So we have this  synthesis that is the very much the identity of Montreal. (The festival) is very well organized. It’s very family-oriented, and it’s very inclusive socially and musically — so people from all walks of life can come to the site. Guys from big corporations can stand next to the unemployed guy, which is how we like it.”

As for quality, Montreal’s fest — which, like most of its jazz fest brethren features a program that falls beyond the boundaries of jazz — certainly touts an impressive array of jazz and non-jazz acts over its previous three decades. This year’s jazz lineup, which accounts for 60%-70% of the program, includes a pair of elder statesmen: Wayne Shorter, who’s engaged in a yearlong celebration of his 80th birthday, and fellow saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who, at 75, appears to be enjoying a new wellspring of creativity.

There are also scions of jazz royalty, Ravi Coltrane and Joshua Redman; top-flight pianists Steve Kuhn, Chucho Valdez and Jason Moran; trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who’s appearing with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; virtuoso guitarists Bill Frisell and John Abercrombie; and Canada’s own Holly Cole, the jazz vocalist who has sold out two nights at the Theatre du Nouveau Monde.

Among the top non-jazz draws include the singer-songwriter Feist, another popular Canadian, and Boz Scaggs, who’s promoting a new album, “Memphis.” According to Menard, Feist, who’s kicking off the fest Friday with a free outdoor appearance at the recently completed Place de Festivals, could attract anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people. (Pink Martini is expected to be the big indoor attraction that night.)

Menard cited New Orleans, in terms of ambiance and identity, as perhaps closest to the spirit of Montreal in the jazz fest realm. “You can’t beat New Orleans for its origins,” he says, “but obviously we have a strong identity in Montreal, mixing all the cultures from all over the world. We’re pretty proud of what we have achieved with this.”

Charles Lloyd — who’s experiencing a phenomenal year with the release of his highly acclaimed album “Hagar’s Song” with Jason Moran, and a box set of his ECM recordings titled “Quartets,” all of which feature pianist Bobo Stenson — has performed at Montreal four times previous.

“This has always been a great city for music and the festival has a wide spectrum of music that can be heard in all corners of the city it would seem,” Lloyd says. “There is a great festive atmosphere in the streets.”

Lloyd will perform within three different iterations this year, sharing the stage with Moran, Zakir Hussein, Eric Harland and Bill Frisell. “With the exception of Bill Frisell, these musicians are part of my regular formations — whether in quartet, trio or duo,” says Lloyd, who first gained acclaim as one of the first jazz musicians to plays rock venues like the Fillmore West in the ’60s, when his group featured pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “It seemed appropriate to present an evening with all of them as an extended celebration of my 75th birthday.”

As for his august burst of inspiration, Lloyd says simply: “Creativity is flowing and I am happy to be able to flow with it. The Montreal Jazz Festival has given me an extended platform of to manifest it.”

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