Attendees of the 39th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival likely all had a familiar refrain in mind: the heat is on. The fest, which runs June 28 to July 7, faced summer temperatures well into the 90s this week, but jazz fanatics, party people, families and tourists alike are braving the weather to enjoy a wide range of musical entertainment and outdoor spectacles.
High profile performers like Ry Cooder, Seal, Snarky Puppy and saxophone sensation Kamasi Washington brought their big stage shows to appreciative audiences, along with veteran jazz stalwarts like Archie Shepp and guitarist Al Di Meola. Performing American rockers like George Thorogood, Ben Harper and the jam-friendly Bela Fleck and the Flecktones were all honored with great hospitality and presented with official festival awards.
Singer/guitarist Ry Cooder appeared at the Théâtre Maisonneuve on Friday night, showcasing his unique spin on American roots music and playing the blues with style and grace. After receiving the festival’s vaunted Spirit Award, Cooder played an entertaining set spanning material from a 50-year career as well as songs from his latest album, “The Prodigal Son,” making his mark with sly vocals, social commentary and slide guitar heroics.
On Saturday night, young Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his group played to a packed house at METLUS and had the entire crowd moving and grooving to his funkified spiritual jazz. In a true communal gesture, he even brought out his father, musician Rickey Washington, to perform with the band as they drew from recordings like “The Epic” and Kamasi’s newest release, “Heaven and Earth,” Washington has quickly become one of jazz’s brightest hopes and his star is certainly on the rise.
Old guard saxophonists like Houston Person and Benny Golson also got their due at Montreal’s arguably most authentic jazz club, Upstairs. Archie Shepp, known for his avant-garde saxophone style as well as his outspoken nature and Civil Rights activism, was featured at the far larger and majestic Maison Symphonique auditorium.
As part of the festival’s eclectic Invitation Series, keyboardist John Medeski was invited to host and curate gigs at the intimate Gesù Theater for three consecutive nights. On Friday guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer JT Lewis joined Medeski for an evening of burning, electrified and (sometimes) experimental jazz. On this evening Medeski was quite ably matched in lively counterpoint by Ribot’s amazing guitar technique. On Saturday Medeski brought in his latest ensemble, Mad Skillet, featuring guitarist Will Bernard, drummer Terrence Higgins and New Orleans sousaphone virtuoso Kirk Joseph. Once again, the band was slamming and quite danceable while Medeski showed himself to be the most inventive, playful and creative keyboard player on the scene since the late, great Sun Ra.
With the 4th of July approaching and the open, permissive nature of the Montreal festival, many of the American performers felt some need to comment on the current social/political situation in the United States. To be sure, none were more outspoken or direct than guitarist Marc Ribot when he and his group played a late night set at Le Gesù showcasing the material from his forthcoming collection, “Songs Of Resistance.”
Drawing on original tunes as well as protest songs from diverse sources including the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and even World War II, Ribot bravely expressed his strident, anti-fascist objections to the Trump administration in a dramatic, musical fashion. The new record features great players and professional singers, but in Montreal Ribot was compelled to sing/shout/recite the controversial lyrics all on his own. “It’s been a tough week,” Ribot told Variety. “I thought about it a lot and just decided to rant it out.” Indeed, Ribot’s “Songs Of Resistance” gains in resonance and relevance with every passing day. The full recording on ANTI Records won’t be released until September, and by that time, it could be in the running for a Grammy.
With hundreds of artists from all over the world playing at small clubs, concert halls, theaters and free outdoor stages, there’s absolutely no shortage of quality musical options at Montreal. Straight ahead jazz, pop, hip-hop, rock, soul and modern improvisation are all in good supply as the city thrives with activity. Coming up on the fest’s 40th anniversary, organizers and attendees have become adept at honoring the past and looking to the future, supporting both established artists and nurturing new talent. They also know how to stay cool in times like these.