Story by Adrian Brijbassi
MONTREAL, QUEBEC — Diana Krall says she doesn’t know where she would be without the Montreal Jazz Festival. It’s a comment that underscores an aspect of this enduring and endearing annual event that can get overlooked amid the dizzying amount of free music, street performers, beer and wine drinking, visitors, and money exchanges that make it one of the most notable events in Canada. For Krall and many other musicians, however, the festival means work, exposure and potentially a career-making experience.
“For so many reasons, it’s the most important jazz festival in the world. If it wasn’t for the Montreal Jazz Festival, I honestly don’t know what I would be doing,” says Krall, who spoke at a press conference on Saturday and then on Sunday night performed her first outdoor show at the festival — one of her very few open-air shows anywhere.
In 1995, Krall debuted at the jazz festival with a tribute to Nat King Cole. She so impressed the festival-goers that Tony Bennett invited her on stage to play the piano. Her career exploded and now she is the one who lavishes praise on the premier event in a city full of amazing festival after amazing festival.
“You gave me a springboard,” Krall, a British Columbian from Vancouver Island, told festival co-founder and music promoter André Ménard during the conference. “Musicians around the world know what this festival means and how important it is.”
Significant moments in Krall’s career that occurred at previous editions of the Montreal Jazz Festival include her first solo performances, which took place in 2011. She also had a 10-night run of club performances and played at the cavernous Bell Centre in 2004, a show that was recorded and released as an album.
“For the 35th year, we were wondering what could we do with her that we haven’t done yet,” Ménard told me. “We said, maybe she should headline her own show on the main stage. Normally for the big outdoor shows we look for something that shakes a bit more than the Diana Krall style. But people will listen and she is up to the challenge. I’m quite elated with this actually. We will be transmitting on Sainte-Catherine Street for the first time. I could not have foreseen something like this 10 years ago.”
In some ways the Montreal Jazz Festival embodies the music it celebrates, shifting and improvising and redefining itself, keeping everyone on their toes from year to year. It challenges artists like Krall and surprises audiences. The formula equates to 800 concerts during the 11-day festival that accounts for a whopping $125 million in economic activity for the city.
Diana Krall Thrills at 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival
Throngs of fans, many of whom lined up for hours, watched Krall’s performance that featured an appearance by her husband, Elvis Costello. It topped off an opening weekend that had the one thing every festival wishes for: great weather. The sunshine and temperatures in the low-30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit) brought out massive crowds, even for the shows on smaller stages. On Saturday, New Zealand’s Hollie Smith thrilled a large audience. Fans were sprawled along Sainte-Catherine Street outside of Place des Arts and also watched from the terrace of the Hyatt Regency Hotel that overlooks one of the festival stages. Woodkid opened the festival on a hot and humid Friday night with an orchestra and giant screen that showed images matching the epic nature of the songs from his debut album called “The Golden Age.” It was a curious choice for a main-stage opener. Woodkid, aka Yoann Lemoine, is a French film director and graphic artist as well as a musician. His appeal skews much younger than the jazz crowd. Woodkid’s 2013 Montreal Jazz Fest performance at Metropolis was one of the most talked about shows of the 34th edition (you can read my report of it here) and helped convince Ménard that he was ready for the outdoors.
“I saw him in London two years ago and felt that this was a tremendously elaborate concept, with the visuals and other elements,” Ménard says of Lemoine’s eye-catching show. “And it’s very intelligent music, very ambitious music. It starts out melancholic and builds to this loud drumbeat and it’s theatrical with all of the orchestration and the number of performers. I thought it would go over well as an opening show.”
It’s also no coincidence that Lemoine’s fans are more used to YouTube than MTV. “The average age of the festival attendee is 40 so we do have a preoccupation to bring younger people in,” Ménard notes.
Serving the next generation of music fans, whether they be jazz lovers or not, is crucial for an event that employs 2,500 people and attracts more than 2 million visitors each year, roughly one-third of them from outside of the Montreal area.
Along with Woodkid, acts with younger fans include Gary Clark Jr. (playing with B.B. King on July 5), rising Montreal stars Random Recipe and hip-hop super trio Deltron 3030, featuring Kid Koala, Dan the Automator and Del the Funky Homosapien (like URLs, it must be getting tougher and tougher to find good rap nicknames that aren’t taken).
But old-timers are far from forgotten as Diana Ross makes her Montreal Jazz Fest debut with sold-out shows on July 3 and 4. Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras are also performing this week.
New this year too is a gallery featuring paintings depicting jazz musicians and some painted by musicians themselves, including the marquee attraction: “Drifter’s Escape,” an oil painting by Jimi Hendrix that takes its name from a Bob Dylan song that the late guitar master made his own just as he did with “All Along the Watchtower.”
MORE ABOUT THE 35TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MONTREAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
Dates: June 26-July 6, 2014
The Jazz Passport: Fans can purchase a special package that includes three nights’ accommodations at one of five participating hotels, unlimited access for four days to three of the top festival venues (Club Soda, Metropolis and L’Astral), breakfast daily, and more. Packages start at $559 per person. I would recommend the package from the Hyatt Regency, which starts at $723, because of the hotel’s convenient location. It’s attached to the Complexe Desjardins mall that leads into Place des Arts and also overlooks Sainte-Catherine Street and the Rio Tinto Alcan Stage, so you can enjoy a snack or drink as if you were in the balcony section of a theatre. Click here for more details.
Tickets: The outdoor shows are free, but performances indoors — including notable shows featuring some of the names mentioned above, as well as performances by Nikki Yanofsky, Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, and others — will cost money for a ticket. Find details here.
Vacay.ca Recommends: Along with the big-name musicians, you’ll also enjoy: Ester Rada, a fabulous and funky Israeli singer (Rio Tinto Stage, free show, June 30, 10 pm); Vintage Trouble, a buzzed-about act from California that takes the TD Bank main stage on Canada Day (Scene TD, July 1, 9:30 pm); Valerie June, an emerging folk-country musician with a lovely voice (July 1, 9 pm, L’Astral, $34.38); and Betty Bonifassi, formerly of Montreal-based duo Beast (July 6, 11 pm, Club Soda, $28.50).
MORE JAZZ FESTIVAL COVERAGE ON VACAY.CA
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- Good Times Rolling at Montreal Jazz Fest
- Woodkid is Golden in Montreal