If you can’t make the Montreal International Jazz Festival this time, put it on your bucket list.
Montreal International Jazz Festival, through July 6.
By Glenn Rifkin
As Keith Jarrett strode slowly across the stage toward the Steinway bathed in a single spotlight, there was a palpable sense of intimidation within the sold-out crowd of nearly 2000 at Montreal’s magnificent Maison Symphonique. Here at the 35th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, Jarrett was a hot ticket. He has been thrilling audiences with his brilliant improvisational piano performances for more than four decades. The album of his iconic concert in Cologne, Germany, in 1975 (The Koln Concert) is the best-selling jazz piano recording in history and now rests in a vast number of baby boomer record collections.
He has long been revered as a unique and brilliant innovator, adept at both classical and jazz, but Jarrett, now 69, has also demonstrated a low tolerance for the natural sounds of an audience. During his solo piano concerts, he is notorious for leaving the stage in a huff if an audience member talks, snaps a flash photo, or even coughs too loudly. Indeed, on Saturday night all the Montreal ticket holders were issued a polite warning via email and then again prior to the show, to stay in our seats and avoid making a sound.
However, the fear of setting off a Jarrett tantrum was far overshadowed by the anticipation and excitement of seeing this remarkable craftsman perform. Jarrett did not disappoint, and he did not go ballistic all evening. When one yahoo in the deep balcony screamed “We love you!” during one of three encores, the audience held its collective breath in anticipation of a nuclear reaction. But Jarrett, in a mellow, upbeat mood all night, merely looked toward the offender and said, “Well, you are the loudest one.”
It wasn’t easy being the loudest one at this world-class music festival. Montreal International Jazz is one of the premier jazz gatherings in the world — an estimated 2 million people will attend during the two-week run (through July 6), and judging by the waves of visitors who flowed into the city during the first weekend, the anniversary celebration is a summer requirement for a lot of folks from every corner of the world.
The festival is the largest cultural and tourism event in Quebec and it includes more than 1,000 concerts, both ticketed and free, and 3,000 artists from 30 countries. Since the festival runs until July 6, there is plenty of incentive for New England arts lovers to make the reasonable six-hour journey up through Vermont to take in some of the event before it ends. The lineup this year is replete with legendary artists, both within and outside the boundaries of jazz. Besides Jarrett, the list includes Bobby McFerrin, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, Rufus Wainwright, Beck, Bombino, Rickie Lee Jones, Diana Ross, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Ben Harper, Ginger Baker, Angelique Kidjo, and Trombone Shorty.
Perhaps because of its interminable winters, Montreal is a city that knows how to celebrate summer. Its festivals — from jazz to food to comedy – are well conceived and produced and the party seems to go all day and long into the night throughout the Quebec summer. A North American city with a distinct European flair, Montreal is international in every aspect, from culture to food to music. Over the past 35 years, the global spirit of the city has become infused in the jazz festival.
I’ve always loved Montreal, with its ethnic neighborhoods, the touristy but authentic Old City, the cuisine, the markets, and even the unique St. Vieteur’s bagels. But I’d never been to the jazz festival, so this marked a deep dive into the busiest nights of the summer. Given a short visit, I chose my venues carefully, and the first night, Dianne Reeves proved to be a most welcoming introduction to the festival.
This chanteuse from Denver with the honey and granola voice raised the roof of the Theatre Maisonneuve with a series of moving cover tunes from Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Bob Marley, and others. Her band, which featured virtuoso pianist Geoffrey Keezer and Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, was tighter than a fat man’s belt, and her pure joy at singing and entertaining emanated throughout the 90-minute set. “We get paid for traveling from place to place,” she said. “All this other stuff (the music), we do that for free.”
At 57, Reeves remains at the top of her game. Her voice is strong and smooth and her ability to make these iconic tunes her own transforms each into pure magic. Her rendition of the classic “Stormy Weather,” punctuated with a breathtaking piano solo by Keezer, was a highlight. Leaving the theater, I felt that I’d received a surprise gift, one of those performances that was far better than anything I might have expected.
That held for 24 hours, until Jarrett turned his much anticipated show into a transcendent evening of keyboard genius. For those lucky enough to have seen Jarrett perform in the past, either solo on the piano or with a trio, his signature moves and quirks were no surprise. But for a first-timer, the encounter was an eye-opener. A slight man, now without his once signature Afro (which caused many to assume he was African-American), Jarrett works behind dark glasses; inspired by a mysterious muse, he produces a series of extemporaneous compositions. His well-known short fuse is not just some character flaw; he immerses himself into a deep well of creative concentration in order to wend his way along these remarkable musical journeys. Extraneous noise or flashbulbs can break that concentration, so, given what he sets out to achieve, it makes sense that interruptions would anger him.
He lights on the piano bench, hunches forward, and his hands come alive across the keys. He stands, crouches, and emits a series of wordless sounds like an odd humming, to accompany himself. His pieces on that night were mostly tonal, melodic masterpieces, swirling and turning and cascading in many directions but always ending up at the pianist’s chosen destination. They sound like compositions he has played and rehearsed and recorded many times in the past, but each one is new, spontaneously birthed.
He began the concert with a gorgeous tonal piece that brought the first of many spontaneous roars of approval from the audience. He made his way over to a microphone to inform the listeners, “If the next one is more difficult to listen to, hey, I can’t help it.” Two abstract pieces followed before he switched back to several impossibly beautiful short songs, one a southern spiritual-like anthem that felt like an epic movie score, the others ranging from bluesy to pastoral. At times he seemed as if he was channeling Jerry Lee Lewis; at other times, Bartók.
After each piece he quietly stood, turned to the audience in an almost zenlike trance, and bowed deeply. He took a deep breath, sat down once again, and pulled out yet another gem. When he finished, the audience roared to its feet and demanded encore after encore. Jarrett obliged three times, the first time joking “I just came back for a glass of water.”
The good news for those who were not in the audience is that the show was being recorded for a future album. For those of us lucky enough to be in Montreal on a sultry summer night, we had witnessed a performance we’ll be talking about for a long time. If you can’t make it this time, put the Montreal International Jazz Festival on your bucket list.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.