A single outdoor stage alone featured 20 free concerts at this year’s festivities
The Montréal Jazz Festival is the world’s largest out there.
It’s also unique: its location is singular and ambition and scope are vast.
It took the festival two tries over 8 years to find its present home in the neighborhood of Place Des Arts, a collection of concert halls in the center of Montréal modeled after Lincoln Center. But the present location worked well. Really well.
That’s because of the proximity of various cabarets, opera houses, recital halls and so on. In 2003, the area was designated the Quartier des Spectacles. For many years Montréal has had more seats in indoor venues in its walkable downtown core than any city in the world. The sole exception is NYC because of all the Broadway theaters.
By now though, in this Festival District there are also permanent venues for outdoor concerts, as well as all the indoor ones. This year at the Festival, a single one of those outdoor stages – Scéne TD at the Place Des Festivals – hosts performances every evening at 6:00 and every evening at 9:30. That’s 20 free concerts over the duration of the festival. At a single outdoor stage. During the daytime there, kids (and more than a few of their delighted parents and grandparents) can be seen walking barefoot through the 235 interactive water jets built into the street.
The Montréal Jazz Festival has in the past offered some 500 concerts over ten days, 350 of them free. This year there are 350 concerts, 2/3 of them free. But prior editions of the festival offered jazz per se mainly at ticketed indoor venues. Most of the free music heard outdoors was Jazz related: Blues, music from the African diaspora, funk, pop and other Jazz adjacent music. They’re all still heard, happily. However it seems there’s a change in direction afoot: this year there’s a startling amount of Jazz per se on offer for free, outdoors. And the club, formerly the ticketed venue L’Astral, in the building containing the festival’s headquarters, has been renamed Le Studio TD. It offers Jazz for free now twice a day. It used to be that fairly high profile Jazz musicians performing ticketed concerts at 6:00 in the wonderful 400 seat Gesù would be competing with party music on the street. Now they’re also competing with a free offering by a Jazz performance inside, mere footsteps away. For the Jazz musicians this might be a concern. For Jazz lovers, it can present the sort of tough choice that makes life worth living.
On a single day – last Saturday – prize winning Montréal saxophonist Jacob Do appeared at 5:00 for free at Place Tranquille, outside. An hour later there was a choice between Makaya McCraven’s ticketed show with Ravi Coltrane in his ensemble at the aforementioned Jesuit Church basement, Salle Gesù …or vibraphone star Joel Ross in the festival’s free indoor venue a few footsteps away.
Complicating matters (this is not a complaint) was the appearance of rising star Samara Joy with poll-winning guitarist Pasquale Grasso in her band. She performed at Place des Festivals, the biggest outdoor stage. At 9:30, one of the biggest stars in Jazz, Kamasi Washington, performed at the same outdoor stage for tens of thousands of very happy listeners. Being able to see 4 performers of this stature, all of them unquestionably Jazz artists, for free on the same day wouldn’t have been typical until this year’s edition of the festival. In prior years this scribbler would have been at indoor venues to catch the Jazz performers, enjoying the fun at the outdoor stages only while walking from Opera House to Recital Hall to Club.
This year, I’ve barely gone inside because the caliber of the Jazz outside has been irresistible.
Unbelievably The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is getting better, and it’s not just all the Jazz. Several sites and venues seem imaginatively refreshed and redesigned. There are more amenities on site, with an abundance of food trucks, and there’s a better variety of food available too. The festival as well as the city itself seem to be benefitting from the infusion of new money and new energy.
If you’ve yet to visit the festival, or it’s been a while since your last trip, you’ll want to mark your calendar with next year’s dates: The 10 day festival starts every year on the last Thursday in June.
VIDEO: Kamasi Washington at the 2022 Montréal Jazz Festival