ROUND-UP: 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival (Part 1 – Robert Lepage’s SLĀV, Rémi Jean Leblanc, Keyon Harrold)


The Heavyweights from Toronto
2018 Montreal Jazz Festival
(Various venues in Montreal. 27 and 28 June 2018. Round-up review by Sebastian Scotney – Part 1)

These are just a few impressions of my first two evenings at the 39th Montreal Jazz Festival. The post will hopefully be improved with some better pictures from the festival’s official photographers, later.

First, the vibe. Large numbers of people in the warmth of an early summer’s evening being drawn into the Quartier des Spectacles by the well-known magnet of the festival: it is such a heartening sight. Some are headed for ticketed concerts, but the majority are going without a fixed plan, to try out the free stages, to enjoy the summer hang, open-minded about what they are going to see or hear.

They pass easily through the minimal barriers and bag searches. There’s a spirit of openness and trust. After all, the festival team has been doing this for nearly forty years. And, talking of forty, since it hits minus forty degrees in the winter here … and when I hear speculation that plus forty might be reached at some point during this festival, it just serves as another reminder that summer is there to be appreciated and enjoyed.


Wednesday 27 June  

Robert Lepage’s SLĀV

There have, however, been discordant notes. The first show I saw, Robert Lepage’s SLĀV, has walked itself right into a high-profile controversy. Background: theatre director and dramaturge Lepage is one of Quebec’s leading cultural figures, even an icon. He has devised a “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs”, working with (white) French-born singer Betty Bonifassi. She has a long experience of singing slave songs, and Lepage has set her work in this repertoire in a bigger context with six women of different races, all of whom sing, and has made it into a well-prepared, -designed and -lit theatre show at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. It is a festival commission.

Prior to its opening, i.e. before anyone had seen it, it had inspired anger and provoked demonstrations on its opening night. The accusation is that the broad context which Lepage sets for his broad-sweep meditation on slavery across the continents fails to see slavery as (literally) an issue of black and white. With artists such as Thundercat coming to the festival later, it is one of those arguments which just ain’t going to go away.

On the positive side, the show had a breadth and a sweep about it, and it is a real company venture. The way all the actors ‘get’ the vision was, to me, reminiscent of Peter Brook in Paris in the 1970s. One good, local writer has covered the play well and pointed out its “cognitive dissonance” and its shortcomingsSLĀV seeks to bring empathy, above all, through the use of the music rather than drawing the audience into characters or situations or by letting the story carry the emotional weight. There are plenty of ideas being talked about, there is loads of food for thought – less for emotion. With a lot of dialogue in Quebecois and references to the Haitian community in Montreal, it is not obviously designed to travel. There are some extracts which give a flavour in the video with this news item.


Thursday 28 June


La Petite Ecole du Jazz

La Petite Ecole du Jazz

I was pleased that the first music I caught was that of a longstanding Montreal institution in action. The Petite Ecole du Jazz has daily 11am shows in the Centre Desjardins mall. It is where children – not least those in the jazz community here – get an exposure to jazz very young. It’s all about fun, is toddler-friendly and lively; and, as a message about sustainability, it is hard to beat.

Nir Felder and Rémi Jean Leblanc

Rémi Jean Leblanc’s Déductions, Zara McFarlane, Chano Dominguez

Rémi Jean Leblanc is in his early thirties and has been one of the first-call bassists in Montreal ever since he emerged from college. He plays upright bass in the Orchestre National de Jazz, for example. In this project he was completely on electric bass. He has wonderful security, solidity, judgement and purpose about his playing, even when making the lightest touch. As I hear him and listen to all the subtlety and the detail, the thought did cross my mind that the next three to four bassists I hear would not be as good. Déductions is his third album as leader (five years since the last) and he has a group with pianist Rafael Zaldivar, drummer Samuel Joly and New York guitarist Nir Felder. There is a very good new album: samples on iTunes, here.

Felder and Leblanc are busy players and it is an open question as to whether they will ever get the time to really bring these compositions and contexts into a common vision. I enjoyed their unanimity as they landed on a dime together every time, feeling the phrases and the builds in an instinctively identical way. And Zaldivar provided contrast. He uses the utterly solid foundations of Leblanc’s bass-playing and Joly’s drumming as something to rebel against and stand in opposition to.

I also caught the very end of Zara McFarlane’s set at the Casino outdoor stage with Peter Edwards, Max Luthert and Binker Golding. This band has strengthened by leaps and bounds.

Chano Dominguez and his group gave their Flamenco Sketches show at the Monument National. Dominguez is a unique bridge between flamenco, complete with dancer and singer. This is a highly individual set of connections, and the set built the contrasts between Dominguez’s tendency to florid and romantic piano-playing to full-on, sung, clapped, stamped and sung flamenco, and foot-to-the floor velocity. He has a strong band and a clear sense of mission and individual identity.

Keyon Harrold (centre) and band

Keyon Harrold

Keyon Harrold’s show at the Gesu Cultural Center was a concert for which the press allocation had been filled to bursting, but there were quite a few spare tickets to be had through normal channels, so I just bought one. Does that tell one something? That the press has picked up a buzz, and certainly that Harrold has a lot of ‘story’, and also connections – whether it be the fact that he is originally from Ferguson, Missouri, and talks eloquently about Black Lives Matter, or whether it is his role – as he explained it – as “stunt double” for Miles Davis / Don Cheadle in the film Miles Ahead. And he also credits on albums with JAY-Z, Beyoncé, 50 Cent …

In the event, it was a very strong set, taking in a wide range of both moods and influences. The Mugician album has a star-studded roster of band and guests, but this regular touring band – including Shedrick Mitchell on piano and Rhodes, Nir Felder (for the second time in the evening) on guitar and Charles Haynes on bass – is a mightily impressive unit. My gig of the festival so far.

Sebastian is in Montreal, the guest of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

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