Montréal’s reputation needs little embellishment. Canada’s second largest city, a nexus of French culture just 90 minutes from Burlington, famously hosts the world’s premier jazz festival, among other things. Amid the pageantry of the current Champlain Quadricentennial, Vermonters might have dismissed this north-of-the-border fête. But make no mistake, the International Festival of Jazz, this year marking its 30th anniversary, is Montreál’s pièce de resistance — a spectacle as celebrated as playoff hockey and poutine.
Centered around the Place des Arts, the fest encompassed countless venues in every direction. Mammoth stages loomed like black castles, with white-tent villages bolstering their ramparts. On opening night, June 30, trendy St. Catherine Street was closed off to accommodate a free Stevie Wonder concert, which set the mood for the two-week event. By the time we arrived for the final weekend this past Friday, it seemed normal that thousands of revelers filled the plaza, jostling for seats by the fountains, savoring crêpes and ducking into merchandise booths. Colored banners, caught in a summer wind, snapped regally. Street mimes and costumed dancers floated about, imbuing the square with undeniable joie de vivre. We Vermonters were hooked.
Friday’s hot ticket boasted the Brian Setzer Orchestra — a big-band rockabilly blowout that Montréal hadn’t seen in years. Presiding over the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier opera house, Setzer packed 17 players and a fiery mojo that never flagged. The seated crowd was a picture of aging sophisticates, Betty Page look-alikes and tattooed greasers. But when the velvet curtain pulled open, the joint went wild.
The masked musicians fired into Neal Hefti’s kitschy “Batman” score, drawing shouts from the audience. Armed with his signature Gretsch guitar and three decades of hits, Setzer, now 50, rolled out a jukebox of jive. “Drive Like Lightning” blazed with surf-rock glory, while “Dirty Boogie” had hepcats and sixtysomethings dancing in the aisles. Setzer’s horn army spiked the mix with choreography. But it was bassist John Hatton, smacking his flame-painted upright with abandon, who won the most applause.
Strutting mischievously in black boots and a long suit, Setzer clearly hasn’t lost a step. The dapper don moved between raucous numbers (“Jump Jive ’n’ Wail”) and nostalgic serenades (“Sleepwalk”) before joining Hatton and drummer Tony Pia for a stripped-down set. “Stray Cat Strut” sizzled, but when Tim Messina wandered out for a “Pink Panther” sax solo, it threatened to bring the house down. Say what you will about Brian Setzer, the guy’s got style. As his band dug in for the kinetic closer, “Rock This Town,” there was no doubt Montréal could swing.
Marshaling our strength, we moved east to Metropolis for the much-heralded midnight series. If Setzer was the rave, this was the after-party, and Metropolis was the place to get down. Unsurprisingly, Bonobo (the sobriquet of DJ/producer Simon Green) drew a buzzing crowd that lined up for blocks. Inside the club, Green’s deep, propulsive bass attack drilled into the building’s very foundation. Gone were the tranquil, down-tempo loops that saturated his studio material. Instead, a live septet built ambient swirls into intricate jams, led by Jack Baker (drums) and Ben Cook (sax). Their muscular work frenzied clubbers, as ephemeral curtains of orange and indigo draped the stage in a Lite-Brite display.
Guesting on vocals, Andreya Triana breathed soulful trip-hop into the set but also curbed its momentum, reducing the sonic marathon to a series of sprints. All the while Green circulated quietly, occasionally swapping his 4-string for turntables. But it was the instruments themselves that seemed to buoy Bonobo. Hypnotic tracks like “Flutter” were absolutely incandescent under blankets of bass.
Saturday brought rain and modest expectations, as brooding indie-folk faves DeVotchKa rounded out our calendar. Getting our early-evening wine buzz on, we headed to Club Soda, where tiny round tables filled the room and contributed to an intimate mood. On stage, the four-piece outfit, clad in red and black, offered a dramatic visage — imagine the house band at Dracula’s favorite Greek restaurant.
The audience in the dimly lit room quickly fell under singer Nick Urata’s romantic spell. Atmospheric numbers like “Undone,” with its lush strings and rustic accordion, felt apropos to the venue — a testament to Montréal’s Old World heritage. Dervish-like and restrained by turns, Urata and violinist Tom Hagerman’s virtuosity held us rapt. From Shawn King’s mariachi trumpeting on “We’re Leaving” to the stirring “Last Beat of My Heart,” this was a performance as delicate as it was thrilling; a sweeping tapestry that captured the festival’s soul. In the end, we yelped like Gypsies around a bonfire, exalting in the weekend’s capstone event.
Along with these plum pickings, dozens of free shows spilled from every corner of the city. Outside Club Soda, jubilant, rain-soaked fans grooved to the Spam Allstars, as lightning spidered overhead and fireworks echoed from nearby La Ronde. The city seemed caught in a fever dream that would continue, unabated, into the wee hours. Raw or refined, indoors or out, Montréal’s music compelled us to move. This was more than a jazz festival. It was life’s diverse rhythms caught in a bottle.
The International Festival de Jazz de Montréal is officially over, but the music continues. Click here to see what you missed, what’s happening in jazz the rest of the year, and to get psyched for next year’s event.