Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae, Rufus Wainwright Highlight 33rd Montreal Jazz Festival

Jean-Francois Leblanc
Esperanza Spalding; below: James Taylor, Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream and Rufus Wainwright

More than 2 million visitors are expected as 3,000 acts from 30 countries celebrate the event's 33rd edition set in the heart of the recently completed Quartier de spectacles.

Thirty-three years ago, the Montreal Jazz Festival was cobbled together by a group of young men eager to bring some of their favorite musical artists to their hometown. Three decades later, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is the largest jazz fest in the world, hosting more than 3,000 artists from about 30 countries.

This year’s festivities formally began June 28 and will run aggressively for nine consecutive nights until July 7. A not-for-profit endeavor owned by a for-profit company (L'équipe Spectra), the festival expects to draw about 2 million visitors this year. Obviously, the program generates a huge amount of commerce and provides an influx of tourism to the wonderful city of Montreal.

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A compelling summer destination far from the politicized American dream, the multicultural and cosmopolitan nature of Montreal is reflected in the festival’s diverse programming, showing a great respect for music, the artists and culture in general. Hardly concerned with sustaining a precise definition of jazz, the festival is populist in nature and more than half of the shows are free to the public, including mammoth outdoor events geared to satisfy the locals. Besides jazz, the lineup includes plenty of rock, pop, blues and loads of world music, with a weakness for all things Francophile as well as the profound sounds of New Orleans.

This year, indoor shows featuring such popular jazz stars as Wayne Shorter and Stanley Clarke were offset by the larger concert appearances of Ziggy Marley, Rufus Wainwright, Tangerine Dream and even James Taylor. But for people who might venture north of the border for the music, there’s enough variety to satisfy most any taste. A sharp series of solo guitar performances featured solid veteran players including Larry Coryell, Philip Catherine and Kelly Joe Phelps. Singer Janelle Monae exceeded all expectations at the Métropolis nightclub and easily could have handled a major outdoor venue with her knockout stage show. Rising jazz star and 2011 best new artist Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding also drew a large crowd for her Métropolis gig but had problems keeping the dance-ready crowd satisfied and involved. Bassist Clarke just completed an “Invitation Series” that highlighted his musical skills with a variety of handpicked guests in several different settings, Later this week, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen will undertake his own multiple-concert Invitation experience.

Montreal-born Wainwright expanded his already-ambitious show to a large outdoor stage, accommodating family and friends in tribute to his late mother Kate McGarrigle as well as singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to a massive, adoring crowd of 50,000 -- only in Montreal. Corey Harris tore it up righteously on the blues stage, segueing from acoustic to electric guitar and stretching things out for a loose and lively crowd on a hot summer night. Guitarist Bill Frisell’s crack band ably reprised his John Lennon project All We Are Saying, putting a sweet and spacey instrumental spin on rolling melodic tunes including “Across the Universe,” “In My Life” and “Imagine.”

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Saxophonist-composer Shorter made the most dynamic musical contribution to the festival as his talented and long-running quartet put on a two-hour performance of high-level group improvisation. Shorter’s appearance legitimized the “jazz” in the jazz festival, and the concert programmers were lucky to nab him before his band ventured overseas for the summer season. Upcoming shows by the likes of Norah Jones, Canadian rockers Patrick Wilson and hometown electro-funk duo Chromeo are sure to attract impressive crowds as well.

The fest officially runs through July 7 but also includes a July 8 closing concert featuring the fifth annual battle of the bands, which this year pits The Duke Ellington Orchestra against The Count Basie Orchestra.

The principals of the festival, including president and founder Alain Simard and artistic director Andre Menard, have come to wield considerable power and influence with government and private enterprise, working on all levels of underwriting, city planning and municipal cooperation. They now employ more than 1,500 people annually and work somewhere within a $30 million budget. It would be hard to imagine a festival this size and scope occurring in the United States -- and for a while it was difficult to imagine it here in Canada too. After having lost the sponsorship of General Motors due to the recession, the festival has rebounded with support from international mining group Rio Tinto Alcan, TD Bank and the Gouvernement du Quebec.

Now occupying its own downtown art complex/business HQ, the Place des Arts, the festival presides over business, its extensive library archive, an art gallery and a screening room as well as L’Astral nightclub. The main festival square is the recently completed Quartier des spectacles. It’s about one square kilometer, houses 30 venues (both indoor and outdoor) and has seats for 28,000 customers.

Still, as big a deal the jazz fest is, get away from downtown and there’s hardly a trace of festival fever. Montreal is quite large, urbane and extremely beautiful in the summer, with plenty of other distractions and varied temptations for visitors and residents alike.

Twitter: @THRMusic

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