Friends are already asking what they should see at the Montreal and Ottawa jazz festivals. The short answer is: lots.
The program for the 40th 30th-anniversary edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival (June 30 to July 12) is easily the best in a decade, and one of the very best ever. First it’s the 40th 30th anniversary so they have extra days and budget to play with. Second, the festival’s creative team — founding artistic director André Ménard and a bunch of younger types who think hip-hop is innovative jazz — have been in a cycle for a few years where they program a very amusing festival that has very little to do with jazz, they are roundly chastened by just about every music writer in Montreal, and they smarten up for the following year, only to backslide into silliness the year after. Last year they had, like, Leonard Cohen and Woody Allen, who is precisely as good a clarinetist as Benny Goodman was a film director, and a bunch of other acts that had even less to do with jazz.
This year the festival brass pays penance in swinging fashion. One hardly knows where to begin. On June 30 one has to flip a coin to decide between simultaneous concerts by the two most decorated American big bands now playing: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Their styles could hardly be more different. Maria plays less often in Canada, and her band’s gorgeous romanticism will surprise audiences who haven’t checked her out.
On July 2, concerts by the bright young trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, who’s decided to make a go of things as a gentle balladeer; Chris Botti, who makes money hand over fist with the same suave-trumpet-ballad shtick but who is a genuinely pleasing musician too; and Esperanza Spalding, the bassist and singer who so impressed me in New Orleans. Like a mini-festival of photogenic jazz popularizers. July 3, concerts by three legends: Tony Bennett, Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz. July 4, two worthy Montreal locals: the roistering young(-ish) tenor saxophonist André Leroux, who always comes to swing; and Jordan Officer, who has been Susie Arioli’s very fine guitar accompanist but is now ready to take a turn as a solo artist (he’ll be singing too).
July 5, Branford Marsalis with the new kid Justin Faulkner on drums. It’ll be rough at the edges but the level of energy will be ridiculous. That would be a highlight of any festival, but this year it’s only part of a surreally strong night: pianist Kenny Werner’s quintet, and the wonderful saxophonist Joshua Redman in a quintet with the great saxophonist Joe Lovano. There are five more days of the festival after that, including Bill Frisell, Ornette Coleman (!!!), Bill Charlap, Robert Glasper with Mos Def, and more. It’s insane. Pop acts aren’t banished — there’s Jeff Beck and Joe Cocker and Beirut and so on — but for once it’s the pop acts who seem lonely, not the jazzers. Turnabout is sweet.
The Ottawa Jazz Festival is never as spectacular as Montreal (nor as big as Ottawa’s Bluesfest, which will have a very strong program this year), but it’s always a good party. This year more than usually. I’ll restrict my counsel to a few nights: Maria Schneider on June 29; and two very fine nights at Confederation Park: Brandi Disterheft/ Esperanza Spalding/ Chris Botti, June 30; and a wonderful night of tenor saxophone, July 2, with André Leroux, Wayne Shorter, and a three-tenor jam session featuring the Chicago brawler Eric Alexander. That’s not all that’ll be good in this festival, but it’s reason enough to prefer an Ottawa summer to the rest of the year here. I can flat guarantee you I’ll be at Confed Park on July 2 and in Montreal for Werner, Bran and Josh on July 5.