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2006 Montreal International Jazz Festival

Write about the Montreal Jazz Festival for a few paragraphs and the temptation is to get creative with synonyms for "big".

Yes, it is that time of year again and it is a huge freaking festival, the 27th edition, where the motto "bigger is better" is taken to heart. The revenue that this whale generates for festival founder Alain Simard and company - not to mention the city of Montreal - has long been a tsunami to all other considerations: whether the scale of the fest is too huge, has become an orgy of commercialism and merchandise, has grown too pricey to attend, indeed has not deserved the "jazz" appellation for years - all of these are as nothing compared to the lure of tourist dollars. The lamentable state of affairs is that we have a jazz festival where less than half the performers play jazz.

So why bother? The music, the music, the music. Amid this colossal wreck many wonderful jazz performers and events can be found and despite all, are worth the effort for brave souls willing to stroll along rue St-Catherine - ground-zero for the Jazz Fest - and wander into its gaping maw. Here is a brief overview.

Nevilles The midpoint of the festival was traditionally a breather. All indoor shows and many outdoor ones were suspended for a day in anticipation for the evening blowout, frequently involving Pat Metheny or a jam-session hodgepodge which followed the musical styles and quirks of the year. For 2006, however, the jazz fest offers not one or two (pah!), but three free massive outdoor events.

The Neville Brothers kick it off on June 29 in one of the most inspired jazz fest launches in years as they "salue la Louisiane". There's a fromage, sorry, Hommage à Paul Simon on July 4 featuring a mysterious lineup of unnamed guests (possibly including Elvis Costello and perhaps Simon himself, who plays the following day). Finally, closing out the fest with a flourish is Balkan music maniac (and Emir Kusturica collaborator) Goran Bregovic and his brilliantly-named "Orchestre des mariages et des enterrements".

Indoor Shows

Prominent among the indoor ticketed shows is the great Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who is set to offer a three-in-one concert where he will play solo, in a trio, and as part of a quartet (with saxophonist David Sanchez). For his third jazz fest appearance, Rubalcaba plays this year at Théâtre Maisonneuve in Place des Arts. It's a trade-off in venue: home to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Place des Arts has wonderful acoustics of course, but is a stiff and rather sterile choice for a jazz show. Still, Rubalcaba played at the Spectrum last time, surely one of the worst venues in the city for any style of music, and gave a stellar performance. One hopes the pianist's warmth and fantastic chops will again overcome all. (July 5, Place des Arts - Théâtre Maisonneuve)

yannick rieu Yannick Rieu is one of those dedicated performers who doesn't make a big deal about any jazz persona or mystique surrounding the music. He just plays tenor sax hard - shades of Sonny Rollins in his intensity - and with total concentration and conviction. As in previous jazz fest appearances, Rieu has been blessed with the best venue of the bunch in the Salle de Gésu. The amphitheatre-style seating and intimate atmosphere support any performer, and a decently-priced ($20 or so) ticket gets you two Rieu trios smooshed together in a lineup they're calling 2X3=5, featuring two double-bass players. Great potential, here, for a local boy who made good. (June 30, Gésu - Centre de créativité)

Percussionist Thom Gossage has been doing solo projects and writing and performing for modern dance for years now (though as part of a vast musical family, for Montrealers he will be forever a Gossage Brother, biologically and musically). A consistently explorative performer and composer, Gossage's new project Other Voices features collaborations with some great Montreal players including Rémi Bolduc and Frank Lozano. He'll be at the Salle Beverly Webster in the Musée d'art contemporain - one of the nicer alternative venues offered again this year. (June 30, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal)

joe lovano Saxophonist Joe Lovano accomplished the near-impossible in a previous Montreal jazz fest outing, turning stuffy Place des Arts into an intimate jazz club by sheer force of will. Lovano's an enormously talented player with an engaging onstage presence. Unfortunately he's been saddled with the big and boxy Spectrum for a stage this year, but who knows? Joe will probably make it work. (July 8, Spectrum)

Outdoor Shows

The free outdoor shows gave the Jazz festival its special flavour in the early years and played a big part in its now world-wide popularity and mythical status. But for the outdoor freebies it remains a bit of a crapshoot. One weighs the prospect of wading through crushing crowds of tourists wearing umbrella hats and jazz puss t-shirts versus the chance to see a potential rare gem. Several shows (and no doubt more will emerge) have promise:

Singer Pyeng Threadgill, daughter of avant-garde jazzman Henry, has released two albums of her own. She has a lovely, un-diva-ish voice with a matter of fact delivery like Abby Lincoln, and like Ms. Lincoln, shows an interesting, off-centre approach to her material, whether thoroughly reinterpreting the songs of Robert Johnson or performing tunes of her own. (June 30, Alcan stage)

alex bellegarde In a city rich with jazz talent, bassist Alex Bellegarde is surely one of the best players around, constantly finding new types of projects and new musicians with which to extend the range of his jazz vocabulary. Bellegarde and friends usually tear up the OFF Jazz festival, grooving the crowd in the small clubs where they play. Now a larger audience can see him in action this year. (July 7, General Motors stage)

Finally, The New Cool Collective looks like a smoker of a show with great Nigerian drummer Tony Allen (star of Fela Kuti's seminal Africa 70 group) playing a latin-soul-jazz hybrid as part of an octet of Dutch musicians. (July 5, Samsung stage)

Have fun, everyone.

Montreal International Jazz Festival
June 28 to July 9, 2006
Info/Tickets: Online, at the Spectrum box office (318 rue Ste-Catherine Street West), via Ticketpro (1-866-908-9090), or via Admission (1-800-361-4595)

[ photos courtesy Montreal International Jazz Festival ]

- Neil Boyce

FTA Old, FTA New
Sin city
Just jazz, please
The players weigh in
Double Dutch
Everything merges (with MUTEK)