July 16, 2015
The world’s largest jazz festival, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, celebrated its 36th edition this year from June 25 to July 5. Main attractions included none other than the “Queen of Neo-Soul” Erykah Badu, who took home the festival’s prestigious Ella Fitzgerald Award.
The band Beirut kicked off the festival, playing the Grand Opening Concert on the outdoor stage and had thousands of fans dancing to their newest balkan-gypsy-cumbia ballads, offering a taste of what turned out to be a truly international music gathering.
An outdoor show I was excited to attend was The Wanton Bishops. I had discovered them three years ago in Lebanon, when the band was making its name in Beirut’s underground alternative music scene (the duo apparently met in the middle of a street fight!). I’d never heard a harmonica being played to sound like an electric guitar, and the skill level was that of the most impressive shredding almost any metal band could pull off. The songs were short and sweet, teasing a fired up audience with waves of country, blues, rockabilly, and even gospel—combined with a great on-stage chemistry. There was even an electric Oud, a rare and modern adaptation of a middle-eastern traditional string instrument and cousin of the lute.
After the show, I congratulated them, “So you made it to the jazz fest!” To which the bearded artist replied, “Jazz? This is f***ing Rock ‘n’ Roll!”
If anything, jazz was never a label. It was born precisely out of not having a definition.
The Wanton Bishops “Sleep with the Lights On” official video.
Another duo that literally moved the crowd was Rodrigo y Gabriela. Starting off with traditional flamenco rhythms with wrist movements at a fiery speed, they quickly fused into jazz and hard rock. At this point, they invited fifty people to dance on stage, claiming they were not used to playing to a sitting down audience.
Rodrigo y Gabriela have been composing and playing together for fifteen years—which explains how they were synchronized to the nanosecond. Seeing them live is a wild experience—their superb performance, guitar strumming and drumming, and boundless energy, lifted the whole audience off their seats. For two hours, we forgot we were in a proper auditorium.
One hidden gem was the Swiss jazz pop singer-songwriter, film composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Sophie Hunger, who had opened for artists at previous editions of the festival, and came this year to launch her haunting album Supermoon. At once graceful and resonant, her voice filled up the room, at times speaking in French, English or Swiss German—sometimes accompanied on her grand piano, and other times reverberating between electro beats and her electric guitar. Her quirkiness made the audience laugh a lot, as she told stories behind song titles like “Spaghetti Mit Spinat (Spaghetti with spinach),” “Superman Woman,” and her philosophy on how love is not everything, stating that, “I am an idea of you, but only in the way you want it / You are an idea by me, but only in the way I need it.”
Sophie Hunger ended the show with an experimental and deconstructed cover of Noir Désir’s “Le vent nous portera,” a classic favourite among francophone music-lovers.
Sophie Hunger – “Supermoon”
One of the highlights of my festival attendance was the Broadway-style show For the Record: Baz Luhrmann in Concert. For the Record is a music and dance performance troop that reinterprets film soundtracks on stage, and this year they chose Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby and Strictly Ballroom, all films by a director who creates soundtracks by reclaiming famous pop music hits. The result: a dense and shiny medley of tap dancing, sequins and feathers, Charleston, Material Girl, The Cardigans, Elton John, Crazy In Love, Lady Marmalade intertwined with Luhrmann’s most poignant romantic moments. It all culminates in a cinematic parade of the four iconic couples performing their most famous love songs at the same time.
For the Record. Credit: Hoda Adra.
Baz Luhrmann in Concert trailer.
I closed off this eclectic edition of the festival with Hindi Zahra, a Moroccan singer of Berber and Touareg descent, whose deep, trancey voice recalls Billie Holiday with a hint of Eastern infusion. Inspired by blues and jazz, as well as traditional Eastern tones and percussion, her music is at a crossroads between East and West. Yet, something tribal transports you to a primal state, and you travel far away while she turns her head and her hair begins dancing in circles.
Hindi Zahra – “Beautiful Tango”
In a city where many cultures collide, The Montreal International Jazz Festival really pushes the genre of jazz to the limit.