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Montreal Jazz Festival 2024 Was The Definitive Showcase for Where Jazz Is Today

Montreal Jazz Festival is so much more than just a jazz music festival—let’s get that out there right away. Aided by the city it takes place within, it’s a festival that helps to tell a story about diversity, history, futurism, accessibility, and the essence of music in a convergence of styles. And it’s this ethos forged in a genre which keeps expanding outwardly that made this year’s installment of the 10-day event the grandest showcase in the world for the spirit of jazz music.

Now in its 44th year, MTL Jazz is a largely free affair. More than two thirds of the programming takes place on five outdoor stages in the sprawling network of Downtown Montreal’s always-growing Place des Festivals, with the rest occurring across 12 venues within a world-class concert hall complex and nearby clubs.

Thee Sacred Souls / photo by Émanuel Novak-Bélanger

Thee Sacred Souls / photo by Émanuel Novak-Bélanger

But it’s the main TD Stage, with its iconic overhanging lighting rigs that look like giant toothbrushes looming above the crowd of 10,000-plus, that instantly makes performers feel larger than life. It was here where SoCal’s surging Thee Sacred Souls played for what was likely their largest crowd yet, totally rising to the occasion. The lowrider soul outfit is very much on the rise, and their headlining slot on Tuesday, July 2—the first of my five days at the fest—was a master curatorial touch of showcasing the next big thing. It felt like nothing short of a coronation.

Orville Peck / photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Orville Peck / photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

It was at TD Stage where Toronto’s Charlotte Day Wilson braved heavy rain to deliver one of this year’s defining performances to an unwavering crowd. Later in the week, Orville Peck‘s queer country splashed the area with a vibrant grit, Cinematic Orchestra delivered an audiovisual 20th anniversary tour de force performance of their iconic album Man with a Movie Camera, and the voice of Joey Quinones from East LA cholo soul desperados Thee Sinseers beamed through the festival at sunset on “Hold On,” highlighting the glorious diversity of these acts and giving the band an opportunity to soar in front of the masses.

Charlotte Day Wilson in the rain / photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

Charlotte Day Wilson in the rain / photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

Over at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, a 750-person room within the Place Des Arts compound of venues, Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven led the best band I caught all week. Along with bass player Junius Paul, trumpeter Marquise Hill, harpist Brandee Younger, and vibraphonist Joel Ross, they executed what felt like all of McCraven’s most recent album, In These Times, an introspective and inspirational meditation on dreaming up new and better worlds. Behind the cool and masterful McCraven (in his sleek Jordans, no less) the unit straddled both the classic and new sound and feel of jazz in a gorgeous contemporary channeling of the spirits of Gil Scott-Heron, Alice Coltrane, Roy Ayers, Yusef Lateef , and more.

Makaya McCraven / photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Makaya McCraven at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe / photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

The future directions of jazz were ever-present in Montreal. When London’s Alfa Mist played for 1,000 people at the indie-centric Club Soda, young people held their phones up to record a solo from trumpeter J Sphynx. It was fitting to see them on the same stage where I saw Domi & JD Beck perform two years ago, making it feel like MTL Jazz had its finger on the pulse yet again.

Alfa Mist / photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Alfa Mist at Club Soda / photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

When I arrived in Montreal on Tuesday evening, jet-lagged from the West Coast, the first act I caught was trumpet player Theo Croker on the al fresco jazz club–like Pub Molson Stage. His covers of Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” and OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” quickly wired my brain to think about the inextricable relationship between jazz and hip-hop. It also made me think about the audacity of André 3000‘s fantastic recent foray into experimental jazz music via the flute that he put down for the festival a few days before I arrived.

Shabaka Hutchings and Brandee Younger / photo by Benoit Rousseau

Shabaka Hutchings and Brandee Younger / photo by Benoit Rousseau

And when my cup was full at the end of five days, I sauntered into a converted church venue known as Gesú close to midnight to catch the last part of an act who’s been exploring for a while the same woodwind horizons that André has recently brought to mainstream consciousness: Shabaka Hutchings. Like with McCraven’s set, Brandee Younger was on the harp for this performance, shapeshifting alongside another modest titan of jazz, forming a throughline for the marvelous condition of jazz music today; showcasing its limitless potential to galvanize joy and exude creativity among anyone listening. And it was always in the air everywhere you went, at jazz’s grandest stage at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

It all felt so grand and it was all free—what better way to expose people in all walks of life to such incredible talent? It’s the ethos of jazz music, a freeing genre if there ever was one, whose hallmark is thriving on the ever-evolving nature of sound as an accompaniment to our hopes, creativity, and dreams without limiting constraints.

photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

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