Emile-Claire Barlow is one of six major Canadian female jazz vocalists who will appear on free stages at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Emile-Claire Barlow is one of six major Canadian female jazz vocalists who will appear on free stages at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2011

The Montreal Jazz Festival has announced its schedule of free concerts – ranging from well-known female jazz vocalists to late night jazz improv-on-the-spot, and featuring lots of Canadian talent.

The festival is noted for its big-name jazz acts, with big-name prices to match ($106.50 for best seats for Keith Jarrett's solo show on June 28, for example). But the Montreal Jazz Festival also presents many free shows, particularly (though not exclusively) promoting superb Canadian and Quebeçois jazz musicians.

This year, the festival's keynote outdoor show is with Diana Krall on June 29 – the very last stop in her Glad Rag Doll tour. But Krall won't be the only high-profile Canadian vocalist appearing in a festival free concert. Also performing on one of the festival's huge outdoor stages are Emilie-Claire Barlow (twice on June 30), Laila Biali (July 2), Coral Egan (twice on July 3), Susie Arioli (twice on July 4), and Térez Montcalm (July 6).

Grand Jazz competition brings in fine instrumental jazz acts

There won't be a lack of instrumental jazz, either. For many years, the festival has brought in up-and-coming jazz groups from across Canada to compete for its TD Grand Jazz Award. This year, nine groups will be judged on their free outdoor performances.

Ottawa audiences may recognize Myriad 3 (with pianist Chris Donnelly and drummer Ernesto Cervini), Toronto's Pram Trio, and Montreal's Kite Trio, who have all visited here before. But there's also some interesting other groups vying for the prize:

  • Montreal/NYC bassist Rick Rosato
  • Toronto-based Cuban trumpeter Alexander Brown, who has worked with Cuban percussion master Changuito, and his quintet which includes saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and pianist Dave Restivo
  • Alex Baro, also a Toronto-based Cuban trumpeter, who combines jazz, Dixie and Caribbean music in his latest CD
  • Montreal saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps, the winner of last year’s Grand Prix from the Rimouski Jazzfest
  • JAGG, a saxophone-trombone-led quartet which won the Concours de la Relève Jazz en Rafale this spring
  • Winnipeg-born drummer Curtis Nowosad, who now lives in NYC and brought a jazz approach to covers of Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley on his first album.

The eventual Grand Jazz award-winner will play a second free concert on July 4. Last year's winners, the Hutchinson Andrew Trio from Calgary, will also make an encore free performance on July 3.

The festival's outdoor stages attract a friendly, enthusiastic crowd, who are there to listen, clap – and in some cases, dance, especially the small children. The sightlines are good, and there's space at the front for those who need to sit, although most people stand. All the outdoor stages are within a few blocks of Place des Arts, the hub of the festival.

CBC series a great bet

The easiest way to find good free concerts at the Montreal jazz festival is to search by series, and the two CBC-sponsored outdoor series are always a good bet.

The Frank Lozano Montreal Quartet plays the CBC outdoor stage at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2012
The Frank Lozano Montreal Quartet plays the CBC outdoor stage at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

This year, the 8 p.m. “Les Brunantes CBC/Radio-Canada” features many of the Grand Jazz competitors, plus

  • Toronto post-bop pianist Stacie McGregor
  • romantic Quebec City jazz pianist Vincent Gagnon
  • Partisans, an electric jazz-rock quartet from the U.K.
  • guitarist Thomas Carbou's Hekátê III project with saxophonist Erik Hove and drummer Evan Tighe, combining music from many sources
  • trumpeter Joe Sullivan's Quintet playing fine mainstream jazz with master guitarist Lorne Lofsky.

A particular delight should be the series' closing-note concert organized by Radio Canada jazz guru Stanley Péan, with pianist Emie R Roussel and her trio, pianist/vocalist Elizabeth Shepherd, and other guests.

At 10 p.m., “Les Rendez-vous CBC/Radio-Canada” will again feature Grand Jazz competitors, plus

  • Canadian drummer Anthony Fung, a musical prodigy who's already played with Joshua Redman, John Patitucci, Joe Lovano and Terence Blanchard and studied with Danilo Perez
  • Vancouver vocalist Jaclyn Guillou
  • Canadian-born New Yorker Rob Mosher on clarinet and alto sax, with his country-folkified chamber jazz project, Polebridge
  • the intense and explosive combination of NYC saxophonist Darius Jones and bassist Eric Revis' group, Tarbaby
  • The Jazz Street Boyz quartet, playing danceable vintage jazz

Quebec vocalist Mamselle Ruiz, who was in Ottawa for NAC Presents this spring, appears on July 5, with music which draws on her Mexican and Latin American roots. On the international front, there's free shows from Franco-Cameroonian soul/jazz singer Sandra Nkaké (July 2), and Lake Street Dive from Boston, who play ’60s jazz-soul (July 4).

Free indoor shows too

For people who prefer to sit and listen in an indoor venue, the Dièse Onze club has something new this year. It is offering free admission for its 7 p.m. shows during the festival (the 9:30 p.m. shows have a modest $5-$12 cover). The musicians are primarily from Quebec, and will present a wide variety of jazz from Afro-Cuban, to gypsy jazz, to solo piano arrangements of George Gershwin compositions, to vocal jazz standards. On June 30, pianist Adam Daudrich (ex-Ottawa, now Montreal) will appear with his trio.

The Balmoral Bistro in the Maison du Festival is also offering free late-night shows. The series includes three local vocalists, plus gypsy jazz player Denis Chang.

Fans of improvised music might want to seek out the free nightly shows at Le Bleury Bar à vinyle, featuring changing combinations of up-and-coming young jazz composers and musicians from Montreal, NYC, and across Canada. Every evening starting at 11 p.m., they will present a completely original set of music put together that day. This initiative was so successful at last year's festival that the bar and trumpeter Rachel Therrien continued it monthly during the year.

And more, with an Ottawa connection

Each afternoon, students in Montreal university jazz programs will play two outdoor concerts, at 1 and 5 p.m. The June 30 shows are of special local interest: they feature the Claire Devlin Sextet, led by the Ottawa saxophonist who has just finished her second year in the jazz performance program at McGill.

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, who have been a big hit at Ottawa's Chamberfest, will play a whole series of mobile outdoor concerts on Montreal streets from June 28 to July 2.

There's also no charge for the festival's jam sessions at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, this year run by pianist John Roney and his trio, although you may have difficulty finding a seat if you don't arrive early.

Besides all its jazz programming, the festival's free stages also offer many blues acts, and world music, rock, and hip-hop. And, of course, its indoor venues provide a huge range of jazz and pop choices at a wide range of prices: some as inexpensive as a $10 cover charge or a $25 ticket, many around the $40-$50 range, and some very expensive.

The Montreal festival runs from June 26 to July 6 this year. It overlaps Ottawa's jazz festival by five days, but there's still a great deal of interesting music (free and otherwise) in its last six days.

A number of the groups playing free concerts in Montreal will also appear in Ottawa, either in ticketed shows at the Ottawa Jazz Festival or Bluesfest, at the Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge, or in concert at GigSpace.

    – Alayne McGregor

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