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LIVE REPORT: Montreal International Jazz Festival
Yousif Nur , July 20th, 2018 16:05

Herbie Hancock, Thundercat, Bonobo and more delight at the world's biggest jazz festival, but it's Montreal itself that is the real star

The city of Montreal itself is as much a star of the show as the performers at its famous longstanding Jazz Festival. - across town a circus festival is taking place simultaneously, and shortly after this there’s the internationally-minded Nuit D’Afrique festival, which makes use of the same stages. If that wasn’t enough, Montreal is also home to Just For Laughs, the world’s biggest comedy festival.

The Montreal Jazz Festival, now in its 39th year, takes place in the midst of a heat wave reaching temperatures of 36 degrees celsius. The humidity is so severe that when I step out to wait for my taxi to the hotel, for a second I think I’ve landed in Dubai, rather than Canada. I’m told the level of heat is a very rare occurrence, although their seasonal changes in weather are pretty extreme. They could have fooled me.

Not being one to miss out on all the fun, I rush from my hotel to try and catch what I can, thinking I’ve missed the Thundercat/Herbie Hancock show, wrongly having in mind that they’re collaborating. Turns out it’s a straight up support and headline show at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in the Place des Arts. I just about manage to catch three Thundercat tunes, of which two are from collaborations: ‘MMMHmm’ with Flying Lotus and ‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’ with Kendrick Lemar. The crowd are divided and entrenched between young for Thundercat, who seem pretty impressed, and old for Herbie Hancock, who are largely unimpressed and whom would rather Hancock came on as soon as possible.

In any case, the jazz legend doesn’t disappoint. With a backing band and Hancock behind a keyboard and grand piano adjacent at a 90 degree angle, ‘Cantaloup Island’ and ‘Chameleon’ are among a setlist that’s short, but repeatedly strikes the right chord. A part of me really wants him to play ‘Rockit’ though deep down, it probably wasn’t going to happen. And it didn’t. In saying that, Herbie Hancock’s set will go down as one of the highlights of this year’s edition.

At the Scene Du Monde stage nearby, Jupiter & Okwess are an entertaining afro-jazz ensemble who make it near impossible to stand still to with infectious West African beats and high-pitched guitar riffs. Lauded by Damon Albarn and singing mostly in French, the Congolese musician draws a huge crowd.

An hour later on the same stage, Gato Preto are a German based outfit with a strong Brazilian/Samba slant that sing mostly Portuguese in, with a little English. Afrofuturist according to their biog, their frontwoman is flanked by dancers on either side, moving frenetically to high-tempo electronic beats. Naturally, everyone loves it from where I’m standing and it’s an intense experience just watching them perform.

Late into the evening at an unofficial aftershow of sorts, Montreal-based Busty and the Bass are at the Club Soda venue and scheduled to perform the first of three consecutive nights. They’re the archetypal American college house band, merging electro, soul and hip-hop with a sense of youthful exuberance. Coming on shortly after midnight with a huge hometown crowd to see them in a club setting, they promise to be on all night. Though in that time, we were even treated to a half-decent cover of Disclosure and Sam Smith’s ‘Latch’. The lead vocalist’s voice doesn’t quite have the reach of Smith’s, but it’s a valiant effort.

Bombino are a personal favourite of mine, though the crowd are eerily quiet throughout, with little movement. A couple of songs in, however, they start to find their feet and move about to infectious desert blues from Niger. With a new album out a few days prior, most of their set is lifted from the record. They’re on for a good 90 minutes, but everyone is in unison that that’s not nearly enough.

Bonobo play to one of the biggest and rowdiest crowds of the festival at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. For an all-seater venue, seldom is anyone sitting down. The great thing about Bonobo is his ability to merge different styles and he collaborates with Innov Gnawa in their song ‘Bambro Koyo Ganda’, merging Moroccan Gnaoua music with electronica.

To close the 2018 edition of the festival on the huge TD stage, The War On Drugs play to a huge crowd playing their Bruce Springsteen-meets-Killers-tinged indie. There’s something so satisfying about seeing them both onstage and on a big screen and are a pleasure to listen to. The hooks, melodies and overall tune as a whole just know when to tug at you at just the right time. Little wonder, then, that they’ve got the accolades that they have.