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The longer you wander around Montreal’s downtown core at the height of its summer festival season, the more you realize this is a city built for music, and a city built by music

Singer Samara Joy performs at the TD stage on Jeann Mance street on July 2. The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal ran from June 30th to July 9th.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

“Don’t make me blush, y’all,” said Samara Joy, a 22-year-old jazz singer from the Bronx, to a few thousand spectators at Montreal’s Place des Festivals.

Like many artists performing at this year’s Festival International de Jazz de Montréal – the city’s biggest summertime party – Joy was taken aback by the scale and enthusiasm of her audience. When a crowd covering the length and breadth of a city block cheers, the sound is almost a physical force. “This is so surreal,” she said, still marvelling. “My goodness.”

Surreal is a good word for it. The longer you wander around Montreal’s downtown core at the height of its summer festival season – which also includes the French-language Les Francos music and performance festival in June and Just for Laughs later this month – the more you realize this is a city built for music. Or rather, increasingly, it’s a city built by music. Like water carving a canyon, the improvised notes of an ephemeral art have, over the jazz festival’s 42-year existence, dug a record of their passage into the very face of Montreal. And like water, the notes have also started to make things grow.

The group Adi Oasis is seen performing on the Rio Tinto stage on Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal, during the Montreal Jazz Festival.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

The Place des Festivals, inaugurated in 2009, holds the biggest crowds, which often number in the tens of thousands. But five other temporary stages and tents dot the intersections and parks around the Place des Arts concert-hall complex. As the festivals have returned year after year, the district has become more permanently ready to accommodate them. Streets in this part of the downtown are paved with better stones than elsewhere; curbs are built flush with the sidewalk and the street so outdoor audiences can easily grow to any size. Street lighting is unusually tall and powerful, to illuminate festival crowds. Shopping-centre food courts hang their big signs to face the outside, because there are more potential patrons there than indoors.

Veeby performs on the Loto-Quebec stage in Montreal's Quartier des Spectacles.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

But not all the crowds are on the streets. A bewildering 30 indoor venues – plush-seat theatres, standing-room-only rock halls – make up the larger, kilometre-square Quartier des Spectacles, which extends several blocks from either side of Place des Arts. In other cities, concert venues struggle; here, the festivals sustain the halls.

Montreal’s administration and its businesses used to view the early editions of the jazz festival, also known as FIJM, with wary suspicion. Then, at a 2002 summit of political and business leaders on the future of Montreal, festival promoters banded together to pitch a long-term development plan. Successive city hall administrations have bought in. Suspicion has given way to greater co-operation – and to corporate consolidation: The Molson family’s Groupe CH owns not just the jazz and Les Francos festivals, but the Montreal Canadiens hockey team and many of the city’s music venues.

The growing popularity of Place des Arts has even changed the city in residential terms. Condo towers cluster around the perimeter of the Quartier des Spectacles. The largest is nearing completion: the twin towers of the $750-million Maestria complex, 61 and 58 storeys, with a skybridge connecting them halfway up.

Singer Fernie performs on the Club Montreal TD stage on the plaza of Place des Arts on July 1. Five temporary stages and tents dotted the intersections and parks around the concert-hall complex.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

All this momentum, however, was threatened by the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, when lockdowns forced the jazz festival’s cancellation. A much smaller, all-outdoors edition in 2021 required “10 times more work for 10 times fewer people,” Laurent Saulnier, programming director for the jazz festival and Les Francos, told me.

Much of the planning for this year’s festival happened during the massive surge in infections caused by the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. It was a leap of faith; Saulnier and his team were hiring bands for the summer while a winter curfew made it illegal to be outside after 10 p.m. They made adjustments, increasing the budget for outdoor concerts by half in case audiences weren’t ready for enclosed spaces.

Samara Joy.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

In the end, Montrealers showed few signs of discomfort. In four days at the festival I saw hardly any masks. Those I saw were attached more often to musicians, before or after their shows. Packing so many bare faces together was almost certainly reckless, but Montreal is weary of caution.

At most of the dozen concerts I attended, musicians voiced their gratitude for a chance to be performing in person again. “Livestream is cool, don’t get me wrong,” Joy told her huge outdoor audience. “But I prefer this. And I think probably you do too.”

Anyone attending FIJM has to choose from dozens of concerts a night. The lineup is immense – more than 270 concerts, one-third of them in ticketed indoor venues. I threw myself at the festival as I hadn’t in many years, rushing from venue to venue to take in as much as possible, but still barely made a dent.

I decided to concentrate on artists I hadn’t seen in person, younger musicians whose stars are rising and about whom I wanted more information. One was Joy.

I was curious to see how the singer, whose full name is Samara Joy McLendon, would fare on the festival’s biggest outdoor stage, her reputation having been built in small clubs and on TikTok. There, her approach is introverted, her voice pitched low, and her appeal owes much to details that would, I’d have thought, get lost across a city block.

It turns out she can rise to a challenge. Facing a sea of humanity, Joy belted out a succession of mid-tempo standards, adding the brassy vocal timbre of a Dinah Washington or a Nancy Wilson to her ubiquitous Sarah Vaughan influence. Live under the sky, she pushed the final eight bars of Hoagy Carmichael’s evergreen Stardust ever higher, ending at the top of a surprisingly wide vocal range with breathtaking ease.

Gregory Porter, centre, performs at the Maison Symphonique of the Place des Arts performance complex on July 1.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

It turns out she can rise to a challenge. Facing a sea of humanity, Joy belted out a succession of mid-tempo standards, adding the brassy vocal timbre of a Dinah Washington or a Nancy Wilson to her ubiquitous Sarah Vaughan influence. Live under the sky, she pushed the final eight bars of Hoagy Carmichael’s evergreen Stardust ever higher, ending at the top of a surprisingly wide vocal range with breathtaking ease.

Some of the music was frustrating. I checked in on a three-night residency by Makaya McCraven, a Chicago drummer who likes to splice and loop recordings of his live performances into brooding, spacey albums. Musicians who appeared with McCraven kept popping up throughout the week in other settings, an admirable attempt by the festival to showcase the possibilities of a thriving scene. But on the night I heard him, without benefit of studio editing, McCraven and an A-list band – vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Marquis Hill – sounded grim and surprisingly conventional, stuck in a groove rather than being elevated by it.

The drummer Makaya McCraken performs at the Théatre Gésu on the 1st and 3rd of July 2022.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

Some of the uplift came from surprising places. Gregory Porter is a pop-jazz singer from California who has won a couple of Grammys. He favours soul and R&B influences, from precincts adjacent to Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye, though he mostly writes his own songs with quirky structures. He had little trouble selling out the ground floor and mezzanine of the 2,100-seat Maison symphonique.

Jazz needs gateway stars who can lure crowds in from poppier genres, and Porter comes by his success honestly. His six-piece band was stacked with strong soloists. His voice, deep but tart, navigated elaborate lyrics. “Like bare feet on hot concrete, we have come to some division/Based on pain from bad decisions/Just like clothespins snapped by wild winds/Sometimes you can’t hold on to love that never dies,” he sang. The crowd ate it up.

On the festival’s third day I ran into founding artistic director André Ménard, who helped launched the fest back in 1980. Ménard no longer runs FIJM, but his successors have given him a pass to any concert that interests him. “I’m not even an elder any more,” he said. “I’m an ancestor.”

He reached into a shoulder bag and pulled out a double LP. “Have you seen this? It came out for Record Store Day.” It was a recording of Miles Davis at the festival on July 7, 1983. I took it as an invitation to raise my standards. Every appearance by Davis was an event, whether you worshipped or regretted the bands he recruited. Who is as distinctive today?

I can report three names.

One of the most intriguing venues at the festival was the Club TD, which used to be called L’Astral before sponsorship opportunities beckoned. This year the 350-seat club was home to prominent musicians, but there was no charge for tickets: Seats were free to the first comers. Saulnier, the festival boss, said young audiences often can’t afford the $30 or $40 price tag.

Guitarist Julian Lage performs with his Trio on June 30.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

The club setting permitted something longer and more intense than an hour on an outdoor stage. And it was here that Julian Lage, a 34-year-old California guitarist, played on the festival’s first night. Lage was the subject of a documentary film when he was 8, and performed at the Grammys at 12. He’s grown up with guitars, as his uncanny dexterity makes clear. His vocabulary comes from classic rock and blues, T-Bone Walker and Duane Eddy as much as the jazz canon. He uses detail for dramatic effect, pausing or rushing, punctuating a line with a hard low note.

In Dave King, a bald and whiskered Minnesotan who hunches over his drum kit like a trucker tucking into a blue-plate special, Lage has found his ideal drummer. Huddled together in a semi-circle that covered only one-third of a small stage, King, Lage and bassist Scott Colley listened so intently that each man’s playing was a running commentary on the others’.

Jazz fans cling fondly to an old and romantic notion about the music: that their very presence influences the way the musicians play. It’s plausible. The music is largely made up on the spot, so who knows what moods, sights or whims catch a player’s fancy. Not to mention the scale or intimacy of a venue.

Pressed together recklessly in rooms that had stood empty for too long, it was possible to believe we were joining a conspiracy of absolution. Those two weird years of staring into webcams were forgiven. At the Lage show, only a few were genteel enough to stay parked in our assigned seats. Many more gathered in front of the stage and leaned forward, as if the interplay between artists and audience were a reward. Which, of course, it often is.

Cécile McLorin Salvant is a singer from Miami, the daughter of Haitian and French parents. At 32 she is defiantly eccentric. Wearing an iridescent, billowing red-and-green gown, she addressed the audience at the Monument-National, the 19th-century home of the National Theatre School of Canada, in impeccable French – and made clear why she’s becoming an important bandleader.

Cecile Maclorin Salvant, a singer from Miami and the daughter of Haitian and French parents, stalked the stage, urging or curbing her musicians’ enthusiasm with a gesture or a raised eyebrow.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

“Who knew that I’d miss the mist/The mist must have evanesced,” she sang in a broad alto, enunciating so clearly the wordplay came through. She stalked the stage, urging or curbing her musicians’ enthusiasm with a gesture or a raised eyebrow. Some of her songs were cheerfully grotesque. Others had an eerie beauty. She draws from Broadway and Kurt Weill. Pianist Sullivan Fortner, a fine straight-ahead jazzman, played few conventional solos, filling in splashes of colour, whistling, clapping or singing backup before leaning forward on his bench and watching Salvant with a fascinated smile.

Salvant doesn’t really sound like the pioneering rebels of vocal jazz – Abbey Lincoln or Betty Carter or Nina Simone – but like them, she conveys the sense that just about anything might happen next. I’ve listened to Salvant’s albums. None carry the sense of broad possibility that her concerts do. She can’t really be measured, only witnessed.

Allison Miller performs with her band Boom tic Boom at the Espace Tranquille on July 3.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

After four nights I was exhausted, but I finished my festival by catching the late set of drummer Allison Miller. The New Yorker has had a solid career as a versatile side player. Her associations range from Jazz at Lincoln Center to Brandi Carlisle, from the conservatory to the stadium. In Montreal she demonstrated impeccable old-school technique, serving notice that she deserves consideration among the best jazz drummers of the moment.

The easy precision of her work recalls an earlier generation of masters, players such as Tony Williams and Billy Higgins. But she deploys her gift in fresh ways. Her quartet, Boom Tic Boom, opened with an ecstatic fanfare on Miller’s Congratulations and Condolences. Later tunes were mysterious, bluesy, chaotic. There aren’t many bands with a wider stylistic ambit. Miller and her colleague, the veteran pianist Myra Melford, dove into each piece with ingenuity and abandon.

Bands that flirt with free jazz don’t often draw rock-star-level cheers, except perhaps in Montreal in July. Nor does the inspiration of the moment often become the stuff of urban landscapes – except, again, in Montreal.

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