Montreal pianist Oliver Jones opened the festival’s newest venue, MIJF’s year-round cabaret-style jazz club L’Astral, located in the festival’s new multiple-purpose Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan (House of the Festival). The six-floor building also contains a bistro, a gallery space that becomes the bustling media center during festivals, archives and staging offices. L’Astral is an ultra modern, high-tech venue that retains more than as hint of the spirit of the festival’s old Spectrum venue, now just a hole in the ground across the street awaiting downtown redevelopment.
Jones paid tribute to mentor Oscar Peterson before shifting into an extended Gershwin medley that opened with a bit of “Rhapsody in Blue” and coursed through six other tunes, many from “Porgy and Bess,” before a rollicking finish with “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Ranee Lee joined him to sing Miles Davis’s “Four,” “Beautiful Love” and a bilingual version of “Stormy Weather,” as well as “Lady Be Good.”
Hundreds of thousands crowded into, or in some cases, within earshot of the festival site, and waited patiently, sometimes under a sea of umbrellas, for the festival’s first outdoor spectacle of the year, a free Stevie Wonder concert billed as ”A Wonder’s Summer Night 2009.” The huge main stage area couldn’t accommodate anything close to the throng, so many more stood transfixed wherever they could see one of the 10 video screens set up on other stages in and around the Place des Arts. The crowd was later estimated at more than 200,000.
While he hit the stage a half-hour behind the scheduled start, Wonder was generous with his time, playing for more than two hours. He paid tribute top the late Michael Jackson - interspersing some MJ tunes with his own classics. “The Way You Make Me Feel” opened with a Michael Jackson recording, with Wonder joining on the first refrain before taking over the tune. After his own “Higher Ground,” Wonder also channeled a lot of jazz material, exploring Miles Davis’s “All Blues” on harmonica, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” on piano and an extended version of Chick Corea’s “Spain” featuring all of his horn players before delving into many of his own Grammy-winning hits.
I like this festival because it presents a chance to see and hear so many artists who rarely get to convenient venues in the U.S. Other favorite shows in my brief Montreal stay included saxophonist Donny McCaslin with Canadian pianist Julie Lamontagne, Montreal pianist Vic Vogel’s robust big band performing an homage to the jazz masters on the General Motors main stage, singer Hilary Kole who opened for the energetic Brit Jamie Cullum, and Japanese saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, who made his Montreal debut with a Japanese sextet that blended the best elements of bop, fusion, Afrojazz rhythms and the folk traditions of his homeland.Singer Melody Gardot played for nearly full houses two nights at the double-balconied Theatre Maisonneuve, weaving a vocal spell