Now in its 43rd year, the Montreal Jazz Festival has become maybe the best showcase in the world for not just legends, but especially for what the future holds for jazz music. And that future is increasingly pushing the envelope of what constitutes “jazz.”
Beyond a genre designation, jazz music has historically been more about breaking boundaries and taking our minds on new journeys through sound. This year’s festival (which took place June 29 through July 8) did exactly that, shining the light on some of the best artists operating in jazz-adjacent realms — acts that were playing both in a recreation of the intimate jazz club atmosphere as well as on large-scale stages. Here are the artists from this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival who are taking jazz into its exciting future.
Already a two-time Grammy winner, Thundercat has put himself squarely in the conversations about today’s best bassists. The futurefunk sizzler headlined the main TD Stage on my first night at the festival, and he brought the absolute heat to the Canadian summer evening. You’ve never heard sounds coming out of a bass guitar quite like what ‘cat puts down on songs like “How Sway” and next to his high-pitched voice on “Dragonball Durag.” After working with titans from Kendrick Lamar to Tame Impala, the dude has grown into a major player in the jazz fusion world, and it was a trip to see the tens of thousands of people who came out in droves to see the eccentric Angeleno perform.
Nine years ago, Nick Hakim first came to the Montreal Jazz Festival to open for R&B stud Maxwell. This time, the psychedelic soul singer and multi-instrumentalist came equipped with three solo albums and numerous other projects that were all on display on the Rogers Stage. Behind his Rhodes keys, the Brooklynite mused about the conversations and romances that play themselves out in his mind. Songs like “Feeling Myself” off of his latest album, Cometa, flashed his rhythmic versatility and softly sinister croon. But it’s the handful of songs from 2017’s breakthrough album Green Twins that hit the hardest on this one. From the hopeful psychedelia of “Bet She Looks Like You” to the sublime “Cuffed,” Hakim reimagines the game of love in fantastic ways.
Nobody left an impression on me at this year’s jazz festival quite like Seattle native drummer/vocalist Kassa Overall and his band. Songs off of his freshly released album Animals found a sharp balance of punishing, fluent, dizzying and downright cool on stage. He could deliver a masterclass assault on the drums all night if he wanted to, but Kassa’s lyricism hits like sharp beat poetry dissecting societal ills, musical existentialism and the almighty come up. From album opener “Ready To Ball,” to set closer “Who’s On The Playlist?,” and even nods to Fred Again.. and Wu-Tang Clan, this was as gripping a set as I’d ever seen in my four years coming to Montreal Jazz festival. Joining Kassa on soprano sax was Tomoki Sanders (the son of the late, great Pharoah Sanders) who shined as brightly as any sideman I saw all week.
This performance at the jam-packed Studio TD venue felt like what the jazz club experience is supposed to grow into, but still forged in technical mastery. With a US and European tour on deck, he’s moving beyond the jazz club circuit, but the shows still have that club magic where you feel the intimacy that lets you connect with each member of the band, yet in unison, their explosions are resounding ones that are just getting bigger.
Why the Montreal Jazz Fest Is the Only Music Fest Worth Traveling ForIncluding an eclectic lineup and all the bagels you can eat
Domi & JD Beck
You can’t really have a conversation about the future of jazz without mentioning this prodigious pair. 23-year-old French keyboardist Domi and 20-year-old Texan drummer JD Beck first gained steam through viral YouTube clips like their instrumental medley of Madlib’s productions from the Madvillainy album with MF Doom. They’ve since signed to Anderson .Paak’s Apeshit label, which put out their debut album, Not Tight, in conjunction with the famed Blue Note Records. Last year at Jazz Fest, they headlined the modest 1,000-capacity Club Soda, but what a difference a year makes, as Domi and JD Beck were starring on the festival’s main stage on the Fourth of July, with over 50,000 people vibing along.
Kiefer puts down keys-driven tunes that feel like discovering a gorgeous jazzy hip-hop beat tape only available at a record store in Japan. Lucky for you, he’s LA-based and puts his tunes out through the influential Stones Throw Records imprint. With NY’s Carrtoons on bass and Chicago’s Luke Titus on drums, the trio kick-started a chilled-out early evening at the Pub La Traversee Molson Export stage, a welcoming outdoor venue that feels like a jazz bar you’d want to kick it at. There’s a youthful classicism to Kiefer’s work on the Nord Stage 3 keyboard and a groove that belongs in the speakers of a curated vintage sneaker shop or an art gallery.
The final act I caught in Montreal left me pining for more. DC-area saxophonist Braxton Cook folds distinct R&B sensibilities into his tunes, especially when he jumps on the mic to deliver a silky coo. This see-saw dance from sax to vocals (and keys too) throughout the set is such a pleasure to experience, almost as if Cook is continuously making a statement on the malleability of jazz and Black music styles as a whole. “It’s not supposed to be just swing,” he told the crowd at one point, before embarking on “FJYD,” a song about finding his own way of pushing past predetermined boundaries of music. Cook’s back-and-forths with guitarist Andrew Renfroe were on point, and his talents as a vocalist are as memorable as his multi-instrumentality. The comparisons to the surging fellow saxer/singer Masego are expected, especially since he appears on Cook’s latest album, Who Are You When Nobody Is Watching? Comparisons aside, Cook is a charismatic performer and well-rounded player, breaking through jazz academia norms to make music that’s decidedly of-the-moment.
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