Montreal boasts the largest and most prestigious jazz festival in North America, hosting six outdoor stages that are free for attendees, as well as ticketed shows throughout the Place des Arts complex in the heart of downtown. The fact that Preservation Hall Jazz Band closed out the entire ten day Festival International de Jazz de Montreal at the 1,500 seat Theatre Maisonneuve concert hall is a testament to the ascendance of New Orleans music in the international jazz scene. Pres Hall’s ninety minute set not only had the crowd up and dancing to an array of genres, but also recognized the power of music to heal pain and division in such saddened times, direct from the heart of where jazz was born, New Orleans.
Opening band Jazz Street Boyz (much better than their canny name), a sophisticated French-Canadian Gypsy Trad band, slayed a St. James Infirmary cover and jerked tears with their original “The Way You Dream” that got the crowd into a tizzy of excitement with their strings and trumpet playing. But move on over Québécois upstarts, we need some heavy Preservation Hall horns up in here! Starting off their ninety minute set with Danny Barker’s original “Tootie Ma”, which became re-popularized by the Tom Waits collaboration with Pres Hall off their album, “Preservation”, set the tasty mood with it’s deep tenor sax and dirty vocal performance by Clint Maedgen.
To take the cake, Charlie Gabriel celebrated his 84th birthday by singing “I Think I Love You,” written by Pres Hall’s Creative Director, Ben Jaffe, for his daughter, Emma, off the album “That’s It”. It was all sweet-tooth sounds, but the cuteness cut into a tangy, spicy route on their Cuban compositions with “Solano” and “El Manicero”. I don’t think Montreal has ever mamboed so hard as it did to the Mardi Gras Indian chant, “Shallow Water”, featuring Haitian percussionist, Kiol Diki, of Arcade Fire.
The highs were highs, but attention needed to be addressed to more a somber side of issues presented today. Jaffe got real with the audience before the classic gospel hymn, “A Closer Walk With Thee”. He introduced the song with a heart-felt speech stating, “In New Orleans the way we celebrate death is through our music, the dead live on through our horns…This is for those who have passed, and we honor them tonight… If ya’ll haven’t heard about what’s been happening in the world, It’s 2016 and we can’t get our shit together. We have to come together, we have to make a change.” Everyone was feeling the slow dirge as drummer Walter Harris poured into his snare roll while Rickie Monie soulfully played the Steinway Grand with passion. It was a beautiful moment, New Orleans representing at it’s finest.
But you can’t leave the Montreal Jazz Fest on a tearful note, you gotta leave them wanting more. And that’s what happened when Pres Hall came out for not just one, but a double encore! Of course, every crowd goes crazy for a Jackson 5/Stevie Wonder medley, but this fancy pants of a symphony hall got an extra lagniappe treat when the house lights re-dimmed for Ronell Johnson to lead the way with his zesty trombone and powerhouse stage presence on Pres Hall’s original Gospel tune, “Dear Lord.” Everyone was celebrating. Montreal had the taste of New Orleans’ flavor they were hungry for. It was joyful, spicy, but above all, an authentically real experience. Congrats, gentlemen, as Johnson belted in final chorus, “you picked them up, turned them around, and put their feet on higher ground.”
Words and photos by Annie Gaia. Full gallery: