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Award Tour: Michael Bourne Reflects on a Cavalcade of Honors in Montreal

Lizz Wright
Benoit Rousseau
Lizz Wright, recipient of the Prix Ella-Fitzgerald, at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival

“I think this was a vintage year,” said Andre Menard, one of the founders of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and a friend of mine for 25 years.

Andre observed that he’d heard so much music at the 2017 jazzfest that when he was remembering some of this year's first concerts, he felt “as if the shows happened years ago.”

I feel the same about the wonderful blur of musical (and personal) memories I have from all these years of FIJM. I counted the musical events on the festival’s grid: 360 events, noon to midnight, for 11 days, all around Place des Arts in the heart of Montréal. 

I attended only 10% — some or all of 36 performances, from my favorite band in the street, Streetnix, playing hiply trad variations on Jelly Roll Morton and Alice Cooper songs for dozens in the daytime, to three grands évènements on the same street’s main stage, with some of the city’s most popular groups playing mostly contemporary pop, including a spectacular Discotheque with tens of thousands of dancing fest-goers. 

I have often observed that the hallmark of a festival is realizing how many good shows one cannot get to. They have no time limit for the shows around Place des Arts, and some of the evening shows I attended played long and late. I missed most of what always have been my favorite shows at the jazzfest, shows called Jazz dans la Nuit, 10:30 each evening in the Salle de Gesu, the intimate performance space of the Jesuit church around the corner from the Maison du Festival. 

I happily hustled to four of my favorite “Room of Jesus” gigs: the telepathic duets of guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan; the dramatic (and enormous-voiced) Argentine singer Elena Roger performing Astor Piazzolla songs; the fiery trio of Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa; and one of my favorite Quebeçois musicians, pianist Lorraine Desmarais. 

I’ve enjoyed her playing almost every year at FIJM, either solo or conducting her big band. Lorraine plays melodies especially beautifully. And she swings. When she’s most excited in a solo, she’ll leap up as if catapulted by the keys. When she’s conducting the big band, she dances. This year’s gig was Lorraine’s trio’s tribute to Bill Evans, a pianist she often emulates in her lyrical touch and voicings. “Peri’s Scope” and “Very Early” were Ravel-like. And swinging.

I’m sorry that I missed the concert of Buika, an artist who grew up on Majorca and whose singing fuses roots in Afrobeat, flamenco, gypsy, and jazz. Buika was honored with the festival’s award for an artist of world music, the Prix Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Charlie Musselwhite was presented the Prix B.B. King, awarded to a blues artist. “I knew B.B. for 50 years, and this award knocks me out!” Charlie said.

“There’s blues in the house tonight!” he shouted as he whipped out his harmonica. Buddy Guy followed at the big hall, the Wilfrid-Pelletier, but by then I was hearing saxophonist Charles Lloyd in what looks like a cathedral of wood and organ pipes, the still-new Maison Symphonique.

I was just in time to hear Charles play a virtual tapestry of his classic from the ‘60s, “Passin’ Thru.” Each of the players in his quartet was featured playing long-ish solos: Gerald Clayton percussively at the piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, Eric Harland on drums. Between each of the solos, Charles returned to the melody, playing each chorus differently but always with the fluttering beauty of his sound I remember from “Forest Flower.”

Credit Benoit Rousseau
Hudson (John Medeski, Larry Grenadier, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield) at Maison symphonique de Montreal

Hudson came next, a stellar quartet with guitarist John Scofield, John Medeski playing piano and organ, Larry Grenadier on bass, and — recipient of the festival’s Prix Miles Davis — drummer Jack DeJohnette. They played funky variations on mostly 60’s pop and rock standards.  Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock" was a highlight. Also songs of Jimi Hendrix, especially “Castles Made of Sand,” with a poetic vocal from Jack.

Lizz Wright sang the best I’ve heard her on the evening she celebrated her Prix Ella Fitzgerald. “You almost made me cry,” she said after the presentation. “When I cry, I lose control of my instrument,” she said — but her voice sounded pure as she sang a bouquet of standards for Ella. Kenny Banks played piano gorgeously on the standards, then blew the roof off at the organ as Lizz let loose her gospel chops, especially on Neil Young’s “Old Man.” I could hear tears welling as she sang at the last “Stars Fell on Alabama.”  And her joyful encore was her signature song, “Salt.”

Ingrid Jensen is another of the best Canadian musicians, year after year, in Montréal. When she’s playing trumpet, any and every group she plays with plays better — especially a couple of years ago as a soloist with the big band of her sister, composer-arranger-saxophonist Christine Jensen. They played together this year in L’Astral, offering spacey atmospheres from their album Infinitude. Christine was honored with the festival’s award for a Canadian artist, the Prix Oscar Peterson. Ingrid ought to be next.

One more honor: FIJM presents an award to someone in the jazz media, the Prix Bruce Lundvall, named after the great record executive of Columbia and Blue Note renown. 

Michael Bourne and the Montreal Jazz Festival press corps, wearing their Michael Bourne T-shirts in 2017.
Michael Bourne and the Montreal Jazz Festival press corps, wearing their Michael Bourne T-shirts.

For being an advocate (“un grand ami”) of the festival for 25 years, they honored me. I am known to the wonderful folks of the festival’s press corps as “Oncle Michel,” and at the award presentation the kids paraded in wearing shirts with my face over their hearts. I am grateful for all the love they have shown me all these years. I am thankful “du fond de mon coeur."

Michael Bourne was a presence on the air at WBGO between the end of 1984 and the start of 2022, when he retired from full time hosting duty. He is the host of the Singers Unlimited Podcast by WBGO Studios. Previously, he hosted the popular Singers Unlimited (1985-2022). He also hosted the equally popular Blues Break for several years. Michael is a senior contributor to Down Beat, with the magazine since 1969. Doctor Bourne earned a PhD in Theatre from Indiana University -- which comes in handy when he's a theatre critic for the WBGO Journal.