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Big names, new faces rock Montreal jazz fest


MONTREAL - Yes, it’s been called the Montreal International Jazz Festival for 31 years. But by now a more accurate name would be the Montreal International Jazz, Pop, Rock, Blues, Soul, Hip-Hop and World Music Festival. Give the organizers credit for remaining steadfast and continuing to highlight the least commercial style of music presented at this 12-day street party/concert extravaganza. Jazz may remain at the core of this festival, but it hardly dominates. Lionel Richie was the star of the opening night gala this past weekend, while rockabilly/big-band cat Brian Setzer and Sam Cooke-come-lately James Hunter were the main attractions on successive nights at the biggest outdoor site.

These were just a smattering of available choices. Each day - and the feast continues through Tuesday - festival-goers have some 30 acts to choose from. Some perform at modestly priced ticketed events in indoor venues scattered around the Place des Arts in downtown Montreal. But the majority play for free on open-air stages in the same area. That’s the beauty of this event: a wide variety of high-level talent that can be enjoyed for reasonable or no money in a friendly, festive and safe environment; even with thousands of people in the street and the easy availability of alcohol, civility prevails.

The first three days of the festival included many name brands. His face framed by a frizzy mane of white hair, tenor titan Sonny Rollins, soon to turn 80, played with the majesty and power of a lion in, well, summer. Herbie Hancock brought a powerhouse band, which included guitarist Lionel Loueke and bass sensation Tal Wilkenfeld. After surveying his career in imaginative style, including an electro-funk revamping of his classic “Watermelon Man,” the keyboardist turned to the pop songs on his new “Imagine Project” album with impressive help from newcomer Kristina Train on vocals.

The most fun at the fest may be the opportunity to discover new faces. Not surprisingly, Montreal talents are among the attractions: Emilie Clepper served up folk/rock originals that would earn plaudits in Austin, Texas; indie rock trio Plants & Animals summoned grandeur from two loud guitars (no bass) and a drum set; Hombre seethed with Latin fire; and teenage singing phenom Nikki Yanofsky showed she may actually live up to the hype surrounding her.

But for this listener, David Pena Dorantes and his flamenco group from Seville, Spain, gave the most thrilling performance of a packed weekend. Accompanied by virtuoso caliber electric bass and percussion, Dorantes proved that piano can be as expressive and emotional a vehicle for flamenco as the traditional guitar. A singer and two rousing dancers helped him make an unassailable case. Somebody bring him to Boston!

Boston Herald    Larry Katz    07/07/2012