O Canada: The Cool Pleasures of the Montreal Jazz Festival

The summer event is family-friendly celebration of every kind of music

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Counting the days until I head north for the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal — or, as it will be heretofore called for our U.S. readers: the Montreal Jazz Festival — I consider why my upcoming visit (my sixth thus far)  is still fraught with expectation. I live in New York City, it’s not like I don’t have the opportunity to hear substantial live music seven nights a week. Attending the Montreal Jazz Festival is different, though. The combination of terrific music —a great deal of it free of charge — a superbly organized and  family-friendly environment, and a fascinating host city that seems to put on its best face for visitors, proves irresistible, no matter how many times I attend. (My handful of visits makes me a rank amateur compared to the many repeat-attendees who number their annual stays in the multiple-digits.)

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Jean-F.Leblanc/Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

It’s possible to be disappointed by the Montreal Jazz Festival only if you expect jazz to be the sole musical bill of fare. Indeed, there’s always plenty of jazz to be heard. This year’s edition, number 34 to be exact, will host such significant artists as Wayne ShorterWynton MarsalisThe Bad PlusCharles LloydBill FrisellJoshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane over its two week run, which begins June 28 and continues through July 7.

But there is also a dizzying array of blues, R&B, pop, rock, folk, electronica, cabaret and world music to be sampled, with a few unclassifiable genres thrown in for good measure. Headliners among the eclectic 2013 schedule include She & Him (of which singer-actress Zooey Deschanel is the first pronoun), Dr. JohnVieux Farka ToureWanda JacksonBoz ScaggsBelle and Sebastian, and The Specials. And those are only acts that you have to pay for.

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(C) Frederique Menard-Aubin, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

Presenting twice as much free music as it does admission shows (300 outdoor no-cost shows to 150 indoor paying concerts), the festival gives open-eared listeners the chance to discover a swath of international acts that often haven’t yet registered in the consciousness of the Lower 48.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed Canadian Dixieland bands, French rockers, Italian crooners, British guitar virtuosos and a host of other artists obscure to me that may never have stepped foot in The Big Apple.

And there are always A-list treats that don’t cost a dime; this year the festival will kick off with a free performance by Feist. (Closing night will feature the world-music stars Amadou and Mariam.)

A welcoming, culturally inclusive city (what other metropolis has a neighborhood that proudly calls itself, and is formally acknowledged as, “The Gay Village”?), Montreal is a convivial blend of Continental elegance and contemporary funk. Where else can you top off a full day’s immersion in music with a steaming portion of poutine, i.e. French Fries lathered with gravy and cheese curd? Bon Appetite … I think.

The only bad news about this year’s upcoming festivities? R&B divas Aretha Franklin and Sharon Jones have had to bow out due to health-related issues.

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