Why trek to back-to-back jazz festivals over Forth of July weekend and on into the middle of July? Because the Montreal and Copenhagen Jazz Festivals are two massive, well-organized music events with distinctly foreign flavors – and Quebec and Denmark can be magically delicious in the summertime.

Both cites are swinging, liberal environments with easy access to smoking supplies and lots of hard-partying action in very concentrated areas – something worthwhile is usually happening for just about everyone at all times. Interestingly, both fests began around the same time (Copenhagen in 1979 and Montreal in 1980). And because the festivals only overlap slightly (Montreal ran 6/28 – 7/7 and Copenhagen ran 7/5 – 7/14) it allows for over two solid weeks of incredible jazz.

In Montreal, the programming had a clear populist slant with plenty of recognizable pop and rock acts mixed in with top-flight jazz players from the world over. There were plenty of free outdoor shows too, with jazz, blues, electronic, and world music going strong from midday on.

Big outdoor galas with Canadian favorites like Feist and Holly Cole were free, juxtaposed with ticketed shows by mainstream artists like George Benson and Boz Scaggs. There were also great late-night and small-venue sets by progressive pianists including Jacky Terrasson, Vijay Iyer, Enrico Pieranunzi, Steve Kuhn, and even the Bad Plus.

Of course, there were solid club acts going on too. Sometimes there was actually too much good stuff scheduled, as badass New Orleans star Trombone Shorty’s hard-rocking show at Club Soda ended at 8:35 P.M. – and Shorty doesn’t usually even get going until midnight. Up-and-coming Mali blues man Vieux Farka Touré (son of the late great Ali Farka Touré) was also in that same time slot, and he burned through his crowd-pleasing repertoire in no time flat – maybe next year Montreal will let Trombone Shorty and Vieux Farka Touré occupy larger outdoor stages.

The good folks in Montreal devoted much time and energy to honor living jazz legends like Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is 75 and has played with everyone from Cannonball Adderley to B.B. King and the Beach Boys as well as nearly every other jazz heavyweight of the last fifty years. The Montreal festival presented Lloyd with their 2013 Miles Davis Award and also allowed him to host their annual Invitation Series, where Charles played three consecutive nights with different combinations of handpicked musicians for each gig.

Returning festival favorite saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter celebrated his 80th birthday tour with an entire evening devoted to his music and his influence. Besides the ACS Trio with Esperanza Spalding and then the Sound Prints Band with saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas, this grand evening culminated with an absolutely sterling performance by the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Wayne’s hour-long show was definitely the festival highlight, as it usually is in Montreal.

There was some overlap of performers between the Montreal and Copenhagen festivals, including Charles Lloyd, guitarist Bill Frisell, Bettye LaVette, and David Murray with Macy Gray. For Bettye LaVette, the Montreal gig at the Metropolis nightclub was excellent and perhaps superior to the Copenhagen performance, but she still ended both shows with a jaw-dropping version of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Catch this woman’s gutsy performances before it’s too late! Mr. Murray and Macy Gray actually gained some much-needed momentum by the time they rolled in to Copenhagen, and their show at the Royal Theater was an unqualified success with Macy’s vocals and Murray’s jazz honks combining for one great evening. Check out Macy on the title track of Murray’s new album, “Be My Monster Love.”

Copenhagen has a more formal level of actual jazz programming but was equally festive and no less a fascinating and diverse experience. Famous jazz haven Jazzhus Montmarte, which had an after-hours jam every night featuring NYC drummer Lee Pearson, hosted many of the musicians passing through town for the festival, including Murray and Macy Gray and world-class drummers like Billy Hart, Jonathan Blake, and Danish legend Alex Riel.

Boston saxophone stars, and Copenhagen favorites, George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi each played multiple gigs with local Danish musician while American expats Doug Raney and Bob Rockwell, played gigs with handpicked Scandinavian band mates all week long.

Veteran jam-band favorites Medeski Martin & Wood played a sit-down gig at the Royal Theater but would have done better at a venue outdoors so the Copenhagen kids could have danced a bit more.

As far as local talent is concerned, I like the young and talented Danish drummer Stefan Pasborg who played an instrumental Stax Tribute gig that was off the hook, as well as leading a band project called Free Moby Dick, where Pasborg’s band played instrumental versions of Led Zeppelin tunes, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” and King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

Copenhagen photos by Kristoffer Juel Poulsen
Montreal photos courtesy of www.montrealjazzfest.com