By Mitch Myers

Like most music festivals, the International Jazz Festival of Montreal is intended to be fun. Unlike some of the other larger musical marathons, the Montreal gig actually succeeds in achieving this goal. Spanning 11 days and nights from June 30 through July 10, Montreal’s 26th annual jazz festival obscured both Canada Day and the Fourth of July and provided worthwhile entertainment—and plenty of other distractions—to approximately two million people.

Montreal is a wholly cosmopolitan city, and its French-dominated, European feel is well divorced from the US’ focused concern on war and terrorism. This year’s festival occurred the same week as the tragic London bombings (and the Live 8 concerts), but despite the sad carnage in England (and Sir Bob Geldof’s emphasis on compassionate consciousness) the summer ceremony in Montreal provided an ideal vacation spot for Americans in search multiple levels of recreation.

The pungent smell of quality weed was seeping out from under the doorways of many of the hotel rooms on my floor. Perhaps this was because of the many musicians, journalists, publicists, managers, and other music-industry folks who were being housed there, but perhaps not. With easily made connections, head shops found all across town, and even bike messenger delivery services at one’s disposal, Montreal is great place to cop.

Add to this a long list of great restaurants, numerous nightclubs, and plenty of superfluous revelry in downtown Montreal and you get the idea of what goes on here. Then augment that with the festival’s 500 concerts, including 350 free outdoor shows and 2,500 performers from at least 20 different countries, and you have the largest jazz festival in the world. Not that the music is all jazz—there’s plenty of blues, rock and roll, funk, hip-hop and world music too.

Still, jazz is the impetus that binds this festival together, and there was plenty of quality music to be heard. Veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd brought his talented quartet to the Spectrum venue, and he proved to still be a talented disciple of the late John Coltrane (he’s appeared at the Montreal festival several times over the years). Lloyd’s playing was both celebratory and cerebral.

Festival favorites, bassists Dave Holland and Charlie Haden, returned once again. This time Holland brought his rambunctious big band to town while Haden performed intimate duets with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

Metropolis is a large hall that showcased many worthwhile dance concerts. One of the best shows featured Medeski Martin & Wood playing along with guest guitarist Marc Ribot, who burned up his fretboard like a young Carlos Santana on speed and hallucinogens. This gig was an all-out party, with MMW playing everything from free-form jazz to down-home funk. Opening for MMW were the Young Philadelphians, which also featured Ribot and a ripping rhythm section of drummer Calvin Weston and thunderous bassist Jamaaldeen Tacuma.

Other memorable dance parties at the Metropolis included shows by Afrobeat’s crown prince Femi Kuti; Montreal’s own K-OS, The Herbaliser & DJ Food, and New Orleans legends, the Neville Brothers. The Neville Brothers’ concert featured three generations of Nevilles, but original members Aaron, Art, and Charles Neville still put on a marvelous show after decades of collective musicmaking. Earlier that same night another New Orleans legend took the stage at Theater Maisonneuve’s Place des Arts as Dr. John got funky singing his hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time’ and “Such A Night” to a capacity crowd.

There were musicians of every description performing at the Montreal festival. Ron Sexsmith charmed his Spectrum audience with a collection of old favorites and songs from his new CD, The Retriever. The Blind Boys of Alabama practically raised the roof of the Metropolis. Though saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ set was not one of his best, the elder jazzman still mesmerized the crowd with his imposing instrumental prowess. Piano legend Randy Weston performed with special guest Candido, who at 85 has been an unsung hero of Latin percussion for more than half a century.

This year’s biggest star, however, was without a doubt guitarist Pat Metheny, who performed at several different concerts as part of the festival’s “Invitation” series. The shaggy-haired Metheny showed a remarkable amount of endurance as well as complete versatility, rehearsing for hours each day and then playing each night with a different set of musicians.

Metheny masterfully kicked off the series in a trio format with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez, and dazzled the audience with a selection of compositions drawn from his three-decade career. As the week progressed, Metheny played with Haden (acoustic), with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava (electric), and also with his former bandmate from the Gary Burton group, guitarist Mick Goodrick.

Burton gave Metheny his big break in the music business back in the 1970s, so it was especially sweet when Metheny joined Burton’s band for a set. Metheny sat in with 84-year-old harmonica whiz Toots Thielsman, hosted a set with pianist David Sanchez and jammed with Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s band. He even revisited the music of his avant-garde 80/81 group by performing with saxophonist Dewey Redman, and made a well-deserved free-concert finale on the last night of the festival with the current Pat Metheny Group.

Other talented jazz guitarists appeared at the festival as well. English fusion guitar legend John McLaughlin performed incisive duets with master percussionist Zakir Hussain as part of Hussain’s own “Invitation” series. Bill Frisell’s definitive guitar technique drove Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” into the stratosphere of emotive bliss.

For late-night hardcore jazz, the converted Church, The Gesu, was the place to be. The Gesu hosted a number of versatile pianists including Bill Charlap, Geri Allen and Manhattan-based Uri Caine with Italian trumpeter Paulo Fresu and Swedish piano legend Bobo Stenson. The Gesu showcased Redman’s group with drummer Matt Wilson (with and without Pat Metheny) and Burton bassist Steve Swallow’s trio, the Tin Pan Aliens. Yet another highlight was reedist Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir, who blew everybody away with their arrangement of the gospel hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The Club Soda was notable for a well-programmed vocal series, which featured a string of talented female singers including big-buzz-of-the-week Keren Ann, two sold-out shows by Billy Holiday-imitator Madeleine Peyroux, sultry Brooklyn vocalist Liz Wright, Texan song-stylist Jollie Holland, Russian-born/Israeli-bred Toronto resident Sophie Millman, and Chilean singer-songwriter Claudia Acuna.

Midnight steered industry types back at Club Soda for loud encounters with hip-hop, electronic dance and DJ culture. These show included New York electronic groups the Brazilian Girls and Automato, Norway’s Bugge Wesseltoft, Toronto’s outrageous Holy Fuck and DJ RJD2.

The Montreal jazz festival also has an annual treat for their city called “The Big Event” (Le Grand Eventment), which draws a throng of over 100,000 people into the downtown area. This year’s celebration featured Montreal’s own DJ-producer, Champion, who merged electronics and jazz and, despite of some extremely heavy rains, kept the massive outdoor crowd thoroughly entertained.

So, with hazy, lazy smoke-filled mornings, raucous late nights, diverse concert programming, loads of free outdoor shows, and close proximity to nearly everything including Chinatown and Old Montreal, the International Jazz Festival of Montreal is a great place for music lovers who like to party. And seeing as how our sister country is so easily accessible, we Americans should take advantage of the good times available on the other side of our northern border. I know I’ll be back.