At Montreal Jazz Festival, a New Generation of Jazz Masters Takes the Stage

Those who were once the Young Lions of jazz are now the old cats—hep cats, perhaps, but old just the same. Wynton Marsalis, the public face of the Young Lions movement in the 1980s and 1990s, is now 60. He seems to recognize his altered position, for when he led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival, he made a point to tell the audience that the 15-piece ensemble included three recent college graduates.

“And Immanuel Wilkins,” Marsalis added, “is someone else you need to pay attention to. He’s playing somewhere at this festival.”

Wilkins, only 24, performed three times in Montreal: twice leading his own quartet and once playing in drummer Makaya McCraven’s group. The alto saxophonist provided some of the most thrilling music of the festival, technically accomplished enough to get Marsalis’ stamp of approval, but also free and wild enough to thrive in McCraven’s boundary-pushing free improvisations. He’s a central figure in the new generation about to remake jazz as profoundly as Marsalis and his comrades did at the end of the last century.

Wilkins and McCraven joined four other bandleaders from this new movement at the Montreal Festival: trumpeters Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Marquis Hill, vibraphonist Joel Ross and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. These six musicians, all under the age of 40, are no longer promising youngsters starting out on their careers; they are at a stage where they are fulfilling that promise and emerging as mature, major artists in the genre.

Like Wilkins, they are all technically accomplished, able to exert precision control over pitch, time and dynamics. Unlike some of their predecessors, though, this new generation uses that virtuosity as a license to test limits, not as an excuse to erect fences around “real jazz.” This new movement grew up in the hip-hop era and in the Black church, and they can command both vocabularies when it suits their purposes, but they are just as willing to venture into the disorienting realms of avant-garde jazz. They are fashioning an unprecedented synthesis.

And for us in the audience, those mechanical skills make us more comfortable during their most daring escapades. Because we know that every note choice is intentional and accurate, we can trust that the artistic logic will reveal itself. And when it does—even far beyond the boundary of the familiar and expected—that can be thrilling.

On the festival’s opening day, June 30, McCraven led a quartet that included Wilkins, Hill and electric bassist Junius Paul at a downtown Catholic Church called Gesu. The drummer/leader is a big man who wears a gold medallion over black T-shirts and sports an expansive afro. He possesses not only the physical power to play fast and loud across the entire drum kit, but also the skill to land every hit in the right place. He can perfectly replicate a hip-hop drum loop or the rousing march of a church processional.

On this occasion, however, he opened the door to free improvisation. At first, there was a lot of groping in the form of rattling percussion and squeaking horns, but Hill settled on a catchy two-bar theme. He repeated it so emphatically that Wilkins added a harmony on top, Paul on the bottom, and the motif shape-shifted till Wilkins was wailing ecstatically over McCraven’s rampaging drums.

Later that evening, a short walk away, Wilkins reunited with his regular quartet (pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry) in a public park for one of the festival’s free concerts. With a neon sculpture in the shape of a playground jungle gym flashing red and blue behind them, the quartet focused on their latest release, The 7th Hand, one of this year’s very best albums.

These seven new compositions from Wilkins are rooted in the church, and the saxophonist captures that sense of devotion and inquiry with an attentiveness and curiosity that are the best sides of religion. But this is not a music of simple questions and simple answers; these are instrumentals as complicated as the world outside the sanctuary, where faith and doubt go to the mat in a wrestling match.

In Montreal, the foursome translated that studio tension into live drama, not by playing loud and fast, but by creating a patient, transparent atmosphere where each nuanced shift of accent or tone could register. With his thin braids falling to his waist, his dark-frame glasses sliding down his nose and his gold-and-black coat hanging open, Wilkins relied on understatement, allowing the resonant tone and punctuating pauses of his alto sax to tell the story.

As a result, when the band suddenly shifted gears at the end of the set into a fast, hard romp, we in the audience felt the jolt and went along for the ride, even as the music crossed over into atonal wailing and aggressive clanging. This band knew what they were doing, and we would follow them anywhere.

The next day, July 1, McCraven was back at Gesu, this time with a quintet that included Hill, Paul, Ross and guitarist Jeff Parker. This was the core band on McCraven’s latest album, last year’s Deciphering the Message, an ambitious attempt to refashion 13 tunes from Blue Note Records’ catalog, emphasizing the hard-bop heyday of Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham and others in the ’50s and ’60s.

That was a period when acoustic jazz returned to bluesy grooves after the bebop innovations of the ’40s and ’50s, and McCraven smartly connects hard-bop to the hip-hop and funk emphasis of today’s jazz. He not only remixes the original tracks to muscle up the beats with reverb, loops and bass synth, but he also has his musicians play along with the original recordings, as if the two centuries were collaborating.

For the live performance at Gesu, McCraven stripped away most of the samples and effects from the arrangements and allowed his quintet to play the tunes on their own. But they managed to suggest both eras without the help of special effects.

McCraven’s steady hands and wrists sounded like a drum machine one moment and like Blakey the next. Hill demonstrated his knack for distilling themes to their two-bar essence, and Ross could elaborate on those motifs. His blue-tipped felt mallets alternated high and low notes on the vibraphone to add a kind of mad, modern math to the vintage material. It was the kind of set that could make young heads check out the music of 60 years ago while sparking old heads to check out what’s happening today—a crucial jazz era in its own right.

Ross led his own quartet the following evening in a free concert at Le Studio, in the same downtown arts district as the rest of the venues. Ross is best known for spearheading—along with Warren Wolf—a welcome revival of the vibraphone in jazz, but Ross used this show to prove that he is as capable on the piano as on the vibes. With his long braids tied into a big knot behind his black cap, he bounced back and forth between the ivory/ebony keys and the golden aluminum bars, bringing different colors to different sections of the songs.

He avoided playing any songs from his brilliant 2022 album, The Parable of the Poet, preferring to rely on his 2020 record Who Are You?, which featured drummer Jeremy Dutton and bassist Kanoa Mendenhall. Those two now rejoined Ross at Le Studio, and replacing Wilkins, who had played alto sax on that album, was Godwin Louis, a lyrical soloist in his own right.

One of the live set’s highlights was Ross’ original “Mellowdee,” a nod to his emphasis on tunefulness, even amid the most ambitious harmonic and rhythmic constructions. This number began as a romantic ballad on the piano over brushes, accelerated to an aggressive alto sax solo and then subsided into a ballad again. In every phase, the melody was present not merely as an ear-grabber, but also as a reservoir of emotion, a longing that rose to ecstasy and then slipped into reflection. It was a reminder that jazz, at its best, is music for the heart as well as the head.

A few blocks away, following Ross’ set, Salvant entered the large proscenium stage at the National Theatre School of Canada. Wearing a leopard-print, white beret, orange-plastic sandals, and a crumpled party dress of gold and green streaks, Salvant seemed a figure stranded outside of time. At first, she seemed a time traveler from the 1920s cabarets of Paris, then an ironic performance artist from 2020s New York, and finally like a visitor from another planet sampling from the history of Earth fashions to pick what she wanted.

Her music had the same time-defying quality. She had begun her career by singing pre-World War II show tunes with such irreverent newness that they seemed unprecedented. It wasn’t that she was treating those songs as camp, but that she employed them as channels for strong feelings—feelings that were at last fully released by Salvant’s odd phrasing and note choices.

Her new album, Ghost Song, also one of the year’s best, features more of her original writing, as well as some modern covers: Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and Sting’s “Until.” But the effect is similar: Songs are thrown out of their historical context to mix vintage theatricality with contemporary irony, vocal/piano recitals with push-and-pull small-combo jazz, anything to shake the song loose from the fashions of its day to make us confront the timelessness of human nature.

This was as true of her live show as of her recording. She began the concert with that album’s “Obligation,” by asking the audience in a half-spoken, half-sung, theatrical voice, “What happens when the foundation of a relationship is guilt, not love?” And with a punctuating chord from her pianist Sullivan Fortner, she answered her own question: “Obligation.” And what does obligation lead to? “Promises,” she sang, which “lead to expectations, which lead to resentment.”

It’s a witty stanza, but Salvant wasn’t singing it only for comedy; she was also digging into the tart truth of it. Yes, sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of romance, her emotional ambiguity suggested, but that doesn’t nullify the damage. And this ambiguity was only heightened when the song flowered into melody, returned to monologue and ended with a rumbling, discontented coda played by Fortner, drummer Keita Ogawa and bassist Paul Sikivie, all of whom contribute to Ghost Song.

With this bittersweet approach to singing, it’s no surprise that she sang two songs by the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill team: “Barbara Song” and “The World Is Mean,” the latter from the new album. She gave equal weight to Brecht’s bitter lyrics and Weill’s sweet tunes, and then made them even more disorienting by shifting certain notes from their previous, accustomed placements to somewhere new. Salvant got away with this because her pitch and phrasing are so unerring that the new notes acquired their own logic. She does this to many of her songs, and it’s why she’s the most transformative female jazz vocalist since Cassandra Wilson in the 1990s.

One of the highlights of Salvant’s new album (though she didn’t sing it in Montreal) is “No Love Dying,” written by Gregory Porter, the most important male jazz vocalist in decades. He’s not only a robust baritone singer who manages to bridge the gap between Luther Vandross and John Coltrane’s vocalist Johnny Hartman, but also the best writer of jazz songs since Bob Dorough and Oscar Brown Jr. Porter provides such sharpness of detail and freshness of perspective that his song catalog should be a resource for many others than just Salvant.

Porter sang those songs himself during the Montreal Jazz Festival at the Maison Symphonique. On his second number, “On the Way to Harlem,” he name-dropped Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Marvin Gaye as inspirations, and even sang a bit of Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and Gaye’s “What’s Going On” at the end. The jazz underpinnings of his R&B-drenched material were brought to the fore by his excellent jazz sextet, featuring the Harrold brothers—trumpeter Keyon and drummer Emanuel.

As always, a centerpiece of the set was his protest against “Musical Genocide,” the abandonment of Black musical history. On this night, he offered two Temptations songs, “My Girl” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” as well as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” as evidence of what might be lost. And the first of those songs, written by Smokey Robinson, was done as an unaccompanied duet with acoustic bassist Jahmal Nichols, who took a long jazz solo to point out what else might get left behind.

The whole Montreal Jazz Festival was a showcase for endangered musical forms. Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave strong renditions of pieces by Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn and Charles Mingus. The Ravi Coltrane Quintet tackled compositions by the leader’s parents, John and Alice Coltrane.

These deceased composers are all grandmasters of the music, and for many casual jazz fans, that era of the 1950s and 1960s is all they know of the music—and all they care to know. But such nostalgia deafens many listeners to the golden era of jazz that’s happening right now.

Perhaps the strongest set of the festival’s first week, for example, was delivered by Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom. Leading the most powerful band of her career, Miller attacked her drum kit with as much as ferocity as McCraven, with as much musicality as Wilkins and as much history-defying originality as Salvant. Her bandmates (pianist Myra Melford, saxophonist Dayna Stephens and bassist Scott Colley) followed her lead in a triumphant set that reconfirmed her as one of the giants of modern jazz.

McCraven, Wilkins, Ross, Salvant, Hill and Scott are at the core of this new era, but they are far from alone.