Montreal International Jazz Festival: Meet the greats during jazz series

Jazz pianist Vijay Iyar studied math and physics. (Photo courtesy of the Montreal International Jazz Fest)

Jazz pianist Vijay Iyar studied math and physics. (Photo courtesy of the Montreal International Jazz Fest)

Getting to hear the greatest musicians in concert is the essence of Montreal’s annual international jazz festival, but you can do more than just listen.

Music fans can get deeper into the minds of the men and women who make the music—what motivates and inspires top jazz artists to excel—in a unique series of daily sessions at St. James United Church, June 25-July 7, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm.

It’s called the St. James Jazz Infirmary and guests this year include leading U.S. pianist Vijay Iyar and such Canadian giants as pianists Matt Herskovitz, saxophonist David Murray, Dave Restivo, François Bourassa, and Oliver Jones—“the crown prince of jazz in Canada” —saxophonists André Leroux and Jean-Pierre Zanella, and vocalist Karen Young.

The sessions are organized and led by Norman Cornett, the McGill University Ph.D. who taught religious studies at the university for 15 years before he was fired without explanation in 2007. One of his flagship courses was The Soul and Soul Music, in which he encourages students to reflect on various works, then engage in a dialogue with the creators.

Cornett, a devoted and effective pedagogue, never stopped teaching his famed “dialogic” sessions, here and across Canada.

The series is “an incredible opportunity to meet one on one with leading jazz musicians. We go behind the music to talk about their creative vision and artistic development,” he said in an interview.

As a religious studies scholar, he remains fascinated by “the relationship between music and spirituality.” Though he has worked with musicians in all genres, he marvels at the uniqueness of jazz.

“What struck me in meeting jazz musicians is how they perceive themselves as engaged in a spiritual endeavour. For example, take John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.” He hears in that monumental work Coltrane’s a desire “to englobe the entirety of the human condition,” including the search for higher values.

Music as a spiritual experience is what Cornett seeks to develop in these sessions.

“We get into the mind of the musician and then the musician walks into the room to test out our theories. We literally mediate music as a spiritual exercise, and by the time musicians enter the room we have not simply listened to their music, we live their music.”

Sessions start with “blind auditions” of recordings of the invited musicians. Participants will not know to whom they are listening beforehand. They will be asked to react to what they hear in “stream of consciousness” notes, then discuss the reflections.

Another highlight is a jazz liturgy led by Cornett at the St. James United Church sanctuary June 30 at 11 am, featuring saxophonist André Leroux and his quartet. There is no charge, but the collection plate is passed for a free-will offering.

“I will read some of the Psalms from the Bible and then we’ll have a live performance from Leroux and quartet. It’s a dialogue between the Psalms from the Old Testament and Leroux’s live music,” Cornett said. “We are celebrating God through jazz.”

One of the sessions is titled The Music of Science and the Science of Music, which focuses on the music of Vijay Iyar—a leading innovative jazz pianist who studied math and physics up to the master’s level at Yale University, then received a doctorate in Music Cognition from University of California (Berkeley).

“This is part of what I call community education.”

Because of other commitments the dates when musicians will be joining the sessions are not available, but can be verified by contacting Cornett at 514-256-2483 or normancornett@gmailcom.

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