Various venues, Montreux
Everything about the Montreux Jazz Festival speaks to a quiet prestige. From its location in an exclusive resort town on the banks of Lake Geneva, to its hard-earned cultural cachet. The MJF was founded in 1967 and since then, the two-week event has played host to everyone from Miles Davis to David Bowie. Indeed, even its name – a vestige of a time when the focus was squarely on jazz instead of the diverse programming that the organisers strive for today – gestures towards quality. This is a gig that artists relish playing – and it shows.
A lesser event might be tempted to bask in its gilded history, but Montreux wears its cultural significance lightly. Aside from the two ticketed venues there’s a whole programme of free events, lectures and film screenings spread along the waterfront. These confer a sense of accessibility quite at odds with its surroundings and, to be transparent, drinks prices. Even more importantly, the line-up is vast and genre-agnostic, much more so than the revolving door of returning legacy acts might have you believe. We visited for two days, barely scratching the surface of a line-up that included Iggy Pop, Wet Leg, Janelle Monáe, Moodymann and Christine and the Queens.
When we arrive on Monday, it’s The Last Dinner Party who are proving something of a lightning rod for the festival’s Gen Z contingent. The London band have caught some heat as the newest bête noires of the deathless authenticity discourse, but they, and the curious crowd they draw to the Lisztomania stage, seem far from bothered by the industry noise. “This is a song about Catholic school” frontwoman Abigail Morris winks. Their sound, a studied, bluesy sad girl pop – with added keytar – is a lot of fun, as are their rococo outfits.
Speaking of strong ‘fits, Lionel Richie – dressed in a snazzy red jacket emblazoned with ‘All Night Long’– is the main draw on Monday evening. Yet, despite the convivial atmosphere created by his blend of showbiz anecdotes and untouchable hits, it’s Caroline Polachek, playing downstairs in the Jazz Lab, who makes the night her own. Much has been made of the L.A.-based singer and producer’s voice, but in a live setting her accuracy and range is astonishing. Welcome to My Island set the tone for the set, its soaring, wordless ululations causing hazardous levels of armography among the fervent fans down front, while I Believe, an yearning pop ballad from Desire, I Want to Turn Into You took on an a new emotional heft with the help of her watertight backing band. Everything about Polachek feels dramatic, a bit extra, almost naff – right down to the Eurovision styling and the way she mimes catching drum hits in the palm of her hand – but she’s entirely sincere. The between-song banter, delivered in impeccable French, seals the deal; the audience chanting her name in response.
Tuesday’s headliner is perhaps one of the most forward-facing of the fortnight: Lil Nas X, photographed the night before having a dip in Lake Geneva, proves more than a match for the storied 4,000-capacity Auditorium Stravinski. Sporting a golden chest plate and floor length fur coat, he brings a muscular energy that tempers the knowingness to viral hits like MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) and Old Town Road – the latter of which he performed while astride a white horse, naturally.
Elena Colombi shifted the vibe at the pretty riverfront space Ipanema, attracting a looser crowd to the riverfront space Ipanema with hard-as-nails techno and even some classic Tronco Traxx. It served as the perfect palette cleanser before we took a stroll along the waterfront to The Lakehouse to catch Moodymann. Here, the Detroit legend was playing homage to his idol with an all-Prince set that incuded rarities and – with the help of Prince’s former touring DJ, unreleased tracks from deep in the vault. Moodymann even jumped on the mic to provide context for what he was about to play, giving the set the complexion of a particularly well-informed afters. Downstairs, the jazz club and spiritual centre of Montreux, was playing host to the Jam Sessions, improvisational performances that would last long into the night. In the past, these sessions have seen surprise appearances from headliners prove their improv chops on the small stage. The juxtaposition between Moodymann’s passion project upstairs and this anything-goes environment was apt – it served as a reminder that Montreux is quite unlike any other festival in the way that it encourages a climate in which creativity thrives, and where artists want to stick around. We totally get it, we did too.