My brother-in-law Steve always says, “nothing good happens after midnight.” He has never been to the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Free concerts begin at noon, simmering to red hot in evening and deep blue after midnight. The atmosphere is celebratory, ecstatic, with world-class artists like Cassandra Wilson, Taj Mahal and Pat Metheny. This year brought jazz greats Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett and Dave Brubeck, plus “pop” performers Lionel Richie and the Doobie Brothers.

With 2.5 million revelers, 3,000 musicians and 700 concerts on an ever-expanding series of stages, this astonishing 12-day international festival is friendly, hip and safe.

Street Scene

This year we paid special attention to the musicians of our host country — Canadian bands rule the street music. We gorged on Blues Delight, wiggled to Cow Bop, whistled and stomped to the Dixieland rhythms of Streetnix and the rangy Klezmer fiddle of Gadji-Gadjo. The pounding Afro-beat of Boum-Boum always draws an excited multi-age crowd whose dancing is spontaneous and irresistible.

Collaboration also makes this festival sing. Quebec guitarist Denis Chang’s Django Reinhardt riffs dazzled the open-air crowd in a spontaneous jam with Lost Fingers and later with Emir Kusturica’s irrepressible No Smoking Orchestra. Natives Karen Young and Eric Auclair provided great musical chemistry to Norway’s Bugge Wesseltoft in an intimate “electro-beatnik” jam.

Never fear, there was plenty of straight-up jazz a la Miles and Coltrane. We scored tickets to veterans Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, whose enthusiastic audience stretched four balconies high. Cranking up the funk, John Scofield and Piety Street Band turned in a rousing blues and gospel performance whose stirring “Angel of Death” culminated in a roaring standing ovation. Swiss newcomer Sophie Hunger electrified the late-night crowd, already an indelible musical presence at age 27. 

Cheap Eats 2010

The festival’s ubiquitous beer tents and SAQ bistros serve wine and cheese — not bad, but not “street” and not cheap. The overpriced hunks of brie taste better when you remember they help pay for free music.

Two short blocks away on Chinatown’s narrow Rue Gauchetiere you’ll find crowded dim sum restaurants offering five course specials for way under $10 — nobody speaks English but who cares? Or take a 10-minute walk past tattoo parlors up Ste. Catherine to the charming outdoor caf?in the Latin Quarter. Our asparagus crepes were cheap, native and delicious. Or take the subway to Jean Talon Market’s Creperie for a buckwheat version that’s out of this world! 

La Chaleur

Surprise! Montreal can get hot and muggy. During our stay, temps reached the 90s but the music continued undaunted. We managed to claim a shady corner of the Heinekin tent for Lyse and the Hot Kitchen, a funky trio with ’50s styling and a Montreal edge. The bass player’s white pompadour would make the ghost of Elvis proud. The heat, “la chaleur,” was intense, but once the set started, nobody cared. The music jumped and shimmered in the heat.

This year’s commitment to pursuing “free and cheap” allowed the occasional hedonistic splurge. We indulged in a romantic Bateau-Mouche jazz cruise along the St. Lawrence. Montreal’s skyline and lovely church spires receded as we passed Expo’s iconic biosphere. Guitarist Paulo Ramos began with a slow samba, as polished and smooth as a river stone. the end, we were thoroughly recharged. 

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Our sophisticated, spontaneous and jazzy neighbors to the north put on a fantastic party every year, and we Mainers are all invited. Mark your calendars now for 2011: June 25 to July 4. For more information, go to www.montrealjazzfest.com. 

Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.