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Open Tuning

By Sylvain Fanet, photos : Marc Ducrest

Though he is only 42, Mathieu Jaton already has a long history with the Montreux Jazz Festival and now serves as its ceo. At Lausanne’s Beau-Rivage Palace, we meet the man behind the music

The Montreux Jazz Festival needs no introduction, having become an event of impressive depth and breadth. But how do you keep it new and exciting each year?
Montreux is constantly being reinvented. Yes, we encompass a lot of styles, and can fall prey to wanting to do too much, wanting to touch upon everything, and losing the central soul in the process. We can change it as much as we want, play with new stages and new projects, but the challenge for me is to preserve the event’s true DNA. The music business, with massive festivals around the world, has changed a lot: it’s a far cry from our model and pushes us to compete differently. We have to compete with soul, with human spirit, with quality, sensitivity, relevance, consistency. All these gigantic open-air events, with all their strike power and size, are no longer able to deliver craftsmanship. For me, Montreux is an event of craftsmanship. We’re so very small as far as venue capacity goes – 20,000 people a day – that we must make it an asset in our programming, with connections between all the stages, from the biggest to the smallest. We really build it like a watch, and the wheels have to interlink perfectly. So that naturally makes it a risky venture. Our operation goes against everything that should be done to ensure financial stability.

© 2017 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

You have big names, but they are part of a greater whole...
All this isn’t put together like some kind of shopping list, with a few commercial artists who are guaranteed to pack the house. We try to avoid going for the “easy crowds”. I wouldn’t book French singers/rappers Maître Gims or Soprano these days, it just wouldn’t make sense at Montreux, but we have invited great artists before they became global stars, like Sam Smith, Muse and the Black Eyed Peas. This is also thanks to our programmers’ skill in sniffing out talent before they hit the big time. Our credibility is at stake, even if we do things that aren’t understood or that only few people can really see. It’s like in watchmaking and in luxury in general: there are many things that are barely noticeable, but they make all the difference – these are the signs of quality. MJF and Parmigiani are of one mind on this, I think, in doing things that are sometimes misunderstood, that might seem absurd. In both cases, it’s also about one man’s passion – Pierre Landolt on the one hand, Claude Nobs on the other. But that’s what builds a brand, that instinct for detail. A brand’s strength is in the details. And you have to know how to take a few programming risks in a world in which everything is becoming sanitised. Some predicted that the Montreux model wouldn’t survive the upheaval in the music business – but what keeps it alive are its DNA and human values. And all these ingredients are what give an evening of concerts a logical unfolding and cohesive meaning, like bringing together Solange and Erikah Badu last summer, as just one example. I think a number of components are required for a line-up to work: international stars, exciting projects, new performance platforms, unique creations (like Max Richter and Nicolas Jaar), plus great talent that’s still relatively unknown, true discoveries.

© Émilien Itim.

The Montreux Jazz Festival is also a brand expressed through a variety of projects. How can it evolve and how far do you want to go?
I have the advantage of knowing that subject well, because it was one of the first responsibilities I was given when I joined the festival staff. Initially, I had to bring order to the brand and the various forms it takes abroad. With the cafés that have opened in a number of locations (seven to date), we have a relevant concept, but we’re also trying to better define the places selected for these outlets. New cafés could open in Miami’s Design District, Tokyo, in the Atlanta airport. We might open as many as 15 or 20 cafés around the world. As far as festivals go, we’ll develop two or three, but no more. We’re very clear on the markets for these: Japan, Brazil, with which we share similar perspectives, perhaps China, but the European music culture is not yet very well-established. What’s needed is a touristic, economic and cultural opportunity.
One last question that’s more personal: what artist do you most dream of bringing to Montreux?
For me, Prince, whose death really shook me to the core, was the artist who best embodied the spirit of the festival, the way he constantly reinvented himself, colouring outside the lines, his out-of-the-box thinking, just like David Bowie or someone more recent, like Woodkid. I would dream of having Paul McCartney maybe doing solo piano, and U2 – but again, in a non-standard format, perhaps acoustic. But I haven’t lost hope: it took years to get Stevie Wonder here. Good fortune sometimes takes time!