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Montreux Jazz Festival produce the magic for their 57th year

Mavericks old and new take to the stage at the Swiss Music festival, including Lionel Richie, Christine and the Queens, Olivia Dean, Lil Nas X and Sam Smith

By Joseph Kocharian

Mark Ronson closing The Montreux Jazz Festival with Audemars Piguet (Picture: Emilien Itim)

This is going to sound a tad stupid, but bear with me for a moment. The Montreux Jazz Festival is for artists who truly love music. I’m talking about those who rhapsodise about chords and won’t stop talking about melodies. I’ve had this a few times before on set when shooting a cover for Rolling Stone UK. An artist will lift a finger, or look at me with an intense glint in their eyes, before launching into a soliloquy of appreciation for a song or artist playing in the studio. It’s a beauty to behold their shining eyes and breathy enthusiasm. After spending a few days at the festival, that’s on its 57th year, on Lake Geneva, I realised this is the festival for them. 

Night after night, on the banks of Lake Geneva, I listened to first-timers such as Loyle Carner profess to the crowd that it was a childhood dream-realised to play at Montreux. It was the same with more seasoned performers, like eighty-seven-year-old blues guitarist and singer Buddy Guy, who said it was an honour to be back in the 4000 capacity Auditorium Stravinski. As the eight-time Grammy award winner brought on Joe Bonamassa on to perform together, I looked up at the bespoke cherry wood ceiling and walls that wrapped around the auditorium and I knew exactly why artists loved to perform here. There isn’t a capacity for a crowd of tens of thousands, like at Wembley Arena, Coachella or Glastonbury, but that’s not the point of the place, and not why musicians love performing there. It’s because Montreux has a deep love of music, reflected in the intimacy of its spaces. This was evidently clear when I sat down for a roundtable chat with Mathieu Jaton, the CEO of Montreux Jazz festival, and Olivier Degen, Head of Brand Experiences at Audemars Piguet, at the AP Lounge in the Les Jardins Hospitality Village. 

Jaton explained that artists are almost given free reign when they rock up to the festival. Last year, Stormzy performed a bespoke Church Gospel inspired set. He said “I’ve done some festival runs but this is a very specific show that we have tailored this for you guys. We’ve been really excited for this show from the beginning of the year, every time I’ve been asked what show I’ve been excited for it’s been the Montreux Jazz Festival.” Other artists similarly revel in the opportunity to do a show that’s creatively freeing. Muse performed a whole set of B-sides (I just imagined my thrill if I could have gotten that from Girls Aloud.) Sam Smith loved performing there so much, that they’ve returned several times just to holiday on the Lake. Smith returned to performed at the festival again this year, performing their electric Gloria set for the crowd, which was a highlight of this year’s line-up. 

It was clear listening to Jaton that there is meticulous love and care that goes into the festival, which is appreciated by the artists. It makes it one of the most prestigious places on the globe for an artist to play- standing on the same stage following a pantheon as greats such as Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Freddie Mercury, Elton John and David Bowie.

The ambitious allure for the younger generation of artists is clear too-  this year Lil Nas X, Christine and The Queens, Caroline Polachek, Olivia Dean, Wet Leg, Rema and Maisie Peters all performed this summer, mixed in with institutions including Lionel Ritchie, Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy. I asked Jaton if he was worried about the capacity being on the smaller side, with the rise of stan culture, but he didn’t seem concerned, pointing out all the greats who had been before at the festival. I did wonder, with the re-emergence of Beatles-Mania-like-fandoms, if someone like One Direction alumni Harry Styles, or self-producing idol groups like BTS or Stray Kids rocked up to perform, would the charming shores of Montreux get swamped with feverish stans? They’re masters of co-ordinating ticket purchases, sleuthing exact ETA’s of artists and their locations, and the compactness of the festival would give them a lot less ground to cover. At least they would have a beautiful lake scene to look out on, whilst they wait for a glimpse of their fave.

The whole atmosphere around the festival is picturesque, with boat rides, lake swimming and sunbathing to be had too. Lausanne, the Olympic capital (complete with museum.) is a 20-minute train ride away, and there are numerous activities to take in all the splendour of Switzerland. Though the festival is the star, there is plenty in Montreux’s orbit for you to make it a full trip and have some down time, should you want it. 

There is plenty to do around the venue, before the acts take to the stage, including a lakeside stretch of delicious food stalls, bars and clubs and neon lights, where you can enjoy beverages and the bustle and some more music before and after the main act. Just walking along the lakeside promenade, marvelling at the sculptures, including Freddie Mercury statue, is a tonic in itself. The festival also lures you in from the waters, with the Lake House.

During the day they have a small cinema, and also the Bibliothèque, an extensive library where you can request music being played by Bullhorn System studio monitors and really get your music nerd on. During the evening, the Lake House host jamming sessions where you can sit and listen to musicians create together. It’s just a part of the many little pockets to enjoy at the festival, if big crowds aren’t your thing and part of the melodic flow of quieter moments that lead to euphoric crescendo moments. If you like things louder and longer, the water-front clubs, outdoor stages with dance and electronic sets offer you after-dark partying when the headliners have finished up. Though the heart of the festival is underneath the Auditorium Stravinski itself. 

Below ground, there were movie-set-grade Winnebago’s, for sound and film recording capacity, so good you could record a studio album in, or film a cinematic documentary of your set (something Nick Cave requested.) The auditorium’s equipment space holds tales of white Grande pianos being shipped from Zurich, and artists foregoing their favourite equipment in favour of Montreux’s superior musical offering. The team that put together the festival clearly care about their music, infused down from founder Claude Nobs, Geo Voumard and Rene Langel. The enthusiasm that Jaton and the team at Montreux was infectious- something that Audemars Piguet have caught.

The watch brand has partnered with the Claude Nobs Foundation and the Swiss Federal institute of Technology in Lausanne to digitise the entire sound archive, which has been recognised by UNESCO. After all, all the greats have performed here. It’s effectively part of music history that needs to be preserved. That’s the beauty of the festival, a mix of tradition, technology and innovation. The line-up seamlessly glides from Olivia Dean giving a goose-bump inducing performance of “Carmen” that is about her grandmother moving to the UK as part of the Windrush, generation to a roaringly joyous set from Gabriels before finishing off with an icy cool set from Loyle Carner- and that’s just in one stage in one evening. The final act this year came from a special performance from Mark Ronson, hosted by Audemars Piguet, curating musicians and collaborators that he holds dear for the final night crescendo of the festival.  

It’s clear there is some magic in the glittering waters of Lake Geneva, that keeps the crowds and artists alike flocking back every year.