The Jazz.com Blog
November 18, 2008 · 0 comments
Thierry Quénum covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a frequent contributor to these pages. Quénum writes for Jazz Magazine and other periodicals, and is a jury member for the Django D’Or (France) and the European Jazz Prize (Austria). Below he shares his thoughts on the opening weekend of the ongoing Jazzdor Festival in Strasbourg. T.G.
France doesn’t just have jazz festivals in the summer and on its beaches. The fall is also a busy period all over the country. From Perpignan, in the south, to Toulouse, in the southwest, to Nevers, in the center, to Paris and up to Strasbourg, in the northeast, France displays an impressive diversity of events that, since they are not mainly focused on the tourist audience, often offer daring programs.
Of this trend, Jazzdor is a good case in point. This festival started out in a small jazz club 23 years ago. The event lasted only 3 days back then. Now it covers Strasbourg itself and a dozen smaller cities in its neighborhood and lasts two weeks. Due to the closeness of Germany, just over the Rhine river, Jazzdor also was the first French jazz festival to cross a border and organize concerts with fellow German cultural institutions.
This may seem to be just normal for a city that, besides being the capital of the Alsace region, hosts the European Parliament and was a major cultural and university center even before Gutenberg settled close to its beautiful pink stones cathedral with the brand new printing machine he’d invented, back in the 15th century. Still Philippe Ochem, Jazzdor’s director for the last two decades, has fought hard to bring his festival to the level of creativity and international renown that it now has among artists worldwide, and among audiences more than 100 kms around Strasbourg.
The first weekend of Jazzdor’s 23rd edition was based in town, but it displayed a good sample of what the overall program would be during the following days in other places, including Offenburg in Germany. Here one encountered mostly European musicians—including many artists debuting music that had never been played in France before—and lots of full houses. The last factor is partly due to the trust local audiences have developed in Ochem’s artistic choices and also partly due to the inexpensive students passes that Jazzdor offers to reach younger listeners.
Das Kapital is a Danish / German / French trio based in Paris. Hasse Poulsen plays the guitar, Daniel Erdmann the tenor and soprano saxes, Edward Perraud is the drummer. Their performance, called “Lenin on Tour,” was a first in France and has them playing along with a silent documentary that shows three huge stone busts—one of them Lenin’s, of course—traveling through Europe on a trailer. The trio devised a magical soundtrack for this strange road movie, playing witty counterpoints to the images or totally ignoring them to build their own musical journey. The journey ends with “The International,” the communist party’s hymn, played in a tender and ironical way . . . that may have led the trio to some tiny cell way back then.
Another trio followed in the same auditorium, Swiss / German / American, this time: drummer Daniel Humair, pianist Joachim Kühn and Tony Malaby on tenor sax. These three have just issued a remarkable record in France a couple of months ago, Full Contact, but their concert was disappointing— partly due to sound problems that must have affected their morale. This, of course, doesn’t lessen the respect one has for such artists. It can only remind us that improvisation is a fragile art and that a real jazz concert can never be the mere copy of the record.
The next two days, in a smaller auditorium called Pôle Sud, typical Jazzdor French / German programs took place. Again audiences encountered live music for a silent movie: Berlin—die Symphonie des Großstadt (Berlin—the symphony of the big city), a 1927 Walter Ruttmann’s masterwork from the German expressionnist period. Playing along this classic were two pianists—Berlin-based veteran Alexander von Schlippenbach, and his wife Japanese born Aki Takase—with their son DJ Illvibe at the turntables. Trying to catch the atmosphere of this fascinating movie—which shows Berlin from the busy hours of the morning to the height of it’s crazy nightlife—the pianos summoned up memories of Harlem stride masters, of Monk, and the free jazz of which Schlippenbach and Takase have been active exponents. In the meantime, DJ Illvibe efficiently injected his creative sounds in the flow of notes that escaped from the two pianos.
The next band, Tous Dehors (“Everybody outside”—a play on words on the name of its leader and multi-reed player Laurent Dehors), was celebrating its tenth birthday. Over the years this band has built a reputation of liveliness and virtuosity, mixing its own repertoire with iconoclastic covers of Bizet’s Carmen or Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But music and humor (at least too much of it) don’t always fit together, and their succession of small pieces played with a wealth of instruments (from bagpipe to marimba through accordion and harpsichord) and covering a huge diversity of styles (from dixieland to rock & roll via Ellington) definitely lacked focus.
After that, Berlin based drummer Oliver Seidle’s Soko Seidle quartet came across, by contrast, as a bunch of purists. They played acoustic instruments, without any amplification and, believe it or not, none of them played more than one instrument: alto sax, bass clarinet, bass and drums. Still their music was full of energy, and the message it delivered was very convincing. They showed that it is still possible nowadays to follow the path of Ornette and Dolphy and still create fresh music. Even if this concert didn’t totally avoid clichés, there couldn’t be any doubt about the dedication and sincerity of the members of Soko Seidle.
Louis Sclavis concluded this week end with his usual art of juggling with his own clichés. As a clarinet player, sax player and as a leader, Sclavis is certainly the best known modern French jazz musician outside of the country. In the last few years, his manner hasn’t changed much as far as writing and soloing is concerned. Maxime Delpierre on guitar, Matthieu Metzger on alto sax and Olivier Lété on electric bass showed that once again Sclavis has made good choices among the new generation of promising young French musicians. Their energy and creativity, supported by long time Sclavis companion drummer François Merville, proved instrumental in the success of a typical Sclavis show.
Between these two sets of concerts, Sylvie Courvoisier played an intimate solo at Strasbourg’s Modern Art Museum. This pianist definitely has a unique conception of her instrument and builds a world of her own with it. Her virtuosity never shows off. Whether she plays an ostinato inside the strings or displays a delicate touch on the keyboard, everything Courvoisier does is part of a coherent vision of the tune. As a composer of the instant, she organizes lush sound textures with rare intensity.
After this initial weekend, Jazzdor was to carry on for almost two weeks in Alsace and Germany, and it’s always a surprise to see how much this festival manages to fill auditoriums in town and villages while presenting a program mostly based on contemporary jazz and European groups. Yet visitors from overseas are also coming to Jazzdor this year: Rudresh Mahanthappa with Vijay Iyer, Fat Kid Wednesday and Matthew Shipp, as well the featured artist at the concluding concert of the festival, Dianne Reeves. The rate of reservations already assured the organizers that this deliberately popular concert was going to play to a full house too.
This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum.