The Jazz.com Blog
August 12, 2009 · 0 comments
Anyone who keeps tabs on the thriving jazz scene in Europe can't help comparing the diversity and excitement of their festivals with the watered-down crossover fare that is now dominating the US festival circuit. Thierry Quénum reports below on the latest Paris festival, where the promoters aren't afraid of taking chances. T.G.
Among the hundreds of jazz festivals that France hosts during the summer (only second to Italy, as far as Europe is concerned), there is one that deserves to be singled out, and not only because it takes place in the capital. The Paris Jazz Festival possesses many idiosyncrasies that make him a special case, and with a new managing team at its head for the next few years, it has even increased its singularity.
First, it is not restricted to a one or two week period but takes place every weekend during the months of June and July. Second the concerts are not scheduled at night but in the afternoon, two (sometimes three) each Saturday and Sunday. Third, in spite of its name, it isn’t really located inside Paris but in the beautiful Parc Foral de la Ville de Paris, just outside of the Bois de Vincennes, facing the huge, historical Château de Vincennes with its famous dungeon—where some 18th century philosophers used to be offered a cool lonely vacation when our beloved kings didn’t find their writings appropriate.
Would the kings or the philosophers have appreciated the sound of jazz music coming from the Parc Floral? Maybe not more than the roar of the metro that brings thousands of listeners to the Paris Jazz Festival every weekend, and especially so when the sun shines. For the PJF takes place outdoors, as you’ll have understood, and is free once you’ve paid the 5 € entrance fee to the Parc Floral. This will allow you to walk along the lanes and enjoy the fragrances of a great diversity of flowers and blossoms, or to picnic with your friends or family, or to take a nap on the lawns while listening to live music. In a city like Paris, where public parks are rare and tiny, that’s a bargain you can hardly refuse, whether you’re a local enjoying his weekend break or a tourist visiting the capital.
This summer, the daring new team that was chosen by the Paris Cultural Authority to program the PJF made a bold move as far as musical choices are concerned. A move that might have been made much earlier, given the privileged situation of the PJF: heavily sponsored, close to two airports and several railway stations where speed trains run to and from international destinations, liable to welcome the jazz fans of a city of several millions and of its surroundings, plus hundreds of jazz buffs visiting the world capital of tourism.
What did this programming team do, then? They invited European neighbors to play in a French summer festival! Take a look at the program of your typical French jazz festival during the summer, be it held in a small village away from the main roads, in a beach resorts like Vannes, in Brittany, or in Vienne, close to France’s second biggest city, Lyon, right on the motorway that tourists from Northern France, and Northern Europe at large, take to reach their sunny goals on the French Riviera, the Languedoc coast, or even Spain. On these programs you’ll find US blockbusters, of course, French veterans and some young and upcoming national stars too, you’ll have a gospel mass on Sunday and a blues night sometime during the week because you cannot forget the roots. You’ll have some world music too since it wouldn’t be politically correct to forget the “cousins” from Africa, Asia, or the Balkans. You’ll have some Gipsy jazz too because everybody likes it even if they don’t particularly like jazz, and there’s good chance you’ll have a “Vocal Jazz Night” for the same reasons.
So, after all, it’s not difficult to program a French jazz festival: just look at the DTP (Diary of Tours in Progress) and mark the groups that correspond to the above mentioned categories and will drive or ride by your French country village/beach resort/big town on their way to another French country village/beach resort/big town. Make sure, of course, that they don’t play their next gig closer than, let’s say 200kms from your festival during the same week, and the trick is done.
One sees, though, that with this type of festivals European musicians who are neither Gypsy nor from the Balkans had better find work at home during the summer if they don’t want to starve to death. As for the audiences who, by some summer miracle, become receptive to live jazz as soon as they are on holiday, there’s good chance that they’ll come back home with clichés making them believe that the only people who produce jazz music are the US, the French and the Gypsies.
Of course the PJF didn’t devise an exclusively European program. One can both be daring and original and indulge in some crowd-pleasing type of music. But one can do it intelligently. Among the eight weekends that the PJF lasted, one was devoted to Gypsy music, another one to African music and a third one to the blues. But each time the groups chosen or the mix of the afternoon was stimulating: US lap steel guitar player and singer Pura Fé played before French harmonica wizard Jean-Jacques Milteau, French gypsy guitar hero Bireli Lagrène before the Kocani Orchestar, a very rooted dance band from Macedonia, and French drummer Stéphane Huchard played his “African Tribute to Art Blakey” — that added two African hand percussionists to his hard bop quintet — the day before Malian keyboardist and arranger Cheick Tidiane Seck stepped on stage with a modern African group that was close to those he gathered to record and play with Hank Jones or Dee Dee Bridgewater a couple of years ago.
How about European jazz, then? Everything started with a Belgian weekend that gave a large room to French and US artists (Belgians are traditionally open, and the PJF hosted some American musicians too, you see). 26 years old saxophonist Robin Verheyen, who hails from Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) but presently lives in New York, displayed his beautifully creative tenor and soprano sound fronting the trio he leads with Bill Carrothers: a tightly knit combo completed by Carrothers’s usual rhythm team when he plays in Europe — and Verheyen’s fellow citizens — bassist Nic Thys and drummer Dré Pallemaerts.
Maria Schneider often comes to Europe alone for master classes or to conduct local bands that want to play her music. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra is one of her favorite, and the Belgian big band — one of Europe’s best — obviously acquires a new sonic dimension under Schneider’s leadership. This band not only hosts some of Belgium’s best instrumentalists (altoist and musical director Franck Vaganée, Kurt Van Herck and Bart Defoort on tenor sax, Bo Van Der Werf on baritone sax, Serge Plume on trumpet or pianist Nathalie Loriers — all of them leaders on their own right) but it has specialized in playing the repertoire of invited soloists or composers like Philip Catherine, Bert Joris, Kenny Werner, Michel Herr or Toots Thielemans. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra’s PJF concert with Maria Schneider confirmed its high level of musicianship and its adaptability.
On Sunday, a musician that one often hears but seldom on his own was scheduled, and having him play his music in trio truly was an original choice. Dutch pianist Diederik Wissels has lived in Belgium since his teenage years and has been associated with singer David Linx from then on. They have played and recorded so much together that one tends to forget that Wissels is not only a great accompanist but has his own impressionistic musical world. He showed it in a very convincing way on the stage of the PJF. The following group, Octurn, has often played Paris, but never during a summer festival. It is a perfect example of Belgian/French cooperation with an original repertoire composed by the members of the tentet that includes Gilbert Nouno, a specialist in electronics applied to music who, like some other members of Octurn, worked with Steve Coleman during the last few years.
Two weeks later, Italy was the star of the PJF, and not the most famous bands either nor those playing the most clichéd music. Trombonist Gianluca Petrella — who won a Downbeat critic’s poll a couple of years ago — is a star in his country and records on the Italian branch of Blue Note. He’s not unknown to French audiences, but each time his trombone/tenor quartet plays its half rough half mellow mix of originals and standards that seem to encompass the whole history of jazz, it wins new followers. Indeed, it’s hard to resist the instrumental bravado with a Mediterranean edge of this Indigo 4tet. Pianist Rita Marcotulli’s Italian-British band displays less of a typically “south of the border” (from a French viewpoint) sound, but it’s especially evident when this artist pays an homage to the music of the Pink Floyd. Musica Nuda is an Italian vocal & bass duet that’s so popular in France that the local branch of Blue Note recently signed it. It also has lot of pop music in its repertoire, from the Beatles to the Police, but the way it deals with it is so far from jazz that one sometime wonders about the relevance of their presence in a jazz festival.
On the contrary, young trumpet star Fabrizio Bosso (again a member of the Italian Blue Note stable) and veteran piano/accordion wizard Antonelo Salis are rare gems who cross generations, boldly blending tradition and daring modernity with a matching gift for pyrotechnical virtuosity and a typically Italian sensitivity. Francesco Bearzatti, who’d played tenor the day before in the Indigo 4tet, was to be heard again on this Sunday afternoon with a French/Italian organ trio that he’s had for a couple of years with keyboardist Emmanuel Bex and drummer Simon Goubert, two mainstays of the French jazz scene who are bathed in the hard bop to modal idioms and never say no to a new adventurous musical endeavor.
Two weeks later, again, Austria was the invited European country. Though the Saturday’s first group was hip cornet player and vocalist Médéric Collignon’s quartet playing an homage to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew— interesting, but again an homage which seems to be what nowadays young musicians favor most — the greatest expectation was raised by the Vienna Art Orchestra’s new program, titled “Third Dream.” Arguably the most famous European large orchestra, the VAO didn’t really try to revive the “third stream” of Gunther Schuller or John Lewis, but its new line up mixed jazz and classical musicians who played a virtuoso and often beautiful, but sometimes rather stiff original music, sounding half way between jazz and classical music, and composed by its leader Mathias Rüegg.
The classical influence was again present the next day with the Radio String Quartet, a Viennese ensemble that’s at ease with classical, contemporary and jazz music, and has recorded and played a lot — as it did on this Sunday afternoon — with Austrian accordion virtuoso Klaus Paier. The last band of this week end was French again, but its leader is very familiar with Mathias Rüegg and has even recorded some of his compositions in the past. Pianist and arranger Jean-Christophe Cholet has led his Diagonal tentet for about ten years and made its repertoire evolve from Balkanic music through British/Irish sounds to the present “French Touch” program, which it recorded last year. Diagonal is obviously one of the most original and interesting semi-big bands in the country, and it was high time it played a big summer festival.
The rest of the month was mostly devoted to French bands as diverse as trumpeter Erik Truffaz’s groove oriented quartet, cellist Vincent Courtois’s band that mixes acoustic instruments, voice and electronics, sax player and arranger Alban Darche’s big band Le Gros Cube playing a double homage to film noir and to the music of pop band Queen—or the highly innovative and iconoclastic drums/cello duet Bumcello, whose members Cyril Atef and Vincent Segal invited for the occasion Nathalie Natiembé, a vocalist from the French Reunion island, way out in the Indian Ocean. These sounds rejoiced the casual audience of the Parc Floral, but yours truly cannot tell you much about them: he’d gone south to check on other trees, plants and flowers, growing on the mountains and by the sea, and — for a change — away from the familiar noise of jazz music.
This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum