Big bands, we in the lower forty-eight are often told, are dead news that apparently hasn’t reached Canada, Europe and some areas of the Far East where big bands are not only very much alive, but stronger and more resilient than ever. Germany and Japan are especially well-stocked, and almost every country in Europe (including the UK, of course) boasts one or more world-class ensembles within its borders, most of whom are working steadily, or at least often enough to keep their heads above water. In France, where pianist Claude Bolling’s band has kept the flag flying for many years, the scene has been enhanced by the recent emergence of the impressive Paris Jazz Big Band. This group's contemporary point of view serves as a bracing alternative to Bolling’s more traditional swing-centered approach. The PJBB, which for purposes of comparison is more akin to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra or perhaps Bill Holman’s band than, say, Basie or the Boss Brass, is co-led by saxophonist Pierre Bertrand and trumpeter Nicolas Fulmer whose compositions and arrangements comprise the nucleus of its inaugural albums, À Suivre!
Bertrand quickly puts his audience in a cheerful frame of mind on À Suivre! with the bright samba “Oublie Ça l’Amie,” which precedes three more of his compositions including the album’s lone vocal, by guest artist Peter Kingsbery who croons (in English) his lyrics to “A Lifetime” (which seems almost that long before he’s done). Folmer wrote four of the last five numbers (“Ballade pour Mumu,” “Victor,” “Le Prisonnier,” “Tony Blues”), while Bertrand arranged Zool Fleischer’s charming “Deux Choses l’Une.” Bertrand (tenor) and pianist Eric Legnini are superb on Bertrand’s lyrical “Incertitude,” Folmer (muted), clarinetist Stéphane Chausse and guest conguero Orlando Poleo likewise on the rhythmically agile “Biguine.” Legnini is showcased again on “Deux Choses,” soprano saxophonist Sylvain Beuf on Folmer’s enchanting “Ballade.” Beuf switches to tenor to solo again, this time with Folmer, on the easygoing swinger, “Victor.” After introducing elements of the avant-garde into his eight-part mini-suite, “Le Prisonnier,” Folmer reverses course and charts a Basie-like groove on “Tony Blues” to underscore eloquent solos by trumpeter Tony Russo, alto saxophonist Hervé Meschinet and drummer André Ceccarelli (whose splendid work throughout mustn’t be overlooked). With the possible exception of Kingsbery’s largely tedious rock-style vocal (those who agree may use the “skip” button), A Suivre! is consistently impressive from end to end and easily recommended.
On Mediterraneo, the PJBB pays its respects to the historic wellspring and ethnic melting-pot that connects western Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East by presenting a series of evocative themes by Folmer, Bertrand and guest accordionist Richard Galliano whose “Heavy Tango,” sculpted in the epic image of maestro Astor Piazzolla, is enchanting, his sweeping “Escota” (with brief narrative by Ceccarelli) bright and (poly)rhythmic. “Tango” comes hard on the heels of the frisky opener, Folmer’s contrapuntally rich “Buleria” (a showcase for guest guitarist Louis Winsberg), and precedes two stylish works by the trumpeter, “Miró” and “Cataluña,” the first featuring flutist Meschinet, the second trombonist Denis Leloup. Bertrand’s “Valse,” on which his graceful tenor saxophone is spotlighted with bassist Stéphane Kerecki, is a Gallic-flavored dance that leads without pause to “Escola,” on which Galliano shines, and Folmer’s charming “Estérel” whose soloists are soprano Stéphane Guillaume and pianist Alfio Origlio. Bertrand wrote (and Winsberg arranged) “Haut de Cagnes,” a brief but melodious dwelling-place for Winsberg’s guitar and Origlio’s piano that gives way to Bertrand’s smart and sunny “Impatience” (solos by Origlio and trombonist Gueorgiu Kornazov). Folmer uses text by the Greek writer Nikos Aliagas for “Les Enfants d’Ulysse,” an homage to Aris Fakinos on which he plays piano and provides spoken commentary. Chausse’s full-blooded clarinet is front and center on Bertrand’s darkly shaded “Little Mama,” Meschinet’s sensuous alto saxophone on the equally wistful “For J.K” (on which Origlio’s piano is far too prominently recorded). The PJBB moves southward to Africa for the last two numbers, Folmer’s “Ifrikiya” (co-written with Ceccarelli) and “Derbouka,” the first buoyant and brassy, the second meteoric and muscular. As on À Suivre!” the charts are magnifique, the ensemble formidable, the soloists très enchanté. Another album we can endorse without pause.
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