If the Great Salt Lake is the ultimate vacation disaster for slugs, Marciac might be the equivalent for ducks.
There are more fois gras stands in this southwest region of France than Seattle has coffee shops, along with plenty of other ways to purchase waterfowl in various sliced, canned and pureed ways. Forget beer and hot dogs - concert fare here is duck livers on brochette accompanied by area vintages.
A sense of dual culture shock was the dominant first impression for this newcomer at the 28th Annual Jazz In Marciac Festival, a two-week event featuring a large roster of top-name acts descending on a remote village of only 1,200 people. The main acts possess the glitz and crowds of the world's biggest festivals, numerous less-known acts throughout the village offer the intimacy and regional exposure of small events, and contrasts of everyday life seem to magnify during a festival with a total attendance of about 180,000.
Marciac, located amidst rolling hills in farming country about a two-hour drive from the airport in Toulouse, is a town dating back to 1298 that possess a sophisticated ruggedness. What Americans might consider four-star food and wines exist at seemingly at every tiny cafe and even many food vendor stands. But most buildings don't have air conditioning despite occasionally lethal heat, public Internet access is nearly nonexistent, hotels are scarce and the public facilities in the town square are squat toilets. If experiencing France via Paris is the equal of New York City, then Marciac is the tiny Napa Valley town of Rutherford, Calif.
The festival was created in 1978 by Bill Coleman, Jean-Louis Guilhaumon and Guy Lafitte, and is part of a strong jazz presence in the community. The middle school taught the first jazz lessons recognized by France's education department and the "Territoires du Jazz" museography in an old abbey on Chevalier d'Antras square is an audio-visual tour of jazz from its African origins to present.
This year's lineup between August 1 and 15 includes Wynton Marsalis (a regular billed as the "godfather" of the festival), Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter, John Zorn, Marcus Miller, Randy Brecker, Kenny Barron and many others just among the headliners. The range is styles is highly diverse, as evidenced by the main opening night reggae/world concerts by Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben Jor.
(On a personal note, I took in opening day highly disorientated thanks to a series of travel and other mishaps bordering on comical. So all shortcomings in this article beyond those as a relative newbie festival writer are acknowledged. Also, I'm a bit out of my area of familiarity when it comes to worldbeat; with any luck better assessments will come when more jazz-oriented heavy hitters take the stage starting later this week.)
Opening day got off to something less than festival organizers and participants might have hoped, as heavy rain soaked through the performance tent in the town square. Previous late-night happenings meant missing the debut 11 am town center performance by the Spirit of Swing sextet - a likely fate for most morning shows - but they are scheduled to perform an afternoon concert on day two and should be part of that overview.
Swiss vocalist Sandy Patton did her best to counter the rainy gloom early in the afternoon, displaying a wide range of disciplined scat on standards ranging from a low and husky "Over The Rainbow" to some well-coordinated interaction with drummer Michele Santastazzio on a couple of pieces including "I'm Beginning To See The Light." Pianist Norbert Grisot soothed more than jolted, but thoughtfully with few cliches. It was a fitting afternoon debut, solid and widely appealing, not revolutionary, with a second early evening show offering similar fare.
French guitarist/pianist Tony Petrucciani (apparently well-known pianist Michel's father) was too low-key with his trio to effectively compete with the noontime downpour, but easier to appreciate under merely overcast skies during a second show between Patton's appearances. Less intriguing than Patton, there was still enough variety in the mostly laid-back set to keep listeners from complacency, including bassist Louis Petrucciani's discordant bowing to Tony Petrucciani's straight support on one bluesy piece, where the guitarist also impressed with some not-quite-straight solo run-ups of both notes and chords. Patton contributed some low straightforward vocals as a guest on "Misty," with Tony Petrucciani switching between piano and hollow-body guitar, offering fitting lyricism on each.