Jazz In Marciac Festival: Day 3
Professionalism verses passion.
Debates about which is preferable exists in all professions. Fielding a smart quarterback who doesn't lose games or one who gambles to win. Promoting the disciplined or impulsive employee. Staying at the Hilton or Betty's Bed And Breakfast.
There's no clear-cut winner, although I confess a preference for the latter. But that's also meant rooting for the losing team in recent years, watching Brett Farve throw a few too many picks during key games.
So on a day dedicated to fusion at the Jazz In Marciac Festival, it was the unknown local rookie prevailing over all-star veterans on the personal scorecard.
Day three of the two-week festival in this small 13th century village in southwest France featured headline concerts by bassist Marcus Miller and the Soul Bop Band, the latter an all-star sextet led by trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bill Evans. Both attracted packed crowds numbering in the thousands and the Soul Bop Band in particular was a rousing audience hit. But a couple free performances in the village square by the Newtopia Quintet are far more likely to leave lasting memories.
I have heard better intellectual (a.k.a. latter-era) Yellowjackets-style fusion, but not lately nor can I remember recently seeing a group play it with the raw focus and intensity shown by Newtopia. Vast amounts of body English seemingly aimed more at seducing their instruments more than the crowd and glazed stares of utter concentration into space were alternating mannerisms of nearly all the players, who spent their pauses absorbing and rooting on bandmates.
This sort of thing is seen on stage all the time, of course, but like a Big Mac verses a $48 kobe beef burger there's huge differences in the quality and satisfaction resulting from similar ingredients.
Or, from a totally different perspective, while the Soul Bop concert too often felt like an extended commercial for their new CD, Newtopia doesn't have any.
Day three started in the usual fashion: arriving a bit late for the initial late-morning act (those post-midnight concerts and a couple hours' driving to and from bed does that). I caught only promising tidbits of something thoughtfully low-key by the Affinity Quartet and missed their early evening show thanks to some misunderstood directions resulting in an unplanned tour of the beach-like outdoor public swimming pool. Fortunately they're among the many bands playing multiple days, including an afternoon concert on day four. Also getting shafted later in the day to make deadline was a late afternoon show by the Nicolas Rageau Quartet. The bassist's group is also part of tomorrow's lineup.
One of the festival's better Dixie shows to date was the lunchtime set by the Mississippi Jazz Band, a southwest France sextet with strong harmonization featuring soloing often longer and more evolved in the jazz timeline than a stick-to-the-era mentality might produce. Alto saxophonist Jean Louis Laclavere spent a fair amount of time in swing/bop territory, the dense notes fitting well into minimal support such as a simple banjo vamp on a couple of slower pieces. Daniel Huck, also doing some work on sax, could have been in the Rollins era with up-tempo-but-lighthearted work that sparked a crowd clap-along at one point, although a more consistently appreciable contribution was his vocals that somehow had authentic accents of the Deep South and France simultaneously. Drummer Benoit Aufrete even took a brief tour of the modern era toward the end of the show, rumbling out a thick texture of toms and snares, followed by some fancy stick click work and a final walkup through the range of his gear.
After the usual 90-minute afternoon siesta - anything but quiet as the Batuque Usina African percussion group took its daily show of marching thunder around the town square - it was time for the Newtopia Quintet.
Their hour-long show consisted largely a four-part "Suite Elegiaque," which saxophonist and band leader Raphael Imbert said he composed to capture feelings associated with death.
"There is a feeling when you lost somebody very important, and this year and a few years before I has occasion to relate to that," he said in an interview. "I wanted to compose something for healing."
Imbert said his influences include John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Albert Ayler, but his compositions are more contemporary as he tries to communicate some of those ideas to today's audiences.
"Jazz has a great context in modern art, and in France we have a problem with that because people think jazz is for clubs and jazz is for swing," he said.
An instructor at the Conservatoire De Marseille, the oldest jazz education institute in France, Imbert formed Newtopia with students of his. They earned a space at the Marciac festival by winning this year's Concours National de Jazz de La Défense competition in Paris against more than 80 other bands.
"It is the most important jazz contest in France," Imbert said.
The suite opened with Imbert doing some drawn-out, freeform-like tones to a not-quite predictable vamp, with pianist Yaron Herman bringing in ascending tension with head- down intensity. Imbert's opening solo was lengthy and mournful, repeating occasional phrases for the tension's sake, but taking mournful low wails and escalating their pitch and frequency in two-steps-forward-one-back fashion. A deaf person probably could have followed the general concept merely through his bend, twist and foot-in-the-air body English.
The composition visited everything from chamber jazz to post-bop, generally figuring out some way to evolve into dark postmodern lyricism. Herman worked his way between gallop-like hits, riffing and running-scale flurries during one swing passage, alternating sitting and standing while doing so. Bassist Simon Pailleux exchanged some heavy unaccompanied thudding for gentle sustained-note bending before Herman rejoined with a simple vamp that others gradually rejoined and vastly expanded in vocabulary. There were few dull moments and very little to fault other than lacking an overall roadmap to sense which climactic buildup was indeed the pinnacle.
They didn't lose anything during their evening show, which I took in at listening distance in a cafe while catching up on the day's writing. As such I can't say for certain if an encore of the suite was part of the set, but some evolving long-form work was definitely involved.
It set a high bar heading to the main stage. Adding to the pressure, the Owi Quintet, which lit things up impressively in the town square the afternoon of day two, was playing a pretty good fusion/funk jam that had a crowd forming a line outside a cafe on the way there.
One can't say they didn't come out with all guns firing.
The Soul Bop Band was in high-speed rock fusion mode from the opening beat and seldom let up for its nearly two-hour show. Brecker's debut was the kind of machine-gun stuff a transcriber would need a Maxtrix-like time freeze to capture. Evans on tenor spent his opening solo firing short bursts of notes that constructed their own separate line, adding further complexity by working different ones in the lower and higher registers. They then traded a bunch of shots, playing around visually as well as audibly, before guitarist Hirum Bullock came in with his classic rock-tinged note and chord crunching.
One got the feeling these guys didn't feel any need to make a statement. Someone could have plugged a drum machine doing a non-stop four-beat drone into the amplifier and they'd have jammed until somebody cut off the power.
And so it went for the entire show. It was unquestionably an "A" performance by an all- star cast in glitter wrapping. It was 45 minutes before they played anything resembling a ballad - "Let's Pretend" - with keyboardist Dave Kikoski enhancing some familiar-feeling lines with a bit of extra drama and tonal deviation, following it up in a similar but deeper vein a few songs later on "Soul Bop." Otherwise their overwhelming intent seemed to be sending the crowd home (or to the second concert) happy. Bullock, for instance, drew a roar for working a slightly warped James Bond theme into "Don't Tease Me" and an even louder one for his into-the-crowd solo on the finale, relying on sustain effects and some deft aerobic maneuvers to keep it going while dealing with the task of getting back on stage.
How could one possibly find fault?
Well there was, for instance, something vaguely off about their playing only tunes from their new live double CD and constantly referring to it being for sale. Granted, the line to get autographed copies afterward might have finally exceeded the ones for the too-scarce restrooms, but there was a nagging sense of being a cog on the tour stop more than a listener.
Also, while the Bond licks were anything but representative of the players' artistic scope, reliance on such tricks and easy-to-follow repeating licks are more fast-food satisfaction than meat-and-potatoes nourishment. It was easy to appreciate their professionalism, but hard to feel touched by it.
If they represented the fire portion of modern fusion, then Marcus Miller was the ice.
Much of the work was similar funk/fusion thinking, but with a more casual sense in their mannerisms and performance. It wasn't quite the adrenaline rush of the Soul Bop Band, but close in terms of overall quality in other ways. The commercial element mostly took a pass and there was an emphasis on compositional diversity - Miller noted they played Stevie Wonder, Beethoven and Jimmy Hendrix during the opening songs alone.
Maybe I've just heard Miller's recent live albums too often, or I just prefer less dense work he's done in his early days, but too much of what I heard had a too-familiar feel. The you- play-a-phrase-and-I'll-repeat-it exchanges with saxophonist Keith Anderson "Moonlight Sonta" has turned into one of my least favorite forms of audience pandering. And there's no question Miller's a virtuoso at every slap bass technique known to man but - like the earlier show - seeing him prove it time and again didn't convey anything new.
In that vein, some of the best moments came when Miller broke the mold doing things like playing baritone clarinet on one ballad (my bad for not catching the name), where hearing the delicate beauty of his lines on a less familiar instrument conveyed a sense of intimacy that's easier to connect with than simply watching a pro do what he knows best.
But overall his band certainly gave the audience what they wanted and did so well. It's at those times I feel something akin to a milk bucket under a bull, not sure what I expect such groups to come in and do. So you won't hear me say either featured act was a surpar show - and hopefully that's not a cop-out - simply a day when the unexpected scored a victory over the familiar.
Coming on day four: A smorgasbord of styles including the Blind Boys Of Alabama.