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Live Reviews

Jazz In Marciac Festival: Day 8

By Published: August 14, 2005
The worst thing you can do to a funny guy is introduce him as such.

Letting him crack a joke out of the blue is more likely to induce guffaws than if everyone's waiting for him to crack them up. It's part of that social quirk known as The Expectations Game, where presidential candidates lose primaries but "win" by exceeding poll predictions and two students with "B" report cards get adulation/horsewhipped by their respective parents.

Which brings this rambling rant to Phil Woods.

I've spent more than a decade trying to figure out his essentially permanent ownership of Downbeat's annual critics' choice poll for best alto saxophonist. No question the guy's great and way beyond my limited jazz comprehension, but best man on the planet? After auditioning albums, televised performances and other soundings I couldn't put him at that stratospheric level. Maybe I'm a generation past him, but my finalists include guys like John Zorn and Chris Potter who, to my ears, possess considerably more range and firepower.

Day eight of the 28th annual Jazz In Marciac Festival meant seeing the icon in person and possibly settling the internal debate.

A trio of concerts honoring Charlie Parker was the main event on a day when things were otherwise a bit slow and unremarkable following a generally impressive weekend of local and imported talent. My notes from the daytime shows were the shortest to date, not a good sign since I'm more likely to devote time to unfamiliar artists of note than clever phrases panning musicians listeners have never heard of and aren't likely to seek out. (Yes, slams often are a more entertaining read and I hardly consider myself squeamish, but when the effort has added value by warning readers about something they might fall victim to).

That said, vocalist Habiba Jonic Kanazir put on a decent show of standards and blues such as "My Foolish Heart" and "Honeysuckle Rose" with her quartet. It was mid-range Holliday/ Fitzgerald/Vaughn stuff without great range, but unlike a disappointing show of such material on the main stage by Sara Lazarus during the weekend there was a conveyance of intimacy, soul and interplay - not to mention no expectations of the kind preceding the festival's main act by Wynton Marsalis.

The Barret-Lazarevitch Quintet also had their moments on compositions that seemed to evolve from freeform fusion and modernistic into more traditional up-tempo bodies for soloing. Tenor saxophonist Eric Barrett stood out constructing lengthy ideas using thick Shorter-like snippets over some provocative come-and-go chaos from subsections of the group. Pianist Philippe Leoge also secured the first spot in my notes for someone infusing at least shadings of Chick Corea into a moderately lively bit of fusion and Lyle Mays into a more sedate composition. A subsequent performance by the Damon Brown Quintet was enjoyable in a similar vein, if not quite hitting the tension and individual accomplishment of Barrett's group.

At the very least the timing was right for the night's opening featured concert by Stefano Di Battista following his recent release of the tribute album Parker's Mood, which earned solid, if not great, reviews. His up-tempo numbers on the album got better acclaim than the ballads and much of the Marciac show played to this strength.

The opening "Night In Tunisia" also captured some of Parker's whimsical stage mannerisms, with bassist Rosario Bonaccorso scatting wordlessly in reasonable harmony over his bass solo, and Di Battista ending the piece with some playful phrasing and exchanged clownish glances with drummer Andre "Dede" Ceccarelli. Di Battista delivered a more serious high-register workout on "Laura" and got even more thoughtful by going into Coltrane territory on soprano sax on "Resolution." The bop flair returned on "Donna Lee," with Di Battista doing mostly wind sprints with few pauses, then ended with a bit more crowd play by getting the crowd to sing along on the choruses during an encore performance of "Mack The Knife."

With only five songs during a concert lasting a bit more than an hour it may not have matched the short form of Bird's recordings, but the extended treatments allowed his essence to be captured while adding enough evolution to offer a sense of it being the beginning of the players' vocabulary, not the end. One didn't necessarily come away awestruck, but it was a solid and enjoyable blowing session.

For Woods to legitimize "best alto sax on the planet" accolades in my mind, obviously more was needed.

It didn't happen.

As with every other time I've heard his work, I found myself wishing I'd never been bombarded with the raves in the first place. The concert with his quartet and a string ensemble from the nearby city of Toulouse was solid, if lower-key and less of a tribute to Bird than Di Battista's performance, with nearly everything coming together in pleasing yet intellectual nourishing fashion. But it's also why a show successful on a basic level can still disappoint in that fiendish expectations thing.

Some of it may have been the more arranged nature imparted by the strings, which were more prominent than a similar show by Wynton Marsalis a few days earlier. Some members of the ensemble performed short solos, and there was greater compositional and visual interaction between them and Woods, who was seated so he was playing to them as much as the crowd. He opened "Just Friends" with a balance and intellect of phrasing that carried through much of the night, but there wasn't a great deal that felt particularly lively or bop-like.

Then again, Woods wasn't necessarily seeking a close emulation of the Bird from start to finish.

"This song as far as I know has never been recorded by Charlie Parker," Woods said during the introduction of "The Thrill Is Gone." "That's why this is called 'Charlie Parker With Strings And More.' This is part of the 'more' part."

Woods may have been out-Parkered during a guest appearance by Jesse Davis on "Repetition." Everybody took advantage of a longer treatment than many of the night's 10 songs to stretch and loosen up a bit, but Davis' alto sax seemed to play quicker, over a greater range and with more punctuation than Woods. Drummer Douglas Sides also stood out on the tune, doing a fairly even-volume full-kit workout to some quirky flute accents and ensemble punctuation toward the end.

But if the show had a more sedate feel, some of Parker's whimsy came on the encore "Weep Willow For Me" which, after Woods said he really didn't feel like getting weepy, was played to the cadence of an up-tempo "All Blues."

None of this is meant to indicate it was a disappointing show - in fact, I hardly consider this a knowledgeable assessment. And that's the problem. Every time I hear Woods I think it's me - there's something I'm not getting in whatever it is elevating him from accomplished to elite status. Some day I'd love to spend an hour with him discussing his style and philosophy at a level I understand, so I'm truly hearing his music instead of just listening to it.

The finale by the Charlie Parker Legacy Band was one of a handful during the festival with a motivation-killing "around 1 a.m." start time, although it may have gone on earlier, given the relatively short preceding shows. There was no way I planned on staying for it, especially given the next night's lineup - featuring a true contender for the baddest alto on Earth in my judgment, playing with the group seemingly best suited to his strengths.

Coming up on day nine: Another sweet regional find, plus the overwhelming agony/ ecstasy of John Zorn.

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