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Live Reviews

Jazz In Marciac Festival: Days 14-15 and "Best Of" Awards

By Published: August 26, 2005
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10-11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14-15

It turns out the "bodily death" of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, has never been "dogmatically defined...and accordingly it is not a theological error to hold that...she did not die at all."

This explains why they're playing one last day of jazz on Monday in Marciac.

The Feast Of The Assumption, based on theologies Mary either died and went to Heaven or simply made it there unscathed, is a national holiday in many countries on August 15, including France. Thus a final round of concerts by regional artists on what normally would be a back-to-work day for those attending some or all of the two weeks of concerts in this small 700-year-old village.

The concerts Sunday and Monday came after the big-name acts left town, and there was a sense of winding down, especially with Monday's shows ending early in the evening. There weren't any remarkable debuts from new artists, but a couple of popular bands proved capable of sustaining enthusiasm for several performances and one secured a spot in the totally meaningless "best and worst" festival awards below.

By the time I figured the significance of Monday's holiday out I missed what logically may have been the day's main event, a morning trio concert led by gospel singer Janice Harrington at the Eglise De Marciac. The day's other performances were much like a similar "wrap-up" day on Sunday, a mixed bag in both type and quality.

Among the new acts the Paul Cheron Sextet did a decent series of classic Dixie performances, more substance than shiny, although lacking some of the vocal and percussion touches from the best festival bands playing similar music. Another new Dixie act, the Tommy Sancton Quartet, took things a bit higher thanks to Sancton's husky mid- to low-range vocals on blue-collar songs like "Honky Tonk Town" and clarinet that often hit bop pacing on solos. Pianist David Paquette backed things with thicker chords than typical for such pieces and drummer Jean-Luc Guiraud threw in just enough extra sounds to keep the beat from monotony.

The most intriguing of the new acts was the Patrick Artero Quartet, performing ballads, bop and post-bop with a bit of modern attitude. Artero's trumpet featured a mellow Tomasz Stanko-like tone with a melodic singing presence, although he proved capable of going farther on more upbeat pieces. Drummer Mourad Benamou's tone matched the old- school era, but with plenty of stick-clicking and contemporary phrasing keeping things feeling fresh.

Most of the other acts were repeats from previous days, although the Pierre Christophe Trio proved consistently adept at its Jacqui Byrd-influenced sets and festival planners wisely closed Sunday and Monday with the La Mecanica Loca Afro/Cuban ensemble, the one act that consistently generated a crowd of dancers in front of the stage.

Best And Worst Of Festival Awards

Overall the festival offered two weeks of solid, sometimes stellar, performances without major hitches despite one day of heavy storms that knocked out power and had the potential to disrupt the night's concerts. Most coming to hear the major players seemed to come away satisfied, even during less than remarkable shows, although my personal preference for hearing and discovering regional acts with talent will likely remember most a few performances falling into that category.

As a prelude to a roundup of French jazz musicians offering free songs for downloading over the Internet, the following looks back at high and low festival moments among both regional and imported feature performers. It's all subjective, vulnerable to my oft- admitted musical ignorance and there are no prizes - just a possible starting-out guide for listeners interested in artists from the country. Also, I've acknowledged missing a few featured concerts - those by Monty Alexander, Michael Portal and Louis Sclavis, the Kenny Barron-Mulgrew Miller duo, and Wynton Marsalis' "My Brazilian Heart" seem to be among the best of those according to people I spoke to afterward.

Regional performers

Best mainstream

Emile Parisien Quartet: The young group led by this Paris saxophonist, a former music student at Marciac's college, was simply awesome every time they took the stage during their several appearances at the festival's midpoint. Actually, "simply" isn't really the right word for their extended post-bop compositions seamlessly interacting personalities from Monk mellow to Coltrane chaos, all with the modernistic attitude forward-thinking playing requires. Parisien in particular was dominant and I heard more post-show and next-day "did you hear that guy" comments about him than anyone else. Not surprisingly, he snags a second mention for individual honors below.

Also deserving mention: Kaz Trio

Best fusion

Newtopia Quintet: This wasn't even close and even on day three of 14 I didn't think it would be. The group led by saxophonist Raphael Imbert, who recruited students from the conservatory where he teaches as fellow players, played some of the most passionate and interactive contemporary fusion I've heard in years. Many groups stand out playing experimental and uber varieties, but being accomplished at something aimed at a large audience is a rare gift. Imbert's long-form compositions cover everything in the range of his influences from Duke Ellington to Albert Ayler, yet somehow always retain a lyrical quality. Alas, no recordings from the group yet.

Also deserving mention: Newtone, Owi Quintet, Alain Brunet Quintet

Best vocalist

Florance Grimal: Her wide-ranging and spontaneous deep voice, possessing that soulfulness making the difference between performing a song instead of just singing it, would be solid on any set of standards. But the enjoyment was racked up a notch by skillful rearranging of some well-known pieces, coming off as genuinely creative efforts than smoltz. I'm still not sure how this is possible with something like an up-tempo "Suicide Is Painless" but, yes, she actually pulled it off.

Fredee A (yes, just one letter); Sandy Patton (might have won for several days of consistent excellence, but she's from Switzerland)

Best individual player

Emile Parisien: In my day seven assessment of his band, I described the saxophonist's work as a mix of both intellectual post-bop and freeform intensity, punctuated by tension-inducing notes as much as space to break things up - yet somehow without overwhelming the senses. The effort was there for every show of his I heard and he seldom seemed short of ideas.

Benjamin Dousteyssier, Michel Zenio

Best student/youth performance

Combo De 3eme 2005: Maybe it's a family thing, even if I don't normally put much stock in such things. This quartet includes clarinetist Jean Dousteyssier - presumably the younger brother of the above-mentioned Benjamin, proved capable of deep and still enjoyable original long-form fusion, while still pulling off credible modern- style takes of classics, during a day featuring performances from the music program at Marciac's college.

Also deserving mention: La Bande A Petri, Ainama Sextet

Best crowd pleaser

La Mecanica Loca: This 10-member Afro/Cuban ensemble stole the award during the final days by being the only band to get a significant number of people out of their chairs and up front dancing - and for multiple shows, no less. With all the big names gone for the final two days of the festival, scheduling them as the wrap-up act on the last day of late-night shows (the second to last overall) meant sending things out with a strong street-party flavor.

Also deserving mention: Batuque Usina's African percussion processions around the square during the first week; the Sweet Mama Quartet.

Lesser moments

The Mathieu Bore Quartet's tepid Elvis and rockabiliy; Sophie Sorman's Latin-accented pop-jazz; the Francois Chassagnite Quintet's Bob James-like smooth fusion.

Favorite album

Christian Ton-Ton Salut, Ali-Aba

Note the slight hitch in wording - other albums may be superior in terms of artistry and originality, with Salut's 2001 Be Hip Be Bop possibly among them. But this 1986 release is the one from Marciac I'm likely to listen to most because of the character the drummer achieves doing something that seldom works: Taking kids songs like "Chim Chim Cheree" (Salut says John Coltrane's rendition is one of his favorites and global folk like "Risantirti" (from the high Nepalese mountains) and making true jazz out of them. "Pinnocchio" is a freeform drums/sax/vocal experimentation of the more straight-ahead "When You Wish Upon A Star" also featured here. Great stuff for thinking listeners and still recognizable enough they can play it for their kids and use it as an entry point for the genre.

Album needing improvement

College De Marciac, Lile Au Jazz

I'm sorry - I know this is a student recording and my natural bias is to root for it, but there's too much quality on other albums of this sort - as well as a few songs on this one - to feel good about this unremarkably arranged and inconsistent effort. When players are allowed to stand out in solos or small subsections they succeed more often than not, but most of the songs possess too much of an ensemble characteristic associated with marching bands. Hardest words for me to write in this roundup and it's a great souvenir, but unlike to get much play beyond letting others hear the handful of decent moments as a sampling of the esteemed school's achievements.

Best local hangout

L'Atelier cafe: I can't say I hear everything, nor the best acts on the best nights, but I tried to circle the blocks a couple of times every evening to at least get a sense of who was playing. The Cafe Maccintosh had a livelier party atmosphere, the Cafe De Sport better ambiance in the main town square and a number of others better menus. But the L'Atelier (translation: workshop) consistently had the most important thing from my possibly skewed perspective - talented groups of young hungry players going full-tilt at everything from traditional to funk to salsa. They didn't always draw huge or attentive crowds - many diners were on the separate garden patio courtyard - but it seldom seemed to affect happenings on stage.

Worst shortcoming

Not being able to find Marsalis' The Marciac Suite. I know he originally didn't want it sold and gave away plenty of copies to locals, but Columbia's been selling it for years now. It's baffling if there's some kind of commercialism stigma about selling it here because there's no shortage of it from people selling everything else.

Best business makeover for one of the numerous fois gras shops

Internet cafe: OK, this comes from a guy writing for the Web and I realize it's an ancient historic village. But they do have the technology, with the press area and some private entities wired during the festival. But I found only one public possibility, a hard-to- find aging machine in a small hotel, and a lot of people were approaching me while I was working on my laptop wondering if I was wired and if there was any way to access e-mail and news from home. Heck, use spill-proof keyboards and an entrepreneur could still sell wine and duck liver on toast to patrons - it'd make a better "Hey, mom, guess what I'm doing now" message anyhow.

Headline performers

Best concert

John Zorn: Calling Zorn disciplined is like calling the Iraq situation under control, but this show seemed dominated more by extra energy, tightness between his already exceedingly compatible Acoustic Masada quartet and a locking in with the crowd than by pure eclecticism. It wasn't safe - as I noted in my report from the day of the show, it just made it easier to appreciate what everybody was contributing individually and collectively. Trumpeter Dave Douglas was near perfect alternating in harmonic support and clashes, drummer Joey Barron's turbo engine in the perfect top-gear vehicle and bassist John Pattiticci showing flair on the wild as well as his better-known intellectual side. Zorn, of course, showed he can play pretty much anything anytime he wants - and there were some who found him too strange, for sure - but those knowing what to expect couldn't have hoped for much more.

Best straighthead

Wynton Marsalis Quintet And Strings: Tougher call here, but the nod goes to the festival's "godfather" for a mostly intelligent, low-key and personable performance - the way Marsalis said things ought to be in Marciac. The eyes-locked exchange with local guest bassist Pierre Boussaget during his unaccompanied solo (described in my day six update) was the most intimate moment from an audience seat during the major performances. If the string section had taken a more active role, as an ensemble did during Phil Woods' tribute to Charlie Parker a couple of days later, this would be a clearer winner.

Also deserving mention: Ravi Coltrane, Stefano Di Battista, Monty Alexander

Best fusion

Randy Weston: This might be miscast, as his African Rhythm Trio has plenty of conventional presence, but the overall worldbeat flavor and reasons for standing out land it here. Chief among them was bassist Alex Blake's all-inclusive lead, rhythm and percussion solos on his upright, both during long unaccompanied stretches and getting an extra boost from Weston and drummer/percussionist Herlin Riley. Weston was more meditative than on fire, but pleasingly so, and Blake's work was an appreciation of his various instruments assembled progressively into a longer overall thesis. Few dull moments and a lot of outstanding ones.

Also deserving mention: Omar Sosa; Soul Bop Band (played only from their new CD and pitched it far too often, but no arguing it was a seasoned group of pros playing well).

Biggest legacy

Ibrahim Ferrer: A no-brainer special mention since the Cuban vocalist performed the last concert of his life here before dying of illness in Havana four days later. The concert wasn't great because he was in obviously poor heath, but numerous musicians paid various tributes to him during subsequent shows and the final performance ensures he will always have an extra connection to Marciac's colorful jazz history.

Worst concert

Wayne Shorter: This is all about failed expectations and in that respect Shorter edges out vocalist Sara Lazarus' lackadaisical performance as the warm-up act for Wynton Marsalis a week earlier. Not all of it was Shorter's doing - there were instrumentation and technical problems - but his minimal, low-effort contribution on a night when his trio of co-players were hitting their stride meant ending the festival's featured acts on a low note. His current work is too strong to consider him a candidate for late-life frailness on stage like Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson, so chalk it up as a "stuff happens" moment. Lazarus might have passed muster on other nights, but one expects more from a show preceding the festival's "godfather" on a weekend night.

Also deserving mention: Popa Chubby, for cranking up the volume on his blues performance to the point of invading pianist Abdullah Ibrahim's show six blocks away. The dial doesn't always have to go to 11.

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