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American Jazz Festiv’Halles at Sunside-Sunset


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American Jazz Festiv'Halles at Sunside-Sunset
Sunside-Sunset Jazz Club
Paris, France
July-August 2014

The 23rd annual American Jazz Festiv'Halles at Sunside-Sunset in Paris had another long and strong lineup of concerts during two summer months of 2014. Sunside opened in 1983 on the Right Bank's narrow pedestrian street, rue des Lombards, expanding in 2001 by converting its underground restaurant Sunset into a second jazz venue, with jazz nightly in both venues since then.

American-French pianist Jacky Terrasson brought thrilling energy to Sunside from his New York City base. His sequential piano form often started simply, then moved with almost feral energy. His elastic style had him start a chart in the way an artist would sketch before approaching the canvas. Sometimes it sounded as if Terrasson was resetting his musical GPS to change course and direction, creating his own roundabouts and making U-turns at will along the way. The result was completely captivating.

Appearing younger than his 47 years, he demonstrated the fleet hands and mind of a Bud Powell, delivering vigorous bass-clef percussive attacks interspersed with brisk vaults to the treble range. But he also could be Ahmad Jamal-elegant, displaying elements of the early classical training he received before enrolling in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, soon winning the 1993 Thelonious Monk Award.

Terrasson's set was a Forrest Gump box of music, ranging from grand old evergreens such as to "My Funny Valentine" to music from Harry Potter films to Michael Jackson's "Beat It." "Valentine" was rejuvenated as he repeatedly injected the lead line of "Close Enough for Love," exuding a playful attitude as he executed swift, cat-like swipes onto the upper keys. Now and then, he rose from the bench to strike the inner soundboard of the baby grand with his fingers and the heels of his hands. As he created his one-man rhythm section, drummer Lukmil Perez watched with a smile. Perez later took a spotlight segment on the trio's thorough exposition of "Caravan," as the pianist inserted minor progressions. Stylish bassist Burniss Earl Travis was far beyond a rhythm sideman, a musician who knew when to interject and when to wait.

Another night, the two-level venue offered a jazz doubleheader for one set each. Clarinetist Evan Christopher's "Django a la Creole" quartet was in the subterranean Sunside, while Japanese pianist Yutaka Shiina performed on a baby grand in the street-level venue with his European quintet.

Christopher's two sets were joyful mergers of 1930s gypsy swing with a New Orleans groove. The combo featured New Orleans guitar-banjo virtuoso Don Vappie, adept rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie and indefatigable slap-bassist Sébastien Girardot. The result was solid swing fueled by incredible acoustic interplay. Christopher made full use of the clarinet's range, brightly colorful in treble, vibrantly mellow in the lower clef. Vappie's spirited solos and riffs added more New Orleans elements, most evident on the instrumental "Jubilee" written by trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and his vocal energy sparkled on a Crescent City favorite, "Salle Dames, Bon Jour."

Christopher's concept originated in August 2005 following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that flooded New Orleans. That's when he moved to Paris at the invitation of the French Embassy's Cultural Services division, and soon formed the new combo based on the sounds of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. The repertoire also delivered standards, from the 1920s hit "I Know That You Know" to the slow swing of "One for the Duke" and Reinhardt's vigorous "Improvisation Number 3" for a vibrant and well-balanced program.

Shiiina, 50, opened with pianist Thelonious Monk's "Sphere," then moved into a series of originals, including two ethereal charts, "Walking in the Clouds" and "Snow in Summer," followed by a complex "Pharaohs." Toward the end of the first set, Shiina seemed to loosen more to deliver two-handed octave progressions on the closing chart. Shiina is well-known in Europe, having performed often with American stars. This night his ensemble featured alto saxophonist Gabriel Davit, tenor saxophonist Thomas Luthi, bassist Dominique Giroyd and drummer Lionel Boccara.

Another doubleheader pleasure was a night of pianist Eric Reed featuring vocalist Mary Stallings, with Darryl Hall on bass and Mario Gonzi on drums. The trio improvised "It Could Happen to You"/"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Alone Together" with stunning innovation. Stallings' supple voice was alternately sensuous and sassy on "Close Enough for Love," then "Exactly Like You." Her perfect articulation of lyrics along with marvelous phrasing is wonderfully "old school," perfectly demonstrated on her stylish rendition of "Sweet and Lovely." When Reed and Stallings dueted on "Yesterdays," it was if Jerome Kern had written it just for this coalition of the elegant Stallings and the remarkable Reed.

Earlier in the month, when Hammond B3 organist Rhoda Scott was due go on stage in subterranean Sunside, audience members already were smiling in anticipation. At 76, her musical energy is renowned for the way she performs with her longtime (10 years) "Lady Band" of three younger French female musicians, saxophonists Sophie Alour on tenor sax and Lisa Cat-Berro on alto sax, and Julie Saury on drums.

Scott's legendary penchant for soul and bebop was strongly evident, delivered in a relaxed power that never waned. The organist's colleagues shone on their originals, including several from the trio's 2008 "Live from Sunset" CD. Cat-Berro's "We Three Queens" was illuminated by her fluidly flowing alto solo, and Edith Piaf's poignant "Hymne d'Amour" was refreshed by exceptional alternating dual saxophone sequences. Scott's "La Valse a Charlotte" was perfect contrast to Hank Mobley's "Funk in the Deep Freeze," both perfect foil for a warm summer evening, punctuated by Scott's lively escapades. The repertoire also included Wayne Shorter's "Tom Thumb," as well as an enlivened reinvention of Michael Jackson's "Bad" that blended jazz with rock, as all four completed segments by calling out "Who's bad?"

Scott first saw the organ in her father's church at age seven, and has said that she took off her shoes to walk on the pedals. She still plays without shoes, gaining nicknames of "The Barefoot Lady" and "The Barefoot Contessa." She moved to France in 1968 after studying there the previous year, and has spent most of her career performing there, although she still plays in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe.

The final of my festival choices was trumpeter Nicholas Payton's trio, featuring the leader on trumpet, vocals and electric and acoustic pianos; American colleagues Vicente Archer on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Payton sat at the electric keyboard throughout, playing piano with his left hand and trumpet with his right, occasionally turning to play the baby grand on stage at his left.

Payton played both in angular and free-form styles rather than in a swing mode, a distinct evolution from his prior New Orleans-influenced outings. But the effect was more Zen than zestful. After the first two charts, Payton announced that those were originals titled "Two" and "Three," then said the next one would be "Four" (not Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's 1954 chart that Miles Davis gave fame), into which he injected quotes from several standards.

The first three compositions came across as a succession of musical excerpts from a mix-or-match music wardrobe, but mostly a mix of streams of consciousness performed with insistent repetition. The audience listened raptly but offered very little applause; what there was came after Stewart's inventive percussive segments and Archer's resonant bass work.

Then, whether pre-planned or perhaps from a sense of audience disconnect, Payton went to a straight-ahead form, unfortunately with an underwhelming vocal on "The Shadow of Your Smile." The set gained a bit of promise when the next chart opened with Stewart's New Orleans-street beat, setting up ears for more satisfying vocal and trumpet work on "I Want to Stay in New Orleans" that earned applause to close the set.

In the second set, Payton deigned to swing more, seeming to unleash his deeper roots while staying true to his newer, more exploratory musical mantra. The closing selection was the Benny Golson gem, "Stablemates," that was the perfect link of Payton's past with his reinvention.

After the American festival, Sunside-Sunset booked a second extended series titled "Pianissimo" that featured European piano trios and quartets. Consistently full houses are common in both of these small and narrow clubs. The street level room id fitted with old-style wooden chairs, the underground one with low, padded seats and stools amid white subway-tile walls. Owner-manager Stephane Portet selects the musicians, and emcees the action seven nights a week at Sunside. He books headliners from around the world, but the dual club's rooms also regularly feature many European musicians.

The title of this annual summer series, American Jazz Festiv'Halles, relates to the club's proximity to the legendary outdoor food-market area of Les Halles (replaced in 1970s by a four-level enclosed shopping center). The title is a form of French jeu de mots (clever word-play), and in this instance it's clever pronunciation: The word "Halles" in French is pronounced "al," as in "festiv-al."

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