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French Showcase at the 2023 European Jazz Conference

French Showcase at the 2023 European Jazz Conference

Courtesy Clara La Fuente

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Palais du Pharo/Théâtre La Criée
European Jazz Conference Showcases
Marseille, France
September 14-17, 2023

The showcase program of the 9th European Jazz Conference (see separate article) was inaugurated in the comfortable Auditorium of the Palais du Pharo—the main venue of the conference—by the Orchid Big Band. Born inside the musical collective Déluge and conducted by Thomas Julienne, the orchestra displayed on stage its perfect gender balance, and one could not but love them for that even before the first note.

The concert was based on original compositions by different musicians that displayed a brilliant, swinging sound reminiscent of contemporary musical composition but solidly based in the big band tradition. This was a really pleasant set by musicians seriously concerned with bringing their example of gender equality to schools and conservatories, and as such, a perfect welcome to Europe Jazz Network members, whose activities share the same concerns.

The following day the auditorium audience was impressed and moved by the set of Poetic Ways, a quintet with Raphael Imbert on saxophone and bass clarinet, Pierre François Blanchard on piano, Pierre Fenichel on double bass, Anne Paceo on drums and the magnetic Célia Kameni on vocals.

Ranging from blues, spirituals and traditional folk songs to contemporary and classic chanson, the band hails from the Pierre Barbizet Conservatory in Marseille, which has been directed by saxophonist and composer Imbert since 2019.

Inspired by the spirituality of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, Imbert has been working for several years on a narrative, text-based concept that was successfully realized by this band, propelled by Paceo's drums to energetic passages but able to switch abruptly into suspended time where Kameni's vocals painted tense, mesmerizing lines.

The inclusion of texts by Baudelaire set to music by Leo Ferrè and Gabriel Fauré was especially original and unique.

Imbert's radical approach was also presented in one of the panels, and his music, beginning perhaps with Bach Coltrane (Zig Zag Territories, 2008) should be much more known outside France.

The rather misleadingly named West Hall (more like a closed corridor, with limited seating and sightlines blocked by columns) was the venue from several other showcase concerts, usually by smaller bands, beginning with the duo of Naïssam Jalal on flute and voice and Claude Tchamitchian on bass.

Tchamitchian is master of his instrument, from solo projects to his tentet Grand Lousadzak and his music in the past reached "out" of what is considered conservatively the jazz tradition, including inspiration from his Armenian family roots in his memorable duo with kamanche player Gaguik Mouradian Their album Le monde est une fenêtre (émouvance, 2008) is highly recommended.

Jalal, born in Paris from Syrian parents, develops the Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy tradition of jazz flute, seamlessly completing the quicksilver lines of the flute with her wordless vocals in what she calls Healing Rituals.

With references to classical traditions from the Arabic and Indian worlds, Jalal's music at times was infused with dramatic rage and at times developed into peaceful meditation, her flute refracting a huge variety of colors and dynamics. This was worlds away from any new-agey blandness, with Tchamitchian always providing the appropriate support.

The following act was Enzo Carniel & House of Echo, a longtime working band established in 2012 by pianist Enzo Carniel and guitarist Marc— Antonio Perrio. The perfect communication between the members was clear in the lightning fast changes, with the band switching smoothly from a complex, angular groove to free-form improvisation. Totally contemporary and very hip, elegant in the continuous play on colors and modulations, this was a strong demonstration of the creative vision to realize an original sound-world.

The quintet Papanosh, despite the very young age of the musicians, has also been a regular band for quite some time. Pianist Sébastien Palis , saxophonist Raphael Quenehen , trumpeter Quentin Ghomari , bassist Thibault Cellier and drummer Jérémie Piazza have played together since 2012, and have recorded a major project in New York with Marc Ribot and Roy Nathanson, whose names might serve as a handy reference point.

For this project they have taken inspiration from literature—apparently a theme that ran through many of the showcase bands in one way or the other—and in particular from the writings of novelist and poet Jim Harrison.

A lover of nature and a master of the short form, several of Harrison's stories have been successfully adapted for films, notably Wolf (Jack Nicholson) and Legends of the Fall (Brad Pitt).

Rabelaisian in nature, his food-and-drink homage A Really Big Lunch (Grove Press, 2017) is a celebration of excess and a creation of legends and myths that are larger than life. The musicians of Papanosh threw themselves into the challenge of responding musically to these writings with gusto, creating an imaginary folklore from Rouen reminiscent of similar concepts explored decades ago by their predecessors in Lyon, in a different time and age.

Fresh and funny, obviously inspired initially by the lineup of Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, Sarāb—from the Arabic word for mirage—was certainly one of the high points of the showcases.

Built on the collaboration of Franco-Syrian singer Climène Zarkan with guitarist Baptiste Ferrandis, the sextet exploded on stage their music—a unique combination of the classic elegance of Arabic song and poetry with the energy of a contemporary rock band.

Trombonist Robinson Khoury expertly slided his notes to match the subtlety of Arabic intonation, often joining the proceedings with vocals as well, while the guitarists and Thibault Gomez on keyboards provided the contrasting harmonic background, adding an edgy tension to the music. Everything was conducted, introduced and powered by vocalist Zarkan with her charismatic stage persona.

Sarāb's final number visited Sayyed Darwish's classic "Zourouni," with its powerful and poignant invocation 'Life is bitter without you, Visit me once every year.' It gave full measure of the deep roots and dramatic power of this band.

The following band was Nout, an all-female trio with the unique combination of electric harp, flute and drums, played respectively by Rafaelle Rinaudo, Delphine Joussein and Blanche Lafuente . Enthusiastic and energetic, the band rocked the small hall but in the long run its continual pushing to the limit of white noise at extremely loud volume was wearying for this scribe. Is it that the music was too loud or is this reviewer just too old? This is the question I guess...

Back in the main auditorium, Armenian pianist Yessaï Karapetian led his quintet in another impressive set embracing his Armenian roots along with the music of the African-American diaspora and the French impressionism that he studied in Paris.

The traditional, symbolic timbre of various duduk (double reed) and blul—an end-blown flute similar to Arabic nay/Turkish ney—were explored by soloists Norayr Gapoyan and Avag Margaryan. Marc Karapetian on bass and David Paycha on drums maintained the drive while navigating the complex time signatures.

Integrating the piano with instruments from non-European traditions is always a tricky proposition, while the young and brilliant leader occasionally indulged a little too much in showing his chops. That said, there were some truly magical moments of perfect balance.

In the West Hall once more, bandoneon player and composer Louise Jallu presented a tribute to Astor Piazzolla with a band modeled on Piazzolla's second quintet, which included Matthias Lévi on violin, Grégoire Letouvet on keyboards, Karsten Hochapfel on electric guitar and Arthur Hennebique on bass.

The plan was clearly to play the great Argentinian's tunes as jazz standards, avoiding the revival and treating them instead as Ellington or Gershwin tunes. This seemed entirely appropriate, as Piazzolla's roots were as much in the music of New York as in that of Buenos Aires.

Recordings of Piazzolla's own voice were used to introduce the tunes. Subtle variations in tempo, sudden openings in the harmony and reinterpretations of the melody kept nostalgia at bay, and succeeded in presenting Piazzolla not as a regional talent but as one of the great composers of the 20th-century. Courageous and original.

Singer-songwriter Marion Rampal tried to walk a difficult line between a reinvented Deep South and the classic French chanson, with elegant renditions of melancholy melodies by Bob Dylan among other composers. She was arguably more successful, however, when rendering her own evocative originals in French.

The Fringe program took place after the evening concerts in the foyer of the Théâtre La Criée, and included Ludivine Issambour Antiloops, Obradovic—Tixier Duo, and Dowdelin.

But having fully committed to three days packed with panel discussion, speeches, lengthy discussion groups and presentations, the late-night musical program was too much for your reviewer, who pleads for mercy having chosen instead to socialize on the quay over pastis, trying to look like Fernando Rey in The French Connection.

It was very hot and sunny indeed for the end of the summer in beautiful Marseille, and the Déméter Hall of Théâtre La Criée was filled to the rafters for the final concert of Michel Portal's quintet a concert that was open to the public.

As a result, the air inside the theatre was rather stuffy and the seats were really not too comfortable to boot. Still, these discomforts were soon forgotten when the Grand Seigneur of French jazz (88 years long in the tooth) came onstage with his clarinets, and his regular band of Bojan Z on piano, Julien Herne on bass, and Stéphane Galland on drums, augmented by Yazz Ahmed on trumpet and Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronics.

For the duration of the concert there was a charming linguistic uneasiness on stage. This was France, and the performers were French, but the 400-plus participants of the conference were a mixed bunch using English as their lingua franca, as is customary in the jazz world.

This author has witnessed showcases in Latvia and Portugal, in Italy and in Belgium, where the musicians always spoke to an international public in English. The showcase performers in these countries had different degrees of fluency, they did what they could, and the audience appreciated their efforts, and that was it.

Only in Marseille did the situation seemed weird to many of the musicians, to the point that they had to mention their linguistic frailties and insecurities on stage.

Portal brought the issue to a new level, announcing that he was delegating the English duties to Bojan Z (who is Serbian and so has no special title to speak English more than a Frenchman). And when the pianist obliged as a sign of courtesy to the international guests, whose presence had been explained before (in French) by one of the directors of the Marseille jazz festival, part of the audience was unhappy to the point of shouting "Parlez Français!" So, we were back to square one.

Bojan Z, born in Sarajevo, has witnessed contrasts more serious than these, so took everything in his stride. He said a few words and then went back to the music. But the whole thread was significant in itself.

Portal's band is a well-honed, responsive unit, with the angular lines of the clarinets propelled by a powerful piano trio, in a apparently precarious balance that keeps the listener on the edge. Growling from the bass clarinet or tenderly etching a song on the "normal" (as he joked) clarinet Portal leads masterfully, arranging on stage the wide dynamics of the band.

The young and brilliant Ahmed contributed respectfully in the exposition of the themes, and then exploded in appropriate solos; Aarset's delicate, eerie sounds were rather lost in the mix, enriched already by Bojan Z's electric piano, so that it seemed hardly worth flying him in from Norway for the evening, a brief trio passage aside.

Portal's imagination, like his career, is boundless and his lesson still sets an example for todays musicians who could be his grandchildren.

All in all, linguistic mishaps included, this gala concert provided a fittingly festive conclusion to a remarkable edition of the Europe Jazz Conference. The 2024 EJC, it was announced earlier, will be held in Ghent, Belgium.

The 480-odd delegates left Marseille elated by the city, by the hospitality and by the music. The jury-selected concerts showcased a vibrant, young and irrepressible creativity, whose common threads seemed to be literary inspiration and a wide look to the South and to the East, from Argentina to Armenia, in keeping with today's European preoccupations.

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