If the Great Salt Lake is the ultimate vacation disaster for slugs, Marciac might be the equivalent for ducks.
There are more fois gras stands in this southwest region of France than Seattle has coffee shops, along with plenty of other ways to purchase waterfowl in various sliced, canned and pureed ways. Forget beer and hot dogs - concert fare here is duck livers on brochette accompanied by area vintages.
A sense of dual culture shock was the dominant first impression for this newcomer at the 28th Annual Jazz In Marciac Festival, a two-week event featuring a large roster of top-name acts descending on a remote village of only 1,200 people. The main acts possess the glitz and crowds of the world's biggest festivals, numerous less-known acts throughout the village offer the intimacy and regional exposure of small events, and contrasts of everyday life seem to magnify during a festival with a total attendance of about 180,000.
Marciac, located amidst rolling hills in farming country about a two-hour drive from the airport in Toulouse, is a town dating back to 1298 that possess a sophisticated ruggedness. What Americans might consider four-star food and wines exist at seemingly at every tiny cafe and even many food vendor stands. But most buildings don't have air conditioning despite occasionally lethal heat, public Internet access is nearly nonexistent, hotels are scarce and the public facilities in the town square are squat toilets. If experiencing France via Paris is the equal of New York City, then Marciac is the tiny Napa Valley town of Rutherford, Calif.
The festival was created in 1978 by Bill Coleman, Jean-Louis Guilhaumon and Guy Lafitte, and is part of a strong jazz presence in the community. The middle school taught the first jazz lessons recognized by France's education department and the "Territoires du Jazz" museography in an old abbey on Chevalier d'Antras square is an audio-visual tour of jazz from its African origins to present.
This year's lineup between August 1 and 15 includes Wynton Marsalis (a regular billed as the "godfather" of the festival), Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter, John Zorn, Marcus Miller, Randy Brecker, Kenny Barron and many others just among the headliners. The range is styles is highly diverse, as evidenced by the main opening night reggae/world concerts by Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben Jor.
(On a personal note, I took in opening day highly disorientated thanks to a series of travel and other mishaps bordering on comical. So all shortcomings in this article beyond those as a relative newbie festival writer are acknowledged. Also, I'm a bit out of my area of familiarity when it comes to worldbeat; with any luck better assessments will come when more jazz-oriented heavy hitters take the stage starting later this week.)
Opening day got off to something less than festival organizers and participants might have hoped, as heavy rain soaked through the performance tent in the town square. Previous late-night happenings meant missing the debut 11 am town center performance by the Spirit of Swing sextet - a likely fate for most morning shows - but they are scheduled to perform an afternoon concert on day two and should be part of that overview.
Swiss vocalist Sandy Patton did her best to counter the rainy gloom early in the afternoon, displaying a wide range of disciplined scat on standards ranging from a low and husky "Over The Rainbow" to some well-coordinated interaction with drummer Michele Santastazzio on a couple of pieces including "I'm Beginning To See The Light." Pianist Norbert Grisot soothed more than jolted, but thoughtfully with few cliches. It was a fitting afternoon debut, solid and widely appealing, not revolutionary, with a second early evening show offering similar fare.
French guitarist/pianist Tony Petrucciani (apparently well-known pianist Michel's father) was too low-key with his trio to effectively compete with the noontime downpour, but easier to appreciate under merely overcast skies during a second show between Patton's appearances. Less intriguing than Patton, there was still enough variety in the mostly laid-back set to keep listeners from complacency, including bassist Louis Petrucciani's discordant bowing to Tony Petrucciani's straight support on one bluesy piece, where the guitarist also impressed with some not-quite-straight solo run-ups of both notes and chords. Patton contributed some low straightforward vocals as a guest on "Misty," with Tony Petrucciani switching between piano and hollow-body guitar, offering fitting lyricism on each.
Some ethnic spice showed up about the same time early diners were digging into their fois gras de jour, as French vocalist Mina Agossi led her bass/percussion trio on a mix of compositions ranging from standards to a mid-funk rendition of Jimmy Hendrix's "Third Stone From The Sun." Her vocals weren't always defined with ideal clarity, but her sense of showmanship and energy was constant. Her scat work ranged from low-ends getting about as close to Louis Armstrong as a woman might hope for to some animal-like squeals on "Third Stone." The minimal ensemble also worked well off each other, with bassist Alex Hiele in particular contributing some colorfully off-kilter experimental thoughts.
Multiple acts started getting underway in the "off" venues around 8 pm, although I did little more than listen to Dixie and mainstream/funk groups competing for listening space in the main square for a few minutes before making the ten-minute walk to the main event tent (the quick-listen nod goes to the latter group, Batuque Usina, another group playing shows later during the festival that will hopefully get fuller assessments).
The night's featured concerts are what I reluctantly acknowledge as "I know jack" experiences, meaning zero previous exposure to well-known musicians. Assessment of such shows is pretty much limited to the basics of whether the virgin experience proves enjoyable.
After trying to adjust to rustic village life, the opening of Gilberto Gil's quintet was culture shock in reverse as flashing spotlights, massive video screens and a packed crowd of unknown thousands squeezed into the main stage tent. From start to finish Gil played to an audience well tuned into his wavelength, with consistent give-and-take chorus lyrics, hand-clapping and roars of approval for songs mellow and intense.
That said, what I heard was a polished 100-minute show tight in presentation, but lacking some of the innovative inspiration and individuality associated with the best of jazz. Talking with those seated near me, I got several "he put on a good show" comments, but no dazzling remarks that might accompany a landmark performance. Some of the loudest early applause, for instance, came on a light reggae/Brazilian rendition of "Imagine" which, while lacking the cheesy element such covers can possess, didn't offer much beyond familiarity to recommend the response. More deserving of some fun-if-not-overly-serious acclaim might be in order for their treatment of "Don't Worry 'Bout A Thing," giving it a near country-rock accent with Cicero Assis' contribution on accordion and Sergio Chiavazzoli on banjo. Closing numbers, seemingly familiar to the audience, if not to me - also featured some noteworthy solo moments as vehicles for the introducing the band's members.
The 11 pm performance by Jorge Ben Jor and his seven-member crew was similar in many ways - polished and well-done, but less intriguing overall with considerably less audience participation and a more even feel overall among songs. Fans no doubt got what they came for, but nothing stood out enough for me to considering joining the hardcore among their ranks. To say more feels unfair, given my acknowledged ignorance of his work.
That said, the evening didn't end on a downer note. Early days at festivals are largely about orientation and one of the things I discovered walking back to my car near the square - facing a 45-minute drive to my bed - was numerous small acts along the blocks. Many seemed to be wrapping up or between sets, but the idea of being able to seek out area talent playing stuff I might actually be able to relate to easier when the main fare wanders from my areas of interest was reassuring. Expect a look at some of them, in lieu of some "name" acts outside the jazz realm, as the festival progresses.