Jazz In Marciac Festival: Day 13

Mark Sabbatini By

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The first question of the day was why Elvis was on stage in Marciac. The last was if anyone could knock a different king from the throne.

Day 13 featured the final round of major concerts for the two-week 28th annual Jazz In Marciac Festival, with pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Wayne Shorter getting the last chance to supplant John Zorn's day nine show as the best big-ticket event in the highly subjective realm of personal opinion. One proved a contender - but the artist and reason was a surprise.

A strong closing act was welcome, as the daytime lineup included concerts by the Mathieu Bore Quartet doing early rock like Elvis and Fats Domino in unremarkable and low-key fashion. Saxophonist Ivan Baldet contributed at least something of a jazz presence, if a conservative one, getting his tone and riffs into David "Fathead" Newman territory during what passed for "progressive" moments.

A couple new acts snuck in between some bands appearing on previous days, including pianist Pierre Christophe leading an acoustic trio on a Jacki Byard-influenced set. His emphasis was mostly singing notes, with a few flourishes of whimsy to break the pace, but also did a Jelly Roll Morton-era medley of several compositions at one point, with deep classical-like chord transitions. Pleasing, if not the most challenging of the area performers, but not hollow either.

An unannounced drums, flute and other ethnic-oriented band appeared in the town square mid afternoon, drawing a crowd of followers during a few trips around the block. They didn't have the raw appeal and authenticity of the Batuque Usina African drummers making rounds during the first week of the festival, but drew a crowd comparable in size and was fun on a dancing-in-the-streets level.

Heading to the main concert tent for the last time, I figured if anyone had a shot at topping Zorn's almost-disciplined-but-highly-charged Acoustic Masada appearance it'd be Shorter. He's been on something of a roll on recent albums and, while there are other saxophonists I enjoy more consistently, his best stuff has among-equals status at the top of my personal list. I heard Weston play a solo workshop at the North Sea Jazz Festival earlier this year and, while respectfully appreciative of his work, it's a bit sedate when competing for significant listening time or, seemingly, being a potential festival standout.

I couldn't have been more wrong about either one.

Weston's African Rhythm Trio looked roughly similar to some solid, if not blue ribbon, trio-oriented world music sets by Omar Sosa and Monty Alexander earlier during the festival. The structure was the same, with stretched-out compositions featuring plenty of evolving rhythms and exchanging of featured roles.

The difference was bassist Alex Blake.

Maybe it's just my first live exposure to a guy who started playing with the likes of Sun Ra more than 40 years ago at the age of 15, but Blake was also getting a lot of love backstage afterward. He was essentially a background presence on the opening "High Fly," but could have taken the rest of night off following his eight-minute unaccompanied jam on the subsequent "African Cookbook" and the crowd likely wouldn't have forgotten him.

My notes for the piece, edited slightly for grammar, read in part "bass leads off this one with a fast strumming riff, almost a folk-rock thing with a banjo deftness (not often I've seen that)...throws some fingering in, mostly just dancing around a bit, and some palm slaps of all strings. Basically being his own rhythm, percussion and lead tones - a Michael Hedges on upright...Loudest applause of show yet for this one, no question."

Yeah and Kenny G gets roars for circular breathing. Hopefully my appreciation is based on a more advanced level of performance.

Weston was solid, playing a lot of dark and complex- chord shadings largely on the mid- to lower-keys. He also demonstrated playful flourishes on a couple of songs including "African Sunrise." Drummer/percussionist Herlin Riley also was in fine form with solid backup support. His solos often tended to emphasize parts of his hand/stick collection rather than putting it all together, but generally he got enough space to work most of the kit, offering almost a clinic in African drumming technique.

The encore was rather meditative, but shouts for a second one persisted after the players left the stage - including Blake with his bass in tow, unlike the first departure - so it's always possible the demand and adequate time before Shorter's concert resulted in the finale. It proved a much better send-off for an energizing show, with my notes describing the piece as "something like a whimsical Broadway waltz with an African drum beat." It's worth noting there weren't any Weston albums left at the CD table when I checked later that night, nor did any of the other sellers in town seem to have any for the rest of the festival.

It didn't take the top slot from Zorn. But it's somewhere among the medal contenders.

Shorter, on the other hand, may have been the biggest disappointment of the festival.

It wasn't the worst featured concert; a couple of unremarkable efforts by lesser names claim that dishonor. But Shorter either had an off-night or he's letting his sidemen carry him at this point much like Miles Davis did late in life - and there was evidence of it both on stage and among the crowd, as it seemed more than the usual number headed out before the encore.

His contributions were sparse much of the night and, while he's always interesting in tone and thought, it seemed like a constant stretch to associate the dearth of verbiage with the genius of his prime work. Something may have been wrong with his soprano - he abandoned it several times after picking it up, fiddling with the mouthpiece and playing a few notes during a 40-minute continuous splicing of pieces including "She Moved Through The Fair" and "Beyond The Sound Barrier." But his tone was solid and he eventually spent more time on it during later pieces on a set list including "Joy Rider," "High Life" and "Over Shadow Hill Way." There were also early microphone, speaker and feedback problems that got worked out. But I seldom got much sense he was enjoying himself or really into what was happening around him.

The shortcomings weren't due to his sidemen. Pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade kicked up a storm of varying textures and, to the eye at least, seemed to enjoy doing so. But there's no listener pleasure in the world's greatest Aebersold play-along performance - and on this night there was only a handful of moments when the lead voice felt at least equal to the task.

Ending the night and major performances in such fashion might have been a letdown, but also contains something of an allegory for the overall festival. There are two more days of concerts on smaller stages by regional acts - on a Sunday and Monday - a seemingly unusual and anticlimactic conclusion. But it turns out there's solid reasoning - one might even say it's divinely inspired.

Coming up on days 14 and 15: Final performances and some meaningless personal choice awards.

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