Only 50,000 of the estimated 180,000 attendees at the Jazz In Marciac Festival see the featured top-name concerts in the ultra-modern performance tents. That leaves a lot of people wandering the streets of this tiny 13th century village seeking entertainment.
Much of it comes during free performances in the Marciac Cote Jardin center square and the Lac stage about a 10-minute walk away. But there's also organized and spontaneous playing, plus a few other jazz-related diversions, almost everywhere one wanders.
This is where one hears regional instead of imported talent, not to mention an intimacy far more in character with this 1,200-person community.
Headliners for day two of the 14-day Marciac festival featured Cuban performers Maraca and Ibrahim Ferrer. While I had some interest in both shows - especially Ferrer because of his late-in-life breakthrough with Buena Vista Social Club - my knowledge of the genre is extremely limited and any assessment of them would lack much insight (OK, more so than usual). With more mainstream jazz acts hitting the main stages beginning on day three, the second day seemed like a good opportunity for taking in the street scene.
The setting was ideal following the occasionally heavy rain on day one, with a few scattered clouds and near-perfect temperatures nowhere near the 100-plus degree scorchers triggered in the region by a recent heat wave. It was the kind of day equally suited to a smooth jazz siesta or all-out samba, depending on one's mood.
Many festivals feature wandering street bands and Mariac is no exception. Plenty of people were jolted out of their early afternoon lull by a group of seven African percussionists known as Batuque Usina wandering around the downtown square doing a variety of interactive rhythms. All of it was intense, beat-driven work broken up mostly by individuals dropping in and out of various parts, but it also possessed a raw authenticity and attracted dozens of followers as they made their way around - and sometimes into - vendor and food booths in the square.
Other spontaneous tidbits were everywhere from street booths selling ethnic instruments to two young men with "organization" festival badges banging out a respectable "Blue Monk" side-by-side on a sidewalk piano that appeared to be available for anyone to use. On a personal note, let me permanently kill any notion that I can take a holier-than-thou attitude in assessing any performer, as yours truly now likely owns the all-time dishonor of the worst performance in Marciac history for "Improvisation in E Minor," featuring an idiotic three-note bass vamp and a directionless melody that seemingly varied from pentatonic notes only by accident.
The Marciac Cote Jardin performances start at 11 a.m., generally attracting near- full audiences in the hundreds, maybe thousands, of seats under the yellow-and-green tent shelter and umbrella-covered tables serviced by 20 or so cafes.
Among the day's earlier offerings was a chance to hear the Spirit Of Swing Sextet after missing their late morning show on opening day (many of the bands perform several times over multiple days). The group was tight and featured enough individual personalities to add character during solos on familiar-sounding pieces. Guitarist Francois Fournet displayed some of the most deft skills doing rapid-note acoustic pickings on the opening "Back Home In Indiana." Clarinetist Didier Desbois was frequently a whimsical presence, darting in and out of high-note passages to add variety to light phrases with decent breathing space. Trumpeter Jerome Etcheverry offered much the same approach minus some of the whimsy and higher note play, but he and Desbois proved highly compatible at collaboration during some bridges and transitions. Pianist Pierre Jean offered perhaps the most drama, sprinkling colorful notes on top of heavy chording with an equal amount of progressive variation. As a collaborative whole it was an old-school, dance-oriented set - falling in that accomplished mainstream between mindless "Disney jazz" and modern voodoo New Orleans progressive.
Things took a next-gen turn with the Owi Quintet, a youthful group doing what might be called neo-modal. Many pieces (originals, I believe, but my ignorance of French is a handicap) centered around slow, dramatic bodies with some sparing but sharp lead tones. Saxophonist Ferdinand Doumerc injected lots of growl on such lines, but displayed wide- ranging talent by moderating the tone as many solo passages sifted into fast modern swing, post-bop and other forms. Sometimes energy replaced musicansmanship, including keyboardist Pierre Bauzerand relying too much on repetition and not enough on evolution to build tension during a few solos.
Another step forward in generations could be heard a block away as a sextet of local students in their early and late teens comprising La Bande A Petri played mostly fusion standards for a mixed crowd of admirers and come-and-go curiosity seekers. Their set in a courtyard near a theater showing a variety of jazz movies daily was among the day's most lively and, while some playing was expectedly simple, there were also plenty of inspired moments elevating it above the level of a typical student-level performance. Of particular note was Francois-Xavier (I was only able to get first names), who playing mostly tenor saxophone demonstrated exceptional speed and the ability to mix evolving phrases with longer tension-and-release notes on numerous pieces. Others made a number of playful contributions, including Antoine on alto sax doing a collaborative jam with Carla, who joined in spontaneously on soprano sax for a couple of songs (each had good ideas; their shortcoming was playing them off each other). Felix, apparently the youngest of the sax players, got attention for interjecting the melody of "Impressions" into the group's funk rendition of "So What."
Scheduled performances took a 90-minute mid-afternoon siesta and early evening sets often featured additional appearances from those on stage earlier, but diversions ranging from artists working on paintings of featured performers to the films at the movie house (think rustic villa, not the Mann Theater). Mixed in with well-known titles like Ray and Stormy Weather were local documentaries like Un Village Qui Fait Jazzer Marciac (night shows stuck to scheduled general titles such as Batman Begins and Mr. And Mrs. Smith.
Fliers for evening performances away from the main stage were tucked into car wipers and sprinkled liberally on various tables, but the best bet was wandering an area extending about two blocks out from the main square and simply taking in whatever might be playing at the moment. Certain locations might offer specific types of music, but there were few rules on the overall range of experience of artists.
Among the veteran groups was the Jazz Devils, playing classic Dixie standards such as "All Of Me" and "Indiana" at the Notre Cave Bar (plat de dour consisting of jarret de pars and petit pois for 9 Euros). The quintet mostly played things straight without getting too edgy - there was a dinner crowd on hand - but with a high level of comfort and informal interaction. Bassist Gilbert Prevosz said they have made the two-hour trip from Toulouse for years, usually playing a large part of the festival.
"Every year we play four, five, 10 days, depending on the needs of the restaurant," he said.
New to the festival was Newtone, a Paris-based quartet of younger players possessing a subtle intensity reminscent of Nordic jazz and players like Don Byron (an easy assessment to make, since I snuck a look at two of their lead sheets and both appeared to be his compositions). Stephane Gasquet, playing Rhodes, said they ended up with the gig at the Le Petit Gascon (tapas Gascons, 5 Euros) after being referred there by another band that opted not to play this year.
Their sound has an undeniable group hook and cohesion, with perhaps the only shortcoming being a lack of individual sit-up-and-take-notice moments. It, like the Jazz Devils, was something that could slip by almost unnoticed by those concentrating more on tapas than tunes, but moments like Gasquet's use of off-color notes during an extended progression on (I believe) "Byron Valise" where drummer Gregoire Herman gradually worked his way into the thick of things were worthy of attention.
Coming up on day three: Main stage performances by the Soul Bop Band 2005 featuring Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bill Evans, plus Marcus Miller.