Professionalism verses passion.
Debates about which is preferable exists in all professions. Fielding a smart quarterback who doesn't lose games or one who gambles to win. Promoting the disciplined or impulsive employee. Staying at the Hilton or Betty's Bed And Breakfast.
There's no clear-cut winner, although I confess a preference for the latter. But that's also meant rooting for the losing team in recent years, watching Brett Farve throw a few too many picks during key games.
So on a day dedicated to fusion at the Jazz In Marciac Festival, it was the unknown local rookie prevailing over all-star veterans on the personal scorecard.
Day three of the two-week festival in this small 13th century village in southwest France featured headline concerts by bassist Marcus Miller and the Soul Bop Band, the latter an all-star sextet led by trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bill Evans. Both attracted packed crowds numbering in the thousands and the Soul Bop Band in particular was a rousing audience hit. But a couple free performances in the village square by the Newtopia Quintet are far more likely to leave lasting memories.
I have heard better intellectual (a.k.a. latter-era) Yellowjackets-style fusion, but not lately nor can I remember recently seeing a group play it with the raw focus and intensity shown by Newtopia. Vast amounts of body English seemingly aimed more at seducing their instruments more than the crowd and glazed stares of utter concentration into space were alternating mannerisms of nearly all the players, who spent their pauses absorbing and rooting on bandmates.
This sort of thing is seen on stage all the time, of course, but like a Big Mac verses a $48 kobe beef burger there's huge differences in the quality and satisfaction resulting from similar ingredients.
Or, from a totally different perspective, while the Soul Bop concert too often felt like an extended commercial for their new CD, Newtopia doesn't have any.
Day three started in the usual fashion: arriving a bit late for the initial late-morning act (those post-midnight concerts and a couple hours' driving to and from bed does that). I caught only promising tidbits of something thoughtfully low-key by the Affinity Quartet and missed their early evening show thanks to some misunderstood directions resulting in an unplanned tour of the beach-like outdoor public swimming pool. Fortunately they're among the many bands playing multiple days, including an afternoon concert on day four. Also getting shafted later in the day to make deadline was a late afternoon show by the Nicolas Rageau Quartet. The bassist's group is also part of tomorrow's lineup.
One of the festival's better Dixie shows to date was the lunchtime set by the Mississippi Jazz Band, a southwest France sextet with strong harmonization featuring soloing often longer and more evolved in the jazz timeline than a stick-to-the-era mentality might produce. Alto saxophonist Jean Louis Laclavere spent a fair amount of time in swing/bop territory, the dense notes fitting well into minimal support such as a simple banjo vamp on a couple of slower pieces. Daniel Huck, also doing some work on sax, could have been in the Rollins era with up-tempo-but-lighthearted work that sparked a crowd clap-along at one point, although a more consistently appreciable contribution was his vocals that somehow had authentic accents of the Deep South and France simultaneously. Drummer Benoit Aufrete even took a brief tour of the modern era toward the end of the show, rumbling out a thick texture of toms and snares, followed by some fancy stick click work and a final walkup through the range of his gear.
After the usual 90-minute afternoon siesta - anything but quiet as the Batuque Usina African percussion group took its daily show of marching thunder around the town square - it was time for the Newtopia Quintet.
Their hour-long show consisted largely a four-part "Suite Elegiaque," which saxophonist and band leader Raphael Imbert said he composed to capture feelings associated with death.
"There is a feeling when you lost somebody very important, and this year and a few years before I has occasion to relate to that," he said in an interview. "I wanted to compose something for healing."
Imbert said his influences include John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Albert Ayler, but his compositions are more contemporary as he tries to communicate some of those ideas to today's audiences.
"Jazz has a great context in modern art, and in France we have a problem with that because people think jazz is for clubs and jazz is for swing," he said.
An instructor at the Conservatoire De Marseille, the oldest jazz education institute in France, Imbert formed Newtopia with students of his. They earned a space at the Marciac festival by winning this year's Concours National de Jazz de La Défense competition in Paris against more than 80 other bands.
"It is the most important jazz contest in France," Imbert said.