Jazz In Marciac Festival: Day 4

Mark Sabbatini By

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Note: Grammy-winning Cuban vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who emerged from obscurity to become a breakout star with the Buena Vista Social Club, died Saturday in Havana at the age of 78. His last concert was Aug. 2 at the Jazz In Marciac Festival, where some who attended said he clearly was in poor health. Ferrer had suffered from emphysema, according to his production company, and became ill during the week. The Marciac concert was the final stop on the tour, and immediate reaction upon hearing about his death was generally more sadness than shock for many. "Today is a very special day - more than special," said pianist Omar Sosa during a performance with his trio Sunday night, "because we had the opportunity to enjoy him here as a performer...one of the greatest, one of the pioneers of our music." On a personal note, I bypassed the concert in order to hear local acts on smaller stages, as noted in my day two report, which I suspect I will long regret as his life story and late-in-life breakthrough are remarkable.

Even if a two-week festival is lucky enough to avoid bad days, some inevitably are "breathers" between peaks.

Plenty of diversity marked day four of the Jazz In Marciac Festival, but it was almost unfair to expect the Thursday lineup to compete with opening weekend listings such as Wynton Marsalis and a day-long series of concerts by students at the much-touted local college. Many of the day's earlier performances ranked as good listens, but failed to achieve the special or unique feel of some earlier in the week.

Still, a headliner gospel concert by The Blind Boys Of Alabama resonated at the main concert tent after a bit of a lackluster start and the Taj Mahah Trio contributed a solid set, although they didn't draw the packed house of the previous night's fusion acts.

Many of the daytime concerts were repeat appearances by bands, including a chance to catch up with two sounding promising from snippets I caught on previous days, the Affinity Quartet and the Nicholas Rageau Quartet. Both turned out to be variations of the type of show I hate assessing as a novice: accomplished mainstream at a level exceeding my ability to dissect nuances.

Plenty of AAJ vets could no doubt say the Affinity Quartet featured shades of Donald Byrd intellect complimented by Charles Mingus-like compositional complexity, or some such thing. I'm more limited - their no-nonsense straight-ahead, featuring a touch of African and Latin undertones, was what I think of as "Coltrane jazz" without some of the jarring edges. Considering that's a potential timeline from Parker to Weather Report, that doesn't narrow the scope much.

Saxophonist Herve Fourtic's moderately old-school tone was clean and the the point for a set consisting of at least some originals, since the few song titles I caught were in French. It was intellectual stuff featuring a lot of ideas with little vamping, repeating or unorthodox notes gimmicking for attention. Perhaps that was the problem - though deep as a college textbook, there wasn't a passion or identity to make it stand out in a crowd of distinguished scholars. The same held true for the West Coast cool stylings of the Nicholas Rageau Quartet, with the bassist leading a show possessing an instant Wes Montgomery- like appeal. But I found myself simply enjoying it on that level without taking many notes. I suspect that's more my fault than theirs - hence my above admissions of ignorance - as many pros could no doubt discern plenty of subtleties I missed.

An early evening show by vocalist Sophie Sorman, on the other hand, didn't rise to the level of some singers earlier in the week - notably multiple appearances by the wide- ranging and free-scatting Sandy Patton. Sorman, backed by an instrumental quartet, had a pleasing enough lilting voice, but many compositions were of the pop-jazz (think Anita Baker) or Latin-pop variety without enough grit or depth to hook.

Her vocals lacked the range and spontaneity of some of the week's better performers. The instrumentalists had a lively enough contemporary flair - Max Pinto did some nice non- cliched worked on sax, although similar chops were less suited to his flute work - creating a listener-friendly landscape. It wasn't bad music and much of the crowd reacted favorably, but not a standout compared to the huge roster of assembled talent.

The walk to the main concert tent unearthed the usual diverse lineup of scattered small acts at various cafes (all unnamed here since I was running late): intriguing Klezmer and similar ethnic jazz by a young group featuring players often working out the roots of the compositions to scant accompaniment; an acoustic quartet doing it's part to discover complex possibilities within the simple framework of "All Blues;" a guitar-led set by older players doing something from the Django Reinhardt era; a guy sitting in a narrow street off the main drag playing a thumb piano nested in a wooden bowl (seeking a reverb effect, I guess) for pocket change.

For The Blind Boys Of Alabama, perhaps the most fitting phrase is redemption.

An impatient crowd awaited the seven-member R&B gospel group as they started 20 minutes late and, while they warmed a bit to some early numbers like "The Spirit In The Sky" and "Down By The Riverside" that were short and straightforward, it was a show that built momentum as it progressed.

Vocalist Jimmy Carter got the first above-and-beyond reaction from the crowd doing some howling, heying and hahing on the group's popular "Way Down In The Hole" and they got another roar for doing "Amazing Grace" to the cadence of "House Of The Rising Sun" (gotta love the versatility of the latter - it's also a good anchor for "O Little Town Of Bethlehem"). But the real energy came next on a lengthy and loose "Look Where You Brought Me From," with Carter wandering among the audience with the assistance of a guide, singing, scatting and shaking hands as he went. It got the crowd on their feet, clapping and trading shouted "heys." If the goal was a large-scale revival feeling, it was accomplished during those 20 minutes.

It provided enough energy to keep the crowd enthusiastic through two not-quite-as-high encores, although it's worth noting that even with them the 75-minute concert was a bit short compared to featured acts on previous nights.

Similarly, the night's second featured concert by the Taj Mahal Trio occupied "mixed positive" territory.

A need to make deadline for articles related to earlier stuff forced me to "subcontract" assessment to a couple of pros taking part in a Brickhouse Productions tour. Law Hamilton, a Rockport, Mass., photographer whose pictures of the featured concerts are seen here, offered the more positive assessment, calling the guitarist and pianist "flirtatious," and the mix of old and new material generally an audience hit.

"The benches were moving, everybody was just leaning back and getting into the blues," she said. "I think his band with three pieces was much richer than I expected it. No grand things like going into the crowd, but still he was charismatic."

Eric Jackson, a radio producer and announcer for WGBH radio in Boston, said "he did an exciting show, but I've seen him more exciting." In Marciac, Mahal didn't quite bring the spark and fire of his best work.

"That was the only group that didn't get a rousing ovation," Jackson said. "He seemed like he was looking at his watch. I didn't catch it, but somebody else said he did."

Both Hamilton and Jackson said the 11 p.m. concert was shorter than expected.

"We were out of there earlier than any other night," Jackson said. "We were in the bus by 12:30 p.m. and most nights we weren't in there until quarter after one."

But if day four fell a bit short on quality and quantity, the chance to head home early and catch up on rest before a packed weekend slate probably was at least timely for many. Like most extended works of jazz, breathing space between highlights is frequently essential for appreciating them.

Coming up on day five: The students of Marciac's notorious jazz education program take the stage.


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