Jazz In Marciac Festival: Day 9

Mark Sabbatini By

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Plenty of people try convincing themselves an expensive, but ordinary, concert was special. Doing the reverse seems like the act of a complete idiot.

Then again, that's the opinion many have about journalists anyhow.

Trying to be an objective critic - an oxymoron if there is one - sometimes means overcompensating for personal biases, like making an extra effort to find something praiseworthy when auditioning the latest by perceived lightweights such as Spyro Gyra and Kenny G. During the years I spent covering politics the elected officials I respected most got the toughest questions. Many therefore had completely wrong impressions about what I thought of them and their proposals.

Which is why I'm trying to tell myself John Zorn wasn't that great.

Zorn and his Acoustic Masada quartet highlighted day nine of the 28th annual Jazz In Marciac Festival and, in my humbly ignorant opinion, played the best featured concert so far during the two-week event. Whereas I struggled the previous evening trying to link between Phil Woods and the constant anointment from critics as alto saxman on the planet, Zorn did nothing to endanger his battling-among-equals status among the few occupying that place in my cranium.

Not everyone agreed, as will be seen.

Maybe the rush came from something of a lackadaisical mindset on an exceptionally warm and muggy day where a number of the daytime shows were responsible for little of the heat.

One of the earliest was also one of the best, as the Sweet Mama Quartet did a little bit of everything qualifying as folk jazz from Reinhardt/Grappelli swing to blues to kazoo-led polka. Catherine Girard was the center of attention wearing accessories such as a harmonica and washboard, all while supplying vocals and keeping a drumbeat going on a minimal kit. It made a good show as well as good listening. They have a live album but, while pretty good, doesn't capture the same energy.

A few of the other groups were repeat acts and, maybe it was just the heat, but things definitely got sleepy at times. One of the few other moments I found truly interesting was the Barret-Lazarevitch Quintet's extended and rather intensely rumbling interpretation of "Suzanne," but it came at the end of a of so-so set - at one point I noted guitarist Serge Lazarevitch might draw comparisons to Frank Gambale if the Chick Corea sideman ended his solos halfway through before getting to the really rocking stage.

The Andre Villeger Trio offered something of an early evening wakeup call, playing gritty blues and quicker standards like "Duke's Choice" in a keyboard/sax/drums setup. It was solid - my notes contain the word "organic" - with a strong sense of cohesion, without a lot of individual landmarks. It was one of the few times during the day something not too subdued or intense (there was none of that) for the weather could be heard.

The first featured concert of the evening was saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who no matter how far he goes in life will see the phrase "son of the legendary John Coltrane" in everything written or said about him. But he's handled it as well as possible, developing into a legitimate player without taking undue advantage of his name or trying to live up to the same standards.

The BBC's Peter Marsh has a good blurb about him in an album review, stating "Ravi's no Julian Lennon or Ziggy Marley opting for a safe career retreading dad's footsteps in the family business; he's found his own voice. There are traces of Coltrane senior, of course, but really no more than you'd find in the music of any other tenor player around in the last 40 years or so."

Bits of that connection could be heard on soprano during his original "Coincide" to open the quartet performance in Marciac, working notes quickly over a fairly even range, but with a clearly more contemporary tone. Drummer E.J. Strickland was also quick and broad, demonstrating technique over volume and raw flair to some vamping from others toward the end of the piece.

A nice early change of pace came on "One Wheeler Will," a piece written by Ralph Alessi for Ravi Coltrane's son with a "Song For Bilbao" cadence, with the more breaking rhythm lending itself to more variety and clearer definition of Coltrane's phrasing. Pianist Luis Perdomo kept his hands close and the right definitely busier than the left fingering out clean lines, doing a decent job of wringing variation out of maybe half the range of the keys. Less noteworthy was "Jagadishwar," the soprano over Perdomo's pedal-heavy dark chordings feeling a bit too much like contemporary smooth jazz for the setting, although Coltrane kept things respectable by not delving into over-the-top theatrics like crowd- oriented repetition or drawn-out high notes.

Coltrane's "Avignon" toward the end of the show, featuring a playful soprano head over an almost child-like piano vamp, turned into what a newcomer might expect from the son of the legend, shifting into an upbeat post-bop. But better was his African-tinged "13th Floor" as the encore - something of a surprise, given than many festival encores with a mailed-in quality to date - as Coltrane's rapid tenor runs spoke with some of most assertiveness and development of the night.

My overall assessment was a solid, workman-like night. Reaction from a concert tent perhaps three-fourths full was positive and there were few negative comments.

"Ravi Coltrane actually put on a really good show," said Law Hamilton, a Rockport, Mass., resident on a WGBH radio tour whose photographs of the main concerts are seen here (her work is also part of day four's article). "From what I've heard he's really matured during the last season or two of touring."

With Zorn, consensus was anything but likely.

The love-hate opinions exist even within fans - myself included, since I have little taste for much of his electric work. But coming to Marciac with Acoustic Masada meant experiencing his improvised genius/insanity (depending on one's view) free of that clutter and Zorn's bandmates - some of whom weren't in their best element during shows with other groups heard recently - are about as tight and compatible as a quartet gets.

The Marciac gig wasn't one of his crazier shows - in fact, it seemed reasonably easy to relate to and keep up with nearly the entire night. His finger-flailing screams-from- nowhere and "other" sounds were often more punctuation than the foundation of his diamond-tone verbiage, which as as newcomer I tended to associate with Sanborn on ecstasy. It was strongly evident on the opening worldbeat-laced "Tharsis" (a Zorn original, as were all of the songs played), notable more for a strong series of progressions than the occasions - sometimes momentary, sometimes not - he completely deviated from them. But, like the person who curses rarely, it gave those indulgences more prominence and made their point with much greater authority.

The interchange of players emerged more on the subsequent "Mibi," with Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas launching a freeform assault. Bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Barron did a less chaotic mix of their own and the baton continued getting passed - loosely - between the pairs. Douglas, who seems to run hot and cool depending on the band he's with, was hot here by supplying the cool (sorry, couldn't resist the cheesy phrasing) that kept Zorn's wilder moments from singeing. Even when they were both going full-tilt, their acoustics were remarkable well-matched for this kind of music, a testament to the bond they've developed.

Barron, who overwhelmed his co-players a bit when I saw him with John Abercrombie at a tiny festival in Finland last month (write-up on that coming soon as part of my "Back Roads Beat" series), was among equals here. I'm as qualified to break down his technique as I am to play it; let's just say he underscored and helped build up the subtler moments of songs like "Rikbiel" as well as he whaled during jungle and group improvs and leave it there.

Crowd reaction was notable, with isolated shouts from all over the tent between songs - and since they were in French I have no idea if they thought Zorn was taking requests or not. The collective reaction probably wasn't the strongest of the festival (hey, not everyone's a fan), but it wasn't far off and a couple of festival officials said they were pleased his music was accepted so well.

Others offered unsolicited raves during random conversions over the next couple of days, and Paul De Barros of Downbeat and The Seattle Times - a favorite scribe of mine whose opinions I've come to respect even more talking with him during the week - agreed it was a special performance and Zorn said as much talking to De Barros afterward ("how could you not be charged by the crowd reaction" was more or less Zorn's comment, but I'd rather not scoop De Barros with detailed or verbatim quotes).

On the other hand, Gabriel Suball, a volunteer in the festival's media computer room, said he found Zorn's avant-gardism too strange for his tastes ("but interesting"). Suball said he enjoyed featured shows on earlier days by The Blind Boys Of Alabama and Omar Sosa, but his tastes run more to hard rock. Law Hamilton, again providing photographs of the main concerts as she did on day four, said it was her first exposure to Zorn and, as a fan of the likes of Kenny Barron and Charles Lloyd, it was "not my cup of tea."

Consider that my contribution to balanced reporting. Meanwhile, apparently in need of an auditory cold shower before hitting the next round of performances with fresh ears, I had no idea just how much of one I about to experience.

Coming on day 10: Playing up a storm in Mariac.

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