Jazz In Marciac Festival: Days 10 and 11

Mark Sabbatini By

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Public toilets are scarce, but a woman in one grape-strewn courtyard said it's probably the nicest place she's waited for one.

The vines overhead are supposed to be ripe in about three weeks for supposedly a pretty good vintage year in southwest France (it's possible locals wouldn't be eager to acknowledge a bad one). Even though every day of the two-week 28th annual Jazz In Marciac festival except the first has been pleasantly to overwhelmingly sunny, obviously something else makes all the greenery possible.

Day 10 was "something else."

A strong French-oriented lineup, rather than the usual famous imported talent, headlined the night's featured concerts. The triple billing of the Paris Jazz Big Band, African transplant Magic Malik leading a quintet on flute, and reedmen Michel Portal and Louis Sclavis offered diversity from old school to cutting edge.

Hopefully they delivered.

A torrential rainstorm, complete with gale winds and frequent lighting, knocked out power and flooded streets within minutes of starting around 6 p.m. Call me a coward, but I got the hell out of there.

I had it on pretty good authority shows wouldn't play if thunder and lightening were likely to interfere, and given that my tiny rented Fiat seemed in danger of leaving town via the narrow street it was parked on anyhow, I figured I might as well be in it. Considering I could see plenty of thunder and lightening from my place 30 miles away five hours later, I'd have offered bets at 20 to 1 the concerts took place - and lost. Kudos to everyone who pulled it together.

Which is why this piece lumps days 10 and 11 together; there's isn't much to say about the former.

Some repeat appearances were among the daytime shows - not that hearing the quirky folk of the Sweet Mama Quartet again was a bad thing - but the highlight had to be the first exposure to Jazz Quatre, led by vocalist Florance Grimal. Her fairly deep voice possessed considerable range, soul and spontaneity, and the set of standards (sung in French) were subject to fun yet skillful rearrangements such as an up-tempo Bossa Nova "Over The Rainbow." On a more recognizable "Afro Blue" she scatted and chanted rapidly over a narrow pitch range to drummer Philippe Haguenier, freeing him to supply the tonal range, with pianist Ludovic breaking up a series of straight-ahead builds with occasional return-to-ethnic counterattacks.

(Because of the abbreviated nature of the day 10 stuff, here's a preview of the downloadable songs from festival artists I try to present in separate articles afterward: Five MP3s are available free at the band's Web site.)

An early evening concert by the Tonton Salut Freedom Jazz Band got off to a good start, opening with an off-the-beat march/fusion hybrid topped with some eclectic intermingling by Richard Calleja on soprano sax and Laurent Fickelson on piano. It was an intriguing bit of instrumental soundscaping, followed up by vocalist Fredee A's mid-pitch romping modern swing and wordless harmonizing with Calleja on a couple of subsequent pieces. Normally I head backstage after shows to get the details, but never got the chance - the above mentioned Serious Rain arrived shortly afterward and wiped out the show and crowd in less than a minute.

Sticking around to swap stories about surviving the great flood of '05 might make for great reading, but when carrying a pack with a laptop and every other possession for a trip lasting several months a roof is a lot more appealing. For those dying for some kind of audio/video review, from the proper side of a window pane the lightning and thunder show was one of the most impressive I've seen - we're talking extended length strikes that light up the entire sky and rock the walls. Many sympathies to the campers and others stuck outside. One person said they basically spent the night floating in their tent.

Day 11

The early retreat wasn't a total loss - it helped ensure arriving for the 9:30 a.m. start of Stagiaires 2005, featuring a wide range of school and university groups from France and elsewhere in Europe, supposedly including Luxembourg.

The two to three hours of performances were much like the daylong series featuring students in the jazz program at Marciac's college on day five, with groups playing a few songs of varying quality, and individuals turning in noteworthy moments here and there. Jean Guyomarch, 17, of Chateaulin, France, threw an electric guitar solo with some funk attitude into a fairly pedestrian ensemble standard arrangement. Valentine Montalembert, 18, of Paris, was part of an eight-woman vocal group backed by a piano that engaged in rounds of scat, train noises, bird calls and the like, her first jazz encounter after studying classical music for 10 years.

An early-era funk/fusion set just before noon, featuring modal trumpet work by Renaud Jeansane plus a trio of saxophonists mixing free playing up both collectively and during solos, was one of the overall highlights. Saxophonist Vincent Thekal, 23, a former student in Marciac who was part of the 12-member group from east France, said his motivation to play at the festival came after attending it several times.

"I came two or three years ago just to see the music," he said. "I see the guys and say "Whoa, if they're playing when they're 15, 16 years old then I can play."

Jeansane, 23, said he leads a few bands, including a big band and a vocal cabaret, but probably won't be able to pursue music as a career in his hometown.

"Where I live there are not too many places to play - one club once a week, but sometimes I go to Paris," he said. As for the future, "first I think I have to stay in Paris and then why not New York? Here it is very, very hard."

There were others worth mentioning - they just happened to be some of the notables I was able to talk to in either limited English or with the help of a translator.

The mix of styles continued at a higher level during the afternoon shows. Some of the first real electric old-school fusion of the festival's regional acts came from the Alain Brunet Quintet, with Jean Louis D'O backing up the group on a laptop computer, synths and electronic drums. Calling such music Miles-like is an obvious cliche, but since they were performing long-form pieces such as the legend's "Jean-Pierre" it's the only fitting description. Trumpeter Alain Brunet did a nice emulation of Davis' sparse-note approach and D'O's rolling mix of chorused ethnic/wood vibes simulations added interesting - and not overdone - textures. Jean Jacques Taib was more active on reeds, although some middling-quality sax work was surpassed by more adventurous reaching on bass clarinet - maybe simply due to its different acoustical nature.

Dixie resurfaced after a few days' absence with the Gilbert Leroux Quintet, an above- average performance for this festival due largely to Leroux's scat vocals, and a lively variety of quirky drum and percussion accents underscoring everything with a modern-day energy and 80-year-old timbres. They ventured into the swing era a bit, but the sonics of their instruments pretty much ensured a New Orleans flavor seeped into the entire concert.

Getting a chance to hear the Tonton Salut Freedom Jazz Band again during an afternoon land subsequent early evening concert also proved rewarding, with Fredee A coming close to matching the passion and variety of Grimal's Jazz Quatre group. In fact, they had their own up-tempo Latin take on a classic ballad, injecting that dace-oriented spirit into Bill Evans' "Suicide Is Painless" (also known as the theme from "M*A*S*H). As long as one didn't reflect on the title it was actually effective.

Early to rise meant early to bed, in part because I was down with some kind of low-grade bug, maybe due to the soaking I endured the previous day just getting to my car. So I subcontracted the evening assessments out to Law Hamilton one final time, since she's been taking and supplying pictures for several of the concerts. She's also got a good ear and attended the Marciac festival previously, giving her some perspective I lack.

The opening show by the Count Basie Orchestra was among the relative few landing in unremarkable territory so far.

"It was fun, but it didn't knock my socks off," Hamilton said. "Usually, even in those tribute-type jazz things it's good to hear the standards, but there wasn't a bounce in their step. I felt like they were just going through the motions."

"The highlight of it to me was the drummer - they really let him go a couple of times. It's not that I was disappointed. It didn't blow me like some others did."

More successful was Monty Alexander's "Spirit Of Jamaica" concert, featuring his trio backed by a five-member Jamaican band. Although next day's festival newsletter featured a front-page picture of the pianist and the headline Monty reggaele Marciac, Hamilton said that really wasn't the essence of the show.

"I'm not the reggae girl; it's just not my thing," she said. "But I have to say it blew me away because it wasn't reggae. Yeah, there was that feeling and some of that backbeat to it, but it wasn't reggae - definitely jazz with Caribbean influences."

Guitarist Ernest Ranglin was a standout, Hamilton said, with Alexander responding to him in kind. She also singled out drummers Herlin Riley and Rolando Wilson, playing in turns so as to maintain an overall trio feeling.

Maybe the best report the next day, however, was hearing no storms are forecast for the final two days of big-name headliners (the festival wraps up with two full days of regional action afterward). Going into the final weekend the big personal question is if anyone can knock John Zorn's day nine concert from the throne. Right now it appears there's only one possible contender on the final day, unless somebody pulls off a remarkable feat of cultural education tomorrow night.

Coming up on day 12: All-stars of Latin and Cuban music, where there's no such thing as a good seat in the house.

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