Perpignan is an ancient and noble town on the border between France and Spain. It was the capital of the Catalan kingdom, and it is still very proud of this heritage: in some ways, traveling by train for example, it's much closer to Barcelona than to Paris. This is one of the reasons why the Jazzebre Festival is passionately devoted to present different forms of improvised, swinging music from all the Mediterranean countries. Is this Jazz? Many American listeners might not be familiar with many of the names of the performers, and in fact this year the presence of American musicians was quite nominal; in past editions though they were present with numerous and well qualified delegations, and from my point of view, if isn't jazz is close enough, and in any case it was good, compelling contemporary music that could not have happened without Jazz. In the cozy Municipal Theatre and in a rather faceless Congress Hall an attentive audience welcomed the new, adventurous productions and the established names of French and European Jazz. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and musicians were often greeted and complimented while brushing shoulders with citizens in the narrow streets of the historical area, dotted with excellent restaurants serving tapas Spanish style.
The last week-end of the festival, from 25 to 27 October 2001, was opened by the charming show La Grande Illusion, produced by the Association for the Research on Imaginary Folklore, ARFI, from Lyon. Think of a self-organized musical collective able to survive for two decades becoming a local institution, with music courses, concerts and so forth: for more info, brush up your french at www.arfi.org. The old revolutionaries, hairs and beards turning grey, devised a formula which includes space for the improvised collectives, and for many musical jokes, within a loose-structured play, inspired by a delicate, poetic humour: like the Willem Breuker Kollektief directed by Jacques Tati. Around the numbers of the magician Abdul Alafrez (maybe not his given name), the band played a kaleidoscope of musics, from absurdist marching band to rock, to free improvisation; especially impressive, within a general top class musicianship, were the voice and the stage personality of vocalist Lucia Recio and the irresistible tricks of percussionist-actor Alfred Spirli.
The following day, another great voice, the clear, ringing sound of the Italian popular melodies sung by Lucilla Galeazzi, lovingly surrounded by two of the major personalities of French jazz, tubist Michel Godard and an exceptionally inspired Vincent Courtois on cello. Later on, an original production of the Festival, Iberes Ad Lib, presented a fusion between free improvisation and traditional Spanish melodies - cante jondo, bolero, Civil War songs - in the unusual line-up of three voices and a drummer.
The latter was Ramon Lopez, appropriately French-Spanish, whose recent Cds on Leo are well worth checking up; the vocal trio was formed by Gïrard Jacquet, catalan singer who also played folk and home-made instruments, by Equidad Bares, a researcher of Spanish folk-songs and again Lucia Recio of ARFI. When the diverse components were balanced the music was truly moving. More Italians in Rabih Abou-Khalil's sextet: Gabriele Mirabassi on clarinet and Luciano Biondini on accordion contributed brilliantly to the oud player's compositions, many featured in his latest Cd for Enja, The Cactus of Knowledge.
Together with the leader, again Courtois and Godard provided extraordinary solos, the cellist especially subtle in the harmonics play that introduced Fraises et Crïme Fraiche (Cherries and Fresh Cream - Khalil being fond of humorous titles). Michel Portal had two last-minute substitutions in his quintet, and this most probably inspired him to give a very funny evening of new and old songs by this grand seigneur of the clarinet (and bandoneon), with the funk-inspired electric bassist and the burning hard-bop trumpet of Flavio Boltro called to solo on tango and valse-musette... The young quartet Katz, led by imaginative baritonist Marc Demereau, is inspired by Borges and rock, while yet another ARFI group, with Jean-Paul Austin and Maurice Merle on saxophones, Jean Bolcato on bass and Christian Rollet on drums lovingly disrupted a repertory of Edith Piaf songs, playing with the audience which unfaililingly guessed even the more disguised tunes.
Traditionally the festival closes with a Jazz and Wine day, a leisurely walk through the countryside with tasting of the best wines of Roussillon, expertly illustrated by the vineyard owners, and music provided by the Apollo trio, who played also after the closing dinner. If wine-tasting is included with Jazz in your interests, or if you're curious of the combination, a visit to the Perpignan Jazz Festival is recommended!