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Jazz Sur Son 31 2018

Jazz Sur Son 31 2018
Luke Seabright By

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October 5th marked the start of the 2018 edition of Jazz Sur Son 31 in Toulouse and its neighbouring towns. If jazz is part of Toulouse's DNA, a good reminder of this comes from the legacy of one the city's most popular artists, the singer Claude Nougaro who immortalised his hometown in the ballad "O Toulouse." "Serait-ce dans tes tripes une bulle de jazz?" Is that jazz bubbling in your gut, asks Nougaro. He felt it at the time and it's still the case today. It may not be on too many people's radar, but Toulouse has a thriving local scene. It boasts several top-quality music schools (the university even offers a degree in jazz and improvised music) and as a result has a significant reservoir of local talent. The ongoing success of festivals in the region (Jazz in Marciac being the most high-profile one) has helped cultivate an eager audience and create a sustained ecosystem in which musicians can meet and play. Today Toulouse and the south west represent significant hubs in the otherwise very Paris-centric French landscape.

The life of a musician today inevitably involves constant moving around, from town to town, and festival to festival, so it must always feel satisfying to get to play on home turf. Assuming the role of ambassadors for the Pink City's local scene was the homegrown trio led by pianist Amaury Faye. They presented music from their previous release, Clearway (2017), as well as compositions (all original) from their latest album. This will be part of a series of live recordings in 5 European capitals, to be released over the next 5 years. Faye moved to Brussels (where the first album was recorded) in 2015 after graduating from Berklee School of Music. Today he leads his own trio and is also involved in saxophonist David Haudrechy's successful Initiative H project, as well as Giuseppe Millaci's Vogue Trio.

The piano trio is a classic format in the jazz world, and any young bud will be aware of those who tried the waters before them and reshaped the trio concept. At times sounding right in the tradition of Bill Evans, at times going for Brad Mehldau-like lyrical ruminations, at others verging on the minimalist trip-hop sound of GoGo Penguin, the group offered an exciting blend of old and new. Inspired rhythmic modulations from drummer Guillaume Prévost, anchored by Louis Navarro's composed bass, gave Faye plenty of room to elaborate his improvisational craft, and he showed he was equally at ease playing ballads, earthy grooves, or straight-ahead post-bop. There will undoubtedly have been some connoisseurs in the room, excited to see the prodigal son's return, but for many this would have been their first introduction to the 27-year-old. And no doubt they would quickly have realised: this guy is going places.

If Faye is the son, then Detroit drummer Ali Jackson is surely the adopted son. He's known south-western France for quite some time now. Indeed, as a long-standing member of the Wynton Marsalis quintet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he's a very familiar face to audiences at the Marciac Jazz festival. The trumpeter, who's the festival's main patron, performs there twice a year. But Jackson is now also a full-time resident of the pink city. The reason, as Aaron Goldberg enthusiastically revealed to the room half-way through their trio's set, is because Jackson's son was recruited to play professionally for the Blagnac (a Toulouse suburb) youth soccer team. He's been warmly received by Jazz sur son 31, who offered him a four-night residency to showcase some of his current projects.

The Ali Jackson "Yes! Trio" is one of his latest international projects featuring Aaron Goldberg on piano and Omer Avital on double-bass. The three have been performing together since the early nineties in New York City, and their mutual understanding is evident. With the kind of fluid, responsive communication that makes for the best kind of improvised music, they balanced quiet ballads, nifty blues and post-bop expressionism into a cohesive ensemble. Jackson plays with an infectious enthusiasm and frequent touches of humour. Displaying an uncanny versatility on the drum kit to make subtle rhythmic overlays, he created stirring grooves which meshed marvellously with Goldberg's intricate harmonic narratives. Avital was given many opportunities to shine and indulged the audience with some superbly inventive solos that jumped between both extremes of his dynamic range, to great effect. Of particular note was his solo on their cover of Jackie McLean's "Dr Jekyll" (popularised by Miles Davis).

Salle Nougaro

Claude Nougaro gave the city a song, and the city gave him a concert hall. The Salle Nougaro, in keeping with the eclectic tastes of its namesake, offers a diverse program of jazz, blues and world music. The room was full to welcome Sarah McKenzie who, for her latest stopover in the south west, had surrounded herself with a particularly fine ensemble. The foundation of cool, measured swing that McKenzie navigates so well was provided by Marco Valeri on drums and Pierre Boussaguet on double-bass. On guitar, Hugo Lippi's sophisticated melodic ideas provided ample material for some engaging call and response with McKenzie, whose assured, if sometimes a little hackneyed, piano playing is steeped in the language of bluesy hard bop. The room was immediately charmed by the young Australian singer's elegant charisma and love for French culture, which she eagerly professed to a receptive audience. There's the music on the one hand. Case in point, Michel Legrand ranks among her favourite composers, and her only solo performance of the evening was an interpretation of his standard "You Must Believe in Spring."

The people, the food and the wine all of course play their part. But then there's also Paris, one of her favourite cities which she pays tribute to in the title track of her latest album, Paris in the Rain. It came up half-way through her set, a cool swaying tune, Valeri's shimmering cymbal combining with light overlapping piano/guitar lines to subtly reproduce the pitter-patter of raindrops. Like many of her compositions, it's a clear illustration of her affinity for that particular song-writing tradition canonized by the likes of Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. Theirs are songs she loves to sing and does so with a sleek assured voice. McKenzie's music is greatly informed Great American Songbook, but she also invited her audience on a journey south of the equator, namely Brazil. Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste" swayed from a light bossa swing into a vigorous cha-cha-cha, and was followed by an original number, inspired by the Brazilian composer. "De Nada" was composed after a trip to the country the previous year, where she shared the stage with musicians who had played with Jobim ("de nada Sarah, de nada" being the common response she would get to her repeated expressions of gratitude).

Halle aux Grains

"Parfois au fond de moi se ranime ... la brique rouge des Minimes." Toulouse earned its nickname, "the pink city," from one of its main architectural features, the reddish hue of its bricks. The 15th century saw several devastating fires destroy many of the town's wooden houses, and with the influx of money from the woad trade, brick buildings became widespread. In the city's centre, you'll see grand "hôtels particuliers" with splendid courtyards, 19th century apartment buildings and large public edifices all contributing to the pink landscape. Built out of pebbles and red brick, with its distinct hexagonal architecture, The Halle aux Grains is a Toulouse landmark, and certainly among its most famous concert halls. Celebrated for its great acoustics, it was originally erected in 1861 to serve as a covered grain market and the name has stuck. In the 1950s it was repurposed as a performance hall. It is the main residence of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, and today programs mostly classical concerts.

For a Sunday afternoon show, the square in front of the Halle aux Grains was surprisingly packed. The unusually long queues to get in delayed the show by a quarter of an hour, and by the time people started emerging from behind the curtains, the excitement inside had grown palpably, with eager concert goers anticipating their arrival with whoops, claps and cheers. The musicians entering the stage were those of the Garonne Big Band, led by Philippe Léogé, a mainstay of the local jazz scene as well as the founder and current artistic director of the festival. However, the raucous applause was reserved for the start of the second piece, when Lisa Simone , the band's guest star, entered the stage. "I love playing with big bands!" Simone exclaimed gleefully, in her almost impeccable French. What better way, according to her, to really get the feel of traditional jazz. Certainly the energy of the band behind her provided the perfect catalyst for her own dynamic and out-going stage presence, which kept the audience electrified throughout.

The energetic swing of the opener gave way to the slow wistful pace of "I'm the Keeper of the Flame," the first of many songs made famous by Nina Simone that she would interpret throughout the night. In fact, in her opening statements Simone framed this concert as a tribute to her mother and an opportunity to revisit some of the classics in her songbook. It's a legacy which she has embraced with modesty and panache whilst always affirming her own musical personality. Her muscular, soulful voice is a force in its own right. It displayed both eruptive power on numbers such as "Go to Hell," and delicate tenderness in her a cappella opening to "Black is the Colour." The latter number, after starting with the haunting tone of the original, then unexpectedly morphed into a funky R&B groove. Swinging covers of "Love Me or Leave Me" and "My Baby Just Cares For Me" were also warmly received. Finally, as an encore, Simone regaled the ecstatic crowd (she received a standing ovation) with a rousing rendition of "Feeling Good."

Pavillon République

As well as programming concerts in the main halls, Jazz Sur Son 31 erects a stage called the Pavillon République in the courtyard of the city's Conseil Général (the departmental council). For jazz aficionados on a budget, the Pavillon offered gigs and events for five euros or less (often free) as part of two concert series focusing on Cuban and French jazz. The latter featured some of the rising stars of the French scene such as Samy Thiébault. He is currently touring to promote his new album, Caribbean Stories, which was released in September 2018. In a similar way to its highly praised predecessor Rebirth, this project traces a very personal musical journey. Here, rhythms and melodies from Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico—ingredients he developed a taste for after an extended trip to the Caribbean—are all thrown into his musical cauldron.

This was the band's very first outing, and at times it showed, with misunderstandings between the musicians occasionally becoming apparent, and passages of group improvisation falling slightly flat. But with musicians of this calibre, such things are easily overlooked. At the heart of the matter was the immense Felipe Cabrera, who helped Thiébault shape the project from its inception. His commanding solo introduction to "Let Freedom Reign" was a notable highlight, at times channelling the deep folksy tone of Charlie Haden and intermittently quoting Bach. A key player in the afro-cuban jazz scene, Cabrera has many prestigious collaborations to his name, including a fourteen-year stint with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. With Cuban percussionist Inor Sotolongo and French drummer Arnaud Dolmen by his side, Hugo Lippi (once again) and Ralph Lavital sharing responsibilities on the guitar, he had an ideal team to shape the Caribbean rhythms in Thiébault's stories.

If you count Sonny Rollins and Charlie Rouse among your musical heroes—as Thiébault explained to us—it's not altogether surprising you might have a try at writing a calypso. "Calypsotopia" (the clue's in the name) brought forth the music of Trinidad, and "Pajarillo Verde" the Venezuelan merengue. The first number they played—opened by Thiébault alone on tenor with a slow sombre pentatonic line—had the feel of a religious chant (before morphing into a grooving modal jazz tune), much like those in the Santeria religion, which the composition is named after. There was samba, there was cha-cha-cha. All these musical forms and traditions—which the album aims to celebrate —blended together in an enchanting evening marked by the infectiousness of Caribbean grooves.

Pavillon République

If what you're looking for is tight, fast-paced swing and frenzied virtuosic runs, you should probably head over to your closest gypsy jazz club. By welcoming on stage Steve Laffont's quartet, the Pavillon République undoubtedly became the finest one in town. Born into a piedmontese Sinti family, Laffont picked up the guitar from age 6 and through a shared communal devotion to the music of Django Reinhardt, quickly acquired the chops of a manouche master. Django's compositions, as you'd expect, featured strongly in the band's setlist, with stellar renditions of "Webster" and, as an appropriate finale when the crowd was clamouring for more, "Les Yeux Noirs." They also played some of Laffont's own compositions, unmistakably seeped in the manouche tradition, but informed by his family's personal odyssey which took them from Algeria, through Corsica ("A Night in Corsica"), to French Catalonia ("Made in Perpignan").

All clad in pristine white garbs, the classy quartet was your standard gypsy jazz outfit. Claudius Dupont on double-bass and Rudy Rabuffetti on guitar provided as steadfast a rhythm section as you could hope to get, with the latter's unrelenting "pompe" accompaniment assuredly driving the soloists along and compensating for the absence of drums. Laffont's fingers whizzed up and down the fretboard, running through single-note lines and chord clusters with dazzling virtuosity. His sparring partner Costel Nitescu, equally at ease soaring through the changes at break-neck speeds, added a welcome touch of lyricism on the slower numbers, seamlessly quoting Vivaldi, carrying his violin to melancholy heights and modulating his sound to give it the timbre of birdsong. Nitescu also took centre stage for the first encore, producing an impressive six-minute-long solo while Laffont went backstage to replace a broken string. On his return, the two acolytes engaged in some teasing back and forth as a build-up to Django's most famous riff, "Minor Swing," the first notes of which triggered a satisfied cheer of recognition from the exultant crowd.

In Conclusion

Since its founding in 1987, Jazz Sur Son 31 has been a resounding success, and this year marked its 32nd edition. Concerts and events were programmed in different venues throughout the Haute-Garonne, France's 31st department (in case you were confused about the numbers), with Toulouse, its administrative and cultural capital, hosting the lion's share of them. The festival is one the highlights of its cultural agenda, a two-week event for which the city puts on its Sunday best ("se met sur son 31" as the French expression goes). This year's program offered once again a sophisticated and diverse selection of established and up-and-coming musicians, from France and overseas (other artists included Erik Truffaz and Anne Paceo). Next year's festival is surely one to look forward to.

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