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By Jennifer Odell Around the world this fall, politics informed art and culture, making strong statements about war in Iraq, constitutional democracy in the Europe Union and the Presidential election in the U.S. fair game for artists. But at the JVC Jazz Festival in Paris this October, a theme of unity in the face of conflict prevailed. "Mr. President, listen to your people," warned Kiala Nzavotunga, Doctor L's percussionist at the club Bataclan on October 18th. "Election is a game for the politicians. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose: That's a game." The message was poignant. But the cavalry of acoustic drums, electronic samples and Fender Rhodes chords spoke more powerfully. Irish-American turntablist Liam Farell, aka Doctor L, unified electronic, acoustic and organic components (like the shells and gourds draping from Nzavotunga's rig) with a few doses of Afro-beat. Later, a xylophone over ambient drum loops and trancelike vocals set the mood for headliners Medeski, Martin and Wood. MMW's new album, End of the World Party (just in case) (Blue Note) has a sinister edge, and the live performance of tunes like the eponymous track were even darker. Still, the trio's signature hard groove brought even dissonant elements together. On the album, "End of the World Party" starts out deep and edgy but once the groove starts it carries all the way through to the end of the track. But live, the tension between the bass line and the nervous, high bars that Medeski repeatedly threw at his own melody lasted longer, sending the same groove further askew and ending with a cacophony of near-feedback. The musicians spoke few words during the performance and encore, but drummer Billy Martin's "November 2" t-shirt gave a non-partisan nod at the Presedential race back home. Other performances during the festival were less politically-tinged. At the legendary club, Sunset/Sunside, a series of American horn players including Vincent Herring, Eric Bibb and Wallace Roney kept the focus on the music. They were in the right venue for it, too. Tucked away in the bendy streets of the first arrondissement, Sunset gives the performance priority over bar sales and socializing. The bartender is a one-man show: He pours your beer, ushers you to your seat, keeps the aisles clear and shushes chatty visitors. Past his short, no-frills bar, the room opens up to better acoustics, tightly-packed wooden chairs and a minimalist stage. Herring held court there for two nights of three sets each, with Essiett Essiett on bass, Juris Dudi on drums and Danny Grissett on piano. The first night began with a gasp, as Herring opened the show by stockpiling some oxygen. He needed it for a fast swinging tune that featured notey interplay with the rhythm section before folding back into clear, smooth lines.
"This is the 23rd concert of a 23-day tour," he said, fatigued. By the second set, though, the band seemed to have recovered its fire. Players explored one another's concepts, never letting an idea fall to the floor and special guest Stefano di Battista sat in, adding sad, airy tones that sounded like they could have been weaned on traditional New Orleans brass.
A few days later, Wallace Roney graced the same room to promote his new album, Prototype (High Note). Clad in dark shades and a glittering royal blue blazer, Roney cleared the air with high, spacey, long notes over ambient synth chords. The trumpet player's brother Antoine added his sax to the mix, along with pianist Adam Holzman, drummer Eric Reed and Marlene Rosenberg (replacing Matthew Garrison) on bass. "I'm trying to convey the emotions and trying to make you feel me," Roney told NPR earlier that month when asked what he hoped his music would express. It's no wonder, then, that he brought down Sunset's packed house.
"Generally the French are very successful at reconciling their intellectual and emotional responses to music," said vocalist Stacey Kent, whose latest album, The Boy Next Door (Candid) enjoyed silver sales status in France. "They like to talk about how the music makes them feel."
At Al Foster's sold-out New Morning performance, the artist-audience appreciation was mutual, forging unity on a whole other level. "[Al] is supremely dedicated to creating the moment of inspiration in the music for the audience," said Foster's bassist, Doug Weiss. "It does not matter if we have been traveling all day, had no food or drink, not checked into the hotel; the man comes ready to throw down."
But they got back as much they gave, Weiss said. "We gave up the good stuff and they returned the love."