Nice Jazz Festival 2019

Martin McFie BY

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Nice Jazz Festival
Théâtre de Verdure
Nice, France
July 16-20, 2019

Sebastien Vidal, the artistic director of the Nice Jazz Festival, expressed his goals for 2019 as diversity and inclusivity. The Festival takes place in the center of the city, near a tram line station. They welcomed forty thousand guests last year and hoped for a higher number in 2019 to fill their fifty thousand capacity, spread over five nights and two stages.


Nubya Garcia

The first evening began with Nubya Garcia playing her tenor saxophone with a relaxed style. Her band represented a new wave of jazz in London, a multicultural city filled with a world of musical influences. Joe Armon-Jones' lively keyboard solo heated up as he switched to the piano. Sam Jones on drums kept the rhythm tight, and Daniel Casimir on bass played two bright clear solo sections. Garcia's band played intricate, smooth jazz. There is a buzz among young people in London who are searching out quality jazz as new clubs open. That can happen fast in a city of ten million people—expect Garcia to be at the forefront.

Fred Hersch Trio

Fred Hersch Trio know their music thoroughly, most pieces were written by Hersch himself. His piano composition "Dream of Monk" really did have a dream-like quality, with gentle touches of brushes from Eric McPherson this was a worthy homage to Thelonious Monk. Hersch created the weightless delicacy described in "Floating" and had the style to play "New Calypso," which he dedicated to Sonny Rollins. Often two pieces of music were bound together seamlessly, the first simply called as a ballad, was used as an introduction. McPherson and John Herbert on bass had musical conversations on the side until Hersch rejoined them. These excellent jazz musicians painted vivid yet subtle mind's eye images with the music written by the pianist.

Christian McBride Situation Christian McBride had already made 300 top-line recordings as a sideman before reaching his turning point and forming his own group to record Gettin' to it (Verve, 1995). Now he is involved with five groups from a big band to this, his experimental Christian McBride Situation. Patrice Rushen played keyboards with energy in her own composition "Spirit of Joy," Singer Allyson Williams led some intricate scat sections, Ron Blake played excellent saxophone solos and one of his compositions "The Appointment." The lineup included two DJs with their turntables, which did not prepare the audience for Dizzy Gillespie's 1942 tune "A Night in Tunisia." The strong repeating theme gave everyone something to hold on to. McBride took the bass line, but unusually he played his electric Fender jazz bass guitar. The DJ team added drum and extraneous sounds, scratching and extracts from songs and spoken words. All that was not intrusive, it was like snatches of sound in a busy restaurant, life going on as background to the music. There were new compositions, some as yet unchristened, a jazz standard and pieces of recordings, but still, they achieved a cohesive effect throughout the set.


Judi Jackson

Judi Jackson had a tough childhood; then she met Wynton Marsalis who sent her recordings by the great lady singers as guidance. Fearlessly traveling the world, she arrived at London as her base. Backed by a trio, her presentation was a theatrical production. She began with a high energy song "Power," then sang "Worth it," meaning the effort of life. Sam Watts had the piano, until Jackson took over to accompany herself in "With You," conversely about someone who had left. Will Cleasby played consistently well on drums. Jackson works hard at her presentation, always hits her notes squarely and uses a phrasing reminiscent of Nina Simone.

Christian Sands Trio

Christian Sands Trio included Yasushi Nakamura bass and Clarence Penn on drums, wearing loud yellow socks. Together they raced through "Rebel Music" in a cascade of notes then moved on to the "Song of the Rainbow People" featuring a cymbal crashing crescendo which died down quietly to one stick hitting the table beside Penn. "Reaching for the Sun" (video below) was at a slower pace giving Nakamura his extended solo in pizzicato, occasionally strumming the bass. They played out with "Samba de vela" inspired by a Brazilian drum festival which goes on until the candles burn out.

Makaya McCraven

Makaya McCraven on drums from Chicago, led a 7-piece band who each played an excellent solo to introduce themselves, except for the driving rhythm. Brandee Younger led them into a Hungarian folk tune playing the harp. Talented Marquis Hill muted his trumpet and Irvine Pierce joined him on tenor saxophone to state the melody. Younger's harp joined the piano of Greg Soero in unison to make some beautiful sounds. On reflection, that is not surprising, look inside any grand piano, and there is a harp lying down. Julius Paul took a robust and sensitive solo on stand-up bass. The harp altered the whole dynamic and added calm melodic interest to this performance, which featured excellent trumpet and saxophone.



Sheila Maurice-Gray on trumpet is the leader of one of the standout London bands playing Afrobeat dance music. A new generation of musicians has rediscovered Afrobeat music written by Fela Kuti 40 years ago and carried forward by his son Seun Kuti. Kokoroko began with "Colonial Mentality" written by Fela Kuti in 1977. Next, "Something Major" showed Maurice-Gray's trumpet skills. The final tune turned into a dance party because that's what Afrobeat does, and this young band did it well.

Sarah McKenzie

Australian pianist and singer Sarah McKenzie now lives in London. She began with Jerome Kern's "I'm Old Fashioned" expressing her admiration for the Great American Songbook. She also composes, "That's it, I quit" was her reply to life's frustrations. McKenzie has a smooth voice and phrasing. She is also an accomplished jazz pianist as she demonstrated in "De Nada' a tune she wrote while on a trip to Rio de Janeiro. She played out with a slow "I got the blues tonight," took it upbeat, gave the band their solos and finished a sophisticated performance with a flourish.

Orquestra Akokan

Cuban singer José Pépito Gomez led Orquestra Akokan. They are at the forefront of a Cuban Mambo revival, playing dance music from the 1950s. The orchestra made the big rhythmic harsh brass Latin sound. Cuban Mambo dance music, in a reduced tempo, later became the Cha-cha-cha in America. The performance was a lot of brass and bongos with enthusiastic singing from the bandleader creating an infectious atmosphere which had the audience on their feet.


Frédéric Nardin Trio

Frédéric Nardin's Trio included Or Baraket on stand-up bass and Leon Parker on drums. They started with a Thelonious Monk tune "Green Chimneys" then moved through "Parisian Melody" to "Lost in your Eyes" with brushes barely touching the cymbals. Just when the audience was comfortably lulled, the bass took a long clear solo, and Parker left his drum set to slap his bare chest in time with a scat solo. Nardin put his hand into the piano to play with the strings. (Imagine here the Steinway piano tuner, who finely adjusted the instrument between each performance). The trio went out with "In the Skies," a Nardin composition. The Frédéric Nardin trio has a smooth after-midnight style with soft fading finishes and a small bag of tricks to amuse.

Ralph Peterson and the Messenger legacy

On October 11, 2019, it will be 100 years since the birth of Art Blakey in Pittsburgh, PA. He drummed with his Jazz Messengers for 35 years reaching a hard bop zenith by the end of the 1950s. The band became a training ground for some of the most influential musicians of that era. Any new group paying tribute to such giants of jazz would face impossible expectations. However, this front line included Bobby Watson, on alto and Bill Pierce on tenor saxophone, both were original members of The Jazz Messengers in the early 1980s. They played "Alamode" by Curtis Fuller and moved on to "Pensativa." Pierce played a solo "My one and only Love" fluttering breathy notes out of his tenor saxophone. They played out with Brian Lynch in his pink suit and pork pie hat on trumpet making up the front line for Duke Ellington's "Caravan." The Messenger Legacy was an authentic tribute to one of the great hard bop jazz bands, and Ralph Peterson deserved special applause for leading them on drums.

Jean-Luc Ponty, the Atlantic years quintet

The jazz fusion music of Jean-Luc Ponty moved into the realms of psychedelia, as the amplifier shaped the violin sound, smoke and light effects added mood. The violin contrasted with the rock guitar of Jean-Marie Ecay and the keyboard of William Lecomte, they all left the stage during an extended rock drum solo by the fast hands of Damien Schmitt. Ponty presented his music from the ten years to 1985, when he recorded with Atlantic Records. He included "Imaginary Voyage," "Cosmic Messenger," and "The Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea." Ponty played a duet with Lecomte "In the Kingdom of Peace." Hard driving rock, long elegant sounds from the violin, and the drama of smoke and lights created a jazz fusion experience with a side order of seventies psychedelia.


Frédéric Viale trio

The final day of the Nice Jazz festival began with Frédéric Viale playing the accordion, a sweet romantic instrument which has been typecast as the Manouche music of Paris and the tango of Buenos Aires. And yet Viale was joined by Natallino Neto on bass guitar and Zaza Desiderio on drums. The trio played jazz compositions by Viale swinging into "La Belle Chose." The accordion fitted comfortably into the jazz dimension, and the short set was over too soon.

Adrien Brandeis Quintet

A float bearing a drum kit and another with percussion was rolled onto the stage to ensure a heavy Latin rhythm for a tribute piece to Chick Corea. The rhythm changed and picked up some Indian bells for a piece about Goa played by Adrien Brandeis on piano and Joachim Poutaroud alto saxophone. Brandeis came to the microphone to explain that the next piece was the death of Satao an elephant, at the hands of ivory poachers. Piano and saxophone opened the ponderous theme together, then Brandeis started running drumsticks across the piano strings sounding an alarm. African drumming and percussion took over, beating and building tension and momentum. The tempo picked up urgency. The saxophone made a faraway elephant call and rapid nervous panting. The drums were racing now. Excited men's voices shouted. The saxophone suddenly screamed and screamed the pain of the elephant's wounds. The piano hammered chords violently thrashing out the elephant's death throes. Then it was done. The traumatic, emotive music was over. In the audience, hands wiped at eyes before joining the applause.

Omara Portuondo

A grand lady of Cuban song came to close out the Nice Jazz festival and celebrate her long career. Now the colorful colonial buildings in the Buena Vista area of Havana are dilapidated, but before the revolution, Buena Vista boasted a members-only Social Club. In 1996 a band formed taking that name was aimed at reviving pre-revolutionary music. The band's best-known singer was Omara Portuondo; she came to Nice to say goodbye in her Ultimo Beso (Last kiss) performance. In her bright pink dress with matching headdress in the Cuban style, Portuondo was helped to a chair on the stage. Her voice was unsteady but still had good tone as she sang "Adios Felicidad" (Goodbye happiness) which she ended by kicking one leg in the air. She sang "La Ultima noche que pase Contigo." (The last night I spent with you) to grand applause, and sparkled with enjoyment at this, her final performance tour.

The Nice Jazz Festival ended with a farewell from a grand lady.

Photo credit: Martin McFie

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