RDV De L'Erdre 2012

Martin Longley By

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RDV De L'Erdre 2012
Nantes, France
August 31-September 2, 2012

The Rendez-vous de l'Erdre might be one of Europe's lesser-known festivals, but it has grown up over 26 years and now involves what seems to be the entire city's populace. Spread over multiple, simultaneously programmed stages, its essential concept is that everything happens along the banks of the River Erdre. This is the less famous sibling of the Loire, and there are even satellite gigs organized further out along its course from Nantes, in smaller villages. For most folks, though, all energies were focused on the walkable stretch that makes up the festival's pulsating heart. Comparisons can be made with other jazz festivals, but RDV has its own distinctive character.
The way in which it draws in the general populace, taking over large chunks and stretches of town, is reminiscent of Brecon Jazz (in Wales) and the Detroit Jazz Festival. This happens because all of RDVs gigs are free of admission prices (as with Detroit), thereby encouraging its audience to take chances with music that's perhaps an unknown quantity. The comparison with Brecon is also apt because of RDVs broadness of scope, taking in the extremes from old school New Orleans-style trad to free improvisation and electronica. At least that used to be the way in the old days of Brecon.
The weather was bright and sunny on this last weekend of the summer, only days before the school kids returned to their prisons. The Friday opening night concentrated its performances into the evening, and Canadian singer Kinny opened with what was set to be the day's most compelling set. Living in Bergen, Norway, she now sounds like a Londoner, and her roots mash up native Canadian Indian, Jamaican, French and Swedish parental backgrounds. She's signed to the Brighton funky-electro label Tru Thoughts and her band is seemingly British. The resultant music wasn't as wildly mixed up as all this might suggest, but free-ranging roaming definitely informs her version of funk, soul and general skipping beat musics. On record she's usually impressive, but Kinny's live stage presence was formidable, completely relaxed and assured, ready to improvise (at one stage in a cappella avant gospel style) and mighty pushy with the crowd. Maybe she kept the pace too slow given the set's time limitations, but Kinny was aware of this, urging her combo to jump right into a faster beat-driven song whenever there'd been a moodier stretch. It was the up-tempo songs that best displayed her gutsy, soulful holler. This set was at the Scène Mix Jazz, at the northernmost river-zone of the festival. It was always worth the walk, and provided the home for beyond-jazz activities, these often ending up being festival highlights.

Another Canadian resident was Kenny "Blues Boss'" Wayne, backed up by his regular French band. Although rooted in boogie woogie, this keyboardist and singer was also steeped in the music of New Orleans, and particularly Fats Domino. The Blues Mix stage maintained a steady run of rocking combos, but these were mainly French, and the ones witnessed by this scribe tended to be uniformly disappointing. Functional, but lacking the gritty core that's necessary for this form. Mostly, they were quite pedestrian in their interpretations.

Across the river on Scène Sully (named after its location on Rue Sully) alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer were engaging in their careful dialogue, the latter opening up with a flowery solo, during which the saxophonist could be heard starting up behind the stage. Konitz walked up to the twin microphones and seeped into the flow, afterwards complimenting the acoustics of this outdoor location. He'd feared that problems would arise, but was pleasantly surprised. Ever a perfectionist, Konitz has ears that are attuned to every minute quirk of a playing platform.

The German DJ collective Jazzanova also exists as a live band extension, usually fronted by Detroit singer/bassist Paul Randolph. Despite a few isolated highpoints, their core sound was funk-lite, with Randolph's shrill disco-castrato vocals lending a mainstream R&B tone. Following Kinny, these Berliners sounded kinda dilute. When a deep beat was locked onto and a harder dance motion sent underway, the Jazzanova band started to goad the crammed hilly slope inhabitants into a subtle dance motion. Sadly, these outbreaks were scarcely spaced.

On a first time visit, the situation of Scéne Nautique Ceineray was immediately impressive. This main stage was actually floating on the river, midway between the banks of the Erdre, with the audience seated at both sides. The closing set on Friday was given by the Stephane Belmondo Quartet, with its trumpeting leader inviting American pianist Kirk Lightsey onboard. They played some tough talkin' mainline jazz, with Belmondo and Lightsey vying for soloing supremacy. In the end, they came out fairly equal in the dueling stakes.

The Saturday and Sunday schedule began each afternoon at around 2pm, then continued until late into the night. This was when the crowds really began to descend on the river banks, promenading along the lines of frazzling exotic food stalls (a Malagasy joint claiming the obscurity prize), filling the street front café spaces and trawling from stage-to-stage clutching wine, beer, or sometimes even the region's native cider.

The festival had a strong contingent of familiar artists, in the jazz, rock and electronica vein, but as ever with a visit to an unfamiliar town, great pleasure was to be derived from seeking out unknown indigenous talent. The first such discovery was the Frasques Orchestra, playing on the Sully stage. This 10-piece group possessed an intricately dynamic classically-influenced method, but with a jazz soloing sensibility, featuring violin, flute, clarinets, saxophones, guitar, vibraphone, piano, cello, bass and drums. Three members divided up the compositional duties.

There were two afternoons of old time New Orleans music on the floating stage. Spotting a pair of banjos and a sousaphone listed in the lineup of Les Jazz Potes (from the small town of Mayenne), it was a must-see set. The extreme contrast between the modernist Frasques' performance and this good time, old school clap-along set was rather startling, magnifying the innate properties of both acts.

Back up at the Mix stage, the Swiss electronica artist Dimlite had pulled out of his gig a week previously, leaving the lesser-known Anchorsong to fill the void. This marked the beginning of a semi-unplanned evening of string section fusion, as Masaaki Yoshida was accompanied by violin and cello. Yoshida grew up in Tokyo, but now dwells in London. Besides triggering beats manually on his sample pad, Anchorsong also captured loop matter, and then moved across to a keyboard for some improvisatory responses to his own structures. He fingered drums and built patterns with an astonishing speed and dexterity. The strings should have been higher in the mix to maximize their involvement, but aside from the occasional sparse stretches, the crunching beats and spiraling electro-piano tended to overpower their atmospheric textures. Anchorsong sharply judged the balance between beat flamboyance, abstract noodling, commercial flash and disjointed rupture.

There was time for a quick creep back down the river to Sully, where Enrico Rava's Tribe was packing out the stage area, all seats full, with a standing surround at the edges. As seems to be the case at every gig, the Italian trumpeter's current foil is his young trombonist Gianluca Petrella, who was just launching into an extended solo, mute crunched right up to the microphone, playing so forcefully that he was almost sending the microphone stand hurtling into the audience. It was a visibly physical manifestation of sound, both subtly trimmed and boldly brutal. This energy fed back and forth between Petrella and Rava, as they proceeded to each attain greater soloing transcendence. Petrella now seems to have been given a special billing within Tribe, and rightfully so.

Back up to Mix, for another festival highlight. New Yorker JG Thirlwell has operated a bewilderingly multifarious number of guises over the last 30 years, many of them being variants on his Foetus persona. His most active live outlet in recent times has been Manorexia, a vehicle for compositions that collide classical bite with rock crunch. Thirlwell appears with his laptop, and the heart of the ensemble is always a string quartet. For this French debut, he was joined by the London version of this transatlantic combo. The lineup was completed by keyboardist Tim Parkinson and percussionist Peter Wise, the latter also coming over from NYC.

It was courageous (or perhaps foolhardy) to present such concentrated music in the prime late night Saturday slot, in front of a standing and quaffing crowd, but the gamble paid off. Aside from a very small minority of gigglers and hecklers, the audience stood transfixed by the compelling pieces, remaining silent during the tensed instances of becalmed minimalism, The whole set was devoted to an extended pattern of portentous amassing of deadly threat, dark clouds roiling, leading up to recurring outbursts of bombastic release. Deliberately extreme distortion bruised the edges of the most percussively riffing outlets, the strings operating at the far perimeter of what's possible with such a quartet format. Parkinson was the structural ringmaster, setting the pace for the broad range of sounds that Wise crafted, from marimba pulsations to sonorous bass drum detonations. Having witnessed Manorexia gigging on three previous occasions, it was this show that fully revealed the sonic extremes, amplified for maximum impact, with every detail beautifully limned. The outdoor experience somehow made the music come closer, paradoxical as that sounds.

At the end of the evening, the floating stage was always the last to finish, drawing together the crowds from all other ports. Ninety Miles was to be heard sound checking in the afternoon without trumpeter Nicholas Payton. It looked like his arrival was merely delayed, but the actual set revealed that he'd entirely failed to make the gig. It was left to joint leaders vibraphonist Stefon Harris and tenor man David Sanchez to shoulder the soloing responsibilities, with the saxophonist, in particular, given ample room to surge upwards.

The fest's final day began with one of the weekend's outstanding sets. Journal Intime was presenting a Jimi Hendrix homage, something that might not automatically have commanded attention. The guitarist's original overloads of his own compositions were so definitive that any lackey who sets out to recreate them really ought to have something extreme and profound to offer. This French trio immediately justified its audacity, with each tune not always initially recognizable, and even when a piece was obvious straight away, it was tackled with a skewed, adventurous élan. There was no voice, guitar, bass or drums allowed. Trumpeter Sylvain Bardiau, trombonist Matthias Mahler and bass saxophonist Frédéric Gastard engaged in an almost constant assault of earthy virtuosity, the tunes arranged with a jaunty precision. Each player stitched his lines around the other pair's inventions, constantly unnerving, surprising and astonishing with sheer power of transmission. We feared for their hearts, which much surely have been worked to bursting point. Gastard, in particular, seemed hardly to pause for breath in-between his brawling, braying, bruising bass lines. Yes, he was an extreme low-tone master, but his breath-reed-phrasing trinity facilitated a high-wire nimbleness of the bull-belch.


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