Festival Report: Europa Jazz 2014 in Le Mans

A concert in the sunshine at the Abbaye de l’Epau . Europa Jazz 2014
Photo credit: Europa Jazz

Europa Jazz
(Le Mans, Sarthe, France. Various venues. 8-11 May 2014. Report by Oliver Weindling)

Over the course of 35 years, the Europa Jazz Festival in Le Mans has proved that there is more to this town than the 24 hour motor race. Over a period of 3 weeks, the festival primarily showcases music by leading practitioners of European and European-oriented jazz.This just one of the many mouth-watering festivals which take place regularly throughout France, put together with care and responding to the tastes of more (or less) adventurous listeners.

The venues are great: a medieval college in town, a converted foundry and an abbey, all connected by the fast tram system.

The climax was over the final weekend. I arrived in time on Friday in time forthe first noon concert in a medieval building, Collegiale Ste-Pierre. A meeting of “noise” guitarist Jean-Marc Montera and baroque violinist Fanny Paccoud from Marseille. In general, Jean-Marc set up textures and a sonic foundation from which Fanny could soar into the stratosphere.

Later that day Maaï, a local group with 2 musicians from Nantes. There’s a big focus on the rhythm in this bassless trio of saxophone, piano and drums: grooves are set up and the energy builds. Not so much melody-oriented but certainly arresting in approach, with the piano, from time to time, allowed to move into Cecil Taylor territory.

John Surman, Tony Buck and Barre Phillips
Photo Credit: Phillippe Meziat. All Rights Reserved

Two themes which were apparent to me were the importance of long-term “friendships” and of the double bass, an instrument revered here (and also by the Thursday night concert). The two came together in the first gig of the evening, where John Surman and Barre Phillips reunited after 40 years, but with Tony Buck, most well known from the Necks, there to give it a freshness rather than the original sticks-man Stu Martin. It took a bit of time to develop, Surman, on bass clarinet, soprano and whistle showing his lyricism and Phillips playing much with bow. These came together at one point when an extended bass solo led to a stunning duet with the bass clarinet. Buck too added more and more as time went on, not just being the continuity to the two long-standing friends’ musical conversation. So at times, when he created a Gamelan-type sound, it vividly evoked the rain forest.

Another pair of ‘friends’ performing together were Uri Caine and Dave Douglas, exploring themes coming from the 18th century plantation songs. Intriguing how, from time to time, the music seemed to echo Scottish reels. A 21st century evocation of American history as they let us join in the fun, towards the end of a 3 week tour.

As a start to an intense Saturday, Barre Phillips performed a solo “comme chez soi” at 10 a.m. in the shop of Les Allumés du Jazz, which remains one of the few shops specialising in this music. (I had to restrain myself from buying half the shop.) We heard what he usually plays to himself, riffing stories and thoughts over slaps on his instrument. Until coffee and croissants arrived for us all.

The afternoon continued with three more concerts in the Fonderie, a factory converted into an arts centre. First Whahay, the trio inspired by Mingus and led by Paul Rogers, nowadays a local “Manceau”. Here he plays with old friend Robin Fincker on metal clarinet and tenor, and drummer Fabien Duscombs. They have performed several times with us in London but the band gets better and better. It drew some of the loudest applause of the weekend. New album in the Autumn, and we hope that we’ll have them back at the Vortex then. It’ll be a concert not to be missed.

More friends in action in the following two duos. Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier demonstrated clearly that they are two of the most inspired technical musicians on violin and piano and for any genres. They are able to channel their energies creatively into mesmerising compositions seamlessly morphing into improvisations. While also known for their work on Zorn’s Masada series, but here they played their own. Check out their duo album on Intakt for this material.

Joëlle Léandre and Pascal Contet
Photo Credit: Bruges Renard. All Rights Reserved

Following them was another bassist of note: Joëlle Léandre, perhaps the doyenne of French improv bassists, who had recently played at Evan Parker’s Might I Suggest. Here she played in a long-standing duo with accordionist Pascal Contet.  With a total awareness of all the sonic possibilities of their instruments beyond just simple plucking of the strings or the accordion as squeeze box, it was an emotive experience celebrating 20 years of playing together. Pascal was able to bring in elements of some of his other work, such as with Scanner.

The evening was a chance to relax the mind somewhat. Danilo Rea and Flavio Boltro, on piano and trumpet, in a similar way to Douglas and Caine delved into a great period of musical history – in this case Italian opera. So we heard sections based on Verdi, Bellini and more with a dramatic final rendering of the William Tell overture. Fantastic technique all round, it reminded me of the themes and variations on grand opera which were written at the end of the 19th century, though here there was the addition of instant composition of jazz. Italian jazz seems to be based a lot on melody, so it seemed appropriate to take opera as a foundation.

It put the audience in the mood for Celine McLorin Savant, swiftly developing into the new female voice to hear. An amazing voice and an interesting selection of standards such as the Step Sisters’ Lament by Richard Rodgers, I waited for it to open out more. She is being taken to French hearts because of her family connections with Haiti and her ease of communicating in the native language. She even had one original using the lyrics of an early Haitian poet.

The final day was like an English fete in the grounds of the Abbaye de l’Epau where the evening concerts had been held. Balkan and Cuban style brass bands played on the lawn, while one could devour a picnic French-style.

Le Mans is easy to get to from London, just an hour from Paris by TGV, though another possibility is to cross by overnight ferry to Caen and it’s just 90 minutes from there by train. On my visit now, I met several of the organisers of other like-minded events. T
he best source of information is the  web site  of AJC (Association Jazzé Croisé). Looking around the whole list, I was especially intrigued by Jazz À Luz (which I attended last year) over the Bastille Day weekend as well as Rendezvous de L’Erdre in Nantes, Jazzèbre in Perpignan and D’Jazz in Nevers. It’s worth delving further  at the whole range, as many of them also take place in beautiful locations.

Categories: miscellaneous

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