Live reviews

Europajazz 2019 in Le Mans

“This was my gig of the festival” (Tony Dudley-Evans) Luc Ex Assemblée with Rachel Musson (foreground) Photo Credit and © Peter Bastian
The Europajazz Festival in Le Mans has been celebrating its 40th birthday. Throughout its existence, it has been shrewdly helmed by Armand Meignan. Round-ups from Oliver Weindling (first part of the festival) and Tony Dudley-Evans: OLIVER WEINDLING: This year’s programme showed how over the years Armand Meignan has annually balanced various elements: a continuity and awareness of musicians who have played at the festival regularly (such as, this year, John Surman, Barre Phillips and Michel Portal), commissioning of new projects from younger musicians (such as a Tom Waits tribute by Hasse Poulsen), and music which is just plain great (such as a trio formed by Le Mans resident Paul Rogers). I attended the first three days of the main festival climax for this year, and it started with a young band: Gone to the Dogs (Extended). A local band of guitar, bass, drums which has been expanded to include a trumpet and saxophone. Energetic and danceable, they immediately endeared themselves to me by playing a tune called Vortex. From there on, they merged jazz old and new, for example in reworking the Ornette Coleman classic Rambling. En route, they sounded like a band who might be playing at a bal populaire of 2019, and brought in electronic and even hip hop elements. The venue where they played, La Fonderie, is one of three that the festival uses. Here there is a chance for more diverse musical styles, almost more experimental and wide-ranging. So I also heard an evocative duo from Finland, with trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and percussionist Mika Salo blending looping and distortion to create a moving evocation of the spirituality and vastness of the North. I had heard them last year at the Südtirol Festival in the modern art museum and had enjoyed it then, but, in this context, the music seemed to float and we floated with it!
Paul Rogers Photo Credit: Michel Legeay/ Europajazz
The third of the gigs that I heard there was of a trio put together with long-standing favourite of the improvised scene, Paul Rogers, playing his trademark bass of 7 strings and 14 sympathetically resonating. He played with two musicians from Berlin, Olaf Rupp on guitar and Frank Paul Schubert on soprano sax (whom we have heard in London with Mark Sanders). Starting with a sound and approach akin to 20th century contemporary music, they moved into territory more reminiscent of the improv scene occupied by Evan Parker and Derek Bailey. Paul himself has been resident in Le Mans for more than a decade. His own playing is mesmerising, understanding every nuance of his special instrument and giving the music a special drive and rhythm.
Triple bass. L-R: Paolo Damiani and Daniele Roccato and Bruno Chevillon Photo Credit: Michel Legeay/ Europajazz
Bass players, in fact, played a major role in the festival. Too often, the bass hides at the back of the band, as the line of last defence. In another of the spaces, the medieval collégiale Saint-Pierre-la-Cour, it was possible every lunchtime to hear acoustic sets. I had missed a highly-regarded gig by Claude Tchamitchian, but was able to hear a special trio of basses, including Bruno Chevillon, Paolo Damiani and Daniele Roccato. Each in turn brought a unique take on the role of the instrument, not just as a pure plucked or bowed, but also percussive and prepared in different ways. Perhaps it is a special awareness of bass players from their usual context of anchors of their bands, but throughout there seemed to be a momentum and implicit pulse that could lead us through. This was even more clearly shown by a solo performance by one of the true legends of the instrument, Barre Phillips. A mesmerising performance where he showed clearly how the bass works as a solo. Frequently melodic, but gradually he showed the other effects that can be achieved on the instrument. The acoustics of the College picked out every nuance. Meanwhile, another of the ‘friends’ of the festival who appeared in the large hall of the Abbaye d’Epau, was also a close partner of Barre Phillips – John Surman (from the trio with Stu Martin, reprised with Tony Buck three years ago). Again he had the audience mesmerised in a solo performance that started on bass clarinet and ended with him dancing around the hall playing The Keel Row. Another focus of the festival was having three masters of bass clarinet, not just Mr Surman. There was Michel Portal, who refused to be cowed by his age of 83, and revelled in the chance to play with guitarist Lionel Loueke. A beautiful tone, and great imagination and interplay. A true great and a privilege to get to hear him. Meanwhile, another premiere was that of Louis Sclavis, on bass clarinet as well a ‘normal’ Bb, with cellist Bruno Ducret. They played a duo concert in the College which ran through a whole range of compositions by both musicians. The cello is, I am pleased to say, becoming an instrument used more and more for this music. It has a range which complements the clarinet. Ducret, who follows worthily in a lineage following Vincent Courtois and from a family steeped in improvisation, was unfazed by working with Sclavis who is in such control of his instrument that even his improvisations sound as though-composed. TONY DUDLEY-EVANS : I had previously attended the Europa Jazz Festival in the late ’90s when three British pianists, John Taylor, Howard Riley and Keith Tippett, played solo piano sets. This year British jazz was reasonably well represented with John Surman’s solo saxophone, clarinet and wooden pipe set, Paul Rogers’ improvised set with the German Olaff Rapp and Frank Paul Schubert (see Ollie Weindling’s comments above) and Rachel Musson appearing with Luc Ex’s Assemblée. Interestingly, only Rachel Musson is resident in UK now. The festival seems to have broadened out quite a bit since the ’90s and the focus is on up-and-coming French and European artists as well as this year celebrating well-known artists who had appeared in the early years of the festival. One such is Archie Shepp who had appeared in duo with Horace Parlan in 1981, in 2000 with a quintet paying tribute to Billie Holiday and in 2004 in a quartet with Claudine Amina Myers. I suspect he played more adventurous sets in those days; this year in the Abbaye Royale de l’ Epau playing with his regular French quartet, he started with Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore and played a fairly conservative set with plenty of space for members of the quartet. There were flashes of his more avant-garde side, but these were few. Nonetheless, he and the quartet were extremely well received by a packed venue. Much more interesting was Luc Ex’s set with his Assemblée with Luc on bass, Hamid Drake on drums, Rachel Musson and Ab Baars on saxophones. Luc and Hamid provided a really strong rhythm foundation, and both Ab and Rachel wove intricate lines over these rhythms. At certain times the two horns seemed be competing with the rhythm instruments, and forging their own separate path, thus creating a contrast that was immensely stimulating. This was my gig of the festival. Before I set off for Le Mans, I received a number of comments asking whether the bands would be playing for 24 hours and at high speed. The final concert of the festival featuring Emile Parisien, initially with his regular quartet and then with a large ensemble of 11 of the top French players set up to mark the 40th Year of the festival, did bring these comments to mind. It was a long concert at over three hours and Emile Parisien does play at breakneck speed. There was a danger at times of the large ensemble becoming a party band, but they mostly avoided this with a good choice of material, including a number of compositions by Joachim Kuhn (not present) and strong solos from Parisien himself, Michel Portal, Vincent Peirani and Fabrice Martinez.
Barre Phillips iPhone snap by Oliver Weindling
CONCLUSIONS It says a lot about the festival that the musicians performed with such élan and positivity. Armand has over the years shown all the features that make a festival like that work. Respect for quality, but not forgetting the new things. Venues and festivals need long-term continuity – it’s where the music shows its life and energy. And there is no ‘automatic’ renewal system here, so that the baton can be passed and the festival then evolve. We wait expectantly.(Oliver) Jazz Europa is a very enjoyable festival; it has a nicely varied programme with good venues. It’s a relaxed festival that allows time for one to have a good lunch and explore the fascinating old Plantagenet city. (Tony)

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