Live review

Jazz Sous les Pommiers – The 38th Coutances Jazz Festival: Part One

Jazz on the streets at Coutances

Phone snap: Richard Lee

Jazz Sous les Pommiers – The 38th Coutances Jazz Festival

(Coutances, France, 24 May – 1 June 2019. Review by Richard Lee)

This is Part One of Richard Lee’s extensive review.

“Convivial”. That word kept coming to mind. At every turn, this festival presented warmly inviting experiences, be it the full and fairly eclectic range of musicians or the very friendly, welcoming ambience of the town, its residents and visitors. Anyone familiar with Cheltenham would feel at home here, perhaps even more so with its inclusive demographic and the frankly excellent food and drink on offer. Sadly, no actual apple trees were sat under during the making of this review, though I have to admit, le cidre from the area was excellent.

I managed to enjoy four out of the festival’s seven-day programme, gig-hopping the 15 or so venues corralled into use for around 60 acts. Half of these were French, the rest more or less split equally between US, UK/Europe and Africa. In addition, there’s a full programme of amateur and community bands and workshops livening up public places around the town square and cathedral gardens that feels welcomed and integrated rather than a reluctant concession. The director Denis Le Bas and his team run a relaxed, highly efficient ship, and clearly, after 37 years, the town seems pleased to have this asset which brings in a wide demographic and tourist euros.

Best of all, it’s a pleasure to hear the quality of French musicianship, even if for me, the programme got off to a slow start. My first gig was a fairly lightweight set by Sarah Lenka (F). Dubbing it as Women’s Legacy and her as “la petite souer de Bessie Smith” didn’t auger well and the fairly samey selection of blues and ballads only managed to highlight Ms Lenka’s affinity with Dido rather than Gardot, let alone the doyenne of the blues. The waving of lit mobiles in any audience for any purpose is always a step too far for me… But what became quickly evident was how well served she was by a really solid quartet and in particular, how interesting the current crop of drummers are: Raphaël Chassin was the first of many in the week who drew attention.

One of the busiest performers was Anna Paceo, a really accomplished French thresher (as I’ve seen various drummers described this week…) who was in residence at the festival.  Her Rewind set with American & Palestinian colleagues was a hard-driving hip-hop-inflected late-night set for a dancing crowd, featuring  in the fringe-like Magic Mirrors venue, but she really came into her own on the final day with her Latin-fusion-based Alegria quartet, demonstrating her prowess at the kit. Guitar driven and hugely optimistic in tone, this was a packed show in the main theatre, and a hit with everyone.

Tbe Géraud Portal Sextet at Coutances

Phone snap: Richard Lee

One of the town’s conventional caves-based clubs hosted late night sets for listeners rather than dancers. The Géraud Portal Sextet (from France, Italy & Israel) offered Let My Children Hear Mingus with a very good recreation of some of the classic tunes, relying on Portal’s own bass, Luigi Grasso’s enthusiastic baritone and César Poirier’s alto. Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting is probably one of the hardest Mingus tunes to deliver authentically, but they made a good fist of it. The Impérial Quartet also featured a pair of multi-saxophonists, with Gerald Chevillon expertly wielding a bass sax, as well as tenor & soprano, duelling & duetting with Damien Sabatier’s baritone, alto and soprano. The bass sax is all too often a novelty feature but here, using its full range, we enjoyed a pretty thrilling self-penned set which, with their fine drum & bass section, often conjured Soweto street music and other international styles with a jazz edge.

There’s quite an emphasis on world music at the festival, perhaps more than at UK festivals.  I took the opportunity to catch Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares something I’ve long wanted to do. Hugely glad I did, because if the traditional costume and some of the vocal formalities aren’t your thing (me neither) I can heartily recommend the playing of the accompanying six-piece instrumental ensemble led by a beat-boxer, which was a bit of a revelation. Similarly, I found myself full of admiration for the dexterity of oud player Rabih Abou Khalil and his ensemble, which included Gavino Murgia’s likeable sax and voice: it simply isn’t my go-to choice. Sophie Alour is a fine tenor player whose band Exils is culled from Egypt & Libya, as well as Belgium & France and I found the oud playing of Mohamed Abozékry more exciting within a conventional jazz context. North African sounds abound, especially when Alour turns to the soprano. She also has one of these energetic drummers in Donald Kontomanou, who, like Anna Paceo in her Rewind set, lives up to the other French term, batterie…

I was intrigued to find out what Festen’s Inside Stanley Kubrick project was all about, not having considered the auteur particularly jazz-inflected.  In the event, Damien Fleau’s tenor, conjuring for me the brashness of Pete Wareham’s Acoustic Ladyland, was great fun, though the Barry Lyndon got a little too relentlessly Nyman’s Contract, and I’d be pushed to say which other piece worked with which film, though the Also Sprach Zarathustra tribute was quite obvious, quite the opposite of Deodato’s mid-’70s take and wasn’t quite worthy of an “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that right now” punchline – but it got a good laugh.

A concert of Trois Pianos was set for the final afternoon and proved to be a test.  Spain’s Marco Mezquida played a fulsome wall of sound, more symphonic than syncopated; Kevin Hays from the US teamed up with the Swiss Grégoire Maret’s mouth organ for some standards and blues conjuring the feel of modernists like Metheny, Meldhau and Scofield. It was good to hear something less Adler, more Adderley. Finally, a standard piano trio led Yaron Herman from Israel demonstrated their prowess – considerable in that they were joined by a depping bass in Matt Brewer – though I must admit I craved some stronger themes.  But I’m running ahead to the end of the festival, so to return to the beginning…

Read Part Two tomorrow.

Categories: Live review

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