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

Cécile McLorin Salvant at Jazz Sous les Pommiers Photo: Mathieu Dutot
Jazz Sous les Pommiers – The 38th Coutances Jazz Festival (Coutances, France, 24 May – 1 June 2019. Review by Richard Lee) This is Part Two of Richard Lee’s extensive review. I arrived at Théo Girard’s Trio et Orchestre Circulaire’s Pensée Rotatives knowing little and expecting less – I had missed that Girard’s collaborator is our very own Seb Rochford and they play bass and drums in the centre of the circular Magic Mirrors venue club with Antoine Berjaut on trumpet, and are surrounded by the audience and an outer ring of ten saxes and five more trumpets. The arrangements put me in mind of early Mike Gibbs: quite joyful and optimistic, punctuated with some jauntier, occasionally menacing motifs recalling Fables of Faubus or Weill. Over these, some very classy, sustained blowing took place. Girard is a tremendous composer and performer, a perfect foil for Rochford’s ever-inventive percussion. This Gallic Jazz in the Round also really allowed the audience to enjoy their work up close, not only playing but watching them direct things. For me, it was one of the highlights of the festival, celebrating what big bands can do beyond the “standards arrangements”. A little later, UK outfit Maisha played the same room. Led by Jake Long on drums, and featuring the impressive Shirley Tetteh on guitar, I didn’t catch who was fronting them on tenor but this was very much a clubbing set: not really my thing but displaying an undeniable energy. It was a bit bracing after attending a Jobim tribute from The SF Jazz Collective, an 8-piece comprising headliners like David Sanchez on tenor and Robin Eubanks on trombone. Somehow, this didn’t quite  work for me, despite some superb playing (from Eubanks in particular) and a packed main hall clearly felt otherwise. Perhaps I had reached third-day burnout, being surrounded by “all this useless beauty”?  Rewind to the first night of the festival…
Moutain Factory Quintet (F) led by brothers Louis & François Moutain on drums and bass respectively, opened quietly with a delicious trumpet sound coming from Christophe Monniot’s alto played in unison with Manu Codija’s guitar, heralding an upbeat set of spiky fusion, recalling in various ways McLaughlin & Shorter, the latter specifically conjured in Wayne’s Melody. The brothers – who wrote and arranged everything else – gave a terrific display of restrained invention in their superbly rhythmic duetting. They were a good opening act for the evening’s main course: Joshua Redman (USA) with the Michel Reis/Marc Demuth/Paul Wiltgen Trio (Lux). I’ve seen Redman pair up with The Bad Plus and on that occasion felt both he and his trio were transformed by the pairing. The same magic is worked here. I’m unfamiliar with pianist Reis & drummer Wiltgen’s work but as composers of all numbers, they’ve put together an outstanding set. The ballad No Storm Lasts Forever was commandingly beautiful, reminding me a little of Langer/Costello’s Shipbuilding, with a classical tone: the lines throughout were symphonic, much more than hooks and riffs. They are also consummate players, Demuth’s bass so assuredly ringing out as well as being the pivot for Wiltgen’s rolling rhythms and Reis’ & Redman’s commanding melodies. I heard plenty of sure-footed reed work during the week, but Redman’s tone really is a thing of plangent beauty, right across the full-range of the tenor. He can of course do fireworks, but there were a few opportunities for that where he and the band simply spiralled up, while he rarely broke a sweat. And yes, he’s a serious intent musician, but he can be joyful and exuberant, echoing Rollins. Under the ever-inventive lighting of the packed Salle Marcel-Hélie turned blue, Redman’s muscular stature grew, reminding me of Dr Atomic in the film of Watchmen – a completely assured demi-god…
Cathedral de Coutances with Dave Liebman in the nave and  Andy Emler on the screens Phone snap: Richard Lee
The other notable pairing of a US reedsman with a European compadre came about with Dave Liebman and Andy Emler, the latter ensconced in the organ loft of the Cathedral de Coutances.  Rather than leave things to fate, as has been the way with many church or cathedral gigs, the distance to Liebman’s position in front of the altar was eased with four video screens, which cut between him playing fast, agile lines that pierced the stone acoustic, on soprano, tenor and penny whistle, and Emler’s organ keyboard, with a full and generous sound. Sometimes, he’d literally pull out (and then push back in) all the stops which on their own created a weird sound effect, not of this earth, and possibly not even the other place… His playing managed to conjure up both church and roadhouse; if not exactly God’s own Hammond then at least, on the hottest evening of the festival, this was by far the coolest place to be…
The following evenings each provided similarly magisterial experiences from the American mainstream tradition. The festival closed with the Foursight quartet featuring Renee Rosnes (pno), Jimmy Greene (tnr) & Payton Crossley (drms) and led by 82 year-old bass legend Ron Carter. A towering and confident figure at his bass, he took the band through standards and some lesser known tunes, while only claiming one extended solo, which he never grandstanded, but held the audience in most rapt attentiveness, thrumming a pedal, finding harmonics that genuinely surprised but never sounded “clever”. Rosnes is of course hugely experienced and respected, and it was a treat to hear her introducing a standard like My Funny Valentine so simply; but once she had remarkably Chopin’d the heck out of it, Greene (even taller and as imposing as Carter) made his complex post-bop take on the classic look and sound effortless. On the hottest night of the year so far, while the audience sweltered, this was the relaxed demeanour of New York cool suits and twin-set, note-perfect and not a tie undone. You might say they exemplified the art of classic quartet playing.  However…
The previous night, Kenny Werner (pno), Peter Erskine (drms), Benjamin Koppel (alto) & Scott Colley brought their vast experience from Coltrane to Weather Report via Ives, to come together as The Art of the Quartet, and thus signalling their intention, that really is what we saw at work. It’s pointless to try and get the cigarette paper of difference between quartets of this calibre: Redman & Co were stellar, Foursight was the art of latter-day cool, and each of us would undoubtedly have our favourites. This foursome were pointedly presenting a collective lifetime’s experience and in their very name laying down a gauntlet to be judged on that. And it worked. A simply astonishing performance, illustrating how that fourway thing should best happen. As well as the five beautiful original numbers stretching over 90 minutes, they took Zawinul’s Directions to new heights, not least in Werner’s sizzling piano solos and comping. The speed of thought and interplay, the lightness of touch by Erskine & Colley, and Koppel’s sublime alto lines had a late night audience transfixed. They finished on a setting of William Walton’s Touch Her Soft Lips and Part composed for Olivier’s wartime Henry V. Possibly one of the most beautiful renditions of a formal tune, I’d compare this with Keith Jarrett’s Shenandoah, played with minimal but perfectly judged flourishes.
Théo Girard Trio and Orchestre Circulaire in the Magic Mirrors Phone snap: Richard Lee
However, in the middle of all this, I was lucky enough to be close up to the remarkable Cécile McLorent Salvant and Sullivan Fortner, performing many songs from their latest album The Window along with other lesser-known standards and a couple of French numbers (I’m afraid I don’t have the set list). It’s been around for nine months and passed me by, so it was quite something to be introduced to it like this. My notes are scrawls of superlatives for, at every turn, this incredible duo continued to deliver pretty much perfect vocalising and piano playing. Fortner has a spiky, complex style which paradoxically feels like the easiest thing in the world. A rock-steady left hand, his right is endlessly skittish. Never showy, but permanently tantalising and surprising, it feels like a century of standards and blues is being referenced and refreshed… All of which might easily be said of Salvant. She is just so in command, a simplicity and directness also reflected in her appearance: a shaved head, almost invisible glasses these days, so you can see every nuance of her expression; and she appears in a superbly coutured ivory gown, simply, squarely cut of gorgeously textured plain cloth.  Fortner’s loose plain shirt lends an air of the poet, but is clearly practical: he gets really hot, reaching for a towel between numbers, laying it over his head and slowly pulling it forward and down. She, by contrast, is almost Miss Frigidaire, merely glowing… but smiling, always smiling and intently watching his playing. Between them, they really do perform each song, telling it musically while managing to create the intimacy of the club in the vast and relatively bleak Salle Marcel-Hélie.  There’s no doubt that her ability to fix the audience with the sense that she’s singing to each and every one of them is an essential part of genuine star quality. But she also has the advantage of words that she clearly values, delivered with superb diction and a wonderful ease. Clearly so at one with Fortner’s playing, she doesn’t feel the need to scat in any way: they are entirely complementary: mutual accompaniment, mutual accomplishment. It’s as if he is dissecting each song’s structure, testing its value in terms of different styles from classical to blues, ragtime, showtime or Monkish post-bop, and trying it for size, passing it back to her for another chapter.
All the songs are essays on love, its failure and the work to put it right, to hold on to it. She’s apparently been doing it in various ways for years but when she sings “I tried to keep our love going strong but no matter how I tried, something went wrong” acapella, sitting at the piano with Fortner, and finishing on “I will bury the ghost of our long lost love”, you could feel the hall hold its breath.
They are nothing less than the true heirs to that wonderful pairing of Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins in the early ’50s, and while they and many of the acts I’ve praised could be seen elsewhere on the circuit, this particular programme, on balance, was more than enough for me to recommend you consider booking for 2020.*
NB: There are too many gigs that I had to miss because of timings – Gwilym Simcock playing with baritone player Céline Bonacina, for instance.  Hopefully, that might surface eventually but meanwhile, there are extracts from some of the concerts I’ve mentioned and a whole lot more here, courtesy France TV.
*Incidentally, accommodation is relatively limited and while there’s plenty in the surrounding district, the wonderful ambience of the town square packed with pop-up food wagons, bars and late night events really does encourage one to find accommodation within falling distance – so do think about making arrangements for 2020 soon! LINK: Jazz Sous Les Pommiers

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