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‘Les Rencontres AJC 2021’ in Paris (Conference and Showcases)

The regular year-end meetings of the French jazz organisation AJC (Association Jazzé Croisé) are a major gathering for people involved professionally in jazz in France. They provide the annual platform at which AJC presents its four officially nominated showcase bands, under the banner Jazz Migration, to an audience of festival directors and promoters, and to the members and representatives (some forty on this occasion) of the Europe Jazz Network.

The organisers also take the opportunity to present another, normally international, element. In 2019, for example, there was a major Nordic showcase. This year there was a focus on jazz with concerts and a conference exploring the cultural context of four of France’s five Overseas Departments: the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, French Guiana (Guyane) in South America, and the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion(*). Sebastian Scotney reportsa French version of this article will appear at Citizen Jazz:

Wednesday morning panel with members including Bénédicte Alliot (left) and Christiane Taubira (speaking, centre). Photo credit: Maurine Tric/AJC

1) CONFERENCE REPORT

The first thing to note about the whole programme is how well the French in general, in their joined-up way, and AJC in particular, do these things. To see the jazz sector of a country organised in such a way that shows unanimity of purpose rather than an attitude of “what have the Romans ever done for us?” is something one (and especially we Brits) should never take for granted…

For these events, both the foreign and culture ministries plus several national music industry bodies from both private and public sectors had either given material or logistical support. A team from national radio (France-Musique) was on hand to broadcast the first showcase live, and they also recorded all of the 10 showcase concerts for deferred broadcast. Antoine Bos of AJC was the main guest on France-Musique’s morning show Musique Matin on Monday morning.

The conference programme allowed a lot of different voices to express a multiplicity of different views on how the cultural context between France and its far-flung dependencies works in practice. But there was one very clear stand-out moment which made it worthwhile to have sat through the rest:

We heard an absolutely impassioned speech from one of the panel members. Christiane Taubira is from French Guiana (Guyane). She was a full cabinet member in the French government from 2012 to 2016, as Minister of Justice, a post quaintly known in France since 1848 as the Garde des Sceaux (Keeper of the Seals) .

Taubira delivered a warning about the rhetoric of strengthening national barriers and borders, and about the danger it presents to all cultural activity. She is, people have told me, a huge jazz fan. This music needs influential and well-placed individuals as advocates like Mme Taubira everywhere and at all times.

She argued her case first with some highly effective humour. (This a paraphrase) She talked about how ludicrous it is to talk about “strengthening borders” to prevent the spread of Covid. The borders of Guyane are essentially two rivers. There is one in the West which forms the border with Surinam. And the other, in the East, with Brazil. And each of these rivers is several hundred kilometres long. And what is a river? Two riverbanks… So… Right… You’re going to strengthen that border…and what are you going to do: make sure that the customs officers on each side of the river don’t pass Covid to each other?

She then made the point more seriously and with passion: if there is a surrender to those who put up borders as a cloak to bring (or bring back) violence, exploitation and the taking apart of civility and civil society then: “We have lost.” That really is the elephant in the room in all cultural discussions in our time. Or as Taubira said it so very clearly: “This is the question of the century.”

Another reason that this speech resonated was because such a direct statement stood in contrast to the careful soft-pedalling elsewhere. I noted a romanticised and Paris-centric soft-focus to some of the discussions. The French word “outre-mer” morphs rather tastefully into the adjective “ultramarin” – see this deep blue backdrop for example:

An “ultra-marin” theme to the conference. Phone snap by Sebastian Scotney

The reality, the elephant in the room, the “non-dit” (things left unsaid) which was being alluded to constantly and indirectly at this conference, was the current civil unrest in both Guadeloupe and in the (traditionally more calm) Martinique.

But maybe that is not surprising. There are other themes that were planned to dominate the sessions – and did. The fact that the conference took place at the Cité Internationale des Arts in the Marais quarter is significant. The Cité des Arts is an organisation which provides a welcome and creative base to over 300 artists. Its director Bénédicte Alliot, who took the chair for the Wednesday morning session, has had a successful career in cultural diplomacy. So words such as ‘support’, ‘sustain’, ‘develop’, ‘accompany’ ran right through the proceedings. France has strong institutions to do this, and it was good to be reminded of that.

(*) There is a fifth Overseas Department, Mayotte, but as far as I was aware it was not mentioned. People have also asked about eg Tahiti and New Caledonia: these are Overseas Territories under a different jurisdiction.

2) THE SHOWCASE CONCERTS

The evenings after the AJC meetings were spent at La Dynamo in Pantin, with no fewer than nine musicians/bands performing. There were four Jazz Migration bands whom AJC accompany and support through their highly acclaimed artist development scheme, plus six with an “Outre-Mer” connection.

One probably has to make a lot of allowances for the pressures and strains placed on the younger players here, not least because of the relative absence of live performance opportunities in the past year. The idea of playing what might be the “gig of your life” to an audience of French festival directors plus no fewer than forty (!!) members of the Europe Jazz Network would put pressure on any performer. As a general point I (very unusually) found that the very well-produced compilation album was in some cases more indicative of the true individuality and character of the Migration bands, in other words what they can achieve in ideal circumstances, rather than the stage shows. With the Outre-Mer bands, and in particular those with a connection to Réunion, there was also a sense of needing to get a serious upgrade in my knowledge base in general, and specifically about the Maloya tradition of Réunion.  

Sélène Saint-Aimé. Photo credit: Béaxgraphie/AJC

The showcase which made the biggest impression on me was that of a band led by young singer/bassist Sélène Saint-Aimé, firstly because there are so many possible directions she could easily still develop, and secondly I thought the musical and textual intelligence was matched with real/instinctive stage presence. Her early fascinations apparently included the gypsy jazz scene at Samois, and her choice of the bass as main instrument seems to have come later, and from having heard Avishai Cohen in her late teens. Since then there have been travels to work with Steve Coleman and also to Morocco to investigate the Gnawa tradition, and to Martinique, where part of her heritage is from (all of this background comes from a very enthusiastic review of her debut album Mare Undarum in Libération from September 2020). There is certainly a musical vision, imagination and compositional flair here. And an extremely strong band which never overpowers either her bass or her vocals. I scribbled a rather pretentious note that “Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra meets Berio Folksongs”, and there are always going to be wags who ask if she and Esperanza Spalding have ever been seen in the same room…whatever the dubious merits of remarks like that, Sélène Saint-Aimé is certainly a name to watch out for.

Impressive, energizing and affecting in a different way was the duo of Arnaud Dolmen and Leonardo Montana who perform as LéNoDuo. This was truly interactive and communicative jazz. Dolmen has already made a big impact, not just in France but in the UK too, with his debut album and there is a new one out at the end of January. The level of rhythmic invention here was stupendous. There was so much energy and life in this pairing, they made similarly conceived duos – say Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Pedro Martinez – look stately and a bit staid.

The opening band led by Maher Beauroy had the additional pressure of performing for live radio but acquitted itself very well. Beauroy told the story that he had met the Franco-Algerian oud player Redha Benabdallah when they found each other as the only dark-skinned members of a 300-strong university level musicology class, and that this friendship had led them to become firm friends and to explore the work of Frantz Fanon together. Fanon was a hugely influential activist writer on decolonisation who died tragically young from leukemia. Beauroy does everything he does with affecting sincerity. This band – as did Sélène Saint-Aimé’s – also benefited from the presence of the superb percussionist Boris Reine-Adélaïde.  

The flautist Yann Cléry gave an upbeat and lively show on solo flute with looping and various effects and an agile and appealing stage presence.

Ann O’Aro (centre). Photo credit: Béaxgraphie/AJC

Singer Ann O’Aro from Réunion leads the listener off into all kinds of heady trance-like states, but overlaid with a contemporary agenda based around gender politics. She also had percussionist Bino Waro, son of Réunion musical icon Danyèl Waro, in her band. This set made me want to hear – and above all learn – more. Créole réunionnais is a totally unfamiliar language; O’Aro is a highly expressive singer and committed performer.

Suzanne, a Jazz Migration 7 Band. Photo credit: Béaxgraphie/ AJC

When it came to the four Migration bands, I found the trio Suzanne fascinating, particularly on the recording. They are a guitarist, a bass clarinettist and a viola player, and all three are equally at home making conventional “classical” sounds as they are going off to explore extended techniques. This is a real listening band, with the core sound delicate and the textures fascinating. Nout is another unusual combination: flute/effects, electric harp and drum kit, with a leaning towards the loud and the powerful and the rocking-out. I loved the tracks from the Charley Rose Trio on the album. Saxophonist Rose himself has a punchy, strong and focused tenor sound, and I would want to hear their bassless trio in less pressurised circumstances. Oliver Weindling heard the last band and wrote: “Coccolite produced funky nujazz: happy-go-lucky grooves enhancing the more traditional piano trio with electronic washes and broken beats.”

Jazz Migration is a very well-run support scheme and the musicianship of this seventh cohort is hugely impressive. 

Sebastian Scotney was the guest of AJC for “Les Rencontres AJC 2021” 

LINKS: AJC website

Jazz Migration website

This article is being co-published with Citizen Jazz (France) – Link to the French version.

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