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Médéric Collignon/Gianni Gebbia at the 2022 Sicilia Jazz Festival

Médéric Collignon and the Gianni Gebbia Magnetic Trio – Ommagio a Sidney Bechet
(Sicilia Jazz Festival 2022. Review by AJ Dehany)

Ommagio a Sidney Bechet at Sicilia Jazz. Phone snap by AJ Dehany

You won’t forget your first encounter with the mischief and mania of Médéric Collignon – the wildman of the cornet, flugelhorn and other avant garde innovations of electronics, rubber tubing, and vocalisation. He is the ‘godfather’ of the estimable Couleurs Jazz Radio, of whom his colleague Jacques Pauper said to us, “If you haven’t seen Médéric – in his own words, expect to see a clown onstage…” In English the word can mean foolish, so the comparison is more apt to the bouffon, the provocative jester whose inspirations and expirations often express darker, usually satirical motivations.

It describes part of his role in this French-Sicilian collaboration with maestro soprano saxophonist Gianni Gebbia and his longstanding Magnetic Trio with bassist Gabrio Bevilacqua and drummer Carmelo Graceffa. Their Ommagio a Sidney Bechet was a stunning highlight of the second edition of the Sicilia Jazz Festival taking place in Palermo, Sicily. Performed at the Teatro Santa Cecilia, their concert presented a thrilling postmodern homage to Sidney Bechet, one of the troubled originators and masters of the music. With a leftfield approach they explored Bechet’s vital legacy through Gebbia’s striking original compositions and their incisive take on Bechet’s signature tune “Petite Fleur”. It has been said that there are three principal figures in jazz that are the foundation of everything that has come since: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet. As Wynton Marsalis says of Bechet, “He gave us the beat, the phrasing. Today we take it for granted, but then it was a bold statement.”

Gianni Gebbia, a master of circular breathing, sets up dense arpeggios and pedal ostinatos that take up the early jazz language and puts it through the newer techniques of postclassical minimalism and much older Sardinian launeddas, which fascinatingly pre-empted these hypnotising forms. The syncopated rhythms of the drum and bass cut across with discombobulating effect, and finally we can add Collignon’s left-field altercations and disruptions, extreme phrasing and experimentation which add an edginess to a powerful mix that sounds resolutely contemporary. At the same time it interrogates “the beat, the phrasing”. Wonky and exciting, the unsettling vigour and rigour of the group recalls and powerfully evokes the inspiration of their homage. Collignon himself explains the power of taking on a big tune like “Petite Fleur”: “It allows the group to play with speeds, shifts, space-time bubbles, rips and returns to the object quite simply.”

Sidney Bechet was born in 1897 in New Orleans, where he played clarinet in ad hoc ensembles, working alongside Louis Armstrong to develop the Swing style. He was used to playing fast arpeggios, with exciting glissandi on the soprano that are impossible on the trumpet, and he played it loud. Really loud. That distinctive wild, wide vibrato is associated with his striking usage of that straight soprano sax he found in London in 1919, which he played up at an eye-catching angle. He could play the C above C above high C three octaves above the range of the soprano, biting down on the reed. Bill Goodman said “Man, there ain’t no note like that!”

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Similarly, Gebbia plays soprano with a crystal mouthpiece, and the noises Collignon can produce from a length of rubber hose coiled around his fist will make your hair stand on end. His avant-gardist take on the dreaded jazz scat singing are energetic and endearingly weird… but this is the weirdness of the bouffon rather than the birthday party clown. When the group went into the slower atmospheric material of “Francesco e il Sultano”, the long melodic lines were reminiscent of the South African group Side Bar aka Shabaka and the Ancestors, with a mesmeric meditative sense giving space for reflection. The intensity and power of Gebbia’s group is underpinned by an evocation of that subtle melancholia which is the hallmark of Sidney Bechet’s style: taking the minor key traditions and funereal associations of New Orleans and recasting these into the big bold sound and dynamic energy of the swing-era concert hall. 

If some, like Médéric Collignon, embrace their madness, others have it thrust upon them – and Sidney Bechet’s story is in many ways a sad one. In 1925 this most European of the jazz founding fathers went to Europe, and didn’t go back to the US until 1935, where he found himself unknown while Armstrong and others had been recording and had made their names. During the forties his fortunes improved, but he felt the jazz scene in the US was getting stale. He permanently emigrated to France in 1951. He died in Paris in 1959. Since then his influence on the music has waxed and waned, but I’m grateful to Médéric Collignon and Gianni Gebbia’s Magnetic Trio for such a thrilling reminder of a complicated legacy, and to Sicilia Jazz Festival for putting it on. The group were recording at the French Institute in Palermo the day before the concert. I can’t wait to hear the outcome, and to immerse myself again in this rich and generous synthesis of styles and influences from over a century of inspiration.

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff and was the guest of Sicilia Jazz

LINKS: Sicilia Jazz Festival website

Gianni Gebbia website

The extensive Magnetic trio catalogue on Bandcamp

Médéric Collignon does the ‘Proust Questionnaire for Couleurs Jazz

Treat It Gentle documentary about Sidney Bechet

Set list: 

1-Prospero (Gianni Gebbia)

2-Satielogy (Gabrio Bevilacqua) 

3-Same Brushes (Gianni Gebbia)

4-Petit fleur (Sidney Bechet) 

5-Romeo (Gianni Gebbia) 

6-Nievski in love (Gianni Gebbia) 

7-Francesco e il Sultano (Gianni Gebbia)

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