Did the first Black American music heard in France arrive with the African-American troops of the American Expeditionary Force, which landed in the port city of Brest in 1917?
This thesis is the basis of Nicolas Nogue’s film Quand le jazz débarque/Sammies in Brest, which was shown as part of Brest’s 14th annual Atlantique Jazz Festival (AJF) to a sold-out house at the mammoth Le Quartz theatre on October 12. While a syncopated score by pianist Christofer Bjurström mixed with appropriately descriptive noises from Vincent Raude’s electronics accentuated the silent archival newsreels, the few shots of soldiers singing or dancing didn’t make much of a case for jazz’s dissemination in France. More credible Yank-Gallic jazz admixtures were live festival performances by several American musicians who exhibited a profound rapprochement with their French counterparts.
It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that many festival highlights revolved around the most exploratory forms of creative music. This city of 150,000 people, whose citizens describe it as “finistere” or “end of the world” in local parlance, is by European standards almost brand new. Practically destroyed during the Battle for Brest in September 1944, the German government later supplied several billion Deutschmarks to rebuild the metropolis, which now has very few symbols of its long maritime history among many post-war, Brutalist-style granite and concrete buildings.
Probably the musician who most reflected French-American harmony was Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek. One instance of this relationship occurred the same night as the film showing, across the street in the basement Le Cabaret Vauban, when Mazurek conducted a 19-piece group, dubbed the New Third Coast Orchestra. Consisting of members of the local L’Ensemble Nautilis, Brest conservatory students and ringers such as Nautilis director Cristophe Rocher and veteran AACM drummer Avreeayl Ra, after only two days of rehearsal – plus four months with the score – the American-French aggregation produced an exciting variation of a work, first performed at the 2015 festival with more Americans on board.
While the text, recited by Alexandre Pierrepont, dwelt mainly with naval disasters, more provocative was the instrumental interpretation. Multi-sectional, with polyphonic interludes reflecting mood changes illustrated by mournful trumpet tones, reed and brass vamps or weighty rhythmic repetition, there were also gentle sequences, for instance pairing Justine Sion-Henry’s flute whispers and Céline Rivoal’s tremolo accordion. Besides Rocher’s slithering clarinet breaks, which contrapuntally challenged both tenor saxophonists, stop-time thrills came with the tune’s climatic roller coaster-like highs and lows, which, aided by Jean-Marc Perrin’s piano chording, added to a finale of held horn notes and lead to descending tension-release.
In a more minimalistic format, but with as many multiphonic possibilities was Mazurek using cornet, electronic processing, voice and percussion to duet with guitarist Julien Desprez the next night at Le Mac Orlan Theatre. There was never a question that Desprez was playing electric guitar as he altered his output with a battery of foot pedals and knob twirls, and was more likely to bang his balled fist on his instrument’s neck or body than to output clean multi-string notes. While Mazurek’s few cornet asides expressed fragile grace, savage mostly replaced soothing as his electronics created a looping ostinato and emphasized roars that sounded like the cranking of a Model T, to match Desprez’s string pounding. Further buzz and splatter variations from the guitarist were met with Mazurek shaking a bell-and-chain percussion tree plus some wordless chanting, suggesting a voodoo rite. By the finale what at first had seemed unusual and off-putting became as natural as any musical showcase.
Another instance of exceptional Franco-American cooperation took place at the Vauban October 11, when Art Ensemble of Chicago founder Roscoe Mitchell used sopranino, soprano and tenor saxophones to duet with the drums and percussion of Gaul-by-adoption, Australian Will Guthrie, who lives in Nantes. Guthrie’s percussion command which encompasses measured bass drum thumps, variable shakes on a selection of cymbals and a gong, drum-top rubs and small-instrument movements, served as the backdrop for Mitchell’s Pied Piper-like display of circular breathing. Nearly attaining the half-hour mark with no pause for breath, Mitchell kept this soprano saxophone display constantly compelling with undulating asides, rhythmic bites and changes in pitch and tempo. Acknowledgement of each other’s presence could have been more obvious, but overall the two improvisers managed to exhibit a mutual respect and interest in auditory expansion.
Another Franco-American encounter preceded this duo on the same stage was Twins [The Bridge #0] Chicago Now. Part of an ongoing collaboration among improvisers from both countries, this one matched Americans, soprano and alto saxophonist Fred Jackson Jr. and drummer and electronic manipulator Makaya McCraven with alto saxophonist Stéphane Payen and percussionist Edward Perraud from France. Like comparing a homburg and a beret, contrasts were most apparent with the two saxophonists. Bluesy and direct, compared to Payen’s more cerebral storytelling, Jackson’s rasps and bites never got so violent that they couldn’t combine with the other’s trills or tongue-slapping for a polished interchange.
McCraven not only injected variations of hip-hop beats into his playing, but with live processing added other reed parts to the mix while vibrating an electronic ostinato. Showier in contrast to the other’s methodical groove, Perraud leapt and jumped as he smacked his collection of cymbals, gongs and small percussion instruments. Notwithstanding split tones and overblowing from the saxes, Jackson’s hand-clapping was soon replicated by the others on the penultimate tune to dissipate sonic strain into effortless swing. Mazurek’s muted cornet tones and Rocher’s air-leaking clarinet trills joined the quartet for the final number and intensified that mixture of extended techniques and straight-ahead melody.
Alliances of a more nationalist sort were also featured during AJF with improvisations called Arch Music Meetings matching visiting and local artists. Most took place at noon at the Salle du Clous of the Universitaire du Bouguen, with the added inducement of free soup for all. October 12’s meeting among Rocher, Payen, the Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ)’s clarinetist Jean Dousteyssier and Nautilis alto saxophonist Nicolas Péoc’h substantiated that probing interactions exist for such ensembles. Layering a collection of overblowing, split tones and variable pitches into a reed tapestry, the quartet varied the mood by switching lead and accompaniment roles and dividing into smaller matched units.
Just as memorable were the Arch concerts with pianist Bjurström, the ONJ’s trumpeter/flugelhornist Fabrice Martinez and drummer Éric Échampard on October 11 and accordionist Rivoal plus electronics player Raude joining ONJ pianist Sophie Agnel on October 13. Bjurström’s pseudo-romantic cascades and Martinez’s carefully spaced, low-pitched flugelhorn flutters created a reflective interchange that was disrupted by inner piano string strums, but kept from disintegrating into chaos by balanced drum syncopation.
Two days later, Rivoal’s physicality on button accordion was mated by Agnel’s piano string echoes and keyboard slaps when the three weren’t otherwise creating a reflective deep listening experience. Outer-space-like swirls, whooshes and flanges processed from Raude’s instrument added both a percussive undercurrent and jarring asides that kept the improvisation from becoming too comfortable.
A comfort level of mutual improvisational respect was attained in the duet between ONJ guitarist Olivier Benoît and Nautilis drummer Nicolas Pointard on October 10, following the AJF’s official launch at the cozy Beaj Kafé. Rim shots and rebounds on drum tops plus cymbal splatters and slaps on a tin pot, were developed by the percussionist into a wall of subtle turbulence. It was often breached by the guitarist whose strategy was more involved with propelling sound waves than melody. To this end he concentrated on ingenious string thumps or extended screeches to make his points, climaxing with a cascade of splayed timbres that illuminated the tune while completing it.
Benoît’s talents as a composer, band leader and orchestrator were on show October 13 at the concert the 12-piece ONJ shared with Mazurek/Desprez at Le Mac Orlan’s theatre space. The orchestra performed Benoît’s Oslo project, imagining the Norwegian city through music and the texts of Hans Petter Blad vocalized by Maria Laura Baccarini. An Italian, singing English translations of Scandinavian poetry, Baccarini acquitted herself handily. But the band’s instrumental heft frequently masked her voice so that some words were inaudible; while those that weren’t sounded more prosaic than profound. As for the ONJ, the members cleverly dealt with a variety of moods and structures that ranged from the near-Impressionism in some of violinist Régis Huby’s emotional solos, to the pumping, bordering-on-rock-music groove set up by drummer Échampard, electric bassist Sylvain Daniel and Paul Brousseau’s electric keyboards. Balance was also exquisitely maintained among multiphonic explosions, connective reed and horn vamps and a few emotional solos, as when alto saxophonist Christophe Monniot sounded an extended road-house R&B-like reed buster near the concert’s end that was dramatic but had little connection to what followed or preceded it. Overall though, it appeared as if ONJ’s massed talent would have been better served in a freer, less controlled environment.
These were a few of AJF’s most memorable shows, with other concerts on other days providing glimpses of the contemporary jazz scene’s many variations. This skill in programming and presentation, demonstrate with certainty why audiences annually travel to the end of world for the festival.