Atlantique Jazz Festival #17
October 3-11, 2020
By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor/Gallery O
Creativity crushed Covid-19 fears at the 17th Atlantique Jazz Festival (AJF) in early October. The annual program in Brest, France presented the usual fine music with only a few concessions to the pandemic. While a couple of out-of-country performers had to bow out, and concert audiences had to wear masks and social-distance, these unanticipated touches were taken in stride and may have even enhanced the situation. After all, Jazz is about improvising.
In fact, two performances which resonated with first-rate ideas were from so-called replacements and took place on the AJF’s second and final nights. Reorienting the festival’s concluding show, a double bill at Le Vauban, a missing US group was replaced by Entre les Terres, a quartet that cunningly negotiated among improv, formalist and folkloric currents, featuring baritone saxophonist François Corneloup, clarinetist Catherine Delaunay, violinist Jacky Molard and cellist Vincent Courtois. On the second night, at the Mac Orlan concert hall, and replacing a British-focused piano trio he was scheduled to appear with, drummer Simon Goubert instead created a series of intuitive extensions with pianist Sophia Domancich, his long-time duo partner.
Slowly and sensuously gliding their way through a series of melodies, Goubert used mallet-pressed thwacks and stick-bouncing paradiddles to up initial tempos to foot-tapping grooves while the pianist vamped through patterns that ranged from soothingly balladic to Monk-like spikiness. To keep the set list intriguing, Domancich at times used focused glissandi to speed up the tempo, while Goubert countered with sprightly asides and cymbal splashes. Always developing, the result was a definition of cerebral planning mixed with in-the-moment musical decisions. Hours earlier, the drummer was part of the series of L’Heure magnétique noon-hour concerts at the local university’s Salle de Clous. Based around the yodels, lyricism and ethereal vocalizing of Isabel Sörling, reed slurs from saxophonist Stéphane Payen, pressurized buzzes and flanges from guitarist Christelle Séry and drum clip-clops, the program sometimes divided the results into voice-saxophone and guitar-drums duos. Still, the defining climax came when the four combined into an ejaculation of electricity-fueled vibrations.
In many ways poaching the way a chamber music ensemble would interpret Arcadian material, the Corneloup four also artfully balanced their influences. With an echoing ostinato usually created by the saxophonist’s mellow low-pitched slurps during theme elaboration, the clarinetist’s reed bites, and the violinist’s and cellist’s horizontal arco string-sawing became more prominent. Despite group creativity, space was always left for Courtois to affect a slap-bass line and Molard to pop out multi-string sweeps and pizzicato plucks that suggested a country hoedown rather than Hayden or Hemphill. Even when individual motifs were played staccato and/or prestissimo, connections among each player’s parts were always audible since even heated solos were expressed within the comfort levels of the other three players. Furthermore, no matter how many Gaelic and Gallic folkloric references attached themselves to the playing, Jazz counterpoint was a noted part of the mix.
Molard’s folk-improv style was also on display earlier that day as part of an improvising duo with cellist Didier Petit at the La Turbine arts space. With jagged multi-string scrapes and stops from both players joining colorful glissandi and seesawing pulls, the interaction sometimes suggested sea shanties as well as swing. Quick-moving, the tunes were as boisterous as they were rustic, and maintained an edgy tension-release throughout.
Later at Le Vauban, Petit showed off a different musical side as a member of Les Voyageurs de l’Espace trio. With vocalist Claudia Solal and percussionist Philippe Foch, Les Voyageurs were a contrapuntal challenge to the sounds from Entre les Terres quartet which played afterward. Performing specially created material based on space travel, the trio demonstrated that obtuse tones and sharp pitches proliferated in this version of extraterrestrial voyaging. Solal’s operatic yodeling, nuanced growling, celestial scatting and spoken word interludes were accompanied by her dramatic body bends and stretches to accentuate emotions. Besides sometimes chanting chorus-like along with the drummer, the cellist at points danced across the stage, carrying his instrument nearly horizontally as he dragged tones from spike to tuning pegs, popping strings and bowing ferociously as he moved. Here, as he had earlier in the day, Petit used col legno taps on the cello’s wooden sides and back as well as on the strings. Expressively manipulating electronics for extra textures, Foch added cymbal sizzles, hand-slapped tabla echoes and mallet-driven drum-top raps. Overall, harmonies and counterpoint ensured that the space exploration was profound and thrilling.
Clarinetist Delaunay was another constant presence at AJF. Besides playing with Corneloup, she and bassist Hélène Labarrière created a chamber-improv recital at the Passerelle art space on October 7. Picking up clues from each other’s timbres as they advanced thorough a series of brief encounters, Delaunay and Labarrière shook and slithered the results every which way, with the bassist’s string-tolling providing the fleet undercurrent upon which the clarinetist could puff, project or circularly breathe patterns expressed in an individual fashion. Concluding with darker string slaps and moderated trills that mirrored each other’s narratives, the final number was a jerky, near-Dixieland foot-tapper.
Delaunay, Courtois and clarinetist Christophe Rocher played during the following afternoon’s L’Heure magnétique when Courtois’ arching slaps rarely fastened on more conventional beats. With Rocher sourcing split tones and reed bites from his small, standard, and bass clarinets, sometimes played simultaneously, the idea was tone investigation rather than idiomatic expression. Layering the exposition in three parts, the cellist’s tremolo sweeps often made common cause with dual reed puffs and trills. Eventually intimations of the Blues and bagpipe airs worked their way into the well-balanced trio mix.
Two other AJF visitors who demonstrated adaptable musical skill with contrasting styles were guitarist Richard Comte and flutist Delphine Joussein. Fittingly, the Heavy Metal side of Comte’s playing was on show back-to-back at Le Vauban October 7, when the guitarist’s Punk-Jazz ensemble Hippie Diktat with baritone saxophonist Antoine Viard and drummer Julien Chamla shared a double bill with the Band of Dogs’ Prog duo of bassist Jean-Philippe Morel and drummer Philippe Gleizes, whose guest was Joussein. Subtlety was not part of Hippie Diktat’s game plan. Viard spent most of his time – and almost all of his breath – snarling continuous blasts of weighted air. Yet this strategy dovetailed appropriately with Comte’s energetic string-strumming and Chamla’s bellicose ruffs. Still, a close listen revealed that while the trio’s constant riffing and distorted crescendos may have satisfied the headbangers in attendance, the lack of pounding percussion and time-worn repeated guitar riffs showed that Hippie Diktat considered the inside of the brain as well as its outside motion when playing.
That concept was a bit harder to discern earlier in the evening with Band of Dogs in full flight. That’s because Morel’s solos were able to suggest both lead guitar string distortion and bass guitar rhythmic anchoring until the program finally climaxed with an inflated coda of riffs, ruffs and resounds from the drummer. Constant hard blowing from the flutist amplified with pedal expansions established her place among the boisterous Rock-like intonation, though her riffs seemed more like add-ons than a full-fledged partnership with the others.
The flutist’s duet with accordionist Céline Rivoal two days later during L’Heure magnétique was altogether different. Splaying multiple textures from her instrument’s bellows, Rivoal shook out memories of rustic forest paths and Paris café soundtracks as Joussein’s melodic hollering helped move the two into unexpected sonic territory. As percussive as horse-hooves’ echoes in her draughts, or with barely there whispers, Joussein helped shake the duet into sampling various satisfying pitches and tempos. Similarly, Comte’s opening-day L’Heure magnétique concert was also a study in contrast with his Hippie Diktat work. Affiliated with the drums of Nicolas Pointard, the guitar and synthesizer of Baptiste Martin de Frémont, and the voice, keyboards and synthesizer of Romane Rosser, that day’s set was an instance of mesmerizing minimalism. Repeating atmospheric string riffs nearly endlessly from both plectrumists led to the group’s promulgation of time suspension.
Now that it has attained late-adolescent confidence, this year’s AJF was unafraid to also present additional programs which brought other aspects of improvised music into the mix. On the first evening in the suburban Centre socioculturel Horizons for instance, bassist Sébastien Boisseau and special guest flutist Sylvaine Hélary led a half-improvisation/half-discussion dealing with the infrastructure of improvised music, and encouraged audience members to voice their ideas on the subject. On the penultimate day at La Maison du Théâtre in a different suburb, the trio of saxophonist Antonin Trí Hoàng, vocalist/pianist Jeanne Susin and drummer/guitarist Thibault Perriard created the musical play Chewing Gum Silence for young audiences. Involved with trying to define musical currents for the general population, the straightforward and fast-moving production kept the crowd of mainly children consistently fascinated and without seat-squirming its entire length. Meanwhile, a complete left-turn was provided by the Horla duo on October 7’s noon-hour concert on the waterfront La Carène. Banjoist Jack Titley and cellist/gadulka player Pauline Willerval both interpreted primitive vocal classics by Delta Blues guitarist Skip James and others. Show business rather than Jazz, the performance still managed to entertainingly prove that Blues variations were part of Jazz’s roots.
Even slicker were the shows of veteran organist Rhoda Scott and her augmented Ladies All Stars, which filled the mammoth soft-seated Le Quartz theatre hall the evening of October 10, and the quartet of violinist Mathias Levy, which performed an equivalent feat as the top half of a double bill at the auditorium of the local Conservatoire on October 8. Sleek, as only someone can be who has been successfully performing her R&B flavored Jazz since the early 1960s, New Jersey-born, long-time Paris resident Scott gave ample solo space to her all-female ensemble. Organist Scott added funky dual keyboard glissandi when needed and without a hint of headliner exhibitionism. With the majority of the band’s book consisting of originals composed by its members, the group produced finger-snapping swing without compromise. Drummer Julie Saury, whose playing was sometimes a little overbearing, kept the beat going and contributed some fine simple tunes. So did the others, as the bottom slurps of Sophie Céline Bonacina’s baritone saxophone provided the funk glue that held together many of the tunes, and as trumpeter Airelle Besson and saxophonists Lisa Cat-Berro, Géraldine Laurent, Sophie Alour and Géraldine Laurent contributed notable solo turns balancing grease and glossiness.
Professional glossiness, but no grease, was also present with the Levy foursome, which featured bassist Jean-Philippe Viret, guitarist/cellist Sébastien Giniaux and accordionist Vincent Peirani. Informed by the violinist’s spectacular and sometimes blindingly speedy double and triple stops, and the accordionist’s contagious smears and jerky button splashes, fast pacing was always front and centre. Viret’s solo spot showed that he could work his way around difficult passages as easily as his string accents kept time throughout, while Giniaux’s instrumental ambidexterity added unexpectedly canny shading to many of the tunes.
There were other notable shows during AJF, including the fast-paced, near-African rhythms projected by the eight-piece Grand Imperial Orchestra’s October 9 set at Le Vauban. Sophisticated improvisational outpourings by trombonist Simon Girard and Gérald Chevillon on the hard-to-manoeuver bass saxophone provided many of the highlights of that performance. In short, AJF #17 proved that it would take more than a global pandemic to prevent a first-class festival from not only taking place, but also presenting first-rate music in 2020.