Review: Vienne and San Sebastian

Thriving European festivals, a thrilling all-Reinhardt set and a hang with Ashley Kahn all help Bob Weir to enjoy two varied programmes of jazz

It was good to discover that two of the best European festivals are thriving in these difficult economic times. Both offered solid jazz programmes with the usual supplementary pop, rock, funk and world music to fill the larger venues.

I missed the first five days of Vienne (Ibrahim Maalouf, a French all­-star tribute to Chet Baker, Goran Bregovic, Funk Night) but I was mostly satisfied with the rest of the programme. There were good, if not outstanding, sessions by John McLaughlin (pictured right), the John Scofield­-Brad Mehldau-­Mark Guiliana trio, Chick Corea's 75th Birthday Celebration with an all­star band and Kamasi Washington (outplayed on this occasion by his guesting father). The jazz highlights included a compelling set by Randy Weston's African Rhythms 5tet, a fine performance by France's Amazing Keystone Big Band with thrilling appearances by James Carter and the Django-­style guitarists Stochelo Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre on an all­-Reinhardt programme, and the innovative young French trio nOx.3. Although her new album Emily D + Evolution has been well received and I have previously enjoyed her playing, I was disappointed with Esperanza Spalding strutting around the stage in rock-­chick mode and supported by a loud electric trio and backing singers.

Singers, predominantly female, outnumbered the instrumental attractions. I was more than happy with Lisa Simone (pictured left), Diana Krall, Tanya Baker (gospel), Cecile McLorin Salvant, Robin McKelle and Gregory Porter. Hugh Coltman, Imelda May, Yael Naim, Seal and Faada Freddy are all impressive entertainers but perhaps a bit out of place at a jazz festival. The concluding Blues Night was notable not so much for headliner Buddy Guy (whose more-talking-than­-playing and lengthy audience walkabout jive have hardly changed since I first saw him in Nice 40­-odd years ago) or Shakura S'Aida's poor copy of Tina Turner but for a fresh approach to the blues by newcomer Selwyn Birchwood.

The Midnight Club had some interesting new bands although the magisterial James Carter organ trio outblew them all. Sadly, the Jazz Mix eclectic sessions were a shadow of previous years. Relocated from their midnight riverside marquee and restricted to just a few afternoon and early evening sessions at the Cybele social area, they lacked the essential young audiences and experimental atmosphere. The festival hope to make amends next year at a new venue. In addition to all of this, there was a host of student bands and French up­-and­-comers in all styles on stages, cafes and bars around town. A management reorganisation and a new artistic director succeeded in overturning a significant loss last year with increased attendances and a modest profit.

San Sebastian is a larger event with 10 stages, music from noon to the early hours and sometimes bewildering multiple choices. More so this time because the city, as 2016 European Capital Of Culture, was chosen for a concurrent 12 Points Festival featuring promising new jazz attractions from a dozen European countries.

I had seen Scofield-Mehldau­-Guiliana, Ibrahim Maalouf and Diana Krall in Vienne but here they seemed to raise their game and respond more eagerly to the appreciative audiences. Diana, in particular, was enjoying herself so much that her extensive encores appeared to last almost as long as the main concert.

There was exhilarating jazz from Dave Douglas & High Risk (a tasteful electric trio), a charming set by Ellis Marsalis at a concert shared with his son Branford in duo with Kurt Elling, another double bill featuring Jack DeJohnette­-Ravi Coltrane-­Matt Garrison with an outstanding Steve Coleman & Five Elements and subtle interplay from Mike Mainieri's Steps Ahead Reunion with brilliant contributions by Donny McCaslin and Eliane Elias. Jan Garbarek with Trilok Gurtu and Christian Scott's sessions were rather disappointing but there was ample compensation from the always good value Snarky Puppy and Marc Ribot. The Bobo Stenson and Jerry Bergonzi trios were also highly enjoyable.

Among the singers (far less than at Vienne), Gloria Gaynor's soul-­disco and Charles Bradley's soul-­rock were pretty routine but a greatly improved Jose James was a class act. The virtuoso flamenco jazz by Josemi Carmona and Javier Colina was a delightful surprise at a packed lunchtime session. There was also plenty of fringe music and some good Spanish jazz throughout the six days of the festival. Late night 12 Points European jam sessions did not take off because the venue was too far from the city centre.

Both events, therefore, were very successful musically and socially with enough serious jazz to keep aficionados content. There were opportunities to spend time with interesting people and it was a special pleasure to hang with US writer Ashley Kahn in Vienne and broadcaster Brad Stone in San Sebastian. Talking with NYC­-Paris based saxist-­educator Alex Terrier was another treat. His new NY Quartet With Kenny Barron album (Barking Cat BCR 1002) is well worth checking out.

News of next year's festivals will appear on their websites: Vienne and San Sebastian

Photos by Rita Pulavska


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