Motion in Marciac

One to brighten the dull days: back in his London cutting room with 60gb of virtual images, JJ photographer Tim Motion presents an evocative 2011 summer jazz diary centred around the compendious Marciac festival, 29 July - 14 August.

Words and pictures by Tim Motion
// See Tim's vast photo archive at

I pointed the Alfa west after saying goodbye to Béatrice and Lucy at Jazz à Juan, taking time out to visit old friends in Arles and Nîmes. Marciac is 500 miles west of Nice and not a drive I wanted to do in one day. Jazz In Marciac (JIM) is a remarkable phenomenon, given that it takes place in a small town with a population of 1500, one hotel and a lake. At festival time there are extensive caravan and camping sites. The nearest airport is Pau, an hour away, Toulouse a good two hours. For 15 days a marquee holding more than 3000 people is filled to overflowing every night at £35 a pop. This does not include those on the sidelines, free daytime jazz concerts in the central place and other venues like the new L'Astrada theatre providing a more intimate setting. Music rules, with the help of a collective vision and serious sponsorship and . . . jazz is popular! While many jazz festivals are obliged to include a growing number of artists far from the jazz umbrella, Marciac manages to provide at least two-thirds jazz or closely related events out of the total of nearly 40. The overt crowd-pleasers and funksters are certainly there too.

Frank GambaleThe first night, after a fine sirloin steak and a glass of local St. Mont red wine I was ready in the smudgers' pit. Richard Bona opened the festival with deep Afro-blues and Latin grooves alongside the soulful Raul Midon. Chick Corea followed with Return to Forever, his rich filigree of harmony and dissonance underpinned by the exultant bass of Stanley Clarke. Clarke was in his element – jazz/rock/funk whatever - and astonished with his crisp intonation and a plangent solo on acoustic bass. Jean-Luc Ponty, a fine jazz violinist whom I felt was not quite in the groove, nevertheless dispatched a sizzling solo with Clarke. With Frank Gambale's string-bending and blues-tinged guitar (echoes of Albert Collins and pictured right) the whole camion was propelled by the meaty beat of Lenny White's drums.

Saturday night we were launched into space again by John Scofield with Mulgrew Miller, Scott Colley and Bill Stewart, Scofield building to wailing climaxes on a galactic voyage of discovery - Encounters of the Seventh Kind perhaps, and a satisfying reading of Steeplechase rooted by Miller's earthy and solid piano.

After a quick visit to my friend Amy Lipton's Jazz Amy music bookstall and an ice-cream I returned to the pit. We were in for another extra-terrestrial experience, this time in the 4th Dimension with John McLaughlin and fellow Brit Gary Husband on drums and keyboards. I was keen to hear Etienne M'Bappe from Cameroon on bass; he had impressed me at one of the last concerts of the Nice Jazz Festival at Cimiez, and he didn't disappoint. With Ranjit Barot on drums, McLaughlin, a springboard of invention, led the group in an exciting and finely woven musical conversation. The audience wouldn't let them go – three encores. Now that the ground (a rugby field) inside the marquee was covered with wooden boards the three thousand could stamp their feet to get their way! I rarely left the tent before 1.30am.

Keith JarrettThe next night duo Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau provided the main attraction but as we were not allowed to photograph the concert I slipped in to L'Astrada theatre to check out Jonathan Batiste on piano; I am a big fan of his and saw him again at Ronnie Scott's recently with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. He had a solo spot in the small intimate L’Astrada with a reverential audience. His style is quirky, with original chord changes and the rhythmic inflections of New Orleans. As I left he was playing a repetitive left-hand rhythmic figure ... I returned to the Chapiteau (marquee) nearly a kilometre away. Brad Mehldau was doing the same thing in the same key! While I appreciated the meditative Mehldau and engaging Redman I have to admit that I was caught up in the fever of excitement generated later by Hiromi. She was more exciting than Keith Jarrett (pictured right) for sure, sublime though he can be; all right, perhaps that's not a fair comparison, but ... with Hiromi, apart from being pretty to look at and giving a stunning and quite erotic performance with an extraordinary technique, the music is genuine;  her fluid harmonic "blues", her staccato stabs at the keyboard (not random) in mid-pirouette and wild musical embroidery have a spontaneous relevance and meaning. Her classical training peeks out occasionally but all is propelled and held together by her exceptional rapport with Anthony Jackson on bass guitar and Simon Phillips on drums.  A good night indeed.

Al Jarreau on Monday produced his familiar inspired and almost child-like vocal inventions with emotional gestures and expressions. His reading of Carole King’s You've Got A Friend, accompanied by John Calderon on guitar was affecting though he departed almost completely from the melody – so what's new in jazz? He was followed by Dianne Reeves; she gets better every time I hear her – a jazz diva. With the perfect dynamics of Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo on guitars, her clear articulation and on-the-button intonation, her plaintive reading of Don't Explain was magical. Her singing is soulful, resonant with the blues, the "tristeza" of Portuguese fado, the Spanish flamenco and African chant. My only reservation during her set was that she began to "entertain" the audience, involving them in made-up songs and clapping – you know, "Marciac, so pleased to see you", "are you happy", "are you having a good time" etc etc. It went on too long and while I understand the motivation and that the punters appreciate it it's usually at this point that I switch off. I overheard a woman in the audience saying: "Here is a performer who knows how to please the audience." True I guess, and nonetheless Dianne's delivery is impeccable.

The weather was variable – 36º at midday, 11º at 2 am, with occasional thunderstorms. I was continuing to sample the culinary delights of Marciac, and the next day, with French photographer friend Eric and his artist girlfriend Natalie, enjoyed a succulent Confit de Canard with a bottle of red. And so then to Al Di Meola, guitar, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano while I can still focus. With the fine accordionist Fausto Beccalossi, and Rubalcaba's Afro-Cuban roots the music was tinged with the inevitable "Iberian cadence", complex themes, intricate modulations and high velocity dance patterns. In contrast, Rubalcaba let go the ropes of tension in his meditative piano solo, reminiscent of Eric Satie. There was a feast of pianists this year, and what followed was a stunning and tightly knit call and response collaboration on two pianos – Michel Camilo and Chucho Valdès weaving patterns to a thunderous climax.

I took two days off to visit other friends in the area, missing the Spanish Harlem and Afrocubism bands which were excellent by all reports.

And so to Monk ... Thelonious S. Monk Jr. that is, on drums with his Tentet. He is "très sympa" and presented an absorbing and satisfying set, so much so that I forgot to take any notes! I am still trying to find out the title of what T. S. Monk described as a "difficult Monk tune". He used admirably uncomplicated arrangements, and of course Round Midnight was featured where Helen Sung impressed greatly on piano.
The beautiful Nnenna Freelon was a magnificent bonus (or should that be "bona"?), with a voice that would turn a monk from the path of righteousness ... Dave Douglas blasted through the second inspired set with his three trumpet sextet (Dave, veteran Enrico Rava and Avishai Cohen) with Uri Caine on piano and a perceptive Clarence Penn on drums. The fragrant Linda Oh on acoustic bass impressed with her delicacy and power.

John SurmanThe sixth of August was another musical banquet. Alexandre Tassel, trumpet, with his quintet was followed by Richard Galliano and his homage to Nino Rota with themes from the Fellini movie La Strada. His quintet included our very own John Surman (pictured right.

For the next set we were treated to Roy Hargrove with the National Conservatoire Orchestra of Toulouse in homage to Chet Baker. Roy is a personal favourite of mine, especially on flugelhorn. His playing has a poetic quality and he clearly enjoyed the set with the syrupy strings of the Toulouse Orchestra and a quintet with Riccardo del Fra on bass and Billy Hart on drums. His singing was close to Chet on For All We Know, Funny Valentine and But Not for Me.

But Not for Me might describe my initial reaction to Nils Petter Molvaer's Sunday set, but it became clear (well not exactly in the physical sense) as he "appeared" very slowly from the blackness of a darkened stage, that something interesting was happening. His crackling accents on the trumpet flew over Erland Dahlen's rising amplified angry beast bass drum beat. Fellow Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus wailed between shafts of blue light, hallucinogenic, like a night ride through a dark forest with lightening and the Valkyries, to the cries of those slain in battle and the sinners in Hades! Is it "jazz"?  Does it matter? Impressive nonetheless; the photographers were reeling from trying to take photographs in the dark and the aural onslaught of the first number. The first number was all we were allowed but I did manage to get some atmospheric shots and shift the ear wax ... Of the other two trumpet sets Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf was intriguing for his mastery of the quarter-tone trumpet designed by his father Nassim Maalouf in the 60s. I particularly noted Sardinian Paolo Fresu and his Italian Quintet. He is well known in France since his debut with Aldo Romano in the early 80s. His are elegant lines reminiscent of Miles, and he has a fat "churchy" tone on flugelhorn.

Lateef & JamalMonday's three sets brought a sandwich with the tasty filling of Ahmad Jamal and Yusef Lateef (pictured right) between Harold Lopez Nussa and Tigran Hamasyan, two virtuoso pianists. With Herlin Riley on drums, Jamal at 81 is inspired and inspiring, and Lateef, his senior by 10 years, captivates on flute as well as tenor sax. He also sang a quavering "I am lonely - the sun's gonna shine on my backdoor one day", adding a poignant "Ya know what I mean?" At 91 he would.

Monty Alexander with Jeff Hamilton, drums and John Clayton, bass the next night provided a joyful and swinging celebration of their reunion, reminiscent of the tight trio in the late 70s, with a storming version of John Brown's Body – the pure pleasure of playing together again. At the end of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet's set with Walter Blanding, sax, Carlos Henriquez, bass, and Ali Jackson, drums, Monty could not resist joining in for the encores, observed closely by Marsalis's very fine pianist Dan Nimmer. 

Double highlights on the penultimate night consisted of the exotic Omar Sosa on piano with the really exceptional NDR Big Band, and the Roy Hargrove Big Band, with the glamorous Roberta Gambarini. Roy's band is outstanding and he directs with cool aplomb; his solo on Bill Evans's Remembering The Rain was sublime.

After Paquito D'Rivera's "Tango Jazz", Marsalis appeared again in down-home mode with his septet and a paean to Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. In fact there were 10 musicians involved, adding to the original quintet Marcus Printup, trumpet, Chris Cranshawe, trombone, Wess "Warmdaddy" Anderson and Victor Goines, saxes, and James Chirillo, guitar and banjo, plus a picturesque character playing washboard, his fingers inserted into empty 12-bore gun cartridges (red ones on the right hand, green on the left). The spirit of New Orleans pervaded the hall and Marsalis was joyfully at home. 

Although I did catch Robin McKelle's powerful vocals the next night -  a high octane funky set albeit with a touching piano solo from her with a nod to Bill Evans, it was time for me head home, some 700 miles north. Time constraints meant I was unable to stay for Maceo Parker or say hello to Ray Gelato and his Giants. 

As I was staying with friends 25 kilometres from Marciac I didn't manage to take full advantage of the great events available in Marciac during the day including film shows, masterclasses with visiting musicians and workshops. The centre of the town hums with activity all day, the main square filled with stalls of local produce, wine, cheeses and foie gras, arts, crafts, and jazz bands on the central stage.

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