Review: Vienne & San Sebastian 2012

Bob Weir reports on two of Europe's finest and most enduring jazz festivals - Vienne in the south of France and San Sebastian in northern Spain, the former over three decades old, the latter 47 years and together reflecting a wealth of jazz style old and new

Photo: Pat Metheny by Tim Dickeson

Pat MethenyDespite gloomy economies in both countries, the festivals in Vienne, France (28 June-13 July) and San Sebastian, Spain (19-23 July) continue to be successful with packed concerts and an upbeat vibe throughout. After 32 and 47 years respectively, the winning formula of top jazz attractions and a wide range of fringe music to appeal to all ages and tastes in multiple indoor and outdoor venues enables these festivals to thrive when some others falter. It helped having good weather, historically and aesthetically interesting settings, excellent organisation and access to superb restaurants, cafés and bars.

The Vienne jazz highlights included Piano Night (McCoy Tyner with Ravi Coltrane, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron and Eric Reed in various combinations), Guitar Night with the groups of Al Di Meola, Larry Carlton & Bireli Lagrene, Avishai Cohen (supremely brilliant) and the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman.

Headlining singers included Bobby McFerrin (in duo with Chick Corea), Gregory Porter, Erykah Badu, Dianne Reeves (with the Terri Lyne Carrington band) and Melody Gardot.

There were entertaining nights of Gospel (London Community Gospel Choir & Take 6), Funk (George Clinton, Earth Wind & Fire and Fred Wesley), French Touch (Eddy Louiss/Richard Galliano and Aldo Romano/Enrico Rava), Africa (Bela Fleck - taking the banjo back to its roots - & Manu Dibango) and Blues (Magic Slim - the last of the great Chicago blues masters - & Keb' Mo').

A shared bill between the Pat Metheny Unity Band (with Chris Potter) and artist-in-residence Tigran Hamasyan was thrilling just as the New Orleans sounds of Hugh (House) Laurie and Trombone Shorty were surprisingly enjoyable.

The concluding all-nighter (8.30pm to 5am) was particularly strong this year with outstanding sets by Tony Bennett, The Jazz Crusaders and Ninety Miles (with Nicholas Payton, Stefon Harris & David Sanchez).

The nightly programmes of post-concert music in the Midnight Club (Ambrose Akinmusire and more Gregory Porter) and at the similarly late Jazz Mix marquee (lots of stimulating youth-appeal fusions and a great Sam Rivers Tribute featuring the UK's Steve Williamson and Shabaka Hutchings) were as good as ever.

The afternoon/early evening sessions at two open-air stages by a host of local groups and student bands also maintained the usual high standard. Any spare time was gainfully spent at lectures, workshops, CD and book launches and photographic and art exhibitions.

There were satisfying repeat appearances at San Sebastian by Gardot, McFerrin (this time in tandem with the Yellowjackets), Ninety Miles, Di Meola (here supported by Gonzalo Rubalcaba) and the pianos (but with the excellent Dado Moroni replacing Tyner).

The fresh faces included Marc Ribot (exciting blues guitar with a great Cuban band), the delightful Jimmy Cobb Trio (with Larry Coryell and Hammond master Joey De Francesco), Terje Rypal, Nils Petter Molvaer (in the beautiful cloister of San Telmo church), Miles Smiles (Wallace Roney, Rick Margitza, Robben Ford & DeFrancesco) and the singers Neneh Cherry, Madeleine Peyroux and Tana Santana.

Two invitation-only afternoon sessions in the lovely grounds of the Basque Culinary Centre by Enrico Rava Tribe and the UK's Lighthouse (Simcock, Garland, Sirkis), appropriately with delicious local food and wine, were welcome diversions from the hurly-burly of the main festival.    

Alongside the major concerts was a wealth of free music on four outdoor stages near the beach by a great variety of pop, rock, folk and Spanish jazz bands with the Ray Gelato Tribute to Louis Prima shows attracting the biggest crowds.

A master class by Jimmy Cobb was both enlightening and great fun (e.g. If Miles had known Kind Of Blue was still selling 50 years on he would have demanded ownership of Columbia Records with Ferraris lined up at the door).

The best jazz festivals offer opportunities to experience live performances by favourite players and new talent but they can also spring delightful surprises. There were four very special examples this year.

Jon Faddis made two unpublicised appearances at afternoon sessions in Vienne as chief soloist with the gifted Stanford University Jazz Orchestra. They gave impeccable performances of classic Dizzy Gillespie big band charts and paid tribute to the great trumpet masters and on both occasions Jon was mesmerising for his technique and imagination.

I have seen Avishai Cohen before and always been impressed but his Vienne concert was something else. It was one of those magical nights where all the elements - the music, the weather, the magnificent amphitheatre and the responsive crowd - combined to create a sublime performance which no one wanted to end.

Madeleine Peyroux, too, has been previously enjoyable but at San Sebastian her maturity and increased confidence on stage took her singing to another level. She has thoroughly absorbed her influences (Billie, Joni etc) to achieve a truly distinctive style which also applies to the high quality of her original compositions.

L'Orchestre d'Hommes-Orchestres from Canada did not sound particularly promising in the programme at San Sebastian. But tipped-off by Downbeat's John Murph, I attended their two shows and was blown away by their elaborate showmanship and zany energy on highly individual treatments of Tom Waits material. The six singers and multi-instrumentalists have to be seen to be believed. Catch them wherever you can (they have UK tour plans).

Details of next year's festivals can be tracked at and

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