Review: Jazz Sous Les Pommiers 2013

Derek Ansell in Normandy, reminded yet again that for sunshine, scenery and sparkle, you would have to go a long way to improve on Jazz Sous Le Pommiers

Bad weather generally for May preceded the start of this jazz festival, both in the UK and Normandy when I arrived there. Saturday the 4th, opening day, had a surprisingly bright burst of sunshine which, miraculously, blossomed out for most of the remaining seven days. You caught the bright, optimistic mood of the crowd that the weather promised, as groups of people moved purposefully down from the town centre, past the cathedral, across the open field with the bandstand (and a gospel group playing in front of large knots of people) down the steep steps to the municipal theatre compound and, further along the road, the massive La Salle Marcel-Helie complex.

There were few, if any, musicians ready to give interviews this year and as it meant missing most of Eric Harland’s quintet gig at the theatre, I did not get to Madeleine Peyroux’s press conference. In the event, I was able to cover both gigs with Harland’s ever-shifting rhythms prodding and pushing his group on to a continuous 90-minute set where one selection followed on immediately from its predecessor. Walter Smith III on saxophones impressed with his forceful lines, as did Nir Felder on guitar, but the band relies on the leader to keep it moving steadily with his thrusting and exuberant drum work. His final drum solo towards the end of the set was comprehensive, utilising every piece of percussion in sight along with a few extras and extracting a myriad of tone colours and rhythmic momentum.

Madeleine Peyroux attracted a full house at the giant 1,400 seat SMH arena, starting off with Take These Chains From My Heart sung brightly in front of a softly shuffling rhythmic background. Her voice is stronger than ever these days and although she combines jazz, blues, country and pop, all appear to be delivered with phrasing that reminds the listener of early Billie Holiday, whether intentional or not. She announced in French, sang in English and received a standing ovation for an intense set that never flagged for an instant. Jon Herington’s guitar offered contrast and jazz solos along with well-crafted accompaniment.

Bibendum, up at the Magic Mirrors venue, played classic big band arrangements by Ellington, Mingus, Evans and Maria Schneider with a slight French accent! Then, over the next few days there was a wild variety of music on offer with the Louis Sclavis Trio offering exploratory free jazz, played vigorously at the municipal theatre; The Soul Rebels from the USA, a sort of funky New Orleans outfit complete with sousaphone, and Ill Jazz, a French funk and fusion band that could occasionally slow down and play a rich ballad. Timetabling made it impossible to cover everything and I missed the Charles Lloyd group but they had a good-sized audience.

Ravi Coltrane offered tight hard bop, stretching the format somewhat with original compositions that were no more than frameworks for blowing on. Ravi bends forward and produces short, staccato phrases that are not much like his famous father’s style. The quintet’s set, with Ralph Alessi on trumpet, played boiling hard bop, finishing with a strange interpretation of Epistrophy which was far removed from Monk’s manner.

The Heritage Blues orchestra played New Orleans and Chicago blues and there were many fringe groups, both in venues and playing as free concerts on the green just outside the cathedral. One of the major highlights of the festival though, for me, was the New Gary Burton Quartet. Burton’s vibes have rarely sounded as good as on these readings of Afro Blue, My Funny Valentine and some fresh originals of his own and guitarist Julian Lage. Burton sounded great but was almost upstaged by his guitarist, just 24 years old and playing like a veteran in a style reminiscent of Wes Montgomery at times. Bassist Scott Colley also contributed original compositions and played well in the ensemble and as occasional soloist. Antonio Sanchez was a lively, sympathetic drummer in support but also a good soloist when opportunity beckoned. The new sidemen and music combined to inspire Burton to play better than he has in years and his group received a standing ovation and were required to play an encore - it was Bags' Groove, written by another noted vibraphone player.

Regrettably, due to an accident that saw me round out the week with three days in a French hospital, I missed the Avashai Cohen band, Vijay Iyer’s trio and a solo recital in the cathedral by John Surman, all concerts I had particularly wanted to catch. What I did see and hear reminded me yet again that for sunshine, scenery, space, atmosphere and sparkle, you would have to go a long way to improve on the Jazz Sous Le Pommiers festival.

More information on the event is here. Our preview from March is here.

Photo of Joshua Redman by Pierre-Yves Le Meur

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