Review: Vienne and San Sebastian festivals

Bob Weir reviews and recommends two expertly organised and highly enjoyable festivals in beautiful European locations

I attended Vienne (26 June-11 July) for the last five days thereby missing performances by Lillian Boutte, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Allen Toussaint, Dhafer Youssef & Ibrahim Maalouf, Marcus Miller, Maceo Parker, Soweto Kinch, Tigran, Melody Gardot, Chucho Valdes, Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil, Salif Keita, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Gil Evans Paris Workshop and the Philip Catherine-Richard Galliano-Didier Lockwood super trio. I managed to catch some of them later in Spain. What I did see was as stimulating and enjoyable as it always is at this most hospitable festival.

My first concert was by bassist Avishai Cohen's New York Division (Cohen pictured right) - a top flight sextet playing inspirational jazz (the only vocal was on his encore), sharing the bill with George Benson's (pictured below, left) tribute to Nat King Cole (pleasant and hugely popular). The midnight club featured Manchester's GoGo Penguin trio (pictured below, right) with great energy and stylistic diversity.

Next came Sting, full-bearded, playing his familiar hits with no jazz pretensions but giving a strong performance to satisfy the packed crowd in the atmospheric Roman amphitheatre. The jazz came later at the midnight Jazz Mix marquee from Erik Truffaz playing Daniel Yvinec's Space Is The Place long composition.

Thursday's events could have been an exercise in nostalgia but for the sheer quality, commitment and relevance of the veterans on stage. The Messengers Legacy (Brian Lynch, Craig Handy, Billy Pierce, Donald Brown, Essiet Essiet, Ralph Peterson with Benny Golson guesting) delivered Art Blakey standards with the vivacity and drive of men half their age. The same applied to The Cookers (Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, Donald Harrison, Billy Harper, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart with Chico Freeman as guest) on a programme of stimulating originals, mostly by McBee. Chico appeared again at the midnight club in a quartet to fiery effect. Jon Faddis fronting the Stamford (California) Jazz Orchestra of students and tutors are always popular - it was their fifth time here - delighting the early evening crowd in Dizzy big band style. They returned two days later with more of the same. The Jazz Mix Hommage To Moondog by Cabaret Contemporain was strange and fascinating.

The regular Blues Night this year was by all-French bands of moderate appeal. Only Eric Bibb rose to the occasion with some enjoyable folk and blues.

The final concert is always an all-nighter (8pm to 6am with free coffee and croissants for the diehards who stay to the end). Six groups appeared in an appropriately good-time, end-of-festival atmosphere. Two of them were exotic singers - Ayo of German, Nigerian and gypsy origins and Ester Rada of Israeli/Ethiopian heritage. Both had strong visual and musical appeal. Snarky Puppy from Texas and NYC put on a lively show of post-jazz fusion which left the audience shouting for more. Roy Hargrove came on late having clearly enjoyed the backstage hospitality but his quintet still delivered the best jazz of the night. In his relaxed state, he kept his trumpet solos fairly short and concentrated on singing some rarely heard ballads in an attractive manner.

The shade of renowned photographer David Redfern was ubiquitous at Vienne this year. He died shortly after attending last year's event, having worked there regularly for over 20 years. His many friends among the musicians, photographers and festival staff talked about him often with affection and respect.

San Sebastian's 50th festival (22-26 July) was dogged by persistent rain on a couple of days but the mass of visitors donned their ponchos, raised their umbrellas and were undeterred. They were rewarded with a varied programme to suit all tastes. There seemed to be a little less straightahead jazz than previously with an over-emphasis on singers. However, the nine stages (six free-entry), all within easy walking distance, provided plenty of top quality entertainment. Enthusiastic audience responses suggested no disappointment.

The first night (all free) was party time on the massive beach stage with Jamie Cullum as a vibrant DJ, Earth, Wind & Fire and Jimmy Cliff. More jazz substance was available later at smaller venues from The Cookers and the duo of Ray Gelato and Claire Martin (who also played on the following day).

That was strictly singers' night. Catalonian legend Silvia Perez Cruz overpacked the large Trinidad Plaza, such was her local appeal. It was more comfortable in the modern Kursaal Auditorium to enjoy Jamie Cullum's very first solo concert. He captivated his host of Spanish fans from the start despite glitches with his rhythm track gismo. He was even applauded for taking off his jacket! Gregory Porter gave his usual consummately professional show with what is now familiar material. Carla Cook, a classy singer of standards with an excellent Spanish trio, made the most of her debut at the festival.

Cullum returned on Friday, this time with his regular small band, using his experience, well-honed stagecraft and mature personality to good effect. The night's jazz was supplied by three saxophone veterans. Benny Golson (pictured left) was a festival highlight, not just for his playing (which was outstanding) but for his between-numbers anecdotes, especially his fond and richly detailed accounts of Clifford Brown's death and Coltrane joining Miles. The quintets of Charles McPherson (ex-Mingus) and Azar Lawrence (ex-McCoy Tyner) thrilled large crowds with the exuberance of their playing despite intermittent rain.

There was also plenty of good jazz on Saturday. The New Standard Trio (Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow, Bobby Previte) were a bit cerebral in the open-air Trinidad Plaza but their quietly executed inventions were mesmerizing. Joshua Redman was an interesting match with The Bad Plus. They interacted magnificently and their well-rehearsed offerings were received with two standing ovations. There was a lively jam session at midday to celebrate 25 years of the Spanish magazine Cuadernos De Jazz. The bands of Maciej Fortuna, Azar Lawrence and Charles McPherson showed up with an infectious party attitude. The day's big event was Dee Dee Bridgewater returning after her triumph here last year. This time she sang good numbers associated with the Crescent City, powerfully supported by Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Seven.

The festival climax featured John Zorn's Bladerunner Trio, a fine Catalonian swing band in the Andrea Motis & Joan Chamorro Group, Melody Gardot in rock diva mode and a suitably exciting finish by the dependable Azar Lawrence Quartet.

The impressive San Telmo Museum had a very interesting exhibition to commemorate the festival's history at its 50th anniversary with videos, posters, photos and memorabilia. So, two expertly organised and highly enjoyable festivals, in beautiful locations, which I strongly recommend. The websites to monitor for next year are Jazz À Vienne and Heineken Jazzaldia.

Photos by Tim Dickeson

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