Bill Frisell takes Guitar In The Space Age to D’Jazz Nevers Festival

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Nevers, in the very heart of France on the banks of the wide, fast flowing Loire, has a long history (28 years to be precise) as the location of one of the country’s most respected jazz organisations. Always an autumn highlight, the D’Jazz Nevers Festival is eight days of high quality, predominantly European jazz – including, this year, such names as Raoul Bjorkenheim’s eCsTaSy , Paul Rogers’ superbly inventive new Whahay trio and the (what’s the French for ‘bonkers’?) trumpet demon Mederic Collignon.

The final three days (13-15 November) packed in eleven well-attended concerts, by groups from duos to the eleven piece Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ). Led by guitarist/composer Olivier Benoit and artistic adviser and first division bassist Bruno Chevillon, this iteration of the ONJ featured a fast, hard driving mix of influences redolent of rock and contemporary ‘new’ music. As much as the densely scored compositions, soloists such as the fiery virtuoso violinist Theo Ceccaldi and saxophonist Alexandra Grimal certainly made the audience sit up and take notice. And for an audience whose average age suggested that Les Originales de Werther were the bonbons of choice, this was no mean feat.

In keeping with the demographic, a pronounced element of Memory Lane Syndrome (no bad thing in itself as bus pass holders will attest) which pervaded this final weekend of the programme brought both pleasures and occasional disappointments.

Violinist Ceccaldi led his own trio (with guitar and cello) in a very post-modern deconstruction of everything from gypsy swing to the blues, in a set that was notable for its virtuosity and in which, ironically, the new music/improv sections sounded the most old fashioned. In a less edifying version of improv (and did we ever think we’d ever be so grumpy as to really now call it ‘plinky-plonk’?) in his East/West trio cellist Didier Petit spent too much time hitting the back of his instrument with the bow and wasted the opportunity to capitalise on the potentially fertile opportunity of bringing clarinettist Sylvan Kassap together with the Chinese guzheng (table harp) of Xu Fengxia.

Bill Frisell’s Guitar In The Space Age quartet drove straight to the Memory Six-Lane Freeway , making pop classics of the 1960s a joyful playground for musicians who had nothing left to prove and could revel in revisiting the Byrds, the Shadows, the Beach Boys, Duane Eddy and similar favourites. Although they couldn’t do much with the four in the bar rhythms and easy chord sequences, Frisell and his playmates clearly delighted in making every tremolo twang sound totally authentic as well as fondly affectionate.

The evening before, Steve Swallow’s quintet with Carla Bley (on Hammond organ) was preceded by a French nine-piece project which re-played pieces from Bley’s 1972 classic Escalator Over The Hill. In the audience, those who knew the music were content to remember the tunes and enjoy the reprise. Others, disappointed by the realisation that there was nothing new going on in this revival production – which was given the somewhat unfortunate English title ‘Over The Hills’ - were far more saddened by a dull, colourless set from heroes Swallow and Bley and their unremarkable sidemen.

This and other big concerts took place, perhaps appropriately, in the 1960s-built concrete Maison de Culture. Earlier, in the intimate ancient stone cavern of Pac des Ouches, the trio Un Poco Loco made happier and more creative use of older material – this time from the bebop era. With lightly-worn musicality and skill, saxophone/clarinet, string bass and the splendidly fluent trombone of the ONJ’s Fidel Fourneyron made engaging acoustic music that made them sound like a much bigger group whilst giving warm and friendly contemporary twists (with a fair bit of sympathetic deconstruction) to tunes from two generations back.

The big finish on Saturday night was more Exotic Routes than Memory Lane, headlining Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s Quartetto AfroCubano and opening with saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and his mixed Haitian/French septet.

The latter’s project – Jazz Racine Haiti – delivered far less than promised, in that Schwarz-Bart spent endless time soloing himself or talking at great length between tunes about how he was fusing his jazz and Haitian influences and, in doing so, severely limited the scope for his young colleagues including startlingly energetic pianist Gregory Privat and the gloriously named (and vocally impressive) singer Marie Moonlight to shine.

Sosa, as might be expected these days, upped the ante, funking, jazzing, grooving and salsa-ing the audience into a frenzy of participation and enthusiasm which culminated in not just one but two ecstatic encores.

– Robert La Barbe

– Photo by Roger Thomas