Jan Garbarek and Nils Petter Molvær brighten up a rainy Au Grès du Jazz Festival

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Au Gres du Jazz Festival takes place in the beautiful setting of the tiny village of La Petite Pierre (59km from Strasbourg) in the Northern Vosges National Park region of Alsace. The 10-day festival features two main open air concerts on the weekends and one during the week. There's also an 'Off Festival' featuring two or three performances per day from local and regional artists in and around the village of La Petite Pierre. For such a small place (population around 600) there are a large number of hotels, restaurants and B&Bs. These of course do not cater purely for the jazz festival but for the many cyclists and ramblers who come to this area of the National Park to enjoy its outstanding natural beauty and the miles of trekking and cycle routes to be found here.

The main shows are staged in a large raked courtyard between the old village and the manor house that seats around 1,200, which is perfectly suited to jazz as it feels very intimate and, for an outdoor venue, the sound is exceptional. This year for the 15th edition of the festival, the main stage concerts were of a very high standard, with the likes of Avishai Cohen, Yaron Herman Trio, Jean-Luc Ponty/Biréli Lagrène/Kyle Eastwood, the Biréli Lagrène Acoustic Quartet and Shai Maestro all performing before we arrived.

Our first evening was the Hiromi/Edmar Castaneda Duo. The compactness of the setting certainly enhanced the atmosphere: the audience almost in the pockets of the two performers. Apart from a massive downpour which halted the concert for around thirty minutes, the duo kept the feeling and spirit of the show alive and no one left despite the atrocious conditions. The festival does have a 'Plan B' in case of inclement weather: a village hall that can squeeze just under 1,000 people inside. Following another rainy session with singer Hugh Coltman the following night the next three days were all inside.

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We were extremely lucky that in this location we saw two outstanding shows. The first featuring Jan Garbarek (above) and the second with Nils Petter Molvaer (top). Garbarek playing with percussion maestro Trilok Gurtu, pianist Rainer Brûninghaus and electric bassist Yuri Daniel was just brilliant. His style of filmic music starting with 'Molde Canticle' was perfectly suited to the rammed hall and the atmosphere was fantastic. Not stopping to speak to the audience once the concert flowed effortlessly with virtually no break. Gurtu's solo slot towards the end 'Nine Horses' (which when I heard this in the the vast open spaces of an arena seemed a little tedious) was in this situation exciting and spellbinding – the audience hanging on every note as he worked his way through a plethora of bells and gongs.

Each musician was given an extended solo slot and as well as Gurtu's tour de force, bassist Daniel's solo 'Tao' also a treat giving the audience a masterclass in bass styles from Pastorius to Haden. Nils Petter Molvær brought his 'Buoyancy' project to the festival which is his homage to all things diving and underwater. The trio featuring guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronics and percussionist Vladislav Delay were as enthralling as Garbarek had been two nights previously. The CD features more musicians, so live percussionist Delay has to double up as an electronics wizard – his stage set a mind boggling mess of cables and control switches.

The music of course was far from chaotic, superbly orchestrated by Molvaer the music ebbed and flowed like the waves in his original idea – haunting, threatening and serenely beautiful his interjections on trumpet inspired and moving. He segued into 'Nature Boy' surely a nod towards Esbjörn Svensson. A brilliant two hours of music.

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Rising star French trumpeter Airelle Besson (above) featured in two shows, firstly, with her own quartet which features Isabel Sörling on vocals sounding not too dissimilar to Anne Paceo's Triphase and secondly, with pianist Edouard Ferlet and bassist Stéphane Kerecki which was a more interesting set. Heavily influenced by Delta blues (and Dr John in particular) singer Marion Rampal was very entertaining. Anne Paceo on drums and pianist Pierre Francois Blanchard made up the trio which is quite quirky but well worth catching.

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The last big night featured Archie Shepp and Joachim Kuhn (above). The two masters of jazz played a wonderful concert each with such deep understanding of the other. Shepp undoubtedly took the lead. Shepp's playing was on top form and his inventive soloing a joy to listen too. Kuhn is a master, supporting Shepp throughout then when taking his own solos, he would slide off on his own improvisational take on the tune ultimately returning for Shepp to finish it off. It's rare in jazz to see a gig where the artists are older than the audience and this was one and a very special gig at that.

La Petite Pierre is a mature, laid back, but very well organised festival. Its setting in a rural location would suit any jazz fan who also has a love of walking or cycling – there are other places to visit nearby – the Lalique museum and the start of the Alsace wine route being two and there are plenty of options for accommodation in the area. For next year's festival dates and more information check the festival website www.festival-augresdujazz.com

– Tim Dickeson (Story and Photos)

Animus Anima and Mattias De Craene III get Belgian Jazz Meeting buzzing

Belgium is a crossroads country, with its capital Brussels not only the European Union's heart, but a national mid-point between Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north and the rest of French-speaking Wallonia. As the Belgian Jazz Meeting, held in the capital for the first time, notes in its programme: "the slightly surreal construction that our small country represents... has always been fertile soil for the whimsical genre that jazz is". Over three days of Trappist beer-oiled networking between international guests and notably idealistic managers, PRs, DJs, promoters and musicians, and a dozen diverse gigs, Belgium's position as an outsized jazz powerhouse was amply confirmed.

The Belgium Jazz Meeting began life as the Flemish Jazz Meeting, and Mik Torfs, from Flanders' Jazzlab initiative, reflected on a nation with two cultures which are growing apart. "There are separate Culture Ministers and a completely different cultural policy in Flanders and Wallonia," he said. "The Flanders government is much more positive towards jazz, small initiatives and more experimental things." Wallonia is far less generous with grants, a situation partially improved by concerted pressure from the new jazz umbrella body Museact. Torfs has watched other differences deepen. "Five or six years ago, all musicians met here in Brussels and played together, and all the bands were a mixture. But since then it's grown apart, because of increasing differences in culture, and grants. Now there are very strong scenes in Ghent and Antwerp, and so Wallonian musicians don't play with those in Ghent any more."

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Animus Anima (pictured top), who I'd recently seen play driving jazz-rock at the Gaume Jazz Festival deep in rural Wallonia, focused on their more contemplative new concept album Residencé sur la Terre. Padded conga-beats and muted-trumpet animal cries lent atmosphere to rolling psychedelic drift. A long conversation with their saxophonist-composer Nicolas Ankoudinoff as the bar closed late on the final night revealed the struggle of pressing his band onward for a decade, as Belgium's small scene keeps musicians stretched thin over many bands and neighbouring countries. Belgium is a little village, others noted, which you have to break out of to survive. Another saxophonist, Manuel Hermia, spoke feelingly to me after being presented with the €10,000 Sabam Jazz Award of the opportunity it offered to keep a consistent line-up together long enough to grow. His trio Hermia/Ceccaldi/Darrifourcq (below) earlier showed a lucidly imaginative, woozy intensity, as he met drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq and cellist Valentin Ceccaldi's ominous, pulsing textures on an intricately loaded high-wire at dizzying speed.

Mattias De Craene III (below) dealt in a similarly heady atmosphere. An upturned spotlight turned dry-ice red as saxophonist De Craene plotted an exploratory path over mantric double-drum thunder. LinusRuben Machtelinckx's baritone guitar and banjo and Thomas Jillings' tenor sax and alto clarinet – also suited a late-night campfire or shadowy bohemian café with their pastoral, inviting intimacy. Steiger occupied nearby territory, with proggy keyboards, jerky time-signatures and a sense of avant-classical conceptual composition, though their pieces pressed on into shapelessness. Jozef Dumoulin's solo Fender Rhodes improv electronica was abrasively ugly too often for my taste, but spoke his own language. The rubbery polyrhythmic pulse of 'BRZZVLL' was their best feature, while veterans Trio Grande offered more in instrumentation – a Jew's harp's Spaghetti Western twang, Belgian bass-drum and sousaphone, for instance – than their stiff, antic playing.

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Compared to a UK scene whose current pathfinder is the dance music-inflected Shabaka Hutchings, Belgian jazz still looks to rock for external energy. Dans Dans guitarist Bert Dockx gleefully shredded over the floating heaviness of bass and drums, suggesting a grunged-up Link Wray rumbling in an early 1960s British ballroom. Drifter's muscular jazz-rock anthems seemed less interesting than Lorenzo Di Maio's guitar/bass reverie and high-energy, sharp-edged, expansively optimistic sound. Antoine Pierre Urbex, an octet deploying a bank of brass for big band punch, also opted for the epic. 

"The musical differences between north and south are cultural," Torfs added, offering context. "The south looks more to France, and for some reason is much more straight jazz, like Lorenzo di Maio and Urbex, and also tends towards rock. In Flanders we have much more experimental things going on with electronics and modern classical music, and look northwards to the Scandinavian countries – Linus really have that Scandinavian atmosphere, and even play with Norwegian musicians. There's also a tendency towards rock, like Dans Dans." For all he's said of two tribes pulling apart, their connection continues in jazz's open community. "Because we're a small scene, even if the influences are different, these guys play together, and they mix it into something really Belgian."

– Nick Hasted

– Photos by Massimo Municchi

Arve Henriksen and The Necks keep pushing remix boundaries at PUNKT

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Now in its 13th year, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré's PUNKT festival continues its path finder mission to melt genre boundaries with the 'leveller' of a live remix, performed by nearly every artist involved. Yet, anyone who's witnessed this sonic alchemy will attest that an immediate reinterpretation of another, often revered, musician's music is equal parts inspiring and daunting. It may well be second nature to live sampling savants like Bang and Honoré, and their brothers in electronically-treated bitches brewing, but not so much to this year's artist-in-residence, old school über-producer Daniel Lanois. It was his task to remix Aussie avant-jazz soundscapers The Necks (below), who were strangely front-loaded on the bill with an early evening performance that still managed to gain its own gravitational pull: Chris Abrams' diaphanous jazz-inflected piano chiming over Tony Buck's sleigh-bell rhythms and bassist Lloyd Swanton adroitly bowed bass. By all accounts less bombastically rhythmic than they can sometimes be, The Necks used their 45-minutes of freedom to the max, building a rolling momentum that saw a single chord engorge to rippling waves of piano arpeggios, rumbling bass thrums and broiling drums, eventually breaking into a soft tidal calm, washing over the crowd.

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A promising opening gambit for a night of improvised music making then. Yet, Lanois (below) and his extremely talented bass-and-drums team of Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane, seemed unable to shift into the imposingly open space left so graciously by The Necks, as a sample from the bass and some piano soon become subsumed in some distinctly pub-rock like jams, which chugged to an abrupt halt in about a third of their allotted 'remix' time. Disappointing this may have been, but Lanois did redeem himself the following day with his own blues-rock powered set the following night, which included some effective sweetly harmonised vocals between himself and bassist Wilson. What Lanois' appearance (following those of Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and David Sylvian) at this small, perfectly formed and influential festival underscores is the risk of inviting a 'celebrity' musician to participate in this most mercurial of experimental events.

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The Saturday evening programme was bookended by two sets from impishly brilliant trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen (pictured top and bottom) who seems incapable of playing or uttering a note that doesn't cut straight to the heart. Opening with his Towards Language band of Bang and Honoré, and ubiquitous guitar-soundscapist Eivind Aarset, the group acted more as a single entity, as deep chordal swells mingled with hushed trumpet lines and strangely funky electro pulses. This was given an emphatically minimalist remix by arch Brit experimentalist and author David Toop (who'd dazzled the previous day in startling duo with Sidsel Endresen, pictured below) and filed recordings fiend Jez riley French, before the PUNKT Ensemble of young players effectively emulated their ambient jazz heroes a little too closely to really stand on their own merits. The ensuing remix was dryly minimalist thanks to French electronica artist Yann Coppier's wry sense of space and texture which melded into the crunching, off-kilter grooves of Peter Balden and DJ Strangefruit.

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With Lanois' Trio burning through the midnight oil in the first part of their set, the final tunes saw guitar and bass supplanted by keyboard and synth-bass as Lanois played samples of his desert home, demonstrating he's not immune to exploring deeper moods beyond artfully sculpted stadium rock. Thankfully it was Henriksen who was afforded the last word, literally googling Lanois' lyrics to speak and sing them over the final remix with drummer Audun Kleive (below) joining the Nordic throng.

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The trumpeter's preacher-style declamations and gravelly nuanced annunciation lent Lanois' words a haunting, prophetic gravitas. Henriksen's ability to pluck beauty from the virtual air and throw it into the evening's six-hour music marathon with samurai-like skill and timing is redolent of an artist who's used to creating musical poetry on-the-edge and in the moment.

– Mike Flynn

– Photos by Petter Sandell

Soft Machine fly loud and free at the Elgar Room

“He’s not just a roaring, swinging jazz saxophonist, he’s actually got the prog credentials as well!” shouts  John Etheridge introducing bandmate and reeds player Theo Travis, who has played with Gong and King Crimson, to an audience eager to experience, or re-live, the legend. Competitive and convivial by turns, the fiery on-stage relationship between Etheridge and Travis, and the wider band dynamic, embodies a constant theme of tonight’s show.

Under purple, blue and silver lights, The Soft Machine, the first rock band to play the Proms in 1970, albeit with a different line-up then headed by founders Hugh Hopper (bass), Elton Dean (alto sax, saxello), Mike Ratlidge (keyboards) and Robert Wyatt (drums and voice), are now revisiting  the original Summer of Love,  for the new Late Night Jazz sessions’ intimate small stage, with  lead guitarist Etheridge  returning to perform there after thirty years. This set for the Elgar Room, is gleaned from various Soft Machine and Soft Machine Legacy albums, including compositions from classic albums Fourth ('Kings and Queens') and Seven ('The Man Who Waved At Trains').

Etheridge has good reason to exult. He gets to open the first set with  Karl Jenkins’ ‘Bundles’, a big, expansive, busy suite in which the influence of free-form jazz is clearly felt, and which displays his signature bright,  robust,jazz-rock  guitar solos, with a majestic “choral wall of sound”bouncing off his effects pedals.   Travis delights and spellbinds the audience on Mike Ratlidge’s “Chloe and the Pirates”,  with dazzling, high, piccolo-like trills on his tenor sax.

'Voyage Beyond Seven' (Travis also) points up the striking interplay between Etheridge and John Marshall, whose subtly powerful percussion solo in the second set, skilfully anchors the eclectic, disparate elements evident in the music. From a powerhouse of kick-ass sax swing and verve on 'Grapehound', to an abundance of flowing, bubbling, descending basslines delivered by Roy Babbington,  notably on 'Kings and Queens', a powerful rhythmic heart emerges, an alchemical blend of  rock, psychedelica,  free improvisational and experimental music.   The epic poem, “Taliesin”, is soulfully explored by call-and-response interludes between guitar, bass and flute. 

Historically, the ‘Softs’ are part of the renowned Canterbury scene,  known for its early nurturing of touring acts Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and Gong. However, from tonight’s momentous performance it’s clear that there is  plenty of buried treasure for new fans to explore.

– Jasmine Sharif

Robert Glasper and Christian McBride spell quality at Sofia’s A to JazZ Festival

Now in its seventh year, Sofia's A to JazZ Festival is both a surprise and a rarity. In high summer heat, with the backdrop of the Vitosha mountain, the atmosphere in the city's southern park is easy, friendly and relaxed and the three evenings of music on the outdoor stage are offered to the audience completely free, courtesy of their public funders and an array of commercial sponsors. The result is an open air event but without the usual barriers, fences or heavy security and, despite the presence of the various alcohol brand sponsors, a peaceful, good natured 'picnic in the park' vibe with an audience of families and friends of all ages.

Musically, the programme pointed in many directions, both geographically and in terms of its relation to jazz. On Friday night Sweden's Dirty Loops powered through their headliner set of distorted cover versions with a lot more punk-inflected energy than jazz-inflected meaning. The evening had opened with Bulgaria's National Academy of Music Big Band, playing a standard repertoire with a starred first level of ability (a tribute to the discipline of Bulgarian music education) and a drums plus two percussion rhythm section which kept the ensemble breathtakingly tight throughout. Fast pace and driving rhythm characterised much of the festival. Austria's FunkXpress showed just how much they'd learned from their compatriot mentor Joe Zawinul although without his flights of invention. Bulgaria's RomaNero somehow mixed latin rhythms in between the unmistakeable sounds of Roma wedding band music and ancient folk melodies; their countrymen in Jazzanita took contemporary jazz as their homeground but still managed to give much of their set a strong inflection of those frenetic wedding dances.

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Local pop stars Angel Kovachev and Dorothy Takev were both, to be honest, more A to X-Factor than A to JazZ, but the Czech/Italian/Bulgarian piano trio of Uvira, Bruno and Hafizi (above) brought the programme back firmly to the jazz of today as they opened on Sunday with a set that featured more reflective music than was heard for most of the rest of the weekend. From neighbouring Slovakia, trumpeter Lukas Oravec and his quartet also gave the Sunday evening audience a set of well-played but workmanlike straight-ahead contemporary jazz; on the Friday, Spanish sextet Mastretta had ranged cheerfully around a mix of earlier, jollier jazz styles.

In truth it was the two American headliners who put the fire and adventure in this A to Z compendium. On Saturday night Robert Glasper (top) proved his band Experiment is just that. What can we do with so many facets of music now available to us? Hell, let's find out in the true spirit of improvisation! The whole set was that kind of roller-coaster exploration in which every member of this remarkable outfit (including bassist Burniss Travis and Glasper on keyboards and Fender Rhodes) pushed the music out and up, with a camaraderie of delight at each other's invention – such as, just for two instances among so many, Casey Benjamin's wild, free saxophone solos, which simply scorched the night air, and Justin Tyson's drumming, which more than justified the use of 'drumkilla' in his email address.

Christian McBride's quartet (a starry combination of the bassist himself, Nasheed Waits on drums, Markus Strickland on tenor and bass clarinet and trumpeter Josh Evans) closed the festival on Sunday night with a masterly exposition of what's at the heart and soul of jazz – freedom, more adventure, empathy, dynamic range, immense skill and (something that eluded several of the other bands at the festival) giving the music space to breathe. Their penultimate number – the simplest of blues - drew some of the most exquisite soloing and interplay and brought the audience to an emotional peak as they cheered with delight for more.

– Story and photos – Robert Beard

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