Covering jazz festivals is not as festive as you might imagine.
“Jazz a Vienne" takes place in a dreary French provincial city near Lyon. Vienne does not have much to boast about, except for the impressive Roman amphitheater where the festival’s concerts are held. It is one of the best festivals on the calendar, but there was little to do during the day in Vienne but read.
I was reading a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach believed that music should reflect God, the laws of nature, and the perfection of the cosmos - that it should not sell-out to superficial public taste. Is it fair to judge live jazz under the stars on balmy summer evenings in the south of France with such Lutheran severity? Of course not. What’s fairness got to do with music criticism?
In any case, only one band came close - John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada, with Zorn, saxophone, Dave Douglas, trumpet, Greg Cohen, bass, and Joey Barron, drums. (Listen to their album “Live In Sevilla" on Tzadik records.)
Graceful and mature, their tight lines and loose improvisations were somewhere between Ornette Coleman and klezmer music. The instrumentation and free forms come out of Coleman, the tunes were all in minor keys. There were sharp close-ups of the four musicians’s robust body language on giant flat screens on either side of the stage. The sound was loud, but clear and undistorted. Let’s hear one for cutting-edge technology.
There is more and more music all the time. Most music is bad. Although there is also still plenty of good music around, it becomes more and more difficult to find in the shallow expanding mass. So listening to two or three bands a night for eight days, the odds were against your diligent critic.
It’s all downhill from here.
Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra sounded like excellent but frustrated players who were doing the best they could despite wearing white suits on a sweltering night. These are some of the best musicians in New York, and the arrangements are exciting, but it was all somehow sodden. I blame the suits. Marsalis wants his orchestra to be as elegant as Duke Ellington’s on all levels. Which is admirable, but he’s wrong to insist on suits. This is another day and age. The sidemen become, well - Suits.
Once one of the most exciting guitar players around, George Benson had a lot of hits, made a lot of money, and now he is a crooner. He has a good voice, a photogenic smile, and an entertaining stage presence, but he played almost no guitar, and his definitive choice of entertainment over music made me want to get out of there fast.
The local trains to the Mediterranean port of Hyeres were running late. The ferry ride to the islet of Porquerrolles only takes 15 minutes. There are few cars on Porquerrolles, and plenty of tourists with kids. You could see the lights of Toulon from Jazz a Porquerrolles’s venue in Fort Ste Agathe, on the hill overlooking the village. The small outdoor theater was a relief after the many thousands in the Roman amphitheatre.
Jazz a Porquerrolles is a hand-made festival run by musicians and creative people close to musicians. Archie Shepp is “président d’honneur." Shepp is an honorable saxophone player, even a living legend, but he missed two airplanes before finally getting here, and it was unprofessional, and not very considerate, to arrive on stage one hour late. He can still play well, but not well enough to surmount his grouchy karma. Fortunately, Shepp was in duo with the percussionist Mino Cinelu, who was obviously embarrassed by it.
The other side of the karmic coin, Cinelu is a native of Martinique, and he has played with Weather Report, Sting, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Peter Gabriel, and Miles Davis, among others. A kind of modern-day griot (he also plays piano and guitar), Cinelu enjoys telling musical stories that stimulate and please people. He was a delight to see and hear tapping cymbals, bells, wind-chimes, and banging drums of many sizes.
Speaking of delight, the Vienne amphitheatre had been cozily half empty on the night of the World Cup final, and the Neville Brothers had been the perfect escape from the ubiquitous flag-waving, horn honking, and beer drinking in France that night. The New Orleans-based Neville’s happy mix of soul, Cajun, and Afro-Caribbean roots features one of the most attractive grooves in popular music.
And when Aaron Neville went into his falsetto range on “Yellow Moon" (from the album of the same name), and on Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire," it was gratifying to be reminded of how great it can be when music and entertainment go hand in hand.