Martin Longley’s Nantes jazzfest review

Martin Longley follows the long and winding River Erdre in Nantes. That’s the inspired location of a spiffing weekender jazzfest in the vibrant French port…

RDV De L’Erdre 2012

The Rendez-vous de l’Erdre  might be one of Europe’s lesser known festivals, but it has grown up over 26 years and now involves what seems to be the entire city’s populace. Spread over multiple and simultaneously-programmed stages, its essential concept is that everything happens along the banks of the River Erdre. This is the less famous sibling of the Loire, and there are even satellite gigs organised further out along its course from Nantes, in smaller villages. For most folks, though, all energies were focused on the walkable stretch that makes up the festival’s pulsating heart. Comparisons can be made with other jazz festivals, but RDV has its own distinctive character.

The way in which it draws in the general populace, taking over large chunks and stretches of town, is reminiscent of Brecon Jazz (in Wales) and the Detroit Jazz Festival. This happens because all of RDVs gigs are free of admission prices (as with Detroit), thereby encouraging its audience to take chances with music that’s perhaps an unknown quantity. The comparison with Brecon is also apt because of RDVs broadness of scope, taking in the extremes from old school New Orleans-style trad to free improvisation and electronica. At least that used to be the way in the old days of Brecon.

The weather was bright and sunny on this last weekend of the summer, only days before the schoolkids returned to their prisons. The Friday opening night concentrated its performances into the evening, and the Canadian singer Kinny opened with what was set to be the day’s most compelling set. Living in Bergen, Norway, she now sounds like a Londoner, and her roots mash up native Canadian Indian, Jamaican, French and Swedish parental backgrounds. She’s signed to the Brighton funky-electro label Tru Thoughts and her band are seemingly British. The resultant music wasn’t as wildly mixed up as all this might suggest, but free-ranging roaming definitely informs her version of funk, soul and general skipping beat musics. On record she’s usually impressive, but Kinny’s live stage presence was formidable, completely relaxed and assured, ready to improvise (at one stage in a capella avant gospel style) and mighty pushy with the crowd. Maybe she kept the pace too slow given the set’s time limitations, but Kinny was aware of this, urging her combo to jump right into a faster beat-driven song whenever there’d been a moodier stretch. It was the uptempo songs that best displayed here gutsily soulful holler. This set was at the Scène Mix Jazz, at the northernmost river-zone of the festival. It was always worth the walk, and provided the home for beyond-jazz activities, these often ending up being festival highlights.

Another Canadian resident was Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne, who was backed up by his regular French band. Although rooted in boogie woogie, this keyboardist and singer was also steeped in the music of New Orleans, and particularly Fats Domino. The Blues Mix stage maintained a steady run of rocking combos, but these were mainly French, and the ones witnessed by this scribe tended to be uniformly disappointing. Functional, but lacking the gritty core that’s necessary for this form. Mostly, they were quite pedestrian in their interpretations.

Lee Konitz: Photo Phil JourneAcross the river on Scène Sully (named after its location on Rue Sully) altoman Lee Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer were engaging in their careful dialogue, the latter opening up with a flowery solo, during which the saxophonist could be heard starting up behind the stage. Konitz walked up to the twin microphones and seeped into the flow, afterwards complimenting the acoustics of this outdoor location. He’d feared that problems would arise, but was pleasantly surprised. Ever a perfectionist, Konitz has ears that are attuned to every minute quirk of a playing platform.

The German DJ collective Jazzanova also exists as a live band extension, usually fronted by Detroit singer-bassist Paul Randolph. Despite a few isolated highpoints, their core sound was funk-lite, with Randolph’s shrill disco-castrato vocals lending a mainstream R&B tone. Following Kinny, these Berliners sounded kinda dilute. When a deep beat was locked onto and a harder dance motion sent underway, the Jazzanova band started to goad the crammed hilly slope inhabitants into a subtle dance motion. Sadly, these outbreaks were scarcely spaced.

On a first time visit, the situation of Scène Nautique Ceineray was immediately impressive. This main stage was actually floating on the river, midway between the banks of the Erdre, with the audience seated at both sides. The closing set on Friday was given by the Stéphane Belmondo Quartet, with its trumpeting leader inviting American pianist Kirk Lightsey on board. They played some tough talkin’ mainline jazz, with Belmondo and Lightsey vying for soloing supremacy. In the end, they came out fairly equal in the duelling stakes.

The Saturday and Sunday schedule began each afternoon at around 2pm, then continued until late into the night. This was when the crowds really began to descend on the river banks, promenading alongs the lines of frazzling exotic food stalls (a Malagasy joint claiming the obscurity prize), filling the street-front café spaces and trawling from stage-to-stage clutching wine, beer, or sometimes even the region’s native cidre.

The festival had a strong contingent of familiar artists, in the jazz, rock and electronica vein, but as ever with a visit to an unfamiliar town, great pleasure was to be derived from seeking out unknown indigenous talent. The first such discovery was the Frasques Orchestra, playing on the Sully stage. This 10-piece group possessed an intricately dynamic classically-influenced method, but with a jazz soloing sensibility, featuring violin, flute, clarinets, saxophones, guitar, vibraphone, piano, cello, bass and drums. Three members divided up the compositional duties.

There were two afternoons of old time New Orleans music on the floating stage. When I spotted a pair of banjos and a sousaphone listed in the line-up of Les Jazz Potes (from the small town of Mayenne), I had to be there. The extreme contrast between the modernist Frasques performance and this good time old school clap-along set was rather startling, magnifying the innate properties of both acts.

Back up at the Mix stage, the Swiss electronica artist Dimlite had pulled out of his gig a week previously, leaving the lesser-known Anchorsong to fill the void. This marked the beginning of a semi-unplanned evening of string section fusion, as Masaaki Yoshida was accompanied by violin and cello. Yoshida grew up in Tokyo, but now dwells in London. Besides triggering beats manually on his sample pad, Anchorsong also captured loop matter, then moved across to a keyboard for some improvisatory responses to his own structures. He fingered drums and built patterns with an astonishing speed and dexterity. The strings should have been higher in the mix, to maximise their involvement, but aside from the occasional sparse stretches, the crunching beats and spiralling electro-piano tended to overpower their atmospheric textures. Anchorsong sharply judged the balance between beat flamboyance, abstract noodling, commercial flash and disjointed rupture.

There was time for a quick creep back down the river to Sully, where Enrico Rava’s Tribe were packing out the stage area, all seats full, with a standing surround at the edges. As seems to be the case at every gig, the Italian trumpeter’s current foil is his young trombonist Gianluca Petrella, who was just launching into an extended solo, mute crunched right up to the microphone, playing so forcefully that he was almost sending the microphone stand hurtling into the audience. It was a visibly physical manifestation of sound, both subtly trimmed and boldly brutal. This energy fed back and forth between Petrella and Rava, as they proceeded to each attain greater soloing transcendence. Petrella now seems to have been given a special billing within Tribe, and rightfully so.

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Back up to Mix, for another festival highlight. New Yorker JG Thirlwell has operated a bewilderingly multifarious number of guises over the last 30 years, many of them being variants on his Foetus persona. His most active live outlet in recent times has been Manorexia, a vehicle for compositions that collide classical bite with rock crunch. Thirlwell appears with his laptop, and the heart of the ensemble is always a string quartet. For this French debut, he was joined by the London version of this transatlantic combo. The line-up was completed by keyboardist Tim Parkinson and percussionist Peter Wise, the latter also coming over from NYC.

It was courageous (or perhaps foolhardy) to present such concentrated music in the prime late night Saturday slot, in front of a standing and quaffing crowd, but the gamble paid off. Aside from a very small minority of gigglers and hecklers, the audience stood transfixed by the compelling pieces, remaining silent during the tensed instances of becalmed minimalism, The whole set was devoted to an extended pattern of portentous amassing of deadly threat, dark clouds roiling, leading up to recurring outbursts of bombastic release. Deliberately extreme distortion bruised the edges of the most percussively riffing outlets, the strings operating at the most extreme perimeter of what’s possible with such a quartet format. Parkinson was the structural ringmaster, setting the pace for the broad range of sounds that Wise crafted, from marimba pulsations to sonorous bass drum detonations. I’d witnessed Manorexia gigging on three previous occasions, and it was this show that fully revealed the sonic extremes, amplified for maximum impact, with every detail beautifully limned. The outdoor experience somehow made the music come closer, paradoxical as that sounds.

At the end of the evening, the floating stage was always the last to finish, drawing together the crowds from all other ports. Ninety Miles were to be heard soundchecking in the afternoon, without trumpeter Nicholas Payton. I’d assumed that his arrival was merely delayed, but the actual set revealed that he’d entirely failed to make the gig. It was left to joint leaders vibraphonist Stefon Harris and tenorman David Sánchez to shoulder the soloing responsibilities, with the latter in particular given ample room to surge upwards.

The fest’s final day began with one of the weekend’s outstanding sets. Journal Intime were presenting a Jimi Hendrix homage, something that might not automatically have pulled in this potential listener. The guitarist’s original overloads of his own compositions were so definitive that any lackey who sets out to recreate them really ought to have something extreme and profound to offer. This French trio immediately justified their audacity, with each tune not always initially recognisable, and even when a piece was obvious straight away, it was tackled with a skewed, adventurous élan. There was no voice, guitar, bass or drums allowed. Trumpeter Sylvain Bardiau, trombonist Matthias Mahler and bass saxophonist Frédéric Gastard engaged in an almost constant assault of earthy virtuosity, the tunes arranged with a jaunty precision. Each player stitched his lines around the other pair’s inventions, constantly unnerving, surprising and astonishing with sheer power of transmission. We feared for their hearts, which much surely have been worked to bursting point. Gastard in particular seemed hardly to pause for breath in-between his brawling, braying, bruising basslines. Yes, he was an extreme low-tone master, but his breath-reed-phrasing trinity facilitated a high-wire nimbleness of the bull-belch.

Was there a secret in their chosen trousers? Between them, there were outrageous bell-bottoms, shiny silken sportsters and leather knee-padded motorcycle strides. All three wore printed t-shirts, but only Bardiau’s was Hendrix-emblazoned. When Gastard opened “Voodoo Chile” with a completely solo feedback impersonation, the piece was instantly familiar, but then he detoured towards raucous oblivion before the other two hornmen joined in to establish the song’s backbone melodic thrust. By contrast, “Little Wing” offered their gentlest tonal smearing. This was the most successful Hendrix tribute that I’ve ever witnessed. Neither the composer or his interpreters lost any of their extreme individuality, or were compromised for an instant. Journal Intime astonished because of their breathtaking horn prowess, but they were also lords of brutal humour, and masters of rugged excess.

So now it was time for some more New Orleans trad jazz. Once again, the RDV fest’s appetite for musical contrasts provided a switch which made that old-time sound almost avant garde. Whenever the diet is radically changed, the mind reels with displaced shock. La Trompette d’Occasion only had one banjo in the line-up, but that was still sufficient, along with the seemingly popular sousaphone as the bass vehicle of choice in the French traditional sphere. This crew were from Vendée, further along the Loire, and their drummer/washboarder Richard Gouloumes was an asset in terms of general vigour and audience communication duties. The band were blessed by their position on the floating stage, and the both-banks crowd was in the mood for some more clapalong cheeriness.

To underline this theme of extreme musical jacknifing, the next band on this very stage were Pulsar, continuing the local theme as the afternoon highlighted combos from the Loire-Atlantique region to which Nantes belongs. This was a dynamic quintet that had most likely grown up to the sound of saxophonist Tim Berne’s various ensembles. Their involved riff-structures certainly possessed descended qualities from that Brooklyn innovator, but they were also inflated by a funk sensibility, as the three-piece horn front line scissored across each other’s parts.

This was to be a day of indigenous stand-outs, although Rêve d’Élephant Orchestra are actually part French, part Belgian. The first thirty minutes of their set was a model of complicated excitement, full of dangerous arranging and making absolute usage of their three-drummer backbone. Guitarist Benoîst Eil frequently rose up to make a scathing comment, and the other front-liners were nicely contrasted by the size of their horns: Pierre Bernard on flute, Alain Vankenhove, trumpet, and Michel Massot juggling tuba and trombone. Not a saxophone in sight. Around midway, there was a derailment into shorter pieces that existed more as atmospheric interludes than fully-formed compositions. This was all the more apparent following the dense substance of the first stretch. They did manage to cohere again during the last 30 of their 90 minute set, but that exhilarating starter-run remained as the memory that we would all depart cherishing.

Sweden’s Fire! trio had only recently released their In The Mouth – A Hand album (Rune Gramoffon, 2012), and their appearance at RDV marked only their second showing as the expanded Fire! Orchestra. As with the disc, Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi was sticking around as their special guest. Mats Gustafsson played less saxophone and manipulated fewer electronic bursts than usual, but he also had to bear the weight of conducting this 12-piece behemoth. Whilst the trio usually reeks of improvisation, this orchestral version is subject to prompts and organisation. Gustafsson’s signals weren’t as elaborate as those employed by, let’s say, Butch Morris and John Zorn, but he was exceptionally attuned to each potential surge, encouraging solo or duo interludes, then cue-ing a bombastic re-entry by all forces. The spirit went back to the late-1960s and early-70s, that era where a particular blend of chaos and order prevailed. Cutting bolts of co-ordinated slamming, full-tilt staccato treble onslaughts. Gustafsson blurted on his suddenly hoisted baritone, then urged his female saxophone wing to enter the fray, raising the levels in turn. Elin Larsson and Anna Högberg are following Gustafsson’s merciless trail.

Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg were more stylistically unusual than most singers, operating in strange zones of high-range extremity, or singing in tongues, studiously avoiding some of the well-worn avenues traversed by many improvising vocalists. Their styles complemented each other, offering different sides of a similar approach. Ambarchi wasn’t as audible as he is on the album, and his guitar alterations were sometimes difficult to unpick from Jochim Nordwall’s electronics. Both of them were often too submersed in the mix, particularly when set beside the ripping levels of the horn players. Gustafsson appeared to be aware of this problem, prompting Ambarchi to play a completely unaccompanied section. Even then, the results were somewhat hesitant and introverted. This was a combo that frequently rose up to a screaming exultation, so the guitar and electronics existed mostly as a surrounding embellishment. Pianist Sten Sandell partially suffered from the same mix problems, but bypassed them by hurtling up to the trebly-cascade end of his keys. Besides, this was the music of massed liberation, so it was futile to expect perfect balance of all elements at all times. Close to the climax, Gustafsson counted down to a full eruption, sustained in slow motion as the strobe lights froze the agony. Once again, the Mix stage presented music that held all of the possibilities, from stark exposure to ramming monstrosity, all the while holding the audience in its bone-hard clutches.

Nothing could possibly follow this ejaculation, but a short stroll back down the hill to the floating stage found the Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista in fully-entertaining flow. Once again, all of the other stages had concluded their programmes, and Battista was a good choice for balancing several jazz languages, veering from mainstream bop to a funkier danceability, made easier by the inclusion of guitarist Fabio Zeppetella. They played a pair of genuinely-won encores, and sent us all cheerily off into the night. At least they dispersed the nightmare forces that would have gathered if Fire! had been the final invocation witnessed!

Anchorsong plays at the Village Underground, London, on the 29th of September 2012…