Forty-plus years ago, Jean-Louis Guilhaumon, a young school teacher and jazz lover working at a remote village in South West France, had an inspired idea – let’s have a jazz festival! And so Jazz in Marciac was born in 1978 as a one-day event drawing on locally-sourced talent.
Skip forward to 2019 and the forty-second edition of Jazz in Marciac and the festival is one of the largest of the many summer jazz gatherings in Europe, running for three weeks and attracting major and emerging jazz talent and fans from around the world. And Guilhaumon remains at the helm of his beloved festival, serving not only as the President and artistic director, but also since 1995 as the Mayor of Marciac.
It is a characteristic of the most renowned jazz festivals in Europe that they take place outside the major cities. Cities such asParis, Rome, Madrid, Berlin and others offer well established annual festivals, but they struggle for identity amid the myriad competing musical and cultural activities, and have difficulty in being fan-focused when faced by the challenges of negotiating venues in major cities. As a result it is smaller cities and towns that have come to be the focus for summer jazz events, such as San Javier and San Sebastian in Spain; Vienne in France; Perugia in Italy, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Marciac takes this logic of ‘small is better’ even further.
It is a village of only 1300 inhabitants, deep in the Gers, which is often described as the most rural department in France and the one with the lowest population density. Located at the foot of the Pyrenees, Marciac is about half way between Bordeaux and Toulouse, and seemingly a world away from Paris. This is the heart of the ancient region of Gascony, a land of sunflowers and maize; of geese and ducks; foie gras and confit; Armagnac and floc; red wines from Madiran and whites from St Mont; short winters and the long drowsy days of summer spent under the wide and shady arcades of the many bastides (mediaeval fortified villages) that dot the hills. And jazz.
Jazz in Marciac consumes the village for three weeks.
The bastide formation of Marciac has bequeathed the village with the largest central square in the Gers, comfortably big enough to stage the Off-Festival which provides free concerts every day, running from late morning to early evening. At that time the attention moves to the numerous bands engaged at the many restaurants that fill the perimeter of the square and their ‘pop-up’ rivals that flow through the side streets and invade back yards. And later still, the crowds move on to the major ticketed concerts, held in either the Chapiteau, a hangar-like tent erected on the village perimeter and seating 6000, or L’ Astrada, a state-of-the-art purpose built performance venue for 500 patrons that opened in 2011. All of this is made possible by an army of nearly 1000 volunteers drawn from around France, many of whom return year after year.
But Jazz in Marciac is about more than the music. It has become an annual celebration of everything that makes this bucolic corner of France so appealing – the food, the wine, the agriculture, the traditions, and the terroir.
The Festival attracts a range of artisan producers, artists and craftsmen and women who bring their wares to town, with ateliers taking up all the available space around the village for the duration of the festival. For the last decade the festival has also been setting for Paysages in Marciac, a concurrent celebration of the rural diversity and sustainability of the village and the region.
Such has been the impact of the Festival on Marciac’s identity and economy that the village now boasts a year-round jazz presence with a series of regular concerts at L’ Astrada; jazz-focused courses at the local school and college, College Aretha Franklin; and a jazz museum, Les Territoires du Jazz.
I have had the good fortune to make it to Jazz in Marciac a number of times, including 2019. Three weeks is quite a commitment and my available dates meant missing some favourites – I arrived too late for Gregory Porter, and departed too early for Cecile McClorin Salvant. I also sadly missed out on Australian chanteuse Sarah McKenzie touring her new album Secrets of My Heart, who closed the L’ Astrada program. This, however, is some of what I experienced in the Chapiteau.
Wynton Marsalis and the Young Stars of Jazz
Wynton Marsalis has become a fixture at Jazz in Marciac, returning each year since making his debut appearance in 1991. Such has been his presence and influence on the festival that he is now something of its unofficial patron and international ambassador, honoured for some years by a statue in the village.
As usual he arrived with his own quintet (sometimes septet) for the 2019 festival, but also (as usual) he performed a second concert. For this year’s event he put together the Young Stars of Jazz, a handpicked representation of the best young talent from New York City, consisting of Isaiah Thompson (piano); T. J. Reddick (drums); Camille Thurman; Alexa Tarantino; and Julian Lee (saxophones, Tarantino doubling on flute); and Sam Chess (trombone). Marsalis’ regular bassist Carlos Henriques was on board, and the set consisted of alternating compositions by Henriques and Marsalis, with new arrangements from his ‘Integrity Suite’.
As Marsalis pointed out from the stage, with the exception of Henriques, none of these players had been born when he made his first Marciac appearance. But what this group have lacked in experience was more than compensated by their virtuosity. Under Marsalis’ wary eye the playing was brilliantly tight when needed, but all the young stars were given plenty of opportunity to shine. Thurman was also given space to showcase her vocal skills with some inventive and fluent scatting.
There were numerous highlights, but the mid-set pairing of Marsalis’ ‘Something about Belief’, followed by Henriques’ ‘Moses on the Cross’ allowed the players to demonstrate their dexterity and versatility.
The closing Marsalis’ composition ‘The Struggle to Become Aware’ swung effortlessly on the back of a blazing early solo by Marsalis which was followed by each member of the band stepping forward in turn over nearly 18 minutes. The mentoring of these Young Stars wasn’t quite finished with yet, however, as Marsalis brought them back for an encore (‘Talk About It’) along with Chick Corea, who joined Isaiah Thompson on the piano stool for a rousing finale.
It was noticeable that across the course of this two hour performance that Marsalis, perhaps driven by the need to keep pace with this youthful all-star gathering, soloed more frequently and perhaps more extravagantly than he usually does when playing with his regular groups.
Thompson in particular brought a more aggressive style of playing than Marsalis’ regular pianist, the comparatively restrained and elegant Ben Nimmer, and it seems that everybody benefits from working in this Young Stars line-up.
Chick Corea and the Spanish Heart Band
Chick Corea is another who has made regular appearances at Marciac over the years, and I last had the opportunity to see him at the 2014 festival in a memorable duo performance with the great Stanley Clarke on bass. Clarke had also performed on Corea’s two Spanish-inspired albums from decades before, the 1976 classic My Spanish Heart and 1982’s Touchstone. He was also a member of Corea’s renowned jazz-fusion line-up from the 1970s, Return to Forever, a band which also gave plenty of exposure to the pianist’s affection for Spanish rhythms.
In 2019 Corea was back in Marciac with his new eight-piece Spanish Heart Band, at their final stop on a set of European dates touring in support of the album Antidote,released in early 2019. Antidote reconfirms Corea’s love of Spanish and Latin-inflected music, and alongside new compositions Antidote also revisits several tunes from Corea’s earlier albums, including the title track from My Spanish Heart and ‘Duende’ from Touchstone.
On this night Corea and his band warmed up with a brief take on Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Pas De Deux’, before running through extended renditions of tunes from the new album, Antidote; ‘Duende’; ‘Desafinado’ (dedicated to composer Antοnio Carlos ‘Tom’ Jobim), and ‘Zyryab’. There was a real spirit of alegria to this performance, conveyed through the obvious rapport between band members and their genuine sense of discovery and improvisation.
Corea remains at all times the focus of the band’s attention as he drives their contributions, but he also plays comfortably and with casual authority within the familiar setting of rhythm and horns.
He also generously shared the spotlight with his star-studded international band, with Spaniard Nio Josele on the flamenco-driven guitar given space to shine, and Cuban Carlitos Del Puerto on bass adding some Caribbean flair. The band also included dancer Nino de los Reyes, who – when not helping out on percussion – stepped forward several times to entrance the audience with some flamenco fire from his feet.
This was joyous and inspired music-making demonstrating that, after five decades at the forefront of his art, and twenty-plus Grammy awards, Chick Corea is still driving himself and those around him to be their best.
Kokoroko, commonly described as an Afrobeat collective, has recently emerged at the forefront of London’s blossoming Afrobeat scene. For a group that only released its debut four track EP in March 2019, they have quickly established a profile that resulted in them taking the sounds of the African diaspora to venues and festivals across Europe over the northern summer.
They are currently operating as an eight-piece group, with a three-women horn section (consisting of band leader Sheila Maurice-Gray on trumpet; saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, and trombonist Richie SeivWright), fronting a five-man rhythm section from which guitarist Oscar Jerome and keyboardist Johan Kebede occasionally step forward.
The tone for their Marciac set was established in the opening ‘Adwa‘, with its layered keyboard-infused beats driving the horns, which feature when either played in unison or soloing. Of the horns it was Kinoshi who stood out on this performance, her impassive stage demeanour belying the flair with which she unleashed several ripping solos.
The bulk of the band’s performance repertoire is currently built with dancing in mind, with individual songs building in impact as they pulsate relentlessly around solid rhythms – this is music honed by the streets and clubs of west London as much as by west Africa.
What Kokoroko don’t yet pull from more traditional jazz forms is the richness of melody and swing, but it is nonetheless music that reaches moments of considerable power and intensity. And when the wordless voices of the three women occasionally rise above the rhythm, it is easy to feel the forces of resistance that underlie so many forms of African music.
Perhaps having overrun their allotted time Kokoroko closed with a truncated version of their breakout tune, the Afro-drenched dream swirl of ‘Abusey Junction‘. This was a pity, because along with the folk-tinged Ti-de (played mid-set) it amply demonstrates the band’s potential to broaden their performance palette when led by Jerome’s delicate touch on guitar.
Jamie Cullum has been a fixture of the UK jazz scene for almost two decades, straddling the worlds of jazz and pop and winning a devoted following with his energetic performance style. At Marciac this year he was touring his eighth studio album, the recently released Taller, which provided a number of the songs for this set. As always, however, Cullum was supplementing his own compositions with material from a range of stellar sources including Nina Simone, Louis Prima, The Killers, Drake, Lauryn Hill, and the Neptunes. While Cullum delivers up plenty of diversity, that list of sources also indicates his leaning towards contemporary r&b that is heard on Taller.
A challenge in summarising a Cullum performance is in separating the music from the performance. He has a deep bag of high-octane stage tricks and they are on aggressive display from the first song, eventually culminating in the diminutive pianist vacating the stage and leading a conga line progression through the audience as he sings… well, I can’t recall what he was singing at the time. And that’s the problem. The performance overkill quickly begins to distract attention from the musical elements of the show, to the point that the music risks becoming secondary.
There is no doubt that Cullum is a very capable pianist, singer and composer, but even the dynamics of his own songs have apparently been crafted with the stage in mind.
So that his new song, the self-deprecating ‘Taller’,rather needlessly repeats a series of thumping crescendos that are seemingly designed to give Cullum a chance to show off a few more of his signature moves at the piano. And his cover of Ray Charles’ ‘Hard Times’ commences with a delightfully faithful arrangement, but by mid-song Cullum is inevitably hamming it up and the tune predictably descends into histrionic overkill. Cullum announced during the performance that he was only a few weeks shy of turning 40 — surely an age at which he should be taking the blues more seriously.
For this performance Cullum had put together a five-piece band plus two backing vocalists. They were certainly competent and possessed the versatility required of the setlist. But competence was about all that was asked of them, as they had limited opportunity to really display their individual prowess.
Cullum’s performance is what it is – which is no small thing – but it isn’t what it could be.
Remi Panossian and Nicolas Gardel
Two natives of South-West France – trumpeter Nicolas Gardel from Toulouse and pianist Remi Panossian from Montpellier – joined forces to provide a festival highlight. Gardel has appeared at Marciac before in other formations, most notably his sextet, Nicolas Gardel and the Headbangers, but this was a first for Panossian. The pianist took time out during the performance to speak about the years he had attended Jazz in Marciac as part of the audience and dreamt of making it up on the stage, and announced that his parents and other family were in the Chapiteau on this particular evening. It’s that sort of festival.
Gardel and Panossian came together in 2017, when Gardel served as artistic director on Panossian’s solo outing DO, and then to work on their duo album The Mirror, released earlier in 2019. Their coupling as a duo seems like a natural progression, as alongside their shared interest in traditional jazz forms, they also both draw influences from electronica and pop-rock –DO included an energetic cover of the Jagger-Richards song ‘Paint in Black’. Panossian’s own composition ‘The Mirror’ also found a place on DO, and was re-purposed to serve as the title track to their recent album.
Unsurprisingly the program for this performance drew heavily on The Mirror. This included their own compositions (‘The Mirror’; ‘Janice’; ‘Dive With Me’), together with jazz standards (‘I Got Rhythm’; ‘I Fall in Love too Easily’) and re-interpreted soul classics (‘Lean on Me’; ‘If I Were Your Woman’). They signed off with a delightfully gentle take on ‘Autumn Leaves’, featuring the haunting tones of Gardel’s muted horn.
Every element of this set was beautifully arranged and played. The virtuosity of both Gardel and Panossian was on full display, but their individual brilliance was fully utilised in service of the music.
These are two patient players, prepared to lavish each tune with the utmost care in order to nurture the music to its fullest effect. There was nothing contrived or forced about their approach, and whether playing solo or together they were inspired, meticulous, effortlessly tuneful, and apparently blessed with full confidence in each other’s abilities. The standing ovation was fully deserved.
Commencing a concert with the plaintive folk standard ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ sets a very particular tone, and even more so when it climaxes in a dense swirling crescendo of violins. When Melody Gardot chose to follow it with ‘The Rain’, her own maudlin song of a parting between rain-swept lovers, which was again engulfed in an intense torrent of strings, the tone was becoming a mood. Such are the risks Gardot is prepared to take with her audience.
But really, Gardot is playing to her strengths, which lie in her capacity to shape and manage the atmospherics of songs that on the surface can appear sleight.
Gardot is sometimes compared to other piano-playing jazz singers such as Diana Krall, but really such comparisons may reveal more about the audience’s expectations of Gardot rather than what she delivers. Whereas for many pianist-singers, including Krall, the default setting is a melody-heavy romanticism that is easily embellished by the orchestral use of strings, Gardot uses her own songs and performance to achieve an altogether different effect. Many of her compositions depend on an unresolved melodic tension that builds slowly over the duration, and her lyrics are often lightly etched portrayals of heartache that depend for their effect on an emotional sketchiness (“Goodnight was just a little word you learned / Somewhere somebody that you burned / Was all too happy with a lie / But love, you know you never got it right / I don’t know why you say goodnight / You only mean to say goodbye. Goodbye”). In this setting the strings – three players in a combination of violins and cellos – are arranged to emphasise rather than smooth over the discordant rhythmic structures and serve to heighten the underlying melodic melodrama.
Over the course of the performance, the tension at climactic moments can become almost gothically dense, but Gardot keeps her nerve, confident in her ability to control the moment and hold her audience through the force of her singing and playing.
There was some relief from the aural intensity. Gardot came to front of stage and looked every bit the rock star, as she strapped on her big red Gibson to lightly strum and sing her early-career hit, ‘Baby I’m a Fool’; and she was joined by guitarist Mitchell Long in a conventional duet version of the bossa nova standard ‘Corcovado’, offered in memory of the recently departed Joao Gilberto.
Gardot doesn’t meet every jazz lover’s preferred mode of female vocalising and she could certainly choose easier pathways. It is, however, a music that is true to her own compositional choices, and by evening’s end she seemed to have won over most of the crowd.