Review: Au Gres du Jazz, Alsace

Bob Weir travels to small-town Alsace for a busy festival with standout shows from Chris Potter and Shai Maestro, Fred Hersch and Seamus Blake

It is hard to imagine a nicer setting for 12 days of jazz and related music than La Petite Pierre, a lovely small town deep in the countryside of north-east France. The nearest place of any size was Strasbourg, about 50km away. The festival was expertly organised and managed by a small team supported by 100 unpaid volunteers who did a magnificent job of making the event friendly, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable.

This year, the 16th, there were 43 concerts: 17 ticketed at typically a very reasonable €20-25 and the rest were free entry. The main stage for 9pm concerts was in the attractive town square, boxed-in by a turreted castle, a church, old houses and ancient town walls, for a maximum of about 500 people. Other venues included an indoor sports hall (only used in the event of poor weather and hardly needed in this year of near-constant sunshine) and for afternoon and early evening shows a pretty museum garden, a school yard, the famous Lalique Glass museum and in nearby villages. Late jam sessions were held each night at a small tiered arena in the festival's busy refreshments area adjacent to the main stage. The varied programme, running 4-15 August, provided quality music each day from noon to after midnight.

The major attractions for many were the all-jazz concerts and they were exceptional. The Chris Potter/Shai Maestro duo had only played together once before. Festival director Valentine Wurtz saw them in New York and brought them to La Petite Pierre for their European debut. This coup was rewarded by a performance of freely improvised duets by two masters of intuitive co-operation and musical excellence. There was "high-wire" tension but they seldom stumbled and never fell. Another first was the appearance of Canadian tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake with the Alsatian Christophe Imbs Trio (pictured above right). Everything written recently about the great promise of Blake was vindicated by his superb performance with the sensitive and hard-swinging support of the trio.

Two French outfits also impressed. The Emile Parisien Quintet had a flavour of Coltrane and Monk from the leader's soprano sax and pianist Roberto Negro but in a wholly convincing and distinctive manner. Their programme of appealing originals was well suited to their lyrical and passionate style. The Franck Wolf Quintet and guests were a complete contrast. Whereas Parisien was serious and concentrated, the other session was all about fun and entertainment. Tenor saxophonist Wolf, a local favourite who was here last year in Biréli Lagrène's band, and his invited friends played a series of loose jams to a high standard. The highlight was the heavily featured singer and multi-instrumentalist Matskat. His bouncy energy and permanent grin kept everyone happy in a mix of chanson, crooning and bop scatting.

Three outstanding piano trios were probably the heart of this festival's straightahead jazz content. Abdullah Ibrahim, with the unusual support of Cleave Guyton Jr on reeds and woodwinds and Noah Jackson on bass and cello, played mostly slowly and introspectively. He featured a long suite of his compositions to entrancing effect and finished with a short classical piece and a livelier jazz number. The Laurent De Wilde New Monk Trio with a programme of that iconoclast's better-known numbers seemed more attuned to Bud Powell than Monk. De Wilde did, however, interpret the famous songs with taste, sensitivity and originality, as expected from the author of an acclaimed book on Monk, and he spoke engagingly about his hero between numbers. He had earlier played a more subdued set of duets with fellow pianist Ray Lema. Best of all to my mind was a stunning session by Fred Hersch (pictured above left), teacher at the New England Conservatory of many renowned pianists including Brad Meldau and Jason Moran and a brilliant performer in his own right. His subtle touch, skilful voicings and free-flowing ideas were beguiling. His standing ovation was richly deserved.

African music, particularly from countries previously associated with France, was very popular. Three groups were fronted by female singers/dancers. Dobet Gnahore (Ivory Coast), Valerie Ekoume (Cameroon) and Rokia Traore (Mali, pictured right) and the male-led Matoube Project (Burkino Faso) offered varieties of Afro-pop; infectiously rhythmic but melodically limited. Very different and my favourite was the Soweto township showband Les Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness whose relentless energy and political commitment made a big impression.

Alsace is the home to many Manouche gypsy musicians so it was unsurprising that Django-influenced groups were well represented. The Tiger Rag, Ringo Lorier Quartet, Di Mauro Swing and Les P'tits Potes all entertained enthusiastic crowds on daytime side stages.

Big-name funk/soul/blues attractions predictably filled the main arenas to overflowing. NYC-based Brooklyn Funk Essentials were good value although they were outgunned by the 13 pieces of the Earth, Wind and Fire Experience including Al McKay from the original 1969 band. Lucky Peterson's show was billed as a tribute to Jimmy Smith and he did play a couple of medleys of the late organist's hits. Mostly though it was pretty much his usual programme which only really came to life when Peterson (pictured left) picked up his slide guitar for some good down-home country and Chicago blues.

The best of the rest included two female singers. Yoko Wende accompanied by classical guitar presented Japanese film songs in a pleasant folksy voice. The dramatic and self-absorbed Melanie De Biasio had pre-announced her show as not a concert but "an experience". Suitably warned, I had low expectations although in the event her set of standards and self-composed material was good entertainment.

It was a nice touch for the festival to give a Jazz For Kids show on Saturday morning. A tenor saxophone, piano and bass trio amiably presented a simple story of jazz history with musical examples to encourage the large crowd of small children and their parents to sing along. It was all very charming.

La Petite Pierre was an undoubted success, musically and socially. It is worth checking for next year by keeping an eye on the festival's website.

Photos by Tim Dickeson

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