by Colin May
August 22, 2023
Guest contributor Colin May reports on the first two days of the 2023 Nice Jazz Festival. Performers include Hiromi, Dave Holland, Gabriels, Immanuel Wilkins, Roberto Fonseca, Emile Londonien.
Photograph of Immanuel Wilkins sourced from http://www.nicejazzfestival.fr
NICE JAZZ FESTIVAL
Théâtre de Verdure and Scène Massena, Nice, France.
July 18th to 21st 2023
This year the festival had been condensed from five to four days, but the strong line up of international talent (Dave Holland, Hiromi, Herbie Hancock, Roberto Fonseca and more)newer stars (Gogo Penguin, Ezra Collective) and emerging stars (Immanuel Wilkins, Adam O’Farrill, Julius Rodriguez) meant the buzz in the run up to it was as strong as ever.
DAY ONE, 18/07/2023;
LAURENT COULONDRE’S ‘META FESTA’
The festival got away to a happy upbeat start with multiple French jazz award winner Laurent Coulondre’s “Meta Festa” (My Party) project on the Théâtre Verdure stage
which had a large banner declaiming, “La Scène 100% Jazz”.
Pianist Coulondre led an eight strong band plus the voice of Laura Dausse. Solos and duos emerged from their infectious Latin groove. Coulondre’s percussive pianism was a recurring feature, but all the band got a solo moment. Alto and baritone saxophonist Lucas Saint-Cricq had several. I particularly enjoyed his baritone playing.
Classy trombonist Robinson Khoury grasped his one moment in the spotlight in typical blistering style and I’d have liked to hear more from this versatile player whom I happened to be hearing for the fourth time, each time in a different style of band (including in a Dutch big band playing South African township jazz at the BBC Proms).
Their last number ‘El Janito’ (Cocktail) neatly summarised both the arranging and the mood of their music, and made a lively end to a set that went down well.
Coulondre’s group was the first of the six acts a night split between two stages which is the NJF’s standard format. As the stage times were staggered and it was a short distance between the stages, it was possible to see something of all the acts but not all of all of them.
Mostly I focused on the Théâtre Verdure, capacity 2415 with over 1000 seated, which was the ‘dedicated to jazz’ stage, but combined this with some hurried to and fro visits to the all standing 6500 capacity Scène Massena main stage where there was an eclectic mix of musical styles (NJF has been a hybrid festival since 1994), including sometimes jazz. This year Sir Tom Jones and former patron of the NJF Herbie Hancock were among the main stage headliners (see Part 2).
The festival has undergone a revival in attendances since it moved to the city centre in 2011, also helped by reasonably priced tickets with several concessions available. This year nearly every Théâtre Verdure session drew big enthusiastic crowds, and on the final night the festival was sold out with Scène Massena the busiest I have ever seen it for that night’s and the festival’s final act: the dramatic performance and spectacular light show of the French alt rock star known as ‘M’.
HIROMI’s SONIC WONDER
But back to the beginning, and the second act at Théâtre Verdure, Hiromi’s Sonic Wonder, a new direction for the adventurous endlessly virtuoso jazz pianist Hiromi
Uehara. The only other time I had seen her it was as a duo with master of the Columbian harpist Edmer Castañada. This was very different.
Hiromi is known for blurring the boundaries between post-bop, stride, rock, fusion and classical. With Sonic Wonder she adds electro music, urban beats, and funk to her palette. Not only did she play grand piano but also electric piano and synthesiser, and often all three in the same number.
Her fellow “power quartet” (NJF programme) members who interestingly were all seated, were Adam O’Farrill, said by the New York Times to be “perhaps the music’s next great improviser”, whose trumpet was augmented with electronics, and the propulsive rhythm section of French born bassist Hadrien Feraud and drummer Gene Coye.
It was a high intensity set with exciting soundscapes and some unusual sounds. Hiromi was virtuosic and adventurous whichever keyboard she played. O’Farrill, using echo and reverb, created atmospheres with his ‘electronic’ trumpet, often producing beautiful long notes and also screeches, cries, and animal-like sounds and, according to my notes, at one point a foghorn on a lonely night which for me evoked the atmosphere of the paintings of American artist Edwin Hopper.
There was an impressive solo from Jaco Pastorius influenced bassist Feraud, and the quartet’s calmer reflective passages harked back to Miles Davis’s ‘Silent Way’.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Hiromi’s latest new direction develops and is received in the coming months. They have a big tour in the autumn to support the scheduled October launch of their album “Sonic Wonderland”.
Nice certainly loved them. The quartet went about 30 minutes over their allotted slot which is very unusual at the NJF, but hardly anyone left and at the finish they were given a great reception.
DAVE HOLLAND’S NEW 4TET
Dave Holland’s New 4Tet took one to a completely different jazz world. It saw the master bassist joined by acclaimed drummer Nasheet Waits (Jason Moran, David Murray)
saxophonist Jaleel Shaw (Roy Haynes Quartet), with whom Holland has collaborated before, and recent Grammy winner for her role in Terri Carrington’s ‘New Standards’
project, pianist Kris Davis.
It was the line-up that was new rather than the style of music which was straight ahead contemporary jazz that integrated some blues and a free jazz duet between Holland and Davis into a set in which all the numbers had been written by the band members. No electronics were seen or heard other than when Davis turned from grand piano to keyboards.
What made it a high quality experience was Holland’s as good as ever pizzicato soloing, some lovely melodies with both Shaw and Davis being players who emphasised melody in their playing, particularly saxophonist Shaw, and the independent multi layered drumming of Waits. A smiling Dave Holland seemed enjoy what was happening on stage, and it all added up to a classy jazz quartet performance.
During and in between acts on the Théâtre de Verdure stage I made a couple of excursions to the Scène Massena main stage. The first was to catch Franco- Caribbean singer, bass guitar and producer Adi Oasis’s mix of soul, funk and R n’ B embellished with a pinch of her creole roots.
She was clearly pregnant but this did not stop her impressing both as singer and bass guitarist, and by being able to do both skills to a high level simultaneously which is not that common. Her keyboard player and drummer both sang, and the three voices gelled beautifully resulting in some fine harmonies. She herself has bags of stage presence and potential, and should have a bright future ahead.
The second excursion was because the opportunity to see Gabriels was irresistible. They were a big success at this year’s Glastonbury fronted by the bass to falsetto voice and large personality of Jacob Lusk, who was one of the four guests chosen by Elton John, a long-standing fan, to appear with him on the Pyramid stage.
Lusk came on in his trademark tuxedo, a shiny colourful cape floating behind and moving his big body to the soul and R n’ B sound of the band. Then he started to sing, and his angelic falsetto and his angelic big face smile began to cast a spell. “You are in a church with me,” he opened his arms widely, the harmonies of the three females enhanced the magic and I caught myself thinking I might join this congregation.
Having tossed his cape aside Lusk danced, moving with the elegance of a later day Fred Astaire to the delight of the audience. He and his fellow Gabriels stole the show on what was a high quality day one.
DAY TWO, 19/07/2023;
IMMANUEL WILKINS QUARTET
The Immanuel Wilkins Quartet opened day two on the Verdure stage. The 24-year-old American alto saxophonist Wilkins is one of the new generation successfully integrating jazz and hip hop and R n’ B in their music. He has two critically acclaimed albums to his name and has topped Downbeat polls.
The first number began with Wilkins playing tersely, before pianist Micah Thomas took over with what sounded like discordant contemporary classical music until Wilkins
returned, now in a melodic meditative mode that Thomas underpinned with gentle piano phrasing.
Both members of the rhythm section bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Kweku Sumbry soloed in the next number leading into the quartet rapidly accelerating playing ever faster yet still very precisely and cleanly.
The centre piece was a controlled fifteen-minute solo from Wilkins that might have been a few numbers run together. It says a lot about him as a player that it did not seem a minute too long.
Overall it was a set of gripping often intense edgy jazz driven forward by hip hop rhythms with Wilkins and his quartet balancing power and subtlety.
Next up was French born trumpeter Ludovic Louis. His French roots helped him to get some lively interplay going with the now very big crowd. When he wasn’t playing, he
prowled the stage seeking to get the audience more and more involved, something he succeeded in doing.
Louis toured for ten years with Lenny Kravitz, and now as a leader he’s in a direct line of descent from the late Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor band that blended jazz, soul, funk and hip hop. One number blended African and Latin influences and another, a melodic ballad, had a strong jazz rock texture. For the final and best number Louis sang and did a vocal call and response with the crowd followed by staccato trumpet as a prelude to the big finish.
While starting from broadly similar territory as the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, Louis and his group have arrived at a funkier, smoother, good time destination led by the big clean sound Louis’ trumpet.
YURI BONAVENTURA and ROBERTO FONSECA
Another change of style followed with Columbian singer Yuri Bonaventura and Roberto Fonseca the acclaimed Cuban pianist and their band-mates transforming Théâtre de
Verdure d into a little bit of Latin America with a one-off collaboration for the NJF.
It took me a little time to tune into Bonaventura’s voice but it grew on me. His singing did go down well though with the crowd, as did the speech he gave in the middle of the set about his home country.
Fonseca was the star though. As director of the six-piece band his contribution to their tight ensemble playing and arranging that included ensuring there was space for trumpeter Roberto Garcia to express himself must have been considerable, and every time Fonseca soloed the music was lifted to another level.
Curiosity resulted in a couple more trips to the Massena stage where first up Emile Londonien, a trio of talented young improvisers from Strasbourg, were laying out their mix of club culture, broken beat, hip hop, and jazz improvisation and groove. Their indebtedness to the London new jazz scene was obvious, including the band’s name (though also I heard it’s a tongue in cheek reference to star French saxophonist Émile Parisien).
The trio name the Ezra Collective among their influences. Whereas that group fuse aspects of the music of the African diaspora and jazz, Emile Londonien merged many elements of contemporary urban music and jazz improvisation.
Their line-up was bass guitar, keyboard and drums. All three players were talented, for instance there was a terrific bass guitar solo that didn’t sound like Jaco Pastorius. Maybe they pressed the very loud pedal a bit too readily for my taste but this is a marginal criticism. What stood out was the vitality of the interaction between the three and the adventurous experimentation which suggested that these guys genuinely didn’t always know what was going to happen next.
The Massena stage also hosted Hyphen Hyphen from Nice (the name derives from ancient Greek and literally means ‘under one’) who are a successful electro alt-pop band.
Though their music wasn’t my taste, they were very good at what they did. I went to see them mainly to sample the atmosphere at what was a big home town gig, and was
surprised to be quite moved.
It felt the band and the crowd shared a very close communion and a joyful celebration of being Niçoise. It was a moment of healing perhaps in a city where the scars of the outrage of 14 July 2016* are still just below the surface.
*A 19-tonne truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade Des Anglais resulting in 86 being killed and 434 being injured. One
consequence was the cancellation of that year’s Nice Jazz Festival.
For an overview of this year’s festival please see Part Two.
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