by Colin May
August 25, 2023
Guest contributor Colin May reports on the final two days of the 2023 Nice Jazz Festival. Performers include SuperBlue, Herbie Hancock, Ezra Collective, GoGo Penguin, Dianne Reeves, Donald Harrison.
NICE JAZZ FESTIVAL
Théâtre de Verdure and Scène Massena
July 18th to 21st 2023
Photograph of SuperBlue (Krt Elling & Charlie Hunter) sourced from http://www.nicejazzfestival.fr
DAY THREE 20/07/2023
The third night promised to be the biggest for jazz at this year’s festival with Kurt Elling and Herbie Hancock on the bill and five of the six acts having strong jazz roots.. Also, it was the hottest night of the festival with the temperature still 27 degrees at midnight. Inside the festival stockade probably it was even hotter, so not a comfortable night for either performers or audience.
EDOUARD PENNES PRESENTS GENERATION DJANGO
The evening started with Manouche gypsy Jazz with a difference. Edouard Pennes presents Generation Django was a new project that added the textures of a classical string quartet to the well-established Manouche groove and drum less line-up of guitars and double bass. Most of the group were young which suggested that indeed a new generation of Manouche jazzers was beginning to
Among the line up was clarinettist Giacamo Smith of Kansas Smitty’s House Band fame whose sinuous solo enlivened the group’s version of that old war horse ‘Summertime’. I found the string quartet to be a distraction though, but it still was a pleasant start to the evening.
It was a quick a visit to the Massena main stage for an artist I knew nothing about, Jalen Ngonda. He was said by the NJF programme to be “the new voice of modern soul,” who was originally from Maryland, USA, but now is based in Liverpool.
He has a striking falsetto voice and phrasing that could be a good fit with romantic soul ballads. But from the snapshot of four songs heard, what impressed was his cover of the Jimmy Reid blues classic ‘You Got Me Runnin,’(aka ‘Baby What You Want Me to Do’), which was so good it had me wondering if perhaps the blues was where his heart lay.
SUPERBLUE: KURT ELLING AND CHARLIE HUNTER
SuperBlue: Kurt Elling’s and guitarist /producer Charlie Hunter’s still newish project sees the gifted Elling embed his vocal prowess in a new context: a sound world with elements of processed music, funk and hip hop yet which continued to be deeply rooted in jazz. This world was created for Elling by Hunter, and drummer Corey Fonville and bassist/keyboardist DJ Harrison both from the
jazz/funk/hip hop group Butcher Brown.
Having declared “We’re goin’ to have some dancin’ up here tonight,” Elling was energised and dynamic despite the oppressively hot night, stomping across the stage to the music and constantly talking to the crowd between numbers.
Over the course of the set Elling used the full range of his voice and his vocal phrasing amid Hunter fusing delicacy and muscularity on guitar, Fonville laying down hip hop beats and DJ Harrison having moments of sounding like Headhunters era Herbier Hancock on the night Hancock was on the bill.
Two tracks from the eponymous ‘SuperBlue’ album were highlights. ‘Dharma Bums’ saw Elling part talking, part singing, almost rapping his way through the lyrics supported by classy interplay between Hunter and DJ Harrison, while the hopeful ‘Manic Panic Epiphanic’ was graced by an explosive drum solo from Fonville, and an unexpected chorus of ‘He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands’ for which Elling enlisted the audience as the choir, before dazzling them with falsetto
pyrotechnics in the finale.
It was an intriguing and dynamic set not just from Elling but from the whole SuperBlue group, and was an emphatic success with the Nice audience.
Ezra Collective came in as a late replacement and their mix of jazz. soul, hip hop, and funk and above all non-stop energy was perfect for the big Massena arena.
The band paid tribute to Herbie Hancock, saying they were honoured to be playing on the same day and same stage as him “for without him Ezra Collective would not exist.”
One of the band’s many abilities is that they can generate electricity in the crowd, and the Nice crowd responded excitedly to drummer Femi Koleoso’s and trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi’s urgings to “climb the mountain with them”. Tonight, the peak of the mountain was ‘Sao Paolo’, which is fast becoming the band’s top dance anthem.
I only saw the last part of their set having been held captive by Kurt Elling longer than intended. However, Ezra Collective had been at Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few weeks before, a performance witnessed in full by Ian Mann
.He said in summary
“Ezra Collective are a band capable of entertaining a large crowd without overly compromising either themselves or their music. Musical intelligence and instrumental virtuosity are still at the heart of their sound and this was still unmistakably a jazz performance.”
he full review can be found here;
So, it was in Nice too, and since playing the two festivals the news has been announced that Ezra Collective have had the accolade of being nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize.
It was a more cerebral atmosphere on Verdure where the last act was the trio GoGo Penguin with their hypnotic amalgam of minimalist jazz and rock, and electronica and club culture. Their communication with the audience was minimalist too in sharp contrast to Kurt Elling and the Ezras, but the audience still listened intently as the band let their music do most of the talking.
Their recent album ‘Everything is Going to be OK’ which was born out of loss, was the basis of their set. It’s modestly upbeat and optimistic tone transferred into their performance: in my notes I called one number joyful and described another as playful.
The understanding between the three, Chris Illingworth piano/keyboards, Nick Blacka bass and Jon Scott drums seemed almost telepathic at times despite Scott being a relatively new band member. Both Black and Scott got surprising sounds from their instruments creating the illusion there was a harmonium and an oud on stage.
On the one previous occasion I’d seen GoGo Penguin, I had found them rather too abstract and the gig hadn’t taken off for me. This was different, I experienced their music as more accessible. The main reason was new member Jon Scott’s direct rhythmic drumming with few if any electronic add ons. He made their sound more visceral and immediate. As a result I was as hypnotised as the rest of the audience and stayed listening for several numbers more than I’d intended.
Overstaying at GoGo Penguin resulted in missing most of Herbie Hancock’s long ‘Overture’, an amalgam of Hancock tunes from the seventies onwards on the Massena stage. Having heard this in full at last year’s Jazz A Juan ( see review embedded in /www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/61st-jazz-a-juan-festival- and-the-summer-jammin-sessions-july-2022) I was aware not only did it illustrate the many styles of Hancock’s music but was a prime example that he’s a genius at
making some knotty rhythmic and tonal music accessible* including apparently for a very attentive 6 to 8 year old in my line of vision whose gaze rarely veered away from the stage the whole set.
As well as Hancock, the presence of highly creative guitarist Lionel Loueke and trumpeter Terrance Blanchard in the band are two more reasons for grabbing any opportunity to see the living legend. According to Hancock Loueke “makes the guitar sound like instruments that haven’t been invented yet”, and Blanchard’s trumpet can sound as if there is more than just one brass player on stage.
Hancock favourite James Gaines was again on bass making the band almost the same as at Juan last year with the exception that 24 year old Jaylen Petinard had the drum seat previously occupied by Justin Tyson.
While the set list also was similar to Juan’s there was a strong sense that the 83 years young Hancock continues to explore the material seeking new angles.
The late Wayne Shorter’s well-known composition ‘Footprints,’ was a tribute to Hancock’s long-time close friend. The arrangement by Blanchard had each member of the band dialled into slightly different rhythm.
The version of “Future Proof “from Hancock’s 1974 album ‘Thrust’ was about fifteen minutes long. As well as solos from the principals, Hancock, Loueke and Blanchard this was a moment for James Gaines with a very inventive staccato driven bass guitar solo and for urban beat power drumming from Jaylen Petard.
Hancock then resorted to the vocoder “because I can’t sing,” for ‘Come Running to Me’ from 1978 album ‘Sunlight’. Loueke briefly added attractive Xhosa click click vocalese but with Hancock delivering a heart felt though rather over-long homily on humanity’s inter-connectedness this is where the set sagged a little.
Normal service was resumed with ‘Secret Sauce’, Hancock having strapped on his keytar and dazzling with nimble fingered runs as he rocked out with the rest of the band. They finished with Headhunter’s crowd pleasing ’ Chameleon’ whereupon the crowd let out a roar of approval.
* Some of the credit for the accessibility of Hancock’s music must go to Terrance Blanchard who is de facto director of his band.
DAY FOUR 21/07/2023
After all the rushing between the two stages on day three, I was relieved that the
final night’s line -up on Massena didn’t tempt me with the exception of the
headliner, and I could drop anchor at Théâtre de Verdure.
Pianist, drummer, composer, producer 24 year old Julius Rodriguez has jazz, gospel, and contemporary R n’ B, soul, hip hop, and electronica as well as some classical training in his kit bag for what he calls “the music”.
He got an early start in music appreciation. His jazz loving father took him to jazz clubs and concerts, and he heard musicians in church. We are told aged eleven Rodriguez delighted an audience at Smalls Jazz Club, New York with a rendition of ’ Take the A Train ’ (NPR’s Morning Edition).
He took classical piano and music theory lessons, taught himself drums, and now in concerts sometimes switches between piano and drums.
His first album ’ Let Sound Tell All’ was released last year. Along the way he had his first professional engagement aged fourteen, and at eighteen dropped out of the Juilliard School of Music to tour with a rapper.
In Nice Rodriguez eschewed the drums, and played piano and keyboards throughout in a trio with Jermaine Paul, bass, and Luke Titus, drums.
The first number which might have been ‘Blues at the Barn’ from his album, was very powerful fast pianism with Rodriguez showing (but not showing off) considerable technical ability.
In a total change of pace and style, the second was a sparse simple tune that could have been based on a children’s nursery rhyme, and for which Jermaine Paul swapped bass guitar for double bass.
Rodriguez began the next number with a repeated figure before building up the speed and volume considerably with his colleagues, then returned to the quieter gentler opening figure. He followed this with a playful take on what I recognised as a standard but couldn’t name, incorporating classical cadences, stride piano and a nod in the direction of Bill Evans.
The beautiful and soulful ‘Where Grace Abounds’ from his album, intertwined classical/ chamber jazz and gospel.
Rodriguez then made sure his trio gave the enraptured audience a big finish with ‘Star Maker’. Jermaine Paul’s tasteful bass guitar solo and the trio’s electro suffused (outer-space) textures gave way to Rodriguiz and his colleagues ratcheting up the volume and speed for an exhilarating finale.
BIG CHIEF DONALD HARRISON
New Orleans born and bred resident, Big Chief Donald Harrison Junior has, according to the NJF programme, “Over the years,...played with over 200 jazz masters (and) created three influential jazz styles.”
The immaculately dressed alto saxophonist and his group had introduced themselves to the packed audience with an opener that Harrison described as “jazz you can dance to.” Harrison had played a joyful solo and there’d been a telling contribution from pianist Daniel Kaufman and strong support from the tight rhythm section of bassist Noriatsu Naraoka and drummer Brian Richburg.
Harrison sax has a big bold sound, and he plays what he calls “nouveau swing,”. He explained to the crowd” without learning the history of jazz you can’t play nouveau swing. You have to mix these styles (from jazz history) with modern dance music (i.e., hip hop etc.) .”
He and his group then proceeded to do the history of jazz from the 1930’s to the 1960’s by playing one number to illustrate each decade, changing styles from one decade to another with ease.
The 1930’s was Sidney Bachet’s arrangement of Scott Joplin’s lively ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. The 1940’s was Harrison ‘s bebop composition ‘One for Bird (Charlie Parker)’ with bright bebop piano from Kaufman (channelling Bud Powell perhaps).
For the 1950’s Harrison’s alto sax “imitated” (his word) Miles Davis playing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ into which, he inserted a quote from ‘Fascinating Rhythm’. Then for the 1960’s it was John Coltrane, and a shortened version of ‘Impressions’ with another excellent Daniel Kaufman piano solo and Harrison’s finale a cascade of notes that helped earn the group two minutes plus of applause.
Then we were taken to New York’s Cuban Jazz scene with Harrison “putting all the styles” into a number from pianist, composer, bandleader and Grammy winner Eddie Palmeri with whom he’d played.
‘Temporale’, the final number, celebrated both ‘Nouveau Jazz’ and Harrison’s home city of New Orleans and he introduced it as “a happy song after moving on from a hurricane”. It was earthy and contemporary with Noriatsu Naraoka, now on bass guitar, and drummer Brian Richburg laying down beats and Harrison not only swinging but singing and getting the audience to join with the chant, ‘God lives in New Orleans’.
It was an optimistic finale to an enjoyable set that Big Chief Donald Harrison
Junior had played with a smile whatever the era.
It was the last night of a long European tour for five times Grammy winner Dianne Reeves but there was no sign of Reeves and her first-class quartet of pianist John Beasley, guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Reuben Romero and drummer Terreon Gully being on the plane already.
The first number was a slow soulful ballad with Reeves using her full range, her delivery contrasting yet melding with high-speed drumming from Gulley. The waltz time ‘I’m All Smiles’ from her 2003 album ‘A Little Moonlight’ saw bassist Romero sharing lead melody duties with Reeves, and Reeves’s scatting emerge organically and not as an add on effect.
Reeves had told the audience that” Music is medicine,” and the next song, a ballad, was a reflection on the pandemic and those that had been lost. For the following number Reeves voice took on an African timbre.
Next came a beguiling version of ‘Somebody to Watch Over Me’, after which Reeves brought on young Korean singer Song Yi now resident in Switzerland who sung a couple of numbers with great confidence.
Reeves love of Brazilian rhythms was to the fore in Hermeto Pascoal’s ‘Bebê’, and she scatted delightfully in her and the quartet’s version of Miles Davis’s ‘So What’.
As the set progressed it became ever more obvious that Reeves has assembled a fine quartet of talented musicians around her who have a great synergy with her and she with them. Her acknowledgement of them seemed deep felt.
At the start Reeves had sung her greetings to the Nice audience and now she sung her goodbyes, and as she headed off-stage and in the direction of the long flight home the audience leapt to their feet to show their appreciation.
-M- (MATHIEU CHEDID)
The festival had one last hurrah to offer in French multi award winning alt- pop star Mathieu Chedid who was appearing as his stage persona as ‘-M-’.
A few years ago, similar to Blur’s Damien Alban, following a trip to Mali he’d created a group, Lamomali, with leading Malian stars, kora maestro Toumani Diabate and French based singer -songwriter and actress Fatoumata Diawara. Lamomali had toured Europe with a final appearance in the UK at WOMAD.
That was then. Tonight’s performance was high quality stadium pop and rock, overlaid with the theatricality of a Queen show as ‘M’ changed costumes and masks and the Massena arena was dazzled by a most spectacular light show. It was a highly dramatic way to bring the curtain down on this year’s festival.
The festival was a successful artistically and in attracting large audiences. The last night was sold out and there were big crowds on the other nights with 37.000 in total attending according to official figures.
Nice is a city that has a jazz culture, and at the Théâtre de Verdure “100% Jazz” stage it was nearly always standing room only with audiences that were attentive and enthusiastic.
This year saw fewer clashes with the Jazz A Juan festival just down the road but there still were some. My hope is that eventually the organisers of both festivals will find a way of ensuring there are no date clashes at all.
The enjoyment of the jazz on Verdure was enhanced by there being almost no unwanted sound penetrating from the main Massena stage. The organisers deserve congratulating for solving what had previously been a persistent problem.
The festival reinforced that jazz rubbing up against urban musics and electronica has become an important part of contemporary jazz. There’s much variety in what results, as shown not only by the different performances of the new generation like saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins**, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill as part of Hiromi’s Sonic Wonder**, Emile Londinium**, Julius Rodriguez and Ezra Collective, but also by the performances of established stars Hiromi **and Kurt Elling.
Jazz fans in the U.K have the opportunity to hear Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter’s SuperBlue this autumn. The SuperBlue tour reaches Ireland and the UK at the end of October, along with Julius Rodriguez who is the support.
Hiromi’s Sonic Wonder will be at the EFG London Jazz Festival in November when the support will be Hiromi: The Piano Quintet which should make a fascinating contrast.
Straight-ahead contemporary jazz continued to be strongly represented with Dave Holland’s** and Dianne Reeves’ consummate performances with their excellent bands, while the evergreen Herbie Hancock continued to be Herbie Hancock.
Finally next year when Nice is substituting for Paris for the finish of the Tour de France and has Olympic football at the Allianz stadium, it will be interesting to see if the Nice Jazz Festival returns to a five day format as part of what is shaping up to be a spectacular Summer 2024.
** These artists performances were all covered in Nice Jazz Festival 2023 Part1
Nice Jazz Festival 2023 - Part One, 18th and 19th July 2023. | Feature | The Jazz
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