Vienne is a small town on the river Rhone, population around 30,000 some 30 minutes south of Lyon, which was the second largest city of France till Marseilles took over just a few months ago. The venue of the festival is an ancient Roman open air semi-circular theater where the bulk of the audience has to sit on blocks of stones and the last row is high up - rising 200 feet from the stage! Yet, the "Jazz A Vienne" festival attracts nearly 100,000 (average of 6300 per night) over two weeks - that's three times the population of Vienne!
Vienne has an outstanding sound system supported by the superb acoustics of the venue. No matter how far you may be seated there is intimacy with the artists on stage thanks to two huge 18 x 10 ½ feet D-Lite Barco screens. The cameras show close-ups of the vocalists, hands and fingers on the piano keys. This intimacy adds immensely to the enjoyment and the audience responds enthusiastically, which in turn inspires the artists. I found the Vienne audiences to be among the best. Apart from the usual audience participation, clapping in rhythm by invitation of, particularly, the Latin jazz artists, the manner in which the public acknowledged and responded to the subtleties exhibited by the likes of the brilliant pianist Brad Mehldau, showed their maturity and genuine appreciation of jazz.
Opening night (Friday, June 29) was a sellout due to the very popular French singer-songwriter Claude Nougaro, backed by the Paris Jazz Big Band. Star of the Flamenco evening, Paco de Lucia & Sextet presented jazz colored flamenco masterfully with some breathtaking dancing by Joaquin Grilo. The next day was devoted to Cuba featuring singer Celia Cruz with an orchestra, though admired by the audience, the extra loud music had little jazz content. Violinist Didiere Lockwood was at his best. He presented an "Homage to Stephane Grappelli" that included some exciting innovative electronic sounds. Didiere brought in two guest young lads - his own talented son and a fine 19-year old Norwegian Ola Kvernberg - to form a violin trio!
Tuesday 3rd July brought the stars from USA. Ray Brown was doing his 75th birthday tour, age notwithstanding Ray remains a jazz giant as does the group's pianist Hank Jones. His sextet included Harry Allen, the most swinging tenor saxophonist heard at Vienne. Despite having done some 20 albums Allen has not found the mega-star status unlike some less talented tenors. Drummer Jeff Hamilton was another revelation, like Max Roach and the almost forgotten Baby Dodds, Jeff produces melody - he gave us "Caravan" just with the sticks. James Morrisson on the other hand succeeded only in exhibiting techniques.
Dee Dee Bridgewater and her new "Kurt Weil Jazz" project appeared under prepared, half-baked which was unfortunate. Next came two sobering evenings with diminished jazz content. A night of the Blues followed by a night of music from Brazil, the famed Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento failed to impress.
While the above events took place in the Theatre Antique these were several free afternoon concerts featuring student bands and late night indoor concerts at the mini-opera house converted into "Le Club de Minuit". Of all the student bands the one that stood out by far was the Central Catholic High School from Bloomington, Indiana led by the very able trombonist Prof. Doug Tidabeck who pumped spirit and inspiration to bring out the best from his pupils. The Minuit Club featured Chris Potter Quartet, Philip Catherine quartet including a very fine trumpeter Bert Joris and several others.
Also at the Midnight Club was the IAJE sponsored "Sisters in Jazz" multinational sextet. Their act failed to jell as while individually they may be good soloists, as a group they floated rudderlessly. Every tune followed the same unimaginative pattern - one soloist following another. It is at such times one realizes the value of "arrangements". The Sisters in Jazz is a very worthy project, hopefully IAJE will in future find ways to make their jazz more interesting, perhaps by adding an experienced professional to lead them cohesively.
Dianne Reeves' "Homage to Sarah Vaughn" backed by the symphonic National Orchestra of Lyon and her own quintet was truly a delight. Wayne Marshall from USA directed the orchestra. Dianne is a great singer always looking for inspiration from diverse sources. Her search once even took her to Mali in Africa. No jazz singer can avoid receiving stimulus from the likes of Billie, Ella, Sarah and Betty. In Dianne's case, although the program was in honor of Sarah, Betty Carter unmistakably inspired her singing. Be that as it may, Dianne's concert was a highlight of Jazz A Vienne.
Some of us gave "Gospel Night" the slip and went to nearby Lyon to catch the talented US pianist Tardo Hammer's Trio at the club on the 32nd floor of the Meredien. We had a bird's eye view of this huge metropolis. The region surrounding Vienne offers several side attractions. A meal at one of France's most renowned gourmet restaurant "Pyramid", a visit to a winery for tasting the brew, admiring the large mosaics done by the Romans long ago (these must have inspired the "modern" artists like Picasso). The excavations are placed in an ultra-modern museum across the polluted (found no ducks or swans!) Rhone river, visiting silk factories that cater to famed French fashion houses and seeing the various cathedrals and landmarks of historic Lyon. The food in this region, even in small eating places, is exceptional.
Everyone was eagerly looking forward to Herbie Hancock's newest creation titled "Future 2 Future" on Monday night. It is difficult to even imagine that Hancock's music could ever be anything but thrilling. Alas, despite stars like Wallace Roney, Matt Garrison and Terri Lyne Carrington the music failed to take us anywhere. Each tune was like the previous one, Roney kept blowing those extended notes a-la-Miles. The compositions gave improvisations the back seat. Not one piece in up tempo! Hancock must have bored the French audience when he recited a poem in English that no one seemed to understand. But the Vienne audience remained polite and gave the appearance of enjoying it all so as not to offend this legendary artist. It looked like Hancock felt compelled to create and present something new in jazz. Perhaps this kind of music's time will come, as the title implies.
Showmanship at its best - no one stimulated the Vienne audience like Courtney Pine did! But the show had worthwhile jazz contents. Dennis Rollins was outstanding on the trombone, he added some ultra-high pitched notes that only dogs, bats and owls could enjoy! They did 'Round Midnight and we heard sounds like the braying of a donkey. The French audience went into a frenzy with "Alouette Gentille Alouette".
Next night featured two more big stars, the Ahmed Jamal Trio and Wayne Shorter's Quartet with Danilo Perez and the superb John Patitucci. Both groups performed predictably fine jazz.
Vienne has its Academy of Jazz which during these two weeks stages a jazz camp. Dave Liebman and Kenny Werner did well attended and inspiring workshops. Werner has been partnering and touring with Toots Thielmans as a duo since a few years. The organizers decided to add Liebman who was alone at Vienne on the same stage with Kenny and Toots. Apparently Dave and Toots agreed to divide allotted time equally. First the duo of Dave and Kenny did three numbers. Dave did some beautiful blowing on the flute while Kenny mixed piano with a Korg Triton synthesizer. Dave then brought Toots on stage with a very flattering introduction. Kenny/Toots duo now had to do their three numbers. Toots did a touching "My Way" saying "He (Sinatra) left town but the melody is still with us". He then did a Michele LeGrand medley. Toots went on longer than expected and then announced, somewhat condescendingly, "before we bring back Dave Liebman we will do one more piece" but Dave walked right back and took his position on stage and started out on an up tempo piece with some far out blowing that, surely, made Toots uncomfortable. It became a sort of "cutting contest" with Toots having to struggle to keep up. Poor Kenny got caught between what appeared as a clash of egos amid his two friends.
Then came the second highlight of this festival - the Brad Mehldau Trio. His piano playing smoked in a controlled manner. It was subdued excitement and to the credit of the Vienne audience they fully appreciated Brad's subtlety, took it all in as true connoisseurs of jazz. On the giant screens one noted that Brad's left hand rarely went much away from his right hand. The left often got a counter melody going. He stuck to standards: "It's A Long Time" a-la-Sinatra, "It's a Pale Moon", "Nearness of You". The close-up on the screen revealed a big tattoo on Brad's right arm. The esthetic audience would not let him off - Brad obliged with several encores "It Might As Well Be Spring", "Cry Me a River", Chopin's Prelude which he termed "exit music for a film".
The penultimate day brought the third highlight of Vienne in the shape of Rachelle Ferrell - the most underrated American jazz vocalist. A truly original singer, a very rare species, she was not a bit like Billie, Ella, O'Day, Sarah or Betty. She was all Rachelle. Very innovative plus a huge range. A natural swinger with Gospel roots. She did yodeling like ululations. Rachelle played the keyboards revealing her musicianship. She made all kinds of noises on "Satisfied" from her new CD aptly titled "Individuality". "Sisters" revealed more of her creativity. On "Waiting" she held long extended notes at high volume. The unusual, inventive things Rachelle does do not go well with the majority of American audiences - they want "smooth" vocal jazz, not all these innovations. Dianne Reeves in her live performance the other day had a lot "more jazz" than what was released on her "smooth" Sarah Vaughn tribute album. Record companies know what sells and what does not. That might be the reason why no major US label will sign Rachelle up, she is unlikely to turn into a restrained, smooth-jazz-mega-star. But the European jazz audiences are far more adventurous, they love and adore Rachelle. In USA, creative, innovative jazz singers who refuse to be restrained usually take the back seat, unlike the instrumentalists.
The last night was the eve of the French national day (Quatorze Juillet) and the Theatre Antique presented "All Night Jazz" that ended at dawn. Within the long night's six groups were two potentially brilliant stars - French tuba player Michel Godard and Armenian singer-percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan. Godard's skill on the tuba, probably the most difficult instrument to master and "swing" on, is comparable with that of Chicago's masterful Joe Daly. At Vienne he was a member of Rabih Abou Khalil's group consisting of an oud, cello, clarinet, tambourine, drums and the most pleasing jazzer of them all - Goddard's tuba. Arto T. led his own big band "The Armenian Navy Band" playing a strange kind of composed music. Arto did not give himself the opportunity to display the remarkable talent one witnessed when he was with Joe Zawinul's Syndicate.
And so ended two weeks of relaxed pleasure and great jazz.
Twenty years ago jazz lover Jean Paul Boutellier got the idea of starting a festival in Lyon. But the Lyon authorities felt they already had too many events so they turned Boutellier's proposal down. That turned out to be very fortunate for Vienne. Now, under Director Jacques Launay, the festival has become one of the best in Europe. Luckily, it does not suffer from "too much success" and is not likely to, unlike say the North Sea which gets over crowded with people who only have one free weekend to devote to jazz.
If you love gourmet food, a cute hassle-free small town surrounded by several touristic side attractions and if you can spare two (at least one) week's holiday in Europe, "Jazz A Vienne" is the place for you in July 2002.