French Pianists at Lincoln Center

French Pianists at Lincoln Center

by Alain Drouot

copyright © 2003 Alain Drouot

On October 23 and 25, Jazz at Lincoln Center gave us the opportunity to discover some new works by two French pianists as part of its "As Of Now" series: Hervé Sellin, for his first-ever concert in the States as a leader; and Martial Solal who, at 76, is finally getting some serious attention on this side of the Atlantic. [The performance reviewed here is that of October 25.]

If Solal was an obvious choice to showcase French jazz, Sellin, on the other hand, was rather a surprise -- at least for those unaware of his connection with J@LC's artistic director, Wynton Marsalis. The two of them originally met about ten years ago at the Jazz in Marciac festival, an event that has featured Marsalis so frequently that he has over the years become the festival's poster child.

Sellin opened the evening with his Tentet. As he was only able to bring his regular rhythm section comprised of bassist Gilles Naturel and drummer Benjamin Henocq, he ended up hiring a hodgepodge of New-York-based musicians -- artists as diverse as newcomer and Austrian-born Karolina Strassmayer on alto, flute and soprano, hard bop stalwart Brian Lynch on trumpet and flugelhorn, or jack-of-all-trades Michael Blake on tenor, soprano and bass clarinet. The program alternated pieces specifically written for the event and compositions commissioned by the Jazz in Marciac festival for its 25th anniversary which was celebrated in the summer of 2002.

The ensemble appropriately opened with one of the Marciac pieces entitled "Les Deux Clochers" ("The Two Church Bell Towers"), a composition that enabled the musicians to warm up, taking a short solo each. The piece was also a good indicator of things to come. The music had an old-fashioned varnish, an impression reinforced by the inclusion of the vibes -- played by Christos Rafiledes -- an instrument French jazz bands made an intensive use of in the '50s and early '60s. It must be said, however, that this also freed the pianist from a strictly harmonic role, enabling him at times to conduct the ensemble or prompting shifts.

The opener was followed by "Entre Boues, Arros et Las" (the names of three rivers near Marciac) with a theme introduced by an introspective duet pairing Sellin's piano to Michael Blake's bass clarinet. The bass clarinet, an instrument that has been significantly revived in the past 20 years or so, gave a modern edge that counter-balanced the old-fashioned patina already mentioned. The theme itself was a rather simple structure based on a repeated riff.

Switching to tenor, Blake added some welcome humor and Brian Lynch had a vibrant feature on flugelhorn -- an instrument which, in his hands, can almost be as vivid as a trumpet. During the set, Lynch received the lion's share of solo space and favored the flugelhorn over the trumpet in most of the pieces. The band then moved on with "Jazz at Lincoln Center Triptych," the composition Sellin had written for the event. This was arguably the most original piece presented that night with an oblique introduction leading the way to a hard-swinging theme; the second part offered an odd march that the ensemble managed to pull off with gusto. The suite also offered some fine individual moments. Sellin's solo had a sweeping rhapsodic quality that betrayed his classical background. The audience was also treated to a nice exchange between Blake on soprano, trombonist Steve Davis and drummer Benjamin Henocq, the only time the musicians tried to test the boundaries set by the leader.

Karolina Strassmayer had a couple features, one on flute that was less than convincing, the other on soprano where she rose to the occasion, outdoing Jon Gordon who performed most of the soprano segments that night. She proved to have an excellent control of the instrument and a full tone eschewing sweetness. Once again, Lynch shone on the flugelhorn, blowing long and well-articulated lines. The next piece was a ballad dedicated to Marsalis, "The Little Boy Plays Chess," a nice feature for Rafiledes with Sellin confined to a rhythmic role. This quieter and forlorn composition gave us a better chance to hear bassist Naturel and guitarist Ron Affif, who were otherwise somewhat lost in the mix. Naturel's solo in particular was adroitly underpinned by Affif.

The set ended with a return to Marciac and a piece simply called "Anniversary." Switching back to a faster tempo, the ensemble managed to fully render the celebratory quality of the composition. Lynch returned to trumpet, the instrument's brasher sound making for a better fit. Henocq's explosive drums played a central role, providing the necessary drive and pushing the soloists. Steve Davis, who did not get much solo space until then, finally had the chance to display his raspy sound rooted in the lower register.

Altogether, Hervé Sellin's compositions were quite conservative and a tad too reverential. It is uneasy to criticize Sellin, however, since his music betrays a genuine appreciation and love of the music. Sellin's conservatism is certainly what struck a chord with Marsalis and made him an obvious pick when programming the event. One can be surprised to see Solal listed among his influences, though; when listening to Sellin, Rene Urtreger would rather come to mind, a fine stylist who has over the years stuck to a narrow definition of the jazz tradition.

The "As of Now" series aims at presenting double bills featuring an "up-and-coming musician and a master." The organizers really hit their target that night. Despite Sellin's merits, Solal's dazzling performance clearly emphasized the gap existing between the two pianists. Gary Giddins warned us in a preview of the concert: "He will amaze you," and, indeed, Solal did. He opened with "Zag Zig," which he facetiously claimed is French for zig-zag. Well, the title could in fact be the best way to describe Solal's art. The piece allowed the audience to enjoy Solal's style characterized by oblique lines and dissonance as well as abrupt stops and/or shifts.

Solal produced a patchwork of figures with ideas pouring out of his ever-creative mind. Fortunately, the Moutin brothers on drums and bass are long-time cohorts of the pianist and have by now developed a somewhat telepathic relationship to him -- responding to every move with a great sense of anticipation. They followed this Solal original with a standard, "Willow Weep for Me." Solal warned the audience beforehand that he would take some liberty with the theme. As he had implied, the pianist deconstructed the theme in flamboyant fashion while applying his own logic. His work included some breathless fast runs usually coming to a sudden stop.

Drummer Louis Moutin added a touch of his own with some hand-drumming and together with brother Francois, they proved to be masters of understatement. Then came the much anticipated part of the program with the appearance of Phil Woods and Steve Lacy. Both saxophonists have been said to be plagued with health problems in recent months, which was confirmed by the hesitant way they entered the stage -- a sharp contrast with Solal's zesty presence. That said, it did not seem to affect the quality of their playing.

The quintet performed a suite written for the event and simply entitled "Pour Lincoln." The first segment could have easily been culled from Lacy's songbook. Toward its conclusion, we got a first glimpse at what the saxophonists could concoct together. Lacy and Woods worked through a crafty interplay slowly converging toward a reprise of the theme that they played in unison. The introduction to the second part had the audience in stitches and was alone worth the price of admission. The saxophonists launched into what sounded like two birds during mating season, Woods' skronks answering Lacy's squeaks.

Their three partners of the evening finally joined them knitting a unique dance pattern in the background. It was followed by a short piece based on a fractured theme well-rendered by the saxophonists alternatively playing the melody in unison and one at a time. The final part started with an unaccompanied solo by Solal who took everyone by surprise because of its fluidity and loveliness. Once the others joined in, the group charted more familiar territories. Woods blew a full-bodied solo whereas Lacy played sinuous and elliptic lines on the verge of rupture. As for the Moutin brothers, they constantly remained on their toes and held the whole sound together.

The well-deserved ovation brought everyone back for an encore. The musicians honored both Woods' and Lacy's unique relationship to the music of Thelonious Monk with a colorful rendition of "Well You Needn't." Woods, obviously in a great mood, peppered his solo with various references. Bassist Francois Moutin's feature showcased his fat sound as he reached deep in the lower register. He played endless variations on the theme that did not fail to capture Woods' attention -- the legendary alto enthusiastically showing him the thumbs up. The conclusion featured some more fine interplay, Woods providing a counterpoint to Lacy's melody. The Monk piece was indeed the cherry on a wonderful cake.

Encounters between musicians of Woods' and Lacy's stature can often be met with either apprehension or the wildest expectations. That night, they did not disappoint as they interacted in most successful and varied fashions. Of course, Solal's intelligence largely contributed to this success. His sparse playing was ideal to open up possibilities for the soloists. Also, being the true gentleman he is, he left most of the limelight to his two friends who, grateful, delivered their best in return.

One can just hope that this concert was recorded so that this memorable and unique performance might be enjoyed by a larger audience. I am especially thinking of those Yankees fans who preferred to pass on this performance in favor of game six of the World Series because, for them, it was another loss.

C o m m e n t s

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