Jan Garbarek and Nils Petter Molvær brighten up a rainy Au Grès du Jazz Festival

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Au Gres du Jazz Festival takes place in the beautiful setting of the tiny village of La Petite Pierre (59km from Strasbourg) in the Northern Vosges National Park region of Alsace. The 10-day festival features two main open air concerts on the weekends and one during the week. There's also an 'Off Festival' featuring two or three performances per day from local and regional artists in and around the village of La Petite Pierre. For such a small place (population around 600) there are a large number of hotels, restaurants and B&Bs. These of course do not cater purely for the jazz festival but for the many cyclists and ramblers who come to this area of the National Park to enjoy its outstanding natural beauty and the miles of trekking and cycle routes to be found here.

The main shows are staged in a large raked courtyard between the old village and the manor house that seats around 1,200, which is perfectly suited to jazz as it feels very intimate and, for an outdoor venue, the sound is exceptional. This year for the 15th edition of the festival, the main stage concerts were of a very high standard, with the likes of Avishai Cohen, Yaron Herman Trio, Jean-Luc Ponty/Biréli Lagrène/Kyle Eastwood, the Biréli Lagrène Acoustic Quartet and Shai Maestro all performing before we arrived.

Our first evening was the Hiromi/Edmar Castaneda Duo. The compactness of the setting certainly enhanced the atmosphere: the audience almost in the pockets of the two performers. Apart from a massive downpour which halted the concert for around thirty minutes, the duo kept the feeling and spirit of the show alive and no one left despite the atrocious conditions. The festival does have a 'Plan B' in case of inclement weather: a village hall that can squeeze just under 1,000 people inside. Following another rainy session with singer Hugh Coltman the following night the next three days were all inside.

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We were extremely lucky that in this location we saw two outstanding shows. The first featuring Jan Garbarek (above) and the second with Nils Petter Molvaer (top). Garbarek playing with percussion maestro Trilok Gurtu, pianist Rainer Brûninghaus and electric bassist Yuri Daniel was just brilliant. His style of filmic music starting with 'Molde Canticle' was perfectly suited to the rammed hall and the atmosphere was fantastic. Not stopping to speak to the audience once the concert flowed effortlessly with virtually no break. Gurtu's solo slot towards the end 'Nine Horses' (which when I heard this in the the vast open spaces of an arena seemed a little tedious) was in this situation exciting and spellbinding – the audience hanging on every note as he worked his way through a plethora of bells and gongs.

Each musician was given an extended solo slot and as well as Gurtu's tour de force, bassist Daniel's solo 'Tao' also a treat giving the audience a masterclass in bass styles from Pastorius to Haden. Nils Petter Molvær brought his 'Buoyancy' project to the festival which is his homage to all things diving and underwater. The trio featuring guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronics and percussionist Vladislav Delay were as enthralling as Garbarek had been two nights previously. The CD features more musicians, so live percussionist Delay has to double up as an electronics wizard – his stage set a mind boggling mess of cables and control switches.

The music of course was far from chaotic, superbly orchestrated by Molvaer the music ebbed and flowed like the waves in his original idea – haunting, threatening and serenely beautiful his interjections on trumpet inspired and moving. He segued into 'Nature Boy' surely a nod towards Esbjörn Svensson. A brilliant two hours of music.

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Rising star French trumpeter Airelle Besson (above) featured in two shows, firstly, with her own quartet which features Isabel Sörling on vocals sounding not too dissimilar to Anne Paceo's Triphase and secondly, with pianist Edouard Ferlet and bassist Stéphane Kerecki which was a more interesting set. Heavily influenced by Delta blues (and Dr John in particular) singer Marion Rampal was very entertaining. Anne Paceo on drums and pianist Pierre Francois Blanchard made up the trio which is quite quirky but well worth catching.

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The last big night featured Archie Shepp and Joachim Kuhn (above). The two masters of jazz played a wonderful concert each with such deep understanding of the other. Shepp undoubtedly took the lead. Shepp's playing was on top form and his inventive soloing a joy to listen too. Kuhn is a master, supporting Shepp throughout then when taking his own solos, he would slide off on his own improvisational take on the tune ultimately returning for Shepp to finish it off. It's rare in jazz to see a gig where the artists are older than the audience and this was one and a very special gig at that.

La Petite Pierre is a mature, laid back, but very well organised festival. Its setting in a rural location would suit any jazz fan who also has a love of walking or cycling – there are other places to visit nearby – the Lalique museum and the start of the Alsace wine route being two and there are plenty of options for accommodation in the area. For next year's festival dates and more information check the festival website www.festival-augresdujazz.com

– Tim Dickeson (Story and Photos)

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