Stanley Clarke Captivates With Crowd-Surfing Turn At Cully Fest

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As Return to Forever bass legend Stanley Clarke (pictured above) opened his set at this village festival on the vineyard-laced shores of Lake Geneva with a stupendous flurry of notes, it was clear we were in for a treat.

Clarke’s young sidemen – Beka Gochiashvili (piano), Salar Nader (tabla), Evan Garr (violin), Shariq Tucker (drums) and Cameron Graves (keyboards) – kept up with Clarke magnificently, providing plenty of jaw-dropping moments with some wildly exciting playing.

But as dramatic as Clarke’s electric bass-playing was on 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' and 'Schooldays', even more impressive was his total mastery of double-bass. The nimble, controlled power of his work on early RTF albums was evident on 'Dear John' and the epic 'No Mystery', during which he slapped and flicked the strings and body of the instrument to create a wall of bass and percussive sounds.

Finishing with two funk numbers from his days with George Duke, Clarke brought the sellout crowd to its feet, but nearly dented the vibe by falling off the stage. It could have been a nasty moment for the maestro now in his late sixties, but instead we were treated to a brief spot of crowd-surfing before the laughing bassist re-emerged. Phew.

Stacey Kent, the following night’s headliner, by contrast, played a highly controlled, intimate set – her playful voice breezing through originals such as 'Make It Up' and 'Bullet Train'. Every note was perfectly chosen and positioned by an impeccable quintet, with Kent’s Brit husband and co-writer Jim Tomlinson pure velvet on sax and flute, excelling along with pianist and former Incognito MD Graham Harvey. Songs rarely exceeded four minutes and Kent’s spiel, in fluent French, was very much appreciated by the crowd. The set finished with Tomlinson sharing vocals with his wife on a bossa and then a delicate, moving rendition of 'Stardust'.

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Among groups that really blew away the Cully crowds was outstanding Afro-beat ‘big band’ Antibalas from America, an 11-piece with echoes of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 outfit. They got the audience dancing from the get-go and never slacked off a hypnotic intensity. Founded by baritone sax player Martín Perna in 1998 and fronted by the vividly attired Nigerian-born Duke Amayo, Antibalas’s set boasted beautifully voiced hornlines and gritty sax solos, intricate rhythm guitar and percussion, all woven together seamlessly. 

UK quintet Ezra Collective quickly won over festivalgoers with their energy, spirit and sheer chops. Drummer Femi Koleoso’s power and precision sparked up opening track, 'The Philosopher', and outstanding trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi displayed a well-rounded tone across the range of the instrument on 'People in Trouble', featuring a cunning 'Someday My Prince Will Come' quote. It’s not hard to see why Kamasi Washington’s a fan.

Another fine young trumpeter was self-effacing, award-winning French-born player Shems Bendali, whose youthful quintet supported Stacey Kent. His mature post-bop compositions were melodic but accommodated plenty of unexpected twists and turns.  

Also French-born, drummer Anne Paceo’s sextet got a warm response from the large crowd awaiting Stanley Clarke’s gig with an eclectic set involving two beautifully blending vocalists (Ann Shirley and Florent Mateo) and ethereal soprano sax from Christophe Panzani who extracted maximum wistfulness from an effects rack. Paceo’s distinctive drumming exhibited a great sense of space and lyricism, but also real fire at times.

My penultimate gig of the eight-day festival took in charismatic guitarist/vocalist Thomas Dutronc, who enjoys a notably large female following. His six-piece band’s genre-jumping set took in jazz manouche, chanson, pop ballads, gypsy and straightahead jazz with virtuosic contributions from violinist Blanchard Pierre bringing to mind last year’s Jean Luc-Ponty gig here.

Opposite the main stage the Caveau des Vignerons wine cellar drew in people leaving Dutronc’s gig as blasts of hip jazz-funk wafted through the door. This emanated from young resident band KUMA, led by tenor player Arthur Donnot and Matthieu Llodra on keys. It would be easy to imagine this infectious quartet wowing clubs and bars in the UK with their dazzling groove-oriented playing, driven by drummer Maxence Sibille, a master of rhythmic displacement.

Adam McCulloch 

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