Hersch Gets His Hooks Out As All Jazz Bases Covered At Alsace

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Set in a small quiet village (boasting one shop and a bakery) not far from Strasbourg, the Au Grès du Jazz organisers have made a very successful festival situated in the Northern Vosges National Park. Usually a magnet for walkers and cyclists, during the 13 days of the festival it is packed with jazz fans from all over Europe. This was the 16th edition of the event and it featured a great mix of world class acts, homegrown talent and some very interesting artists on the fringes of jazz.

The big names included Earth, Wind & Fire on a double-bill with the Brooklyn Funk Essential and Abdullah Ibrahim with his Mukashi Trio, who built a beautiful set around his composition 'The Wedding'. Blues maestro Lucky Peterson brought his tribute to Jimmy Smith, which was somewhat underwhelming until he picked up his guitar for some hot slide licks. Just spine-tingling and easily the best part of his show.

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French flautist Melanie De Biasio (above) is an acquired taste. She invites the audience to an 'experience' rather than a concert. She floats around the stage on a cloud of dry ice; singing and playing melancholic songs that rely on hypnotic rhythms to lull the listener into her world. She is very good at what she does – engaging and at times even mesmerising, but five minutes after the concert I couldn't remember any of the tunes. Maybe that's not the point. 

The most entertaining and 'in your face' show was without doubt BCUC (Les Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) from Soweto. Based around mantric tribal drums, chants and thumping basslines, their set got the crowd on its feet and this heart pumping. The addition of alto saxophonist Jowee Omicil to the band gave a welcome break from the beat. He's a great soloist who made the most of his slots.

Grammy-winner Dobet Gnahoré also laced her great set with African overtones. Mixing the pop sounds of that continent with creole and jazz, her band (including father Boni on percussion) gave a bravura performance, with guitarist Julian Pestre particularly impressive.

On the more purist jazz tip, US pianist Fred Hersch (pictured top) – mentor of many younger pianists including Brad Meldau and Ethan Iverson – played with his trio of John Herbert (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums). Paying tribute to those who have influenced him (including Monk, Jobim and Hoagy Carmichael), his wonderful touch around the keys unfurled with each tune. His rendition of John Taylor's 'Bristol Fog' was sublime, as was the encore, his own tune 'Valentine'. Hersch is a great lyrical pianist and well worth looking out for during one of his rare trips to the UK.

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Canadian saxophonist Seamus Blake is another musician who is talked about in glowing terms, largely for his gigs with the Mingus Big Band. He was invited to this festival as a special guest of the Christophe Imbs Trio (above). Imbs has been a long-time fan of Blake's style and so wrote a suite of music especially for the concert. Blake has an accessible approach and his tone is superb, while Imbs' writing brings out the best from his soloing. The compositions were loose and fluid, perfect for an improviser as inventive as Blake.

– Story and photos by Tim Dickeson

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