by Marilyn Lester
It was to be a sweeping event, a grand event – and it was until the rains came, cutting short what no doubt would have been a spectacular concert. Co-presented by SummerStage, the French Mission du Centenaire of WWI, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and The New York Hot Jazz Festival, New York Hot Jazz Festival: US – France: A Centennial Voyage aka The Bridge was conceived as a tribute to Franco-American relations. The program was envisioned to encompass the roots of jazz, the Great War and the proliferation and love of jazz by the French – especially as they embraced the many African-American artists who became expats, mainly in Paris. The exploration of these connections between France and the United States – two countries bound by core principals of freedom and democracy – yields over 100 years of cultural cross-pollination and a shared history of immense proportion.
The concert segment of the program was preceded by festivities that included a ceremony wherein 20 American WWII veterans were awarded the French Legion Of Honor, an occasion rarely given a public presentation, as well as exhibits and other events. At 5:50 PM, when host Tatiana Eva Marie kicked off the music, there was a happy promise of ragtime, Parisian hot jazz and swing to come, representing a musical journey from Storyville and Harlem to Montmartre. The opening band, Brittany-based Ensemble Matheus, led by Jean-Christophe Spinosi, launched into a high-energy set in which the group’s repertoire of classical music was imaginatively combined with various musical genres. With opera singer and guest artist Natalie Dessay, the group offered a traditional “Windmills of Your mind” (Michel Legrand/Marilyn and Alan Bergman), a rocking “Summertime” (George and Ira Gershwin) and an updated “Amazing Grace” (traditional melody with words by John Newton). Dessay displayed enormous enthusiasm and an animated stage presence, combined with an amazing stylistic flexibility and a vocal range that delved into deep, throaty regions, miles away from her coloratura high notes.
From New Orleans, Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses presented Sidney Bechet: The Paris Years. The group, led by saxophonist/vocalist Aurora Nealand, draw their repertoire heavily from Sidney Bechet (composer and soprano saxophone player who had a tremendous influence on the development of jazz), Django Reinhardt and the traditional jazz of New Orleans. Predominant in their sound is the tuba, the timekeeping instrument of choice before being replaced in jazz bands by the double bass. Among Bechet’s many, many compositions, the group played the early “Cake Walking Babies,” as well as the Caribbean-influenced “Ti Ralph” and the Swing Era “The Shag,” with Nealand cooking on the soprano and band members offering tight, in-the-groove solos. Imminent thunder, lightening and rain became unwelcome collaborators of the evening, causing it to end two and a half hours ahead of the scheduled closing. Left to play another day were the Avalon Jazz Band with guest Stephane Wrembel, presenting Do You Zazou? – The Swing Kids Of Wartime Paris, and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks presenting From Harlem To Montmartre: The Jazz Age Voyage, with guests Catherine Russell, Kat Edmonson, Nicolle Rochell (as Josephine Baker) and dancers DeWitte Fleming, Jr. and Lou Brockman and Heather Gehring. Although the concert didn’t get very far, the organizers are none the less to be commended for a well-oiled, top-shelf presentation featuring excellent production values and plenty of creativity.
New York Hot Jazz Festival: US – France: A Centennial Voyage aka The Bridge, July 1, 2017, 5 to 10 PM
Central Park SummerStage, 5th Avenue and 72nd Street, (212) 360-2777, www.cityparksfoundation/summerstage.org
Photos: Eva Engman