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French Revolutionaries and a Timeless Trio

July 14, 2002|DON HECKMAN

The romance between jazz and France has been going on since the Roaring '20s, when American artists such as Sidney Bechet brought the intoxicating sounds of New Orleans to the bistros of Paris.

Although the earliest efforts by French jazz artists--big bands such as those led in the late '20s by Ray Ventura and his Collegians and Gregor and his Gregoriens--tended to be patterned after American models, it didn't take long for Gallic originals to emerge, with guitarist Django Reinhardt leading the way. A long line of others followed--from Stephane Grappelli to Jean-Luc Ponty and beyond.

So, on this celebration of Bastille Day, what better time to take a look at some recent releases featuring French artists, from the past and the present.

Stephane Grappelli, "Live 1992" (*** 1/2, Dreyfus Jazz). Grappelli is one of the greatest names in French jazz--for that matter, in jazz anywhere. The violinist was, of course, an infinitely compatible musical partner for Reinhardt during the '30s in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. In 1992, he organized a kind of updated Quintet, including guitarists Philip Catherine and Marc Fosset with bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. The results, as chronicled in this reissued live outing, are vastly different from the work of the original unit, but no less musically appealing. The association is underscored by the presence of such Grappelli-Reinhardt originals as "Minor Swing" and "Tears," but there are also plenty of standards, with a special emphasis on Gershwin ("Oh, Lady Be Good," "Someone to Watch Over Me"). Grappelli's soloing throughout, and especially on numbers such as "I Got Rhythm," is the work of a jazz artist who managed to combine elegant melodic phrasing with an irresistible sense of swing.

Michel Petrucciani, "The Owl Years: Days of Wine and Roses" (*** 1/2, Sunnyside Records). The diminutive pianist, born with the bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta, died in January 1999, a few days after his 35th birthday. He was, by any definition, a prodigy, making his first recording at the age of 17. While he may be best known in this country through the recordings he made for Blue Note and Dreyfus, some of his most remarkable efforts were produced for the French Owl label from 1981 through 1985. Highlights from his work for the company are packaged into this illuminating two-disc release.

The tracks are filled with wondrous playing and, interestingly, some of the most intensely introspective efforts are those recorded when he was just turning 20. Influences from Bill Evans surface here and there, but the startling fact is that Petrucciani was an astonishingly original artist from an amazingly early age.

The album's tunes are divided into mostly originals for the first CD, standards for the second disc. A better choice would have been to sequence the numbers chronologically, thereby affording insights into the subtle transformations that took place in Petrucciani's improvisational imagination (his technical virtuosity was astounding from the beginning). Most of the tracks feature Petrucciani's solo piano, which is easiest to tap into via standards such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Prelude to a Kiss" (listen to his penetrating exploration of the Duke Ellington song's already compelling harmonies), but ultimately more rewarding in his freely flowing originals. On one track, "I Hear a Rhapsody," he duets with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz in a performance whose seeming simplicity belies the sensitive, layered musicality of an encounter between two gifted artists who were generations apart.

Orchestre National de Jazz, "Charmediterranean" (***, ECM Records). The Orchestre was founded in 1986 by France's Ministry of Culture with a mandate that it change music directors every two to three years. It now has performed more than 650 concerts in various parts of the world embracing an enormous array of stylistic efforts. Sadly, there is nothing quite like the Orchestre, with its extraordinary freedom to open creative boundaries, in the United States. "Charmediterranean" is a project conceived by Italian composer Paolo Damiani during his two-year tenure as the ensemble's director in 2000 and 2001. Included in the overall concept are segments composed by Damiani, saxophonist-flutist Francois Jeanneau (the Orchestre's founding director), oud master Anouar Brahem and saxophonist-clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi. The results are sometimes thorny, often difficult, but never less than compelling.

The three surviving members of Miles Davis' superb quintet of the '60s--Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter--have all released new albums within a month of one another. Shorter's "Footprints Live!" received a four-star review in this column in May. Recordings from Hancock and Carter don't quite measure up to that level, but their high quality is undeniable.

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