VIENNE, France When percussionist Gerry Hemingway performed 11 years ago at the Jazz à Vienne Festival, someone lobbed a ripe tomato onstage.
This summer, Hemingway finally hazarded a return trip to the 20-year-old fest, and this time his quartet's July 4 witching hour set was rewarded with two encores' worth of appreciation from the audience.
Jazz à Vienne, which began June 30 and ends Thursday, is the largest jazz festival in France. Acts include Sting, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist James Carter and a John Coltranethemed night featuring the bands of two of his former sidemen pianist McCoy Tyner's trio and drummer Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra playing 'Trane.
Vienne, a one-time Roman stronghold, is in France's Rhone-Alps region, 20 miles south of Lyon. Vacationers sometimes stop off in the small town to view the Roman ruins on their way south to the Med, but most of the audience is there expressly for the music.
Albert Pin, 34, of Lyon broadcasts "Something Else," a local program of modern jazz on Radio Canut. Pin makes the drive down to Vienne every year for various festivals.
"This was my first time to see Gerry Hemingway since he toured Europe with Anthony Braxton in the '80s," he said. "I didn't like that show, and the best part of this set for me was the way the music moved between inside and outside jazz."
Like Psychically Connected Twins
Hemingway and bassist Mark Dresser have explored improvisational terrain for so long that their empathetic musical communication can be as intricate and arcane as that of identical twins. For this performance, though, perhaps with the offending tomato in mind, they tempered their abstractions with a groove. But each phrase they played was less a foundation than its own arch, with decoration as unique as the stone relief between columns on one of the nearby Roman temples.
The French-speaking crowd didn't seem to register Hemingway's introduction of the tune "On It," a reference to Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" by way of the popular '60s ad jingle, "Everything tastes better with Blue Bonnet on it." But Rollins is a festival favorite, and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's Rollins-esque breakaway runs and rhythmic agility were not lost on anyone. The quartet closed out their set with bassist Mark Helias' "Gentle Ben," trumpeter Herb Robertson's sustained elegiac phrases enhancing the tune's anthemlike melody.
Earlier that night the ancient Roman Amphitheatre, the festival's 7,500-seat main performance space, was packed for pianist/singer Diana Krall's concert. Performances there begin promptly at sunset, a spectacle that competes for the crowd's attention as the darkness deepens behind the stage.
Thomas Mayade, 16, who owns all of Krall's CDs, crowded his way up front for an optimum sight line: "The sound here is not as good as the sound at Marciac, where I saw Diana Krall perform before. But I enjoy Jazz à Vienne because I discover lots of other new musicians, too."
Krall's wide touring schedule this summer puts her within a stone's throw of nearly anyone, nearly anywhere in the world. But she seemed especially moved by the ambience in Vienne. When Krall covered fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," she dropped the tune down into a lower register and revised Mitchell's sparse guitar accompaniment into long, lush chords on the Bosendorfer piano. These stylistic effects smoothed Mitchell's plucky braggadocio into a more vespertine contemplation.
Despite her promotion as a sultry balladress, Krall did especially well with uptempo swinging standards like Peggy Lee's "I Don't Know Enough About You" (RealAudio excerpt). With her sneer reminiscent of Elvis', she sang rhythmic responses to her own piano work and to guitarist Dan Dentley's snappy runs.
Even 200 feet up at the top of the steep, acoustically sensitive amphitheater, Dentley's bluesy bebop lines sounded clear as a bell. Two large screens on either side of the stage featured sensual close-up shots of the guitarist's fingers on the strings, compensating for the bird's-eye view. The higher seats also provided a panoramic perspective on much of the city across the Rhone river, where there's so little neon that the area's three glowing signs are clearly distinct among the white stone buildings.
Krall earned three encores, an average at Jazz à Vienne, where post-set numbers often comprise separate performances unto themselves.
The source of this strident enthusiasm was pointed to in a comment by Jean-Paul Boutellier, who's organized the festival for 20 years. During Krall's set, someone asked Boutellier how closely he still works with the jazz festival, and he replied, "It's not my work, it's my passion." And then he quickly directed his attention back to the music onstage.