I’m just back from Jazz sous les pommiers, a long-established festival in the small town of Coutances, Normandie, where I was lucky enough to be invited as the UK Coordinator of a Franco-British collaborative project called Jazz Shuttle. It was a short stay – only two days – but packed with discoveries and emotions, so I wanted to commit them to memory before going back to the rest of my activities (mainly more jazz and more festivals right now).
The festival takes its names from the ancient apple trees – pommiers – on the town square, under which it all started 33 years ago. It’s a busy week-long festival, with over 50 indoor gigs that represent a wide spectrum of contemporary jazz, as well as daily outdoor amateur showcases and street theatre. It’s a remarkably well-run event that attracts a huge (and fiercely loyal) audience: 37,000 in 2010, in a town that counts 9,000 inhabitants year-round. As hotels fill up quickly, the tourism board has developed a bed & breakfast system with local residents who have a spare bedroom to rent. That’s just one of the festival initiatives that transform the way audiences access the music; I picked up below my personal musical and experiential highlights.
Jazz & Châteaux
On Friday morning, I got up early to embark on a coach tour of the Normandie countryside and take in two concerts in unusual venues.
First stop was the 17th-century Château de Cerisy de la Salle, where the famous annual Colloques de Cerisy, an influential series of academic conferences on literature, philosophy, science and society, have been hosted since 1952. After an enlightening introduction about the Cultural Centre by its current director Edith Heurgon, Rhizottome (Armelle Dousset, bisonoric chromatic accordion & Matthieu Metzger, sopranino sax) performed their singular interpretations of traditional dances in the castle’s barn.
The second castle was the 16th-century Château de Canisy, self-styled “world’s oldest B&B”, a grandiose setting with a small formal theatre space, fully draped in pale gold, where vibraphonist Frank Tortiller gave a solo performance.
The total round-trip was just over 3 hours long and offered an interesting collective experience: all on board a school bus borrowed by the festival for the occasion, chatting away and letting ourselves get driven to the gigs, with no worries of being late or getting lost. I found it immensely relaxing and conducive to attentive listening. In previous years, the festival offered similar programming linking music and heritage on foot and by bike, paired with cider and cheese tasting (which sounds even more appealing, but probably more tricky to organise weather-wise for a late Spring festival).
This was finally my chance to experience the magical world of these travelling performing spaces, originally built in Belgium at the end of the 19th century as mobile dance halls. They come complete with wooden floors, a raised stage, a bar and a circular central standing space surrounded by stalls. They are decorated with stained glass, mirrors, velvet and brocade, in a fairly exuberant and circus-like Art Nouveau style. There are still a few of the original 1920s tents touring the world, as well as new modern ones.
I saw two gigs there, including an all-star medley led by touche-à-tout Thomas de Pourquery, current artist-in-residence at Jazz sous les pommiers (a 3-year tenure during which musicians can immerse themselves in the local community and develop participatory projects). With his ‘Beautiful Freaks’, a bunch of musicians from varied musical horizons, he turned the Magic Mirrors into a cabaret-disco, a fitting use of the venue.
Laurent de Wilde’s ‘Fly’
My third space-and-music experience was in Coutances’ brand new arthouse cinema, which is fitted with what must be the most comfortable seats in the world.
On stage, Laurent de Wilde on grand piano faces electronic musician and improviser Otisto 23, who samples, reworks and loops the piano sounds with his electronic machines. Encircling them, panels of translucent fabric hang from a circular curtain pole, providing a 3-dimensional projection surface for video artist Nico Ticot (aka XLR)’s mesmerising visuals.
Neither my description nor the video above (filmed in 2010 at the New Morning) really do justice to the experience created by these three collaborating artists, but it was interesting to hear from Laurent that they have performed in all sorts of settings – namely in China’s Forbidden City and on a beach in La Réunion: like the Magic Mirrors, another travelling experience that takes the audience on a journey into its own world wherever it lands.