We had received a letter from “Jazz in Marciac” notifying us that the order of appearance of the two groups to appear in the concert of July 28, for which he had purchased tickets, had been changed. The headlining group, “The Bad Plus with special guest Joshua Redman,” would now be appearing first, at 21:00, and Esperanza Spaulding would appear with her 11-piece supporting band (12 musicians in all), “Radio Music Society,” second. It seemed odd that this change would occasion a mass mailing, but at the same time very considerate. The presumption must be that a few paying customers might change their schedule and arrive late based upon this information. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone arrive more than a few minutes late for one of these concerts in a large tent, which seats over 4,000 people.
We had assumed that the change had something to do with the perceived status of the musicians, with finances and contracts, but it now appears that the change was instituted to accommodate the visit of François Hollande, who was in the audience for the first set and seems to have left very discreetly thereafter. Is Hollande a particular fan of the “Bad Six with special guest Joshua Redman,” or was it just that the festival organizers thought that he might prefer this group or that the President should hear the headliners?
Both Georgiana and I thought that Joshua Redman’s serious demeanor throughout most of the first set might indicate a displeasure with the change in the ordering. But I also cautioned that he usually looks serious. Then the video cameras for the three giant-screen projections which attend these concerts at some point well into the set panned to Hollande sitting in the front of the audience, and our hypothesis about why the order of artists had been changed was revised.
If we make no navigational errors, and if traffic is light and the weather is good, we can get to Marciac, which is deep in the agricultural southern Gers, close to Spain and the Pyrenees, in 1.25 hours from our house. But it can take much longer than that. This year, for the first time ever since we bought our house in the Gers, the jazz festival in Marciac overlapped with a festival of Latin music in the town of Vic Fecensac, which is on our normal route to Marciac. We were blissfully unaware of this overlap until we got to Vic, where the narrow streets were jammed with people and the center of town ought to have been completely closed to traffic, but was not. So on our way to Marciac, we were lured unawares, by the absence of the customary detour signs that accompany events like this in France, into a horrible traffic jam in the center of Vic. Here the reader should pause to wonder at the fact that there are large overlapping music festivals (because Tempo Latino in Vic Fecensac includes a healthy dose of salsa and Latin jazz) in the southern Gers. We had prudently allowed just over two hours to get to our seats in Marciac, so we were still able to arrive in time for the beginning of the concert with a few minutes to spare. But since the concert finally ended at 01:00, we did not have the energy to plan a route home that would avoid Vic completely, as we ought to have done. I did look at our Michelin atlas, and it appeared to me that we could take a reasonably direct route home through Vic, but not through its center. Wrong. We were again lured unawares into throngs of inebriated revellers and felt like we could have been trapped there for hours. Then, we managed to get out of the center of town and got onto a big road that would take us somewhat out of our way, but after about 10 km of driving we come to a small town where we plan to turn to head north and there is a huge traffic jam at 02:00 in the morning. The national police are stopping every driver on this highway to give breathalizing tests. This is the third time in ten years that I have been randomly stopped in order that a breath test be administered. But apparently this is not enough times for me to have remembered how to take a breath test. Finally, after at least two failed attempts on my part, the young gendarme explains in detail how to do it (“Take a deep breath, then breathe continuously into the device for three seconds…), and I get a perfect bill of health, zero alcohol detected in the breath test (and I had, in fact, had zero alcohol or any other intoxicant on this day). So we finally arrived home at 03:00, another two-hour transit for a 1.25-hour drive. Meanwhile, I am swearing about the utter irrationality of not having any noticeable security for the festival in Vic, of not having put any detour barriers around the center of town, and then posting these policemen 10 km away in order to check for drunk drivers.
Now, as it also happens, I was not supposed to be driving on this night, Georgiana had agreed to drive and did drive to Marciac and began the drive home. But then I became unhappy with her driving, and I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. I am in a five-day legal window for having some points reinstated on my French driving license. A French adult driver has twelve points on his license. Points can be deducted for committing infractions. But Georgiana and I, despite having been licensed drivers in the United States since we were teenagers, i.e. for close to fifty years, began our licensed driving careers in France with only six points, because we are not citizens of the European Union and the state of California does not have a reciprocal treaty with France about the mutual recognition of driving licenses. So we had to go through a lengthy, arduous, and expensive process of obtaining a French driving license that carries only a probational six points for a period of three years. Nine US states have an agreement with France that allows their licensed drivers to surrender their licences for a valid 12-point French license (subject, perhaps, to legal residency in France, I’m not sure), but only one of these states is populous, I think, and none of them is California. But then, in addition, I got my probational license during a particularly unlucky time, prior to a change in the rules, that has some egregiously irrational provisions. The only way I can ever obtain the full allotment of 12 points for an adult driver is to drive for three years without an infraction. No other method is legally possible. My last infraction was almost exactly three years ago, July 26, 2009. But for these purposes, is it the date on which the infraction occurred that is determinative, or is it the date on which the ticket was issued, which, in my case, was three or four days later than the infraction? I do not know. So I did not want to drive last night, because I am very close to achieving the three years, even under a worst-case reading of the law. And the last thing I wanted to do under these circumstances was to be forced to submit to a breathalizer test.
It is important that the reader understand that it is extremely easy to be cited in France for an infraction. No one who is not handicapped and who does any significant amount of driving could possibly obey all the French driving laws all the time, it is almost literally impossible. I have been caught by radar three times in ten years for speeding, twice when I thought the speed limit was higher than it was, on the ring roads that surround Bordeaux and Toulouse, and once near Marciac, several years ago. On that occasion, I was caught going 97 in a 90 zone, i.e. less than five miles per hour over the speed limit of about 55 miles per hour. For every time I pass another driver in France, there are probably between five and ten times when I am passed. Generally, I am driving slower than the flow of traffic, and I am frequently tail-gated in an unnerving way. It is also possible to receive a speeding citation in the mail without knowing that you have been caught by radar exceeding the speed limit.
Back to the concert, then. The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman were great, and they were very warmly received, although what they played was challenging, mostly on the border between “inside” and “outside,” but veering more to the outside than the inside.
Esperanza Spaulding was also very well received in the end, but a lot of people left throughout her set, so there was a sort of skeleton crew left for the end of her three encores at 01:00. She is a musician of great virtuosity, but I did not like most of her set that much, despite the fact that she has all the ingredients of someone I should like quite a bit. She plays the bass and sings “songs” of her own composition, with musical punctuation from a seven-piece horn section and one dedicated backup singer (a female trumpet player also doubles on backup vocals). The songs tend to be relatively formless affairs, with very difficult melody lines and challenging harmonies, highly influenced by bebop and fusion groups like Weather Report. Her singing is great from a technical point of view, as is her bass playing, but the lyrics sounded sort of stupid and self-indulgent and meandering, it was hard to tell, because it was hard to pay attention to them, and the songs just lack structure and mostly lack catchy hooks. Another singer/bass player on the contemporary scene is Richard Bona, who is also an incredible musical virtuoso. I prefer Bona. I’ve seen Bona work mostly as a supporting bass player, in jazz guitarist Mike Stern’s band, and I’ve seen him work mostly solo as a singer-songwriter accompanying himself on the bass, sometimes using loop pedals, and doing material that is mostly deeply rooted in African traditions. Now I’ve also seen him on TV leading a Cuban jazz band in which he both plays bass and sings.
I was very struck by how uncompromising Esperanza Spaulding’s set was. I thought it was going to be far more obviously commercial than it was. She incorporates a dramatic premise into the show that involves a large cardboard or paper mache radio, and there is some narration between the tunes by Spaulding herself that sometimes involves the emotions that listening to the radio evokes, but the only place one would ever hear the music she played on the radio would be on an alternative radio station in the middle of the night. The music is pretty out there. It’s a very strange amalgam, because the music incorporates several elements that are not dissonant in themselves, and which, if listened to in isolation, could almost strike one as mainstream, but the overall effect was more often one of a weird and often dissonant pastiche. I still want to get the recorded version of the set I heard, because it was filled with very inventive bebop-influenced melody lines, there were far too many to count, in fact. As an artistic whole, though, I think the whole concept needs a lot of work. Another influence I was hearing a lot was the jazzier Joni Mitchell, but I suspect that the lyrics are a lot less interesting than Mitchell’s were.
I was glad to have shared at least part of the evening with the newly elected president of France.