VA: Now's The Time 3: Focus On France & Luxembourg
It's worth bearing in mind that though this third installment in Kevin Le Gendre's Now's The Time series purports to present “the best in contemporary jazz from France & Luxembourg,” it's still one man's take on what exactly that is. It's also worth remembering that it can't be easy taking on the challenge of representing an entire country in musical form, though Le Gendre does a pretty good job of doing so. In his favour is the fact that it's not his first attempt, with the current volume having been preceded by sets showcasing contemporary jazz from the Americas, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Europe.
Jazz has been a key part of French culture for decades, of course. One thinks of underappreciated US musicians relocating to Paris and being startled to find their artistry so quickly recognized, and it's also a country where names like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Stéphane Grappelli are familiar rather than obscure. But the focus of Now's The Time 3 isn't on American greats or music of the past, but on what's happening today—even if the influence of the past is strongly felt. A broad cross-section of styles and figures is accounted for on the thirteen-track collection, with large ensembles featured as well as duos, trios, quartets, et al. and the hour-long set is marked by stylistic diversity, something clearly shown by an overview of its contents.
It opens on a wave of breezy, big band splendour with Orchestre National De Jazz's “Tongs Of Joy,” a dynamic and richly hued set-piece (authored by American drummer-composer John Hollenbeck) whose funky dance rhythms, horns, woodwinds, and electric piano swing for a jubilant eight minutes. Pianist Benoit Delbecq extends “Yompa” beyond France's borders by threading into its funky rhythms elements of Africa and gives it additional sonic flavour by featuring the viola playing of Oene Van Geel alongside that of tenor saxist Mark Turner, double bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Emile Biayenda. Bassist Stéphane Kerecki powers “Palabre” with a heavy funk-rock groove and a wiry head (sinuously voiced by American saxophonist Tony Malaby) in a way that recalls Weather Report at its earthiest, whereas Alban Darche's “t.b.b.m” and Metal-o-phone's “Karter” are marked by intricate drum grooves whose loping swing suggests an M-Base influence.
Augmented by a textural backdrop of guitar, flute, and drum brushes, Denis Colin's bass clarinet wafts through the moodpiece “Sujet A Changement” like the gentlest of breezes. If “Nem Um Talvez” sounds familiar, it's probably because it's a Médéric Collignon cover of the Hermeto Pascoal track featured on Miles's 1971 set Live-Evil, while a sultry live rendering of the bossa nova standard “Dança da Solidão” by Portugese vocalist Ribeiro and double bassist Marc Demuth brings the album to a satisfying close (pieces by vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher, Unit [a quintet that includes accordionist Veli Kujala], drums-piano duo Donkey Monkey, and electric pianist Benjamin Moussay also appear).
One comes away from the project cognizant of many things, foremost among them the kaleidoscopic richness of French jazz. Another thing becomes apparent, too, as the album progresses: the emphasis on a predominantly acoustic style that largely eschews the involvement of synthesizers and electronics. Mere traces of jazz fusion's influence are audible, though the presence of electric piano on many tracks does suggest the impact of ‘70s jazz and funk on the French scene.