Our Most Recent Night in Marciac (last night)

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?

http://www.ladepeche.fr/article/2012/07/29/1409474-hollande-un-president-a-marciac.html

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.

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Netherlands Travelogue

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Delft

So we are back in Gascony after two weeks in the Netherlands, les Pays-Bas, where we partook of the joys of contemporary urban civilization.  For those who plan to spend more than three-four days in Holland, I can heartily recommend that they buy an annual museum subscription, at a cost of 45 euros, which entitles the user to unlimited access and fast-lane entrance to approximately 400 of Holland’s publicly-funded museums.  In two weeks, we went to about 14 museums and would have spent close to 200 euros each, so we exceeded the breakeven point of our investment quite handily.

My favorite museum was the Troppen Museum in Amsterdam, the “Museum of the Tropics.”  This is an anthropological museum focusing on non-European cultures, particularly in former Dutch colonies.  The curators have used new multimedia technologies to wonderful effect.  There was, for example, a map of Africa in which places on the map were connected to music videos representing the various styles of African pop music.  I spent over an hour at that exhibit and reconfirmed the fact that I think the music of Mali and Senegal is the best in Africa, with South Africa in second place.  The albino griot Salif Keita has a great voice.

Museums are so much more enjoyable when they are not crowded, and none of the museums was terribly crowded, no doubt evidence of the recession.  We even went to the Rijksmuseum at the very tail end of our trip, late on a Wednesday afternoon, in order to see Rembrandt and Vermeer, and only Rembrandt and Vermeer, and we had completely unobstructed and leisurely views of the greatest masterpieces of the museum and perhaps of Dutch painting.  This is by way of contrast with prior visits.  We attended, for example, a special Vermeer exhibit in The Hague some years ago, for which most of the painter’s extant canvases had been assembled.  The crush of the crowd made the experience far less than ideal.  At the main museum in Rotterdam, which is quite a nice museum, there were perhaps 20 visitors in the fairly large building.

There were some aspects of Dutch culture that reminded us of America more than France does.  First, of course, is the general level of material prosperity and the density of urban development.  I was surprised at the prevalence of ice cream stores and of people eating ice cream in public.  This practice is a barbarism, according to the bombastic Straussian Leon Kass.  Women could be found eating various kinds of sweets on the train.  People are far less prone to be seen eating or drinking in France in places that are not specifically dedicated to these activities.  Fast food is better and available in greater variety in Holland than in France.  We went to a Pathé multiplex cinema in Haarlem that was more luxurious than any cinema I had been in.  The concession area was a self-service mini-market that had nachos and popcorn served in boxes of various sizes that were delivered on a conveyor belt.  We had two very good Indian meals in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, respectively, each about 40-45 euros for two, two very good and relatively inexpensive meals (45-60 euros for two) at a high-end pizzeria and an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant in Haarlem, and an excellent expensive meal (225 euros for two with a fine Languedoc red and coffee/mignardises) at Le Restaurant in Amsterdam, a prix-fixe set menu restaurant that was the highest-rated restaurant in Amsterdam on a Dutch website rating restaurants throughout Holland.  This meal was to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary and was appropriately lavish and refined, without being over-the-top or too formal.  The chef-owner included tofu in one of the dishes, a first in our experience of high-end European dining.  He also included little touches of hot pepper and wasabi, so he is very much on my wavelength, because we eat large amounts of tofu and hot pepper at home, where I am the principal cook.

Whenever I am in Holland, I wonder how many pedestrians are hit by bicycles every day.  One does have to be very careful about the bicycles, and my principal criticism of the Netherlands might be that pedestrians are given short shrift there and that bicyclists are given too much sway.  I wish that I could have ridden a bicycle myself, but my two artificial hips make that impossible.  Many of the bicyclists, who are presumably just getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way, look like they are enjoying themselves tremendously.

We met a former colleague of Georgiana’s for lunch in Rotterdam.  He is a tax executive, someone who would oversee managing the tax liabilities of an international corporation.  He reported that consumer spending is way down in the Netherlands, that most people are afraid to spend money.  Real estate values have generally fallen about 20% since October, 2008.  People have lost money by depositing money in Dutch banks, something I had not known.  So he now feels compelled to diversify his liquid holdings among several banks.  Growth cannot resume, he thinks, until agreement is reached about how resources will be allocated between the northern and southern parts of the Euro zone, where France occupies an intermediary position, presumably.   He does not make a practice of reading Paul Krugman and does not appear to think that European governments should be spending more, not less, in order to counter the lack of consumer demand.

I don’t mind the sound of Dutch anymore.  Were I ever to live in Holland, I would certainly try to learn Dutch.  This is not as obvious a point as it sounds, since nearly all educated people speak good English.  I did find, however, that I sometimes asked people if they spoke English before launching into a question, because it simply is not true that everyone speaks English.  In particular, many people working in lower level jobs, such as supermarket cashier, do not appear to have much English.

While the restaurants in Holland seem to be at a high level and to offer good price/quality ratios, I was not impressed by the few supermarkets we visited in Haarlem.  Selection was limited, vegetables tended to be wrapped in plastic.  Four people had to be asked in order to locate tofu at a supermarket in Haarlem.  There were, ultimately, three cartons on display, although it was of good quality and less expensive than in France.  The beer is good, and was much appreciated, as we enjoyed generally warm weather during the last two weeks of June.

All attempts to hear live jazz came to nought, in the end.  We did attend an event in Amsterdam organized in order to militate in favor of preserving the current regime surrounding the public sale of cannabis in Holland.  I did not think that the organizers had given much thought to the public relations aspect of this event, which featured a band in the reggae-rap genre with lyrics in Dutch.  There was a horn section.  It was too loud and uninteresting musically.  I have no idea what the singer was rapping about, of course.  This event occurred on the night that the Netherlands were eliminated from the European Cup by Portugal. Cannabis is not cheap in the coffee shops.

The Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam is mildly interesting.  I like the fact that the Jewish Historical Museum seems honest in its portrayal of the position of the Jews in Holland, there is no whitewashing.  There are approximately 40,000 Jews in Holland now, three quarters of whom are almost entirely secular and are not observant.

The train service, and the tram service in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, were both outstanding, an absolute wonder of public services.  It’s an orderly, pleasant, and highly civilized place, the Netherlands, and there are lots of very good museums.  A nation that has produced Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Brouwer cannot be as boring as others would have it be.  The weather and flatness are downsides, but we had pretty good weather, on the whole.