My Turkish doppelganger

My brother sent me an email saying that a Turkish guitarist I had commended to him looks just like me.  There is, in fact, a strong resemblance.  I actually had not heard the fellow’s music until today, although I probably did commend him to my brother without having heard him.  So here is a picture of my Turkish doppelganger, Erkan Ogur.

erkan ogur

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?

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.

Ben Ratliff interviews Bennie Maupin

When I heard about Ben Ratliff’s new book, in which he talks with jazz musicians about their reactions to recordings they listen to jointly, I was extremely excited.  And I will acquire and read the book.  But I hope that this video is not representative of the book’s contents:

In this video, Maupin provides almost no analysis of any of the recordings.  The conversation gets reduced to historical anecdotes and things like, “That blew me away.”  This was very disappointing, and if I had paid to hear this conversation, I would want my money back.  Maupin cannot possibly be as unanalytical as this, and Ratliff therefore did a poor job of leading the conversation.  If the problem is that of not wanting to get too technical, then the interviewer and interviewee need to consult with one another prior to the interview about how that problem is going to be addressed.  And I wonder if Maupin really takes Ratliff seriously.

Pat Metheny plays Bordeaux

About three weeks ago, we went to hear our friend Gregg play his American neo-country music with his band in a small bar in the town where he lives.  Dinner was being served to a group of about thirty diners who had come from surrounding towns.  I struck up a conversation with a local denizen at the bar, who turned out to be a chef, and he told me that Pat Metheny had just played in Bordeaux, which is about 1.5 hours from where we live but which we had visited for only one day about ten years ago.  We keep hearing nice things about Bordeaux, which has been greatly spruced up in the mayoralty of Alain Juppé, who fell from grace in a housing scandal when he was Premier Ministre under Chirac.

The day after Gregg’s concert, a Sunday, the man I had met called me on the telephone to say that Metheny had not yet played in Bordeaux, that he would be playing on Tuesday.  So I began research to see if we could get tickets and if we wanted to take the time and spend the money to do so.  Pat Metheny is probably my favorite guitarist of all time.  The ticket offices were not open on Sunday, one could not buy tickets online.  I read a number of online reviews of the concert.  Metheny was doing a one-man show tour with something he calls the orchestrion, a very elaborate one-man band using standard instruments controlled mechanically or electro-mechanically in various ways that I do not fully understand.  Essentially, Metheny plays amplified guitar(s) while accompanied by a large band of instruments, various drums, electric bass, two marimbas, and grand piano.  The band is preprogrammed, although Metheny is able to control what it plays to some extent by using controllers on one of his electric guitars and by using foot switches.  The precise method and degree of control were not explained during the concert, nor are they explained on Metheny’s web site.  He did say during the concert that solenoids play an important role in the control function.

The next day, Monday, I ordered two tickets by telephone, at a total cost of 102 euros, about $141 American at current rates.  To this would be added the cost of getting to and from Bordeaux, autoroute tolls and parking, and the cost of a snack and a dinner in Bordeaux., which would all add up to an additional 96 euros, so it would turn out to be a very expensive concert.

On our drive along the autoroute to Bordeaux, Georgiana played a podcast of “Fresh Air.”  Terry Gross was interviewing Mike Judge, creator of the animated television series “King of the Hill” and its predecessor on MTV, “Beavis and Butthead.”  We had seen many episodes of “King of the Hill” before moving to France.  “Beavis and Butthead” was never much to my taste.  In the course of the interview, a scene from Judge’s most recent movie, “Extract,” is played and discussed.  In this scene, a young woman con artistenters a guitar store and pretends to be interested in buying a guitar for her father, who is having a birthday.  The salesmen in the store ask the attractive young lady what kind of music her father plays or likes, to which she replies that she does not know.  “Does he like Pat Metheny and fusion music?”  Again, she does not know.  It seemed an odd coincidence that the subject of Pat Metheny should arise in the course of an interview of Mike Judge on this particular podcast, which had been chosen more or less randomly.

Our day in Bordeaux was wonderful, however.  We took one of two walks recommended in the Michelin guide around the historic center, which is quite beautiful, if one likes 18th century French architecture.  We stopped along the way at an alternative tea house called the Samovar that could have been in San Francisco.  Bordeaux is not known for being a hip town, as one of the other customers, a long-time resident who does painting restoration in historic buildings, told me.  Its general reputation is that of being stuffy and of being dominated by the bourgeois families in the wine industry.  But under the mayoralty of Juppé, Bordeaux has become more “dynamic,” more hospitable to youth culture.  The weather was crisp and overcast, but we were compensated by an almost complete absence of tourists of any description.  Most of the restaurants were deserted at lunchtime.  We contented ourselves with a lunch of kebab sandwiches and frites, by far the least expensive dining option in France.  We noticed a restaurant that was offering a very reasonably priced prix fixe lunch and which was full and made a tentative plan to return to eat dinner there before the concert.  During our walk, we passed through a small covered shopping mall which happened to house the office of the ticket agency from which I had purchased our Metheny tickets by telephone.  We were able to pick up our tickets there, rather than at the theater, and could therefore avoid the worry of having to deal with will-call at the theater that evening.

I was familiar with the ticket office, because I had spent a day in Bordeaux on my own once, after having dropped Georgiana off at the airport.  On that occasion, I went to a very odd and disappointing exhibition about the history of the Jews in France.  The exhibition took place in a rehabilitated naval facility that looked like it had been used to dock submarines.  During the Middle Ages, Bordeaux had a fairly large Jewish community, mostly exiled from Spain.  I also tried to visit the main synagogue in Bordeaux on that occasion, but it was under renovation.

After our full day of pedestrian tourism, we did ultimately return to the restaurant that had attracted our attention during the lunch hour.  We were the first to arrive for dinner, a little before 7PM.  Waitpeople were on their way out with trays of food.  My wife told the waiter that we are a bit pressed for time, due to a concert.  “Pat Metheny?”  “Yes.”  “Ah, they just went out with food for the band.”   There are hundreds of restaurants in Bordeaux, many of them closer to the Femina Theater than this one.

When we arrived at the hall, after our very reasonably priced and tasty meal, people were being searched for cameras.  As it happened, I had a very small camera in the vest pocket of my windbreaker, since we had spent the whole day as tourists.  The young fellow of North African descent in red livery who was doing the searching asked if I had a camera, so I replied in the affirmative.  “You can’t come in with a camera.  It is written on the back of your ticket.”  “You’ll have to call the police, because I’m going in.”  “You should have left the camera in your car, it’s written on the back of your ticket.”  “The car is too far away, I’m going in.”  And back and forth we went, until finally he said, “Well, you had better not take any pictures,” to which I replied, “I have no intention of taking any pictures.”  Once inside, we read the very fine print on the back of the ticket, and it said that the taking of photos was prohibited, it did not say that cameras were prohibited.  The agency where we picked up the tickets could have told us about such a prohibition, but they had not.  So after the concert  I confronted the young man who had been told to search for cameras and to keep them out of the hall, and we again went back and forth.  He was unconvinced by any of my arguments, legal or prudential.

Our seats were in the very rear of the second balcony of a fairly large hall, and there was no leg room whatever.  I would have been miserable if I had had to sit with my legs jammed up into the seat in front of me for close to three hours.  Fortunately, there was a fold-in aisle seat that extended into the aisle when opened, so I actually had ample leg-room during the concert.

The hall was full, and the audience was attentive and appreciative, as French audiences always seem to be.  The music was very good.  The orchestrion played with only one minor technical glitch during the entire evening, and Metheny himself was in very good form.  The music was very typical Pat Metheny music.  The first half of the concert featured many tunes that he had been playing with Bred Mehldau in a traditional quartet setting, while the second half featured music from his “Orchestrion” album and a familiar oldie played as an encore.  There was some Steve Reich influence in evidence, due to the rhythmic presence of the marimbas.  It was very much like a Pat Metheny Group concert, without the group.  As a sheer technical achievement, it was very impressive indeed.  Musically, it was very good.

For a guitar player, an amateur one with professional aspirations, an experience like this can be either exhilirating and lend encouragement or it can be discouraging.  For whatever reason, I tend to be encouraged by displays of virtuosity.  It was a very memorable concert, and I did not regret at all the money spent to get to Bordeaux and back.

There is little gossip pertaining to Pat Metheny that is available on the Internet.  At one point during the concert, he did vouchsafe that he has a French wife.  But he does not speak French.  It turns out that his wife is French-Moroccan.  Metheny said that he had visited Bordeaux several times as a tourist.  Metheny’s own web site is fairly interesting, although I find his musical recommendations to be somewhat unreliable.  I do not at all understand his principle of selection for pop music, other than that it represents music he likes.  On the other hand, Metheny is quite articulate when discussing music.

The experience raised the question for me of whether there is something like destiny at play in life.  I only found out about this concert by a chance meeting, and it is quite unusual for a French person to take the initiative of calling up a near stranger the day after meeting.  Then it was odd to hear Pat Metheny come up in the podcast on the way to Bordeaux.  It was mildly odd that we walked by chance past the office of the ticket agency, and so were able to get our tickets in advance without any waiting or rushing.  It was certainly odd that, among all the places where one might have eaten dinner before the concert, we chose the one that happened to be catering for the crew of the concert.  A possible after-effect of the concert is that I am spending more time trying to learn the ins and outs of my Boss GT-10 multieffects guitar pedal.

Les grandes bouches

We have just heard a wonderful concert by a jazz vocal group from Toulouse called “Les grandes bouches.”  They performed in our little nonprofit café spectacles called La Tannerie in Agen.  The concert was undersubscribed, but as is ususally the case with real professionals, the group seemed to take it in stride and to enjoy themselves.  It was a great privilege to hear them in such intimate surroundings.  The streets of downtown Agen were virtually deserted on this chilly and drizzling night in February.   You can hear the group on Myspace:

Perhaps the greatest group ever to sing in this genre of harmonized jazz was French, the great Double Six de Paris.  I don’t know how many similar French groups have intervened between les Double Six and Les grandes bouches.

Music is life; life is music.  Music is an international language.  I have always been moved by the popularity of jazz in France.  Quite by chance, the region of France in which we live, Gascony, became home to the biggest jazz festival in France, the Marciac Jazz Festival, which occurs in the small town of Marciac, in a very remote corner of our department of the Gers.  I sometimes think that we were drawn here by some magnetic force, because the availability of music that I love is quite disproportionate to the small population living here.  But this also attests to the greatness of jazz music.