Riviera Rhythms in Juan

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Conor Power attends the legendary ‘Jazz à Juan’ festival in its 59th year of existence

How did I not hear of Magma before now? That was the question running through my head as I stood transfixed by a massive sonic assault on the senses on every conceivable front.

Warm evening in Juan… the author in the Village Presse of Jazz à Juan

Imagine a death metal group doused in a bucket of jazz and German opera, assembled in a large group and set to work to see what happens. That’s the kind of effect that Magma produce. Only, this French group has been around for fifty years, led by their enigmatic drummer Christian Viand, who has even come up with his own conceptual language – Kriallian – to give voice to Magma’s unique expression. It was car-crash music at its best: not exactly enjoyable but you couldn’t take your eyes off it.

It was just one of the highlights from a packed programme over nine nights in Antibes-Juan-les-Pins (they have been officially one town for a number of years now), which featured a series of concerts at the Pinède Gould. The latter is a pine tree park overlooking the Golfe de Juan, providing one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine: a huge stage framed on both sides by giant pine trees and with the Mediterranean Sea and setting sun in the background.

This year, the festival kicked off with a series of free concerts around the streets of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins. It made for a very lively atmosphere, although some of them were better than others.

It was on the second night (and the first Saturday night) that the big boys came out to play and it took a couple of old-timers to show it’s really done. 73-year-old Steve Gadd was first on. His instinctive drumming was at its best and his band changed gears deftly and passionately as they worked through an impeccable set. A highlight number was their collaboratively written Green Foam but it was the emotional ‘Duke’s Anthem’ that really struck the chord most conducive to the gorgeous unique setting of this venue as the sun began to set.

George Benson then bustled on stage, initially showing what a fine jazz man he really was with a searing piece of virtuoso guitar-playing for the first number. That was where the fun ended for the real jazz fans, though, as then switched to his better-known 80s saccharin-soaked hits. He was charming and entertaining to a fault, however, and when he got to ‘Gimme the Night’, the crowd were on their feet. The song was still in my head four days later.

The night of the 14th of July involved a pause for traditional Bastille-Day fireworks, with three excellent acts performing. Israeli pianist Omri Mor started the evening in some style while the very unique and haunting Chinese artist Ékram gave the crowd plenty of food for thought, with French band Electro Deluxe rounding off the night’s entertainment brilliantly.

Gimme the Jazz, George! George Benson smashing through mean riffs in Juan. (©G. Lefrancq_OTC Antibes)

It was difficult to fathom the size of the crowd that came to see Jamiroquai. Far bigger than the one that arrived on the opening night, it involved queues for food and drink unlike any of the other concerts. Jay Kay whizzed on stage with a breezy “Bonsoir mes amis!” and wowed the crowd from the start. It was a nice touch, considering that many acts refused to dignify their audience with even one word of French. He had got a good deal ‘stronger’ looking since the 1990s, but his trademark freaky light hat never looked cooler and his voice never sounded better.

On the penultimate night, polyglot group Pink Martini from the USA proved charming crowd-pleasers with their highly accessible set of jazz, lounge, cha-cha-cha and pure theatre. A highlight was the introduction of “Miao-miao”, who did a raucous version of ‘Ne me Quitte Pas’ as a Berlin diva and involving audience participation to throw her flowers and caress her legs while she sang.

Dutronc’s his own man: Thomas Dutronc’s performance was another highlight of Jazz à Juan 2019 (© YANN ORHAN)

Thomas Dutronc brought things back down to jazz earth with his infectious ‘Manouche’ (gypsy swing) style. The son of two 1960s icons (Jacque Dutronc and Françoise Hardy), he has a strong instinct for engaging with the audience, backed up by some electrifying toe-tapping music.

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Visit the Jazz à Juan website here: www.jazzajuan.com

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