City's jazz heartbeat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am


The French have long been a nation of jazz fans. The first important European jazz group, The Quintette Du Hot Club de France, was formed in Paris as long ago as 1934.

Many great American jazz musicians have lived for long periods in France, among them Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon - the saxophonist who starred in one of the greatest of all jazz films, Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, set in Paris and loosely based on Powell's time in the city.

Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt was born Belgian, but was a Parisian through and though and lived most of his life in or near the city. His French violinist partner Stephane Grappelli was French and a Parisian by birth.

Other notable French jazz musicians came to the fore during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, among them pianists Rene Urtreger, Michel Legrand, Claude Bolling and Jacques Loussier; bassist Pierre Michelot; saxophonist Barney Wilen and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

On film Paris seems naturally to lend itself to a jazz soundtrack, and when director Louis Malle wanted one for his classic film noir, Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) in 1958 he persuaded a band featuring Urtreger, Willen, Michelot and Clarke - led by Miles Davis who was working with them at the now-defunct Club St Germain - to come in and improvise the score. No film, or music, evokes Paris in the 1950s more potently.

The French capital still has some of Europe's finest jazz clubs, including Le Baiser Sale, Le Caveau de la Huchette, Le Duc des Lombards and New Morning.

France also hosts more than 20 jazz festivals every year, several of which are major dates in the European jazz calendar, and attract top-ranking musicians from all over the world.

These include the Nice Jazz Festival in July, held annually since 1948, and the Festival Django Reinhardt in Samois-sur-Seine in June/July - the biggest Gypsy jazz event in the world.

French modern jazz is alive and well in concert and on record, as Hong Kong jazz promoter and record store proprietor Clarence Chang is keen to stress.

Chang's shop, Jazz World in Room 806, Haleson Building, 1 Jubilee Street, Central, has by far the largest selection of French jazz CDs available in Hong Kong.

'Artists currently active who I particularly admire include Bireli Lagrene, the leading light of Gypsy jazz; Richard Galliano, the man who turns the accordion into a jazz instrument; Sylvain Luc, a guitarist with his very own sound, and Sixun, a powerhouse fusion group with every member a leader in his own right,' says Chang.

Sixun was established in 1985 and comprises keyboardist Jean-Pierre Como, saxophonist and flautist Alain Debiossat, guitarist Louis Winsberg, bassist Michel Alibo, drummer Paco Sery and percussionist Stephane Edouard.

As a promoter Chang has brought Parisian French/Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le to Hong Kong on several occasions. While in town Le has usually found an opportunity to play with his Hong Kong counterpart, Eugene Pao.

Chang also admires the late Michel Petrucciani, a superb pianist who died tragically young in 1999 at the age of 36, and violinist Didier Lockwood, both of whom came to the fore in the 1980s.