REVIEW: Jacques Schwarz-Bart and Franck Amsallem Quartet at the Duc des Lombards, Paris

The stage at the Duc des Lombards

Jacques Schwarz-Bart/Franck Amsallem Quartet
(Duc des Lombards, Paris. First night, first set. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

This was a first live encounter in Paris for saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and pianist/singer Franck Amsallem. The two men had known each other, and played together, in the US when Amsallem had lived there, most of two decades ago, but this visit to Paris by the saxophonist brought an opportunity to meet again. These two seasoned musicians, required by the circumstances to bring a rapprochement between their two lives and their musical heritages found the ways to make it work on the night, as jazz musicians do. It was fascinating and inspiring to witness.

The pair had met at 6pm and worked out a set. They were in the very supportive company of that ubiquitous, faultless, first-call bassist Stéphane Kerecki, and of the careful (he first trained as an accountant) but stunningly creative Guadeloupian drummer, Arnaud Dolmen, who has worked quite a bit with Schwarz-Bart, according to the splendid Bananier Bleu website. On they all went as a quartet at 8pm, and played their first set of four over two nights together, in the tiny, inviting cauldron of the Duc des Lombards.

"Vive la différence" indeed. Guadeloupe--born Jacques Schwarz-Bart, whose CD Jazz Racines Haiti on Motema last year making use of African voices was a huge success critically, is a forceful and incisive player who is at his most characterful in plangent melodies, and gives energy and busy-ness to his solo-ing. His biography is HERE.

By contrast, Algeria-born Franck Amsallem is an inherently quieter character. He is a pianist who also sings the American standards - More than you Know, Dream, Day By Day. The voice sometimes has the dreamy detached quality of Chet Baker, but Amsallem sings with intelligence and wit, and total understanding of the harmonies underneath. His piano playing was never over-flashy, always serving the music, and showed him to have a huge resource base, from solo passages based on scalar movement to one astonishing Bill Evans-ish passage in Dream: a succession of beautifully-voiced, deliciously complex chords. Special.

This being Paris, however, there is a duty and an imperative not just to make things work at a practical level – which all four of these musicians did with room to spare - but also in theory and intellectually. Musicians in this city don't just have to play the changes, they also have to live (and love) the paradoxes.

Amsallem's take on Gershwin's Summertime, from his 2003 trio CD Summer Times, provided the classic case of how the practical and the theoretical do co-exist, but on very different planes. The saxophonist introduced the tune as having taken on the ambition to shift what it signified to represent not summer, but its opposite. This was to be Summertime in winter, bring on that snowstorm. What the pianist had done, in fact, was to shift it into 5/4 metre. While Schwarz-Bart was holding centre stage with excursions into wailing tenor saxophone altissimo, what really caught the ear was the drumming of Arnaud Dolmen. The extra space of 5/4 gave Dolmen the opportunity dig heavily into the groove, to provide endless variety and creativity, to state his case as a drummer of real originality and flair.

Schwarz-Bart gave a sombre introduction to the band's last tune, as a 'hommage' to the suffering of slaves over centuries. The tune Pa Pale which is the Creole for “shut up” was calypso-ish. it was also  celebratory infectiously rhythmic, and happy. Those three adjectives could equally well describe the whole endeavour, and be applied to a great evening.

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