Last evening's festivities began with Brazilian guitarist and songwriter Márcio Faraco, accompanied only by pianist Philippe Baden Powell de Aquino (and yes, he is the son of the legendary composer and guitarist). In the intimate confines of Savoy, it felt like we were all part of a roda de samba or a house concert. Faraco has that breathy, conversational way of singing that so many post-Joao Gilberto singer-songwriters have. It is truly a challenge for a pianist to accompany a guitarist in the Brazilian tradition - Faraco's playing, especially, is so harmonically and rhythmically complete that the pianist's role is to provide support and colour without getting in the way. Philippe did this superbly, and was also a very strong soloist. Faraco's songs are inspired by places and people, true story songs that alternate between being personal ("Constantina") and political ("Adrenaline," and another tune whose name I forget, a carimbo dedicated at first to Qaddafi and then more generally to life). Previous to Jazz Fest I had never heard of either of these musicians; they were easily my discovery of the festival.
Off I was to L'Astral to check out Belgian pianist Jef Neve. I had heard some of his previous work in passing, and was upset to have missed his duo shows a few years back with José James. With his trio of Ruben Samana on bass and Teun Verbruggen on drums, Neve wasted no time in diving into a propulsive, energetic set. Opening with a rumbling intro, and Samana processing his voice through effects, "The Space Beneath" was a rocking tune with a long form reminiscent of many contemporary jazz composers. The sheer force of the trio was infectious - Neve was playing the piano nearly standing up at moments, crouching in the same manner as Grégoire Maret a few nights earlier at the same venue. They continued with "Sofia," a simple, almost poppy song written while travelling through the Bulgarian capital. Verbruggen unleashed a small arsenal of toys, creating feedback and effects from his kit. Verbruggen was also impressive with his patient minimalism on the ballad "Saying Goodbye on a Small Ugly White Piano." Throughout the set, Neve called to mind Brad Mehldau, in the way he constructed lines and the manner in which he shades the most simple of melodies. He lacks Mehldau's contrapuntal precision, as the lines in "Seldom Seen Here Before" blended together without each note always speaking individually. "Exuberance" is a word that's been coming up in my Jazz Fest notes frequently this year, and Neve's trio was no exception.
Also exuberant in their own way was the live disco orchestra, Escort. Tasked with headlining the traditional mid-festival outdoor extravaganza, they more than lived up to the hype and to the challenge. Walking out of L'Astral into a pulsating four-on-the-floor beat, the band was supremely tight, with two percussionists and a drummer sounding like a single kit. With a setlist paced like a DJ set (and my DJ friends were boogieing down hard), the groove never let up. Lead vocalist Adeline spoke to the crowd mostly in French, humourously filling the band in on what she was saying. A powerful singer, her tone tended more towards rock than the churchy house or disco diva sound, which suited the band. Soloists like trombonist Ryan Keberle (also of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society) had ample room to stretch out. The repertoire included a cover of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" (impeccably recreated, I must say) and they ended with some French disco tune which I couldn't place but predictably lit up the crowd. A special mention to whoever designed the lighting scheme for the big stage, and whoever had the idea to hang a massive disco ball over the Place des Festivals. Bravo!