Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christian Escoudé and la France Profonde

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

France’s position as the world’s leading tourist destination is no accident, and not just because of the scenery or the food. To many people it stands for a dream, encompassing the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and epitomizing … the promotion of culture, literature and intellectual debate, even the very notion of civilization.”

In its 14-page Special Report on France [November 17th-23rd 2012 issue], The Economist magazine goes on to explain:

From deep rurality to multi-ethnic suburbs, non-metropolitan France matters:

“THERE IS SO much more to France than Paris. Cities like Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Nice and Toulouse count for a lot, both economically and politically. The country's variety is en­trancing, one reason why so many foreigners come to France and so relatively few French people holiday abroad. France boasts some of the world's most beautiful Gothic cathedrals, such as Amiens, Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris and Reims, as well as some of its finest medieval sculptures in Autun and Vezelay. There are Flemish towns like Lille and Arras, Italianate ones such as Nice and Menton and Teutonic cities like Strasbourg and Metz. And along with Loire valley chateaux such as the fairytale Chambord and the river-crossing Chenonceaux there are the gorgeous multicoloured roofs of Beaune and Dijon, spectacular hilltop villages along the Cote d'Azur and in the Cathar country of the Languedoc - and some of Europe's most modern and fash­ionable ski resorts.

The political significance of regional France is enhanced by the tradition of multiple mandates, which has meant that many ministers and deputies in Paris have simul­taneously been presidents or mayors of lo­cal regions, departments or towns. The effect of this lingers …, thanks to successive waves of decentralisation, regional and local government accounts for a fifth of public spending.

The  weight  of what is sometimes known as la France profonde is greater even than this number suggests.

Geographically, France is western Europe's biggest country (even if you leave out the French overseas departments), and much of it has remained well hidden until surprisingly recently….

Farming also matters far more in France than in many other countries. The population became urbanised relatively late: even in 1920 over a third of French people lived in rural areas, a far bigger share than in most of the rest of Europe. The cult of the paysan remains: many of today's Parisian sophisticates can trace their ancestral roots to the countryside, and plenty still keep a property in the country-something that came in useful during and just after the second world war, when food was scarce. Even today the French fervently believe in the magical qualities of their local vineyard or of the terroir and politically, agriculture also packs a big punch.”

So what has all of this to do with Jazz?

It’s simple really.

Because of their affinity for things cultural, cosmopolitan and sophisticated, the French have always viewed and respected Jazz as an art form.

From the earliest years of the music, the French have embraced Jazz and treated the musicians who performed it with the highest regard and dignity.

Some have maintained that when Jazz fell-out-of-favor in its native United States, primarily after 1960, that Jazz went to Europe - to live. Many expatriate Jazz musicians would settled in France because they were so warmly received there.

Not surprisingly, the home grown form of Jazz in France would be reflective of “the deep rurality” and paysan qualities which dominate in the French countryside.

For while the Parisian sophisticates were welcoming American Jazz musicians, the paysan of “la France Profonde” were creating their own versions of Jazz using acoustic guitars, violins and accordions.

Indeed, the three have become so interwoven that it is almost impossible to say French Jazz without mentioning the guitar, violin and accordion in the same breath.

The French even used more guitars instead of bass and drums as a rhythm section in some of their earliest Jazz combos.

The sound of French Jazz with its links to the paysan instruments of guitar, violin and accordion were immortalized in the 1930’s recordings of The Hot Club of France, a group under the leadership of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli.

Over the years, Django has become a Jazz legend and the tradition of gypsy-Jazz guitar stylings has been carried on by a number of both French and international guitarists.

One of these modern-day, regional France counterparts is guitarist Christian Escoudé, who, in 1989 put together an octet and recorded an album entitled Gipsy Waltz [Emarcy 838772-2].

While it is representative of The Hot Club of France style of paysan Jazz, the music on this album has been embellished in a number of ways.

Escoudé adds three other guitarists [Frederic Sylvestre, Paul Ferret and Jimmy Gourley] to form a vehicle for four-part-guitar harmony while also using a bass [Alby Cullaz] and an accordion [Marcel Azzola].

Somewhat uncharacteristically, drums [either Philippe Combelle or Billy Hart] are added to the mix as is a cello [Vincent Courtois] which adds another sound dimension when it is phrased in unison with the accordion on a number of tunes.

The result is as described by Alain Tercinet in the recordings insert notes: “Escoudé constantly plays on the association of different sounds: an accordion, by turns one, two or three guitars, a zest of guitar-synthesizer or cello, all joining together, playing off each other or separating at the whim of the scores that are rich but avoid ostentation.

Relaxed, and at the peak of inspiration, all the musicians speak out with infectious warmth and enthusiasm.

Besides paying a magnificent tribute to his musical heritage, Christian Escoudé also paints his autoportrait here; that of a guitarist to be numbered among the best – irrespective of nationality or class.”