AJAM Portland Band - Vannes, France Jazz Festival, part 1 by Nicole Glover
March 24, 2014
In the summer of 2013, I was granted the opportunity to travel with Alan Jones and an AJAM band to France to perform in the Vannes Jazz Festival. The band was comprised of myself on tenor saxophone, Noah Conrad on trumpet, Jonathan Lakey on bass, and Alan on drums. Preparation took place over the course of a year. We rehearsed weekly, learning Alan's songs as well as learning how to play with one another. Part of the intrigue of this particular ensemble were the musical identities of each individual in the group. We had all come from very different musical backgrounds, and that was reflected in the collective. Together we addressed some specific concepts and recordings that exemplified those concepts - Keith Jarrett's quartets and trio, John Coltrane's quartet, Miles' 60s band, the Oscar Peterson trio, Ornette Coleman's chordless quartets, and Alan's sextet, to name a few - and used these references to forge our own sound. Words cannot express the excitement and anticipation I experienced prior to the trip. I had never before left the country, a venture I had long desired. What better way to have that experience than through music? I was looking forward to sharing our music with the world, as well as exploring and absorbing the music and culture of France and the international music presented at the festival. I was also thrilled to share this experience with the very people I was to share it with. Summer couldn't come fast enough. We leave Portland early Saturday morning (July 20th) en route to Paris, with a brief layover in Philadelphia. The flight duration was to be a combined total of about 11 hours. It was the longest series of flights I ever experienced. Noah wisely embarks on his quest to watch the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to pass the time before reaching our final destination. By the time preparations for the Battle of Helms Deep were underway, we land in Philadelphia. Hungry and tired, we decide to hunt down the infamous Philly Cheesesteak before our next flight. We go inside an airport pub (which should have been an immediate red flag) and order our food. I ask the bartender which cheese she recommended for the sandwich. She responds with "American cheese" (strike 2). I order Swiss. The food arrives, and it's terrible. Then the unbelievably high bill (strike 3 - get out). At that point, I was done. After 22 years, I was ready for a taste of something outside of America. We get on our second flight to Paris. Everyone around me seems to be speaking a language other than English. A horde of French teenagers pile onto the plane. Despite the language barrier I see the resemblance to their American counterparts. Curiously enough I notice many of them sporting wallets, bags, and cell phones with the American flag plastered all over them. I supposed that they too share a similar fascination with places and cultures outside of their familiar and immediate sphere. As Frodo sails away into the sunset with the Elves to live happily ever after (spoiler alert - but hey, the book's been in print for 50 years), the pilot announces our descent into Charles de Gaulle. It is now Sunday morning, and we have successfully time traveled our way to France. We make it through customs, exchange our currency, obtain our train tickets, and stop in a cafe. I completely butcher my first French transaction in an attempt to purchase a croissant. We head towards the train, and despite having only been inside of a travel port, I'm already beginning to get a sense of being Elsewhere - the language shift alone is rendering the familiar, unfamiliar. We settle onto the train and watch the sunny French countryside roll by. The first several miles were fields like you would find anywhere, however very beautiful, but as we continue along the scenery begins to change. Old abbeys, monasteries, and small villages begin to appear, and it dawns on me that the little stone cottages and weathered chapels are perhaps the oldest buildings I've seen in my life. We arrive in the town of Rennes with an hour to spare before the train to Vannes. The whole "sitting stationary in one place for elongated periods of time" thing made us hungry, so we sought out a cafe just outside the train station. Seating was entirely outdoors; rows and rows of small round tables and chairs were set out under red umbrellas in the sun. A waiter took our order. Alan and Jon ordered effortlessly, and Noah and I ungracefully drudged our way through. We sat and enjoyed our first French meal - savory crepes. It was delicious, and infinitely satisfying after the indigestible cheesesteak. All was merry and well until Alan suddenly jumped up, having realized that we had very little time left before our train. So naturally, with time being of the utmost essence, Alan sent the two most inadequate French speakers into the establishment to pay for our meals. It got off to a passable start but quickly devolved into barbaric hand motions, subhuman grunting, and utter confusion. Somehow we eventually managed to get through the experience without catastrophe and hurry back to the table, where Alan and Jon already had bags in hand, ready to make haste. As I grab my things Alan urges to me to "leave a tip! and quickly!" I, having little to no comprehensive understanding of the European system of currency at this point, throw a handful of coins on the table and leave. I would only later discover that there exists 1 euro and 2 euro coins, and I had likely given the waiter the fattest tip off a crepe he had ever had. Alan and Jon run ahead. Noah doesn't seem to have a particular interest in hurrying (not his style), so I lag behind a bit to ensure that we didn't lose him forever. However, this caused us to become separated from the others. Once inside the station we recognize the "final announcement" for our train, so at this point we start running. We get to the platform and realize in horror that there are two trains and we have no idea which is which. One would take us back to Paris, and one to Vannes. They announce the doors closing and panic sets in. I hear my name being called out from the train on the right, and we run in just in time. We settle back on the train and Noah and I take this opportunity to practice speaking French, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "doing things at the last minute". We finally arrive in Vannes, about a day and a half (time travel) since we left Portland. We are picked up by associates of the Vannes Jazz Festival and taken to our hotel. After dropping off our things, we leave to explore the town. We set off without a map or direction, just wandering aimlessly through the town (a favorite pastime of mine no matter where I am in the world. I immediately notice differences in the architecture and infastrature of this old French town from anything I had ever seen in the States. Pre-Renaissance buildings and chapels lined the Ancient Roman cobblestone streets. The streets twisted and turned in a seemingly random fashion, and old archways summoned passersby through its corridors. Eventually we found ourselves in a 4th century cathedral. I recognized that it was of Catholic affiliation due to the particular character and subject matter of the stained glass, murals, and statues. Suddenly, a chord rang out from the old pipe organ, little alter boys began their solemn march, and the cathedral doors slammed shut, with an old bishop placing a wooden bar through the handles to lock it! Not wishing to interrupt the ceremony, we quickly slipped out. We parted ways as Alan and Noah went to nap, and Jon and I ventured further out into the town. We walked beyond the stone gate encircling the center of town into a more residential area, passing by universities, old armory buildings, and illustrious gardens. People watched us from their windowsills, bidding us good day as we passed. Stray cats followed us for a moment, then went on their merry way. We ultimately found ourselves at the port harbor, a busy and bustling area of town. We were to learn that this port was the old entrance to the town, by way of sea travelers. We drank cider and relaxed in the sun, taking in our surroundings and observing the people. That night, we meet up with some friends of new and old for dinner at the port. We arrive at the restaurant and are greeted by Francois Theberge, the man who made our trip possible. Francois is an excellent tenor saxophonist, trombonist, composer, wine maker, and festival organizer. He introduces us to Ingrid and Christine Jensen (trumpeter and saxophonist, respectively), Maggi Olin (a fine Swedish pianist), Girard (owner of Nicolas' Cafe in Vannes), and other festival organizer. I, once again severely lacking in knowledge of French social customs, kiss everyone directly on both cheeks in my traditional French greeting. Again, I am only later to discover that is is customary only to press your cheek against the other person and kiss the air. After our (circumstantially over-friendly) greeting, we sit down for dinner. We order wine, and I order the steak tartar, which is a prepared raw beef dish. I was initially a bit skeptical but wanted to take the risk. Alan swore that if the meal didn't make me feel fantastic afterwards, he would pay for my meals for the rest of the trip. My trust in his culinary expertise paid off - it was delicious, and after many hours of travelling I finally felt settled and physically content. After a long and merry meal, we returned, well-fed and happy, to our hotel. I went to sleep, excited for what was to come.