Now, I love jazz guitar but I can’t say it’s an area that I go to expecting too many surprises. I simply never tire of the fluidity of the playing and that clarity of expression that characterises all the great figures from Django Reinhardt through to Russell Malone. If there is a problem with the majority of releases it is that, while they are pretty reliable, they do veer towards the predictable. When the musicians do add a little muscle or mayhem into the mix the results tend either to be Rockmonsterish or lazy sub-avantgardism. However, if you want something that has all the melodic and harmonic composure of the established tradition, yet is positively Spring-like in its freshness, then this French guitarist deserves a hearing.
Sylvain Luc is from Bayonne and his playing is deeply rooted in the folk forms of his Basque heritage. Inevitably, the debt owed to Django is great and that is what I was expecting—a well-crafted but familiar example of the “Gypsy New Wave”. His previous two sets had been part of that resurgence, but there is a breadth of influence and a diversity that makes Trio Sud something rather more enterprising. The trio (with Jean Marc Jaffet and Andre Ceccarelli on bass and drums) have produced a well-rounded jazz album constructed around the guitarist’s considerable virtuosity and imagination. This album has flair, both in conception and execution.
Whether on originals such as the mischievously funky “Irdir” or on such unlikely covers as Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” (no, don’t laugh, it works) Luc’s command of form and shape opens up possibilities that seem beyond conventional guitar-trio formats. Partly this is down to technique and an ease across a variety of genres (Brazilian, classical, and swing styles particularly). Mostly it is simply a keen sense of aesthetic rightness and an unwillingness to stick to the easy option. Such is the seductiveness of the Gypsy swing sound that it is tempting to leave it at that. The results can be evocative but inherently backward looking. Luc, for all the solid grounding in the merits of folk and jazz traditions, is an adventurer.
I don’t want to pigeonhole the guitarist, who is very much himself, but Egberto Gismonti (with extra mobility and punch) is certainly a not too distant cousin. However, their mutual Latin/classical influences are worn more jauntily by the Frenchman, who is also more of a romantic in his approach. All of these elements pervade one of my favourite cuts, Jean Renoir and George Parys’ enchanting “La Complainte de la Butte”. Very French, of course, but international in its arrangement and reach. The tune, a standard of French theatrical life, moves from delicate balladry to dancing tempo with no discernible loss of nuance. At over six minutes long it still seems too short, so lacking in repetition and well-worn cliché is the piece. That is the key to the whole project, which is always recognisably jazz but never yawningly “guitar jazz” in that tiresome sense.
It helps that Luc’s tone is rich and sonorous. It particularly suits his preferred mode, the uptempo ballad, and with melodic inventiveness his supreme gift success is assured. Thus, Barroso’s “Brazil” (a samba) sits neatly next to Horace Silver’s self-explanatory “Peace”. There is a liking for Silver (“Out of the Night Came You” also gets the Trio Sud treatment) and if you think of what the American pianist is famous for—memorable hooks and robust tunefulness—the empathy is not difficult to fathom.
I can live without Makeba’s “Pata Pata” which is too “worldy” in an obvious way but that is rare lapse which deeper tracks like the ancient folk-song “Xarmegaria” (with a melody disturbingly akin to “There’ll Always Be an England”) more than make up for. By the time you get to the masterful overdubbed twin guitars of “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” the sheer beauty of the playing has swept any doubts aside. Luc is a major interpreter of folk-jazz material. That he can swing in the most respectable mainstream manner too (try Duke Jordan’s “Jordu”) is an unfair extra gift. The two self-penned numbers (“Eraldi” and “Irdir”) reveal a Modernist sensibility, to add to an already heady mix.
With classy, high-caliber performances, Trio Sud is a measured exercise in elegance. Its moods are many and its dynamism delightful and directed. It doesn’t just dazzle you with flurries of notes, like so many recent flamenco-derived efforts. Nor is it meandering background music, which tends to be the other side of the genre’s coin. Like all good jazz, the technique is there to be admired but the music is more purposive than that. It is mostly acoustic and does possess that easy ambience which some will find too cozy. Stop and listen awhile, though. Amid all the flamboyant gracefulness, an abundance of ideas soon becomes apparent.
This is not just some well-appointed variation on “ethnic smooth” but one of the year’s most proficient (and approachable) small group, jazz releases. For creative guitar-playing, allied to some fine compositions and arrangements,Trio Sud is in a (very stylish) league of its own.