Gig review: INTERPLAY – Le Chaudron, Montignac, SW France, 17 January 2020


Jazz is alive, well and prospering in the inventive hands of a French modern quartet called Interplay.

There was once a time when jazz fusion and rock almost coalesced and took the music beyond its historical antecedents. And while Interplay stay loyal to their musical heroes, their repertoire stretches from familiar Hard Bop antecedents to fusion, blues and Latino, taking in the likes of Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock along the way, plus a few unexpected surprises in a set fired by the spirit of improvisation.

Playing at Montignac’s compact Le Chaudron  – translated as The Cauldron – the quartet certainly adds its own jazz based hot sauce to the pot with a magnificent set that extols the virtues of their band name!

If the name Interplay sounds bit worn, with echoes of John Coltrane, Bill Evans and improvising hard bop in search of real spark, then this quartet quickly puts our fears to rest with an exhilarating set full of lilting rhythmic patterns and melodic phrasing.

Interplay take a bow

With little more than one rehearsal to fall back on, they rely on the true spirit of mutual cooperation. There are moments of real inspiration when they swing hard and then dig deep for real feel on a ballad.

They employ a fluid approach to both time and tempo while always retaining the essential symmetry of a piece.

Put simply, Interplay is the sum of its parts in which each member locks into a succession of hard bop rhythms, deep felt grooves, fleeting jazz fusion, magisterial solos and even a sniff of the blues.

They are intuitive and always pay service to the theme, but think nothing of adventurous explorations full of sparkling dynamics and relentless vigour.

Emilio le Roi

There’s also a pivotal dichotomy at the core of this band. On the one hand there’s the members themselves, the upright Emilio Fabrice Leroy  on drums in stark contrast to the dervish like Gautier, who constantly switches from the gritty husk of his tenor to the more flighty soprano sax.

Then there stick bassist Didier Villalba who is a like dancing mannequin with grimaces to match.  He occasionally doubles on regular electric bass, but for the most part dominates his upright bass, while pianist Frank Mathieu is an essential but understated presence.

The music too is a mix of passive and aggressive, both canorous and challenging with burst of energy and exploration. It’s an artery like presence at the heart of a band whose intoxicating set stirs the ghosts of jazz’s past.

When they do momentarily leap into the void with Gautier’s tonal colours, there are a few grimaces before they confidently return to earth.

They bring fresh intent to familiar fare that is rooted in Bop, but frequently veers into sophisticated post-Bop, Latin, Bossanova and contrasting ballads, all played with loving care and ignited with the true sense of spontaneity.

As sax player Denis Gautier later says in an intro, no number ever comes out the same, and that is down to the joy de vivre of their playing.

INTERPLAY bass & sax

The effervescent Denis Gautier fronts the band and frequently switches from his grainy tenor to an almost sinuous soprano sax to search for more contrasting tone colour.

He’s a natural focal point as his body language is an extension of his musical ability. He’s momentarily given to standing on one leg, or extends an arm as he reaches for a note. He works his body into passionate frenzy as he indulges himself in a succession of note clusters to give a number deeper colour and emphasis.

However, as the band’s name suggests, this quartet is the wonderful sum of its parts. The ship is steered by the effortless drive, fluidity and control of drummer Leroy.  His relentless tempos, gregarious rolls, thundering crescendos and crisp cymbal work offsets intuitive melodic phrasing that glues everything together.

Denis Gautier soprano sax

And when the moment comes for his solo, the band drops down only to return in perfect symbiosis, to suggest they are following his melody tone.

Interplay work through themes and variations in a canter. There is no ego here, as each member supports each other with what they have to offer as a meaningful part of the whole.

Bass player Didier Villalba for example, moves from long, languid low notes into suddenly bursts out of muscularity, while keyboard player Franck Mathieu shifts from subtle fills to sudden angular runs.

stick bass Do Do

But inevitably the focus returns to the sax playing Gautier, he of the restless presence and humorous gait, He’s a master of tone and dynamics, who at one point teases out a note and then in a sudden dynamic surge explores some extraterrestrial squalls. He smiles briefly, nods to the pianist, and it all brings audible gasps from the front row.

He continually mixes smooth lines with moments of sudden turbulence, all perfectly balanced by the supporting band.

The crowd play their part too, as the band eschews initial introspection to swing and connect with the full house. They are rewarded with vigorous mid-number applause for bass and sax solos.

There’s also an early highlight three numbers in, on a self penned piece that opens with Leroy’s atmospheric cymbal splashes and sounds like a ethereal early career Pink Floyd piece. The analogy might be an anathema to jazzers, but the mood of the piece is very evocative.

Frank Mathieu

In a backdrop of a subtle percussive patterns, interwoven piano and a beautiful melody, Gautier adds a brusque sax tone, flanked by a bass solo full of honey-thick notes and an ascending keyboard line.

Everything builds perfectly with a tempo shift leading back to the theme, before the gentlest of finishes which leaves the melody lingering in the room. Truly excellent.

This band doesn’t so much unlock the mysteries of jazz improvisation as just intuitively celebrate it.

The crowd volume is more audible and you can feel the energy in the room as the set cascades forward and brings a fresh take to Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’.

Dorie guests with Interplay

The band’s 90 plus minute set flies by, which is always a good sign of a great gig, and the evening is rounded off by special guest vocalist Dore who clearly enjoys her Ella Fitzgerald moment and positive purrs on the fun finale of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’.

In sum an unexpected mid-winter pleasure.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Anne Pioton

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