We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Much quoted, maybe, but those lines from TS Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ seem particularly apposite to the musical journeying of double bass virtuoso Renaud Garcia-Fons, who has navigated his singularly eloquent five-string bass through the often interlocking musical cultures around the Mediterranean and to points further east, but whose latest project, Revoir Paris, takes the form of a heartfelt celebration of his native city.
Working with a previous collaborator, David Venitucci, on accordion and Stephan Caracci on vibes and percussion, Garcia-Fons promises a Revoir Paris album for later this year, but in the meantime the trio will launch the project amid the pantiled roofs of the picturesque Fife fishing village of Crail next Saturday. The village’s Community Hall may sound an incongruous venue for this musical paean to a supremely cosmopolitan city, but when you consider that the event is part of the ever-adventurous East Neuk Festival, to which the man known as “the Paganini of the double bass” is no stranger, it all starts to fall into place.
Not that there is anything historically parochial or provincial about the East Neuk port, which once boasted one of the largest markets in Medieval Europe and which, for centuries, carried on a busy trade with the Low Countries and beyond. Garcia-Fons describes himself as being delighted to be returning to Fife: “I find it particularly exciting to create this project in Scotland and specially at the East Neuk Festival, that I’ve known for a couple of years now. Maybe it is still a way to celebrate the entente cordiale between our two countries.”
Born near Paris to parents from Catalonia and taking up the piano and classical guitar at the age of five, Garcia-Fons studied double bass at the Paris Conservatoire. Steeped from an early age in both classical music and jazz, he developed an extraordinary technique, virtually reinventing the playing of an instrument usually associated with accompaniment, be it in the ranks of classical strings or jazz rhythm sections. In Garcia-Fons’s ensembles, or in his remarkable solo performances, the double bass becomes a lead instrument, as he employs arco bowing that can make his bass sing in microtonal cadences like an eastern violin, or coaxes it into sounding like an Arabic oud or flamenco guitar as he plucks it or deploys a staccato attack on the strings with the bow.
These techniques and his improvisational abilities have been his vehicle for numerous albums, capturing often richly lyrical explorations of Spanish, North African, Greek and Middle or Far Eastern musical cultures. In coming home to Paris for his present project, he is composing, as he puts it, “an ode to the Paris that I love, a Paris dreamed and imagined, full of musical references, including French chanson, gypsy jazz, the contribution of the great French composers of the 20th century and also the multicultural combination of all minorities.”
Revoir Paris may be a labour of love, with a strong sense of coming home, but, he takes pains to stress, “there is no question of any withdrawal” from his intense interest in the diverse musical cultures which have informed both his own music and that of his home city. “To understand where we come from, travelling and the experience of meeting other cultures often comes first,” he adds, with a distinct echo of Eliot. “At the same time, I’m interested in Revoir Paris as an illustration of the universality of music,” he continues, explaining that he wanted to show how the city was built on successive waves of immigration, from Europe and beyond.
“After many years surveying the world musically, I became more aware of the immense richness and variety of the musical culture of my home city. Its musical culture – of nowadays or of my childhood or of other times – is absolutely unique. It is striking to see how, in Paris, the new and the old co-habit, not just musically but in many other aspects.”
Everyone, he agrees, has his or her own imaginary Paris. In his case, he says, when writing this new music he “looked and looked again to the photographs of Robert Doisneau”, while other sources of inspiration include not just the more readily predictable sources of Erik Satie, Edith Piaf and Django Reinhardt, but also the film soundtracks of Jacques Tati and immigrant African music. “Nevertheless,” he adds, “it is not about a patchwork of styles but rather, as I have done in other projects, the integration of different influences.”
Compared to some of his other wide-ranging recordings such as Méditerranées or Navigatore, he reckons the sound may be something new to listeners, “but the voice of my bass should still be the thread.”
Garcia-Fons returns to the East Neuk Festival, this year celebrating its tenth anniversary, as part of a jazz-centred opening weekend which also features clarinettist Julian Bliss and his sextet playing a “King of Swing” tribute to the great Benny Goodman and an appearance from the distinguished guitarist Martin Taylor. Pianist Euan Stevenson, meanwhile, acclaimed for his work with the likes of saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski (in their acclaimed New Focus project) and with Colin Steele as well as singers such as Matthew Ford and Tina May, brings his own trio to Crail to showcase the classic jazz of Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans.
The festival retains its strong focus on classical music, often sounding within the atmospheric precincts of the East Neuk’s ancient village kirks and, in its “Littoral” programme, it also offers a multitude of literary events.
The challenge of returning to the East Neuk, says Garcia-Fons, is to transmit his feelings about that other world – “Paris dreamed or imagined, and the emotions it inspires, with my trio, the accordion, the brushes, the vibes and, of course, the voice of the contrabass.”
• For more details, see www.eastneuk festival.com and www.renaudgarciafons.com