Double bass virtuoso and composer Renaud Garcia-Fons (France) played his first gig in Melbourne at the International Jazz Festival on Friday. Playing with his Arcoluz Trio to an enthralled audience in the Melbourne Recital Centre, Garcia-Fons dazzled and moved us with a technique and innovation that takes the contrabasse far beyond its traditional role and technical range.
Garcia-Fons plays a five-string double bass (with an extra top string) and often uses his left thumb to fret this string, extending the high range into the upper reaches of the violin. His left hand has a dexterity that allows him to work with modal music as well as western scales. He evokes all the stringed instruments – violin, viola, 'cello, oud, sitar and guitar – and uses many of the right-hand techniques of other instrumentalists, particularly the flamenco guitarist and percussionist, to extend the vocal range of his instrument even further.
Playing with the Arcoluz Trio, he has the flamenco guitarist Kiko Ruiz and percussionist Pascal Rollando already at hand and the musical conversation between them is rhythmically complex and thrilling. Added to that is the beauty of Garcia-Fons' compositions, using romantic con arco (bowing) and quicksilver pizzicato passages, a well as a myriad of electronic effects to layer the sound.
Garcia-Fons, who was born near Paris to Catalonian parents, professes to have no musical boundaries. It is impossible to categorise his music, which has developed from his classical studies and his collaborations with North African, Middle Eastern and Indian musicians. With his years of practice (he is 49), he succeeds in transporting us from France and Spain across the Mediterranean to whirling dervishes in Turkey, a North African bazaar or an Indian temple.
Garcia-Fons is not a showman, but creates an intimate rapport with the audience and entertains with a carefully balanced program. On this occasion, he chose pieces of varying moods and styles from several of his albums, mostly from La Linea del Sur, Entremundo and Arcoluz (recorded by the Arcoluz Trio with a different percussionist).
To take just one item from the program – Anda Loco, from the Arcoluz album – we could hear shades of Astor Piazzolla's tango, East Indian modes and the wailing of violins from the bass, with Kiko Ruiz's muscular right hand strumming flamenco rhythms on guitar and Pascal Rollando adding a clipped percussive commentary. In the Brazilian-inspired Berimbass, also from Arcoluz, the voice of the bass shifted in mood from angry to whimsical to sexual as it crossed the boundaries of flamenco, capoeira and waltz time.
These were followed by two tracks from the Entremundo album, in which the collaboration of the three musos intensified. In 40 Dias the arco bass sang along with the guitar, making use of more traditional bowing and vibrato. Entre Continentes was a highlight of the evening, with Garcia-Fons switching constantly from con arco to pizzicato and then to hand-drumming on the body of the bass, before the piece culminated with all three musos conversing through handclaps.
The audience refused to let them go. For the first encore, Garcia-Fons played a luscious, lyrical solo bass piece. For the second, the trio played Gare St Charles from the La Linea del Sur album, a tune that was conceived, Garcia-Fons told us, in the railway station at Marseilles. Here were strains of his native French culture, bubbling up in the waltz that spoke now in a haunting bowed melody, now in his bouncing bow technique. It could have been a 'cello, or maybe something else. For the boundaries are down, not just between musical genres and ethnic cultures, but between instruments. Garcia-Fons takes us beyond what we thought was possible with the bass and into a new dimension.
Earlier, the support act – Luke Howard (piano) and Janos Bruneel (double bass) – prepared the way for the maestro's trio. Bruneel, a poetic muso with a cool spare vibrato-free style, lacked attack but had great sensitivity. The duo was at their best when Howard held back the piano to create a more delicate balance. They set up a receptive mood for the Arcoluz Trio.
2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Renaud Garcia-Fons Arcoluz Trio
Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre | Cnr Southbank Boulevard & Sturt Street, Southbank
Dates: Friday 8 June
Tickets: $69 – $49