Well, it's the rentrée, which means the start of another cultural season in Paris. As usual, there's a huge variety of things to see, hear and eat all over the city. So much so, that for the past few years, I haven't really needed to venture past my usual stomping grounds to find stuff I love. But the flip side of this convenience is that there are certain venues that I rarely get to. One of these is La Villette, a large park and arts complex in eastern Paris.
Paris is not a huge city, but it does take about an hour for me to get to La Villette on public transportation, so I'm not always aware of what's going on over there. Which is a bit nuts since La Villette has three large concert halls hosting world-class music, plus various other artsy activities, including dance, circus and an open-air cinema in the summer.
Its theaters do tend towards the cavernous, with no assigned seating, which I admit in my dotage I find kind of a drag. I much prefer smaller houses where I can choose where I sit, or at least don't have to show up an hour before the concert to get a decent seat. But when a friend invited me to a concert during the very popular Jazz à la Villette festival, I figured it was a good chance to take the metro outside my comfort zone.
Jazz à la Villette attracts an eclectic mix of musicians from all over the world. The name is actually a bit misleading, since the organizers seem to prefer a mixture of jazz, soul, r&b, funk and even pop, pushing the boundaries of what is considered 'jazz.' The concert we saw was a two-parter featuring British singer Laura Mvula, followed by the American José James.
Neither of these names were particularly familiar to me, but that's not surprising as Pierre is real jazz fan in our house (and he tends to prefer more traditional styles). Mvula's music is like a cross between Nina Simone and Bjork (her band includes a harp and violin), which might sound odd to you, but is totally my jam.
The first part of her set had an extremely mellow vibe. There wasn't much chit-chat, but she did manage to make the warehouse-like Grande Halle feel like an intimate club. Then three-quarters of the way through, she turned things up to 11, encouraging the rather polite Paris audience to clap, sing and dance along and suddenly I could picture Mvula selling out entire stadiums. So don't be surprised if you hear a lot of her name in the years to come.
I gather José James is much better known in the States, although I don't have a clear idea of exactly how famous he is. James was a charming, charismatic performer who seemed perfectly at ease interacting with the audience. He has a rich, smooth voice that belies his age and his music was a mix of jazz, r&b, rock, electronic, with a bit of rap thrown in. Each member of his band had his/her chance to shine, which I probably would appreciate more if I had any musical knowledge. As it was, while I enjoyed his set, none of his songs has gotten stuck in my head the way Mvula's "Green Garden" has.
I don't think I'll be trekking out weekly to La Villette, especially since I will soon be moving to a suburb even further west of Paris. But Jazz à La Villette was a good reminder of the breadth of affordable culture that city has to offer and a great way to kick off a new Clash of Cultures season. So stay tuned...