March 3, 2024

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Photos: Intense Sets in Paris: Video

When a soulful raconteur such a pianist Ben Sidran teams up with a skillful storyteller like saxophonist Ricky Ford, fans can expect a night of meaningful jazz. Such was the case at Sunset Sunside in Paris in November.

The focus was on the flowing lines of Sidran and the wild roars of Ford, who were joined by two excellent accompanists. Bassist Peter Giron and drummer Leo Sidran churned out laid-back grooves as a backdrop for swinging poetry.

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Giron is a Bronx native who plays and teaches in France, having lent his experienced and solid presence to Kurt Elling, Dave Liebman, Ted Curson, Steve Turre, Archie Shepp, Luther Allison, Kirk Lightsey and others. The reliable Leo Sidran, who has his own career as a multi-instrument artist and singer, performed unobtrusively, never calling undue attention to himself and consistently providing well-oiled, funky rhythm for his father’s music.

Ben Sidran’s sprightly spirit and witty lines, both as a pianist and vocalist, meshed particularly well with Ford’s burly sound. The program consisted mostly of songs from Sidran’s Nardis albums Dylan Different (2009), Don’t Cry For No Hipster (2013), Blue Camus (2015) and Picture Him Happy (2017). The set list illustrated his ability to build a consistent poetic world that stands apart from run-of-the-mill formulas.

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Ford learned his craft in the Mingus, Mercer Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands, and then went on to develop his own brand of fiery music by collaborating with Jaki Byard, Milt Hinton, McCoy Tyner and Abdullah Ibrahim. Ford has grown into a towering master of the tenor, composing, arranging and blowing as fiercely as ever. Although he was cast in the role of a sideman (the excellent Rick Margitza played two nights with the band before Ford arrived), he struck a nice balance between personal charisma and an overall group sound.

A few days later and a few paces away in the same street, at the Duc des Lombards, veteran pianist Larry Willis showed how refined and sophisticated his keen harmonic sense was, building on the interplay between bassist Blake Meister and drummer Eric Kennedy.

Whether exploring the melody of “Alone Together” or the modal feel of “Nardis,” Willis brings lavish colors and a mean swing to everything he touches. His own “Ethiopia” was quite moving.

Over the course of Willis’ career—which includes singing an Aaron Copland opera under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, and playing with Jackie McLean, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Roy Hargrove—he has accumulated a diverse wealth of musical experiences. Today, he is truly one of the underrated masters of contemporary piano.

Kennedy is a superb drummer, balancing fierceness and finesse, with his rich sound and clear delivery while Meister anchored the band in a way reminiscent of Buster Williams. The result was a night of subtle and heartfelt music.

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There have been many other noteworthy shows recently in Paris: a visit by the Spirit of Life Ensemble at Le Caveau de la Huchette (whose fleeting appearance in the acclaimed film La La Land has earned it, quite deservedly, an expanded audience flocking to the ancient dancing cellar) and a show by trumpeter Marquis Hill at the Duc.

There were also moments of lesser intensity, such as singer Jazzmeia Horn showing her artistic debt to Betty Carter at the Duc.

Paris remains an essential stop for touring musicians, as evidenced by concerts by Fred Hersch, T.K. Blue (aka Talib Kibwe) and Sheila Jordan at the Sunset-Sunside; Nicholas Bearde at the Cercle Suédois; and Ulf Wakenius and Harold Mabern at the Duc.

Upcoming performers at Sunset Sunside in Paris include Enrico Rava, who will be joined by Aldo Romano, Baptiste Trotignon and Darryl Hall for shows on Jan. 18–20.

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