In the hushed setting of the Cistern under the majestic live oaks and dripping Spanish moss, Renaud Garcia-Fons tuned his customized five-string double-bass, grabbed his bow, and astounded the audience with an amazing opening solo piece. He bowed and plucked his instrument at a frantic pace. It was the 2005 festival and he was performing with the Entremundo Trio in their U.S. debut. It sounded like three musicians playing simultaneously as he bounced his bow across the strings "pizzicato" like a mallet, often with the multiple-stroke precision of an orchestral snare drummer — and this was with only his right hand! I shook my head with amazement.
With his percussive and experimental approach to the double bass, Garcia-Fons is definitely not your typical jazz cat plucker or tuxedo-clad orchestra player.
Longtime Spoleto Festival USA jazz director Michael Grofsorean was blown away by the performance, too. He's particularly excited to have Garcia-Fons back to the festival this year performing solo. "I see that this man is one of the most remarkable musicians of our time," Grofsorean says. "For me, the 21st century is an extraordinary time for music because of artists like Renaud. He has reinvented the performance of music on his instrument. Any young person who studies the double bass cannot, upon hearing him, ever be the same."
For the Paris-based musician, his bass playing is not about being virtuosic or demonstrative, it's about taking the audience on a journey with him. "I had certain ideas of the double bass," says Garcia-Fons. "It's not to show fast things, but to play different music and emotions. In my mind, I needed to find a voice that could cross other musical styles and make them connect."
He started his studies with the piano at age five, then picked up classical guitar at eight, then eight years later he discovered the double bass. "When I was 16, I had an opportunity to try to play the double bass and I instantly fell in love," he remembers. "It was like a stroke of lightning. I immediately dreamed that here was an instrument with a universally oriented musical calling."
As a young man, Garcia-Fons studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music and became the student of François Rabbath, one of the most respected and renowned double bassists in Europe. By age 21, Garcia-Fons earned a diploma at the French Cultural Ministry as a professor of double bass. These days, he's well-known in Europe as a versatile performer and collaborator who expertly bridges Western classical music and world music with jazz. His original music often flows with various moods, eclectic instrumentation, and sophisticated development.
"My approach to the bass is something different from the American jazz tradition," he says. "I think my approach is like an open landscape. My hope is that people will enjoy it."
Garcia-Fons will perform six solo concerts over the course of three evenings at the College of Charleston's Simons Center. His latest disc is a concert album titled Solo: The Marcevol Concert. The collection beautifully demonstrates his technique and vast repertoire. He and director Nicolas Dattilesi set themselves up in an old church in southern France to record and film two nights of concerts for the album. They captured the music on CD and DVD.
The exotic mix of styles in Garcia-Fons' solo set will likely cover a lot of ground, from Celtic and flamenco to Mediterranean jazz and Asian and Arabic folk music.
"I have many pieces in my live show," he says. "I have a certain kind of blues that I can't wait to bring to the States. Rhythm 'n' blues and gospel is actually as much a part of my music as flamenco. Much of that comes from what I heard as a little boy, like rock, blues, flamenco, Indian music. I use elements of jazz, but I have no genuine jazz background. ... I try to keep a feeling of 'no borders' in my mind."