It’s always exhilarating to witness master musicians at work, handling their instruments with virtuosic flare. While it’s one thing to play an instrument with impressive technique, it’s quite another to entirely create a new way to play it as well. The imaginative and innovative double bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons has created several ways to play his instrument, and they were on glorious display during his opening performance at the cozy Recital Hall in the Simons Center on Wednesday afternoon. It was the first of a six-concert residency during Spoleto’s Well Fargo Jazz Series.
A full house greeted Paris-based Garcia-Fons. Setting up with a small table of audio gear, tuning keys, and effects pedals to his left, Garcia-Fons positioned his handsome five-string bass at center stage and warmly welcomed his audience. “I want to take you on an imaginary journey,” he said. “In this first piece, I hope to bring you to the landscape of Marcevol in the south of France near the border with Spain, and I hope to render it with music.” It was the first stop of the evening’s musical journey, one that meandered through the Middle East, eastern Africa, and northern and southern Europe.
“Marcevol,” is the opening tune on his recently released live collection Solo: The Marcevol Concert, a beautiful recording taped in a church in southern France. Bowing his strings with amazing precision, feel, and speed, the piece showed off his unusually percussive legato and pizzicato techniques in which he plucks and taps the strings like a mallet. At times, the music sounded like two furious cellists collaborating with a percussionist.
Afterwards, Garcia-Fons shared stories about his Spanish family’s background with flamenco music and how the style inspired the upbeat tune “Bajo De Guía (Bulería),” one of the more dramatic numbers in the set. During the song, he strummed the entire bass like a guitar and blazed through rapidly plucked runs and aggressive melodic themes.
Several pieces included additional audio samples (often from loop pedals), but every sound came directly from his instrument. On “Kalimbass,” Garcia-Fons threaded a sheet of paper though the strings at the bottom of bass’ neck to create a sitar-like buzz while he played. Fortunately, he employed these “sampling” methods and effects carefully, and the additional sounds enhanced the tunes.
He closed with “Pilgrim,” an unexpected Celtic-themed detour on which he emulated the lively fiddle melodies and droning bagpipes of the Scottish Highlands and the more regal-styled classical composers of old London. It brought the audience to its feet.
At the end of the night, Garcia-Fons earned a standing ovation, and he stepped back on stage for a quick encore. “This is a long, slow piece, but will play it very fast for you,” he said, introducing “Kurdish Mood,” another piece featuring his bounced-bow technique. Working effortlessly in a rhythmic pattern of seven (7/8 time signature), the bassist looked like he was only touching the outer stands of the bow to the strings, but he essentially executed a crisp, one-hand drum roll with amazing precision.
In a conversation leading up to this year’s Wells Fargo Jazz series, director Michael Grofsorean told City Paper, “I think there are points of arrival in an artist’s lifetime, and sometimes more than one. On Renaud’s new recording, he is alone — his artistic life and achievement fully presented in the way that only solo performances can provide.” Between the exotic blend of genres and the stunning array of sounds and tones he created from the bass, Garcia-Fons’ Tuesday night show might have been one of the most impressive solo performances of the season.