MUSIC / Grace notes: Phil Johnson on Stephane Grappelli at the Bath Festival

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Merci, merci, thanks a million, I thank you]' One expected Grappelli to get a rousing reception just for still being alive, but the standing ovation at the end of this concert came as a thoroughly deserved tribute to genius. Although the whole evening floated on a cloud of sentimental goodwill, no special allowances had to be made for his performance. Grappelli at 86 years of age is, in essential respects, the same as ever.

He played two 45-minute sets, and soloed quite masterfully in tune after tune; if he occasionally laid back to let the guitarist and the bassist strut their stuff, this is what he has always done, only now perhaps a little more so than in the past. The grace and the beauty of his playing may even have deepened. Certainly it acted as a forceful reminder of just how great a musician Grappelli is. His music is easy on the ear but never facile - there is a delicacy of touch, an elegance and a glorying in the pleasures of the familiar that make him the most European of all jazz improvisers. He is a true musical intimiste, like a visual equivalent of Bonnard or Vuillard.

The parallels with the visual arts are inescapable. Though he deconstructs the bare bones of a Tin Pan Alley tune until, by the second or third chorus, it threatens to become an abstract, the original subject is always tantalisingly there - like Delaunay's Eiffel Tower - however prismatic the view.

The tunes Grappelli plays comprise a popular folk memory of the century, the classic American song-book from Gershwin to Porter. But the liberties he takes with the metrics of the material are breathtaking; he can parrot every syllable of a well-worn line and then suddenly leapfrog the next in a long bowing smear of the strings that almost stops the heart. On 'Someone to Watch Over Me', Grappelli played the melody straight, then doubled the time before letting the memory of the audience complete the tune as he provided an oblique harmonic counterpoint.

Grappelli has not slackened in his choice of sidemen, either. The band, with Marc Fosset on guitar and Jean- Phillippe Viret on double- bass, was outstanding, and perfectly schooled in the quiet, elegant house style.

Fosset has obviously developed a repertoire of solo features - including some of the best whistling you've ever heard - in order to give Stephane a breather, but his own solos on guitar were amazingly adept, and Viret played a bowed solo that was quite superb.

Grappelli, incredibly, continues to sound timeless and occasionally even avant- garde. The good news is the concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 later this month. Don't miss it.