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Review: French jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon, an impressionist of soul, at Spivey Hall

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Pianist Baptiste Trotignon began Sunday’s concert at Spivey Hall at a disadvantage. The 36-year-old Frenchman was to make his Atlanta debut leading a quartet composed of some notable international jazz sidemen — tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, all head-turners in their own right (be sure to catch Turner and Penman when they return to Atlanta next year as part of the SFJazz Collective).

But only three artists walked onto the stage Sunday afternoon. Spivey officials then came out to announce that Turner would not be performing because of overbooked flights in New York — yet another thing to blame on the airlines. There was, however, a silver lining. Trotignon, Hutchinson and Penman had performed for the previous two nights as a trio, and the three had established an easy, cohesive relationship.

The abrupt program adjustment nevertheless could have been the harbinger of a subpar show. But after an enthralling 90 minutes, I had entirely forgotten about the missing fourth instrument. Turner is an integral part of Trotignon’s “Suite” (2010) and “Share” (2008), but Hutchinson, Penman and Trotignon forged boldly on despite the ensemble change, executing an intimate trio concert with panache and artistry.

Trotignon journeyed to Atlanta as part of “France-Atlanta 2010 Together Towards Innovation,” a fortnight-long cultural and academic celebration of all things French, which has featured performances by a contemporary music ensemble and the award-winning chamber choir Les Elements. The goal of the concerts, plays, lectures and other assorted gatherings is to strengthen the bonds between the Southern city and the European country. Put on by Georgia Tech and the Consulate General of France in Atlanta, the festivities will run through Sunday.

The trio paved its way through a carefully constructed set designed to highlight Trotignon’s breadth as a pianist. His densely impressionistic originals laid the groundwork for the concert. In these tunes, the pianist’s foot almost never left the sustain pedal, infusing the tunes with ethereal splendor — chords ran into each other, swelling dynamically only to come back down to a simmer. The compositions branched off in many directions and never settled into a melody-solo-outro format. This was a thinking-man’s jazz that kept Trotignon’s beautiful sound and careful technique at the forefront.

Adding another voice to the mix would have overpowered Trotignon’s subtle tunes. The pianist has such a light touch that Hutchinson had to spend most of the afternoon using brushes or timpani mallets on his drum kit so as not to bully the piano’s sound. Later he was able to switch brushes for sticks when the band explored some of Trotignon’s up-tempo compositions. When bubbly runs took over in some of these more energetic melodies and solos, the songs sounded a bit mushy and jumbled — the downside of Trotignon’s reliance on the sustain pedal.

With its spindly, Monk-like runs, Trotignon’s version of “Background Music” by Lennie Tristano sounded out of place and jarring compared with the previous gorgeous originals. I wished immediately for more chordal playing and less soloing.

When Trotignon followed Tristano with Monk’s “Trinkle, Trinkle,” he gave more separation to the notes. His music opened up, and I quickly changed my opinion. The pianist showed that while he excels at creating quiet soundscapes and introspective melodies, he is equally fascinating when improvising on briskly paced standards.

Trotignon began the afternoon molding a beautiful world of tunes with a soaring, majestic quality that is exploited poorly for smooth-jazz radio success by less capable musicians. As he exposed his full musical vocabulary and his adept handling of bebop lines, I became convinced that he belongs to an elite class of young musicians. This is beautiful music that even the most anti-jazz fan can appreciate and enjoy, but with a sophisticated harmonic structure that aficionados dig.

Local jazz lovers can hope that this France-Atlanta event is only the start of many little-known cultural imports. Maybe next time the city can offer some talented musicians of its own for an international summit of jazz.

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