Bonjour, Minneapolis

The Sur Seine festival features collaborations between local and French artists

Emily Garber

The Twin Cities have a time-honored inferiority complex. Standing up against other American cultural capitals, like New York or Chicago, often seems a worthless battle.

Yet, every once in a while, it’s good to be reminded that our little corner of the globe, settled comfortably and humbly on the banks of the Mississippi, holds some importance – especially in the world of music.

In its third year, the continent-bridging Minnesota Sur Seine Festival continues to boost the Cities’ ego by luring some of Europe’s most exceptional jazz and rock musicians to play alongside talent as homegrown as Gold Medal Flour.

“Minnesota Sur Seine” translates to “Minnesota on the Scene,” appropriately reflecting the exciting musical exchange taking place between the Twin Cities and Paris. Each night will feature two concert collaborations with artists from both river towns.

The cross-Atlantic relationship began in 2000, when Michel Portal, a reed player and leading figure in modern European jazz, along with iconoclastic French record producer Jean Rochard, visited the Twin Cities to play with Michael Bland, a Twin Cities drummer who toured with Prince for seven years.

“I basically just got a phone call,” said Bland, laughing at the memory. The owner of Creation Audio studios, Ben Weiss, just “gave him my number Ö I still have no idea why.”

During the meeting, the trio recorded the jazz record “Minneapolis.” This album became jazz record of the year in Paris in 2001 and was followed up by the live CD “Minneapolis We Insist!” and the box set “Dipping in Minneapolis.”

“I just wanted to please Michel” during the recording, said Bland, admittedly a cynic of jazz in a Midwestern city. “I needed to make sure that Michel heard what he needed to hear to stay inspired.”

Aside from the “Minneapolis” project, the overseas trip resulted in numerous invitations for Twin Cities musicians to visit Paris. Local jazz groups such as Happy Apple and Ursus Minor performed at the French festival Sons d’Hiver in 2002. Since then, Rochard, who has for the past 25 years acted as ringleader of Nato Records, has produced records for two local jazz groups.

“(Rochard) used to spend a lot of time here, going out and listening to music,” said JT Bates, drummer for Fat Kid Wednesdays. After first working with Happy Apple, Bates said, Rochard eventually approached the group to make an album.

And so it began. Paris and Minneapolis: a match made in harmony heaven.

Rochard and his partner Sarah Remke saw the opportunity to build international connections and collectivity between the front line of French jazz and lesser-known American players. With Remke’s encouragement, the success Rochard has found in recording French and Minnesotan artists has expanded into a festival.

“The music scene here is as thriving as anywhere,” Bates said. The Minnesota Sur Seine Festival will “bring some recognition because have a lot going on.”

Minnesota Sur Seine’s first year featured performances by Portal, Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesdays. Word spread quickly and, by the final days of 2004’s festival, collaborations such as one between Happy Apple and French group François Corneloup let loose to packed houses.

This year’s festival, while showcasing many expected jazz figures, leaves room for rock, spoken word, rap and other international sounds for the first time. While the inclusion of other types of music might change the dynamic of the festival, Bates insists it’s “for the better Ö anything that’s a little different from the norm is good.”

Bland added, “It has to change if it’s going to survive.”

Local rapper Brother Ali will set his rhymes to the music of Minnesota/French jazz combo Ursus Minor (October 19, Fine Line Music Cafe). Fat Kid Wednesdays will play alongside B’net Houariyat, an all-female, high-energy singing, dancing and drumming Moroccan quintet (October 21, O’Shaughnessy Auditorium). Scattered between are lectures, drum conferences and nightly concurrences of local and international musicians.

While it’s true that Seattle and New York calendars are stuffed to the brim with music festivals, a few shining moments a year is enough to keep this modest river town proud.