It’s a unique book unlike no other. For nearly 50 years Magnum veteran photographer Guy Le Querrec, one of the greatest jazz photographers, has closely followed the path of one of the greatest multi-instrumentalist musicians Michel Portal, who is as versatile in jazz (free jazz!) as in classical music, this long journey produced a monumental book of four hundred pages with nearly 400 photographs signed GLQ. In this book published by Editions de Juillet, besides the expected images of the very photogenic saxophone, throughout his live concerts. on stage, what is striking are the images of the bandoneon stretched lengthwise in the hands of the magician Michel Portal, when the bandoneon becomes a surreal caterpillar as Portal lets the end of a note last for a time as long as the bellows are pulled up and down, like here in this image from 1981 at the Théâtre Gerard Philippe in Sartrouville. In another photo at the Chapelle des Lombards rue de Lappe in 1981, we see Portal hilariously laughing and pointing a finger towards an unknown musician while compressing his bandoneon with his right hand.
This book “Portal au Fur et à Mesures” is to be read like a Jim Jarmusch road style movie because Portal is constantly On the Road. Reading each photo gives you the itch to play the track of a vinyl that matches or not, with the black and white images of “Stranger than Paradise” or the color images of “Mystery Train”. But how do you follow a “Jazz Great” from festival to festival, from recital to recital? In this book we see a list of the mythical names of places whose acoustics have been weathered by years of symphonies of musical notes produced by brass, percussion, piano, bass and double bass instruments: Châteauvallon, Uzeste, Marciac, Chapel of the Lombards, Salle Pleyel, etc.
If we take this photo from the 1972 Châteauvallon Festival in which Michel Portal wearing a Beatles-like mop top and bell bottom pants blowing two clarinets at the same time, accompanied by two double basses (Bob Guerin and Léon Francioli). The duet blows which spring from Portal’s two clarinets rise up like a seagull’s cry to the light above his head, in all verticality.
Following Portal’s concert tours is getting on board as a “roadie”, sharing the daily vicissitudes from the excitements on stage during concerts to the most intimate and vulnerable quiet moments of an artist, as well as the moments of surprise: like this image of a Portal sound asleep in the van of Bernard Lubat, the poly-instrumentalist founder of the Uzeste festival, and that of their stop in a bakery-pastry shop to each buy their own surprise bag (pochette-surprise is a French traditional candy bags containing sweets and toys). We come to envy Le Querrec who, like a fly on the wall, gets an earful for free each night, and during rehearsals, behind the scenes, in the dressing rooms, in the recording studios, tirelessly being there, on the lookout, anticipating the gesture, the phrasings that will happen, even in improvisations, you have to have the rhythm, the tempo, in your blood and at the tip of your finger to be ready to pull the trigger. Guy Le Querrec is old school, black and white film camera, he has never used digital or autofocus. In this way he would never miss the moments of happiness on Portal’s face, his bursts of laughter, his moments of brilliance and exaltation, as in this photo of the recital with classical pianist JC Pennetier for Photoscopies 81 in St Médard-en-Jalles at the Ouest Aquitaine cultural center (1981), Guy Le Querrec immortalized him in a runner’s attitude on stage with his pedaling legs and his clarinet raised triumphantly in the air.
We understand through the portrait of Portal painted over fifty years by a faithful and attentive Le Querrec that Portal is someone who has dedicated his whole life to music and above all to a music of communion, of camaraderie, with emotion and excitement, we can see him walking and playing in a trio with Lubat and Di Donato at the Uzeste festival, three saxophones shoulder to shoulder, an impressive “band of brothers”. We watch with a smile tinged with sadness the staging of Le Querrec who has staged Portal with the late violinist Didier Lockwood as buskers on a Manhattan sidewalk, with Lockwood’s violin case open as if to collect a few pennies from passers-by (June 1988 Jazz Français At New York). Or Portal’s meetings with other Jazz Greats, his faces straining to listen to Don Chery at Uzeste, or gesturing with Gil Evans at the Champs Elysées Theater (January 1986 just a few days before the terrorist bombing at the Claridge). Or this photo of the wall covered with small prints forming the storyboard of Portal’s improvisational jazz concert to pair with the photo projection at the Rencontres d’Arles (1993), which happened to be an extraordinary invention of Guy Le Querrec.
Le Querrec says that jazz is improvisation and by the same token the photography he practices is improvisation. From these improvisations we discover this reflection of Portal (with his very dark hair) in a mirror at the Hôtel de Pau during the Musique en Ville festival (1981) where a rugby match was playing on the television screen, Guy says that he captured Portal inside the frame of the mirror “sitting like a portrait of Louis XI”. And this beautiful improvisation of the score sheet spread out under the light from which we can only see the shadow of Michel Portal’s finger pointing at the notes (at the Espace André Malraux in Kremlin Bicêtre 1994). Finally, there is this very beautiful portrait of Portal as a monk with snow-white hair, eyes closed, leaning on his saxophone, in a posture of meditation with a finger on his temple (Europa Jazz Festival in Le Mans May 2004).
And Le Querrec concludes the book with an improvised photo to the tune of “Hello Goodbye” showing a chauffeur with a luggage cart and holding a sign with the name of Portal whom he was supposed to fetch at the Gare de Lyon to bring him to his concert at the Olympia that very evening (February 2002).
It looks as if Le Querrec was saying goodbye but also hello to his friend of fifty years. Will they hit the road again together?
Jean Loh / curator
Guy Le Querrec : Michel Portal au fur et à mesures
Éditions de Juillet
400 pages – ± 300 photographs
Hardcover – Format: 230 x 300 mm
ISBN : 978-2-36510-110-3