Over the course of nine hot August days in Lisbon, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation managed to present major figures in European free improvisation (Alexander von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, Paul Lovens, Paul Lytton, Paul Rutherford, Conrad Bauer, Irene Schweizer, Pierre Favre), American master instrumentalists (Mark Dresser, Gary Lucas, Erik Friedlander), some of the smartest piano preparers in the world (Sylvie Courvoisier, Denman Maroney, Schlippenbach again), two power trios (Mephista and Koch/Schutz/Studer) and one of the most fun interpreting ensembles to come along in years (Gary Lucas and Phillip Johnston's "Fast 'n' Bulbous Capt. Beefheart project, which closed the party). The foundation has been hosting the festival since 1984. At one time a more mainstream affair, under the guidance of artistic director Rui Neves, Jazz em Agosto has become a considerable showcase for innovative improvised music.
Dedicating the festival's opening performance to longtime member trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff
, who died less than two weeks before the concert, Schlippenbach presented the big, bassless Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO) he first convened in 1966 for a rare appearance since their 2002 reunion. The pianist, two drummers and an octet of horns all seemed individually intent on not playing until they thought of something good and not letting too much time be spent thinking. The horn players would stop, look down the line, rock in place, laugh a little and jump back in while Schlippenbach and drummers Lovens and Lytton darted through syncopations. To pick out a highlight would be to imply (wrongly) that there were comparative low points. Nevertheless, solos by trombonists Rutherford and Bauer were lovely and explosive respectively, as if they felt especially closely the missing voice of Mangelsdorff. A particularly nice saxophone trio (Parker, Gerd Dudek and Ernst Ludwig Petrowsky) and an unravelled rag by the leader were also memorable.
Schlippenbach, Parker and Lovens weren't the core of the band, but did juxtapose themselves by playing as a trio the following night. And so nicely did Schlippenbach's soft-mallet pounding of the piano strings work with GUO that he did it again to open his trio's set, working the sustain pedal against resounding beats, setting a foundation for Parker and Lovens to consider in reeds and gongs. With careful placement of pot lids, Schippenbach created a beautiful rattle overlaid with quick melody lines. Like some of his fellow pianists at the fest, he doesn't just prepare for effect but makes it a different instrument and one he knows how to play.
Like Schlippenbach, Swiss pianist Schweizer plays with tradition while making sparse and tasteful use of the instrument's innards. Her oft professed love for playing duos with drummers and her long relationship with countryman Favre gave an ease to their set that felt almost composed. They started strong, as if the "play button had just been pushed, and shared a telepathic link for tempi, volume, even pauses. American pianist Maroney is usually more concerned with the piano's guts, but in trio with Dresser and Mike Sarin he showed a propensity for jazz keying, only occasionally reaching inside the case. The strength of the trio is that they are remarkably similar players: they all play percussively; all create prolonged tones that hang in the air; and they can become a piano trio at the drop of a hat. Swiss born pianist Courvoisier was more active inside the case; her trio Mephista with drummer Susie Ibarra and electronic percussionist Ikue Mori has become one of the best working bands in New York. Through focus