International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 4-5
Fengxia demonstrated an intuitive sense of dramatic development that allowed each piece to unfold, gradually revealing its inner core. Often taking a few moments in unmoving silence at the end of a tune before acknowledging the audience's wild applause, Fengxia was clearly absorbed in the emotional resonance of each piece. Coaxing sounds like a lush harp at times, a deep bowed cello at others, Fengxia's command of the instrument was remarkable, from the simple lyricism of the meditative "Lotus to the more dramatic flourishes of a Chinese composition that told a Romeo and Juliet-like tale of forbidden love.
Like Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem and British singer Robin Williamson, Xu Fengxia frees the guzheng from the constraints of its traditional background, challenging it to exist in a space of contemporary relevance and unfettered possibility.
German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet, formed in '97, is something of a revolving door ensemble, with personnel changing from tour to tour. Still, with Brötzmann at the helm, there's a consistency of vision that takes directed free improvisation into an always-identifiable musical space, while reflecting the distinct personalities of the players involved. The current group, including reed multi-instrumentalists Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson, trumpet players Joe McPhee and Magnus Broo, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, drummers Paal Nilssen-Love and Michael Zerang, tuba player Per-Ake Holmlander, and bassist Kent Kessler, may be Brötzmann's best tentet yet.
In an unusual move, the tentet eschewed any use of a PA system, instead relying on its almost frightening ability to acoustically fill a large concert hall. The strikingly innovative instrumental balance often shifted as the result of band members moving around to various parts of the stage in different configurations. And when everyone was in the pool, the band was loud, with a kind of raw energy, density and sheer power that could easily have them compete with the noise improv bands of the previous day.
While the ensemble opened with a kind of audacious free jazz fanfare, and would occasionally return to full out sonic blasts throughout the 75-minute set, the majority of the performance consisted of the tentet breaking down into smaller groupings. These reduced combinations created a potential for more immediate interplay and subtler textural landscapes, as opposed to situations where a greater number of players would emerge with denser colours.
Among the highlights of the set were Broo's vibrant and focused trumpet; Vandermark's extreme bass clarinet work and remarkable in-sync work with the drummers when he positioned himself at the back of the stage between Zerang and Nilssen-Love; Nilssen-Love and Zerang's tandem solo, which combined reckless abandon with an obvious simpatico; and, of course, Brötzmann himselfwho can make the normally less-projectable soprano sax sound absolutely huge.
But it wasn't all about intensity and extremity. At times Brötzmann, McPhee and Gustafsson would develop close harmonies behind a soloist that created a sense of contained energy and delicate beauty. Conventional instrumental roles were discarded as small horn groupings would not only provide a harmonic center, but a rhythmic pulse as well, with Nilssen-Love and Zerang creating a rollicking wash of colour.
Spontaneity needn't imply lack of purpose, and the Brötzmann Tentet put on a performance that bridged the gap between weight and delicacy, density and the ethereal, power and subtlety. With a set that may have been free but had enough direction to give it form, Brötzmann demonstrated the multi-dimensional potential of bringing together a large group of playersmany established leaders in their own rightwho are as much about collective development as they are personal expression.
At William Parker's press conference earlier in the day, he talked about how music needs to transcend the barriers of narrow definition, and the performance of his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra did just that. The fourteen-piece ensemble was at times a maelstrom of intersecting horn lines over a tumbling wash of rhythm, elsewhere swinging hard with Parker and drummer Andrew Barker providing a solid yet elastic foundation.