Minnesota Sur Seine 2005: Intercommunal Music on the Mississippi
Despite the status of New York and Chicago as cultural capitals of America and the world, not to mention each city's firmly-cemented place in the jazz canon, it is never more true than today the intercontinental bridge that improvisation has built. As international ensembles like the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet make their presence felt on the scene here, not to mention the fact that Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love seems to have played more shows in the States this year than in Scandinavia, the idea of an international jazz festival in America is still quite rarely played out. To be sure, the Empty Bottle Festival in Chicago brings together its Euro-American band of heavies, but it is far from a true "jazz meeting" or "workshop"you don't see Alexander von Schlippenbach jamming with Aram Shelton, for example. Enter Jean Rochard, Sarah Remke and the Minnesota sur Seine Festival.
Minnesota sur Seine began in 2004, ten years after Rochard's arrival in Minneapolis (or, rather, St. Paul) to produce a series of recordings with French reedman Michel Portal and the Paisley Park-based rhythm team of Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson. Following Rochard's initial stay in the Twin Cities, he quickly became enamored not only of the cities, but also their vibrant jazz community, one which has produced in recent years such groups as Happy Apple and two-thirds of The Bad Plus, and which boasts a slew of improvisers rarely documented outside the Upper Midwest. Rochard and his partner Sarah Remke saw the opportunity to build something, a bridge to not only 'international renown' but also international connections and collectivity between the vanguard of French jazz and lesser-known American players in a locale that, for all intents and purposes, is quite obscure.
Rochard, who has for the past twenty-five years acted as ringleader of Nato Records and its onetime-attendant festival, has produced Twin Cities groups like the aforementioned Happy Apple and its caterwauling free jazz cousin Fat Kid Wednesdays (they share reedman Mike Lewis), Philly guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson and his band with French baritone saxophonist Francois Corneloup, Ursus Minorthese latter for Rochard's Minnesota-centric Hope Street label. Remke's encouragement led to expanding Hope Street and the successes Rochard has found in recording French and Minnesota artists into a festivalMinnesota sur Seine (which is, most emphatically, Remke's brainchild).
Its first year featured performances by Michel Portal, English keyboardist Tony Hymas, Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesdays in a week's worth of music. Word of mouth quickly spread and by the final days of 2004's festival, groups like those of Portal (revisiting his "Minneapolis We Insist suite) and Happy Apple with Francois Corneloup (sounding for all the world like an Alan Skidmore-John Surman fronted fusion group) let loose to packed houses.
This year's festival lineup, spread out over ten days (October 14-23), brought some of the expected figures (Ursus Minor, Happy Apple, Fat Kid Wednesdays, Tony Hymas, Twin Cities Hot Club) back for another round, but also enticed English saxophonist Evan Parker to make the trek, as well as offering the first stateside appearance of veteran French pianist Francois Tusques, young electro-acoustic pianist (and Hugh Grant lookalike) Benoit Delbecq, cellist Didier Petit (heard in trio with Parisian bass clarinet wizard Denis Colin and percussionist Pablo Cueco), a Breton folk-improvisational outfit featuring bassist Helene Labarriére, and France's acoustic answer to English violinist Phil Wachsmann, the maniacally intense Dominique Pifarély. Almost as rare as Francois Tusques and the Bretons was a live rendition of Left for Dead, the poetry-jazz-symphonic collaboration of Tony Hymas and poet Barney Bush, which had not seen live performance in the United States until this year.
The festival began in an almost quaint fashion with the first night's concert of solo piano by Benoit Delbecq, to the accompaniment of wine and cheese at the Lind Memorial Library at Minneapolis' Alliance Francaisan intimate and communal gathering of like minds, for sure. Though Delbecq is perhaps more often heard on the electric piano, he ranks among the greatest exemplars of prepared piano techniquehis arsenal an array of specifically-carved sticks and carefully-placed blocks (indeed, his countryman Tusques produced probably the first jazz solo prepared piano record, 1972's Le Piano Prepare, for Le Chant du Monde). To be sure, there are those pianists who find plucked and muted strings a necessary effect to add to their dense palettes, but Delbecq takes cues from John Cage and Lou Harrison in using preparations to expand the piano's rhythmic possibilities outwardly from its tonal ones.
The first piece offered a minimalist overlay of rhythms with a marimba-like quality; indeed, the circular patterns of Pygmy music infuse pieces like "Aka, a call-and-response between unprepared and prepared keys. The second piece, "Within the Meantime, offered abject incongruity between romantic, Bill Evans-esque lines with strategically-placed preparations and their bent near glisses. Steve Lacy and Alan Silva were among Delbecq's mentors in the 1970s and '80s; "Slices was the pianist's homage to Lacy, a loping, widely-spaced paean whose uneven melodic snatches belie Lacy's influence as much as the rhythmic repetition does Mal Waldron (indeed, Delbecq closed with Waldron's "Left Alone, done in a weighty left-handed dirge and dedicated to the victims of recent hurricanes).
Minneapolis' West Bank punk and hip-hop venue the Triple Rock Social Club offered its brilliant acoustics (yes, their revamped music room offers some of the best sound in the area) for Ursus Minor's meeting with four rappers from Minneapolis and Paris on the festival's second evening. Ursus Minor is itself an international ensemble, joining French saxophonist Francois Corneloup, Englishman Tony Hymas on Fender Rhodes, Philly free-funk guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and Minneapolis drummer Stokley Williams; this context found them with local MC's Eydea and Brother Ali and French underground rappers Spike and D'de Kabal.
The quartet began with a lengthy improvisation as they slowly found their footing, Corneloup playing somewhat conservative phrases on soprano as they seemingly had a groove dropped upon themand not necessarily an inspired one at that. Williams' ham-fisted percussion approach nearly overwhelmed the additive and subtle approaches of Hymas, Johnson and Corneloup. But things changed when Eydea took the stage unaccompanied after about fifteen minutes, a monologue of frustrated uncertainty and fractured imagery marking a very free approach to cadence and verbiage, forceful in its abstraction.
As the musicians entered, comping to Eyedea, one thing was quite clearthis MC's freedom necessitated a sympathetically 'free' group, and Ursus Minor quickly rethought their approach, opening up the sonic stew to feed Eydea's verbal surrealism. Brother Ali entered second, a more methodical and less maniacal delivery but equally abstract and forceful; D'de Kabal and Spike tag-teamed through their several performances a complex web of political statement to match the decidedly imagist and painterly words of Ali and Eyedea. Not being myself predisposed to hip-hop or the idea of combining it with improvised music, this set nevertheless came off strong overall and proved that the genre-crossing stones need continual overturning.
The third day of the festival found listeners with two sets of duos at the Black Dog Café in lower-town St. Paul, starting with Corneloup and Dominique Pifarély. The two presented a series of contrasts, primarily based on dense scrabble and false fingering from Pifarely's string work, overlaying delicate pinched and bent tones from Corneloup's soprano or hushed and breathy meditations from his baritone. In many ways, their duo flies in the face of instrumental expectationsthe vertical, symphonic squall of a one-man Ligeti orchestra rather than the effects of nimble finger work; husky baritone offering itself in measurement and care, at least until the final piece when resonant blats made short work of Pifarély's efforts at slinky speech. Apparently this was the first occasion of the duo's officially working together, a true testament to the power of their communicative abilities and strength of their individual concepts.
Bass clarinetist Denis Colin (late of Tusques' trio) and bassist Anthony Cox followed, though initially Cox was without contrabass and began the set with an electric, yielding spare linear interplay that, while not particularly inventive, at least avoided the electric's usual pitfalls (a funk line or two did creep in). Colin is an experience, especially in this naked a setting, applying both Lacy-esque cadences and a swaggering, ecstatic bravura to the instrument, something befitting his lanky, swaying frame as he maintained a penchant for middle- and upper-register cries. Cox seemed to deep-six most of the conversational potential of this duo, whether it was through his electric noodling or attempts when on contrabass to out-mass Colin, neither approach exactly sitting well with the deft ecstasy of the bass clarinetist's phrasing for he (like Portal) has that strange ability to make the Dolphy-esque sound completely non-Dolphy.
Benoit Delbecq's second performance of the festival also came on Sunday, in a context that might seem somewhat more 'regular,' as he joined the local electro-acoustic trio of laptop artist Cepia, drummer JT Bates, and James Buckley on bass and electronics in Minneapolis' Soap Factory Gallery. For the set, Delbecq donned the Rhodes and an assortment of samplers and electronic devices. Despite a completely different musical context, Delbecq was still Delbecqbringing forth long, repetitive lines full of rhythmic and phrase-based overlays girded by alternately spare-and-moody and vamp-heavy accompaniment. Electronic beats, those processed hallmarks of drum 'n' bass, become in his hands a tool of phrase, an approach similar to his prepared piano work whereby tonality is subverted for rhythm-based melodic pattern. The lengthy, unrehearsed improvisation that the quartet began with (and which made up most of the performance) was surprisingly free of doldrums, at one point Delbecq's Rhodes and fragmented samples riding atop a lengthy wave in a sort of "Black Beauty for the electro set indeed, for the electronic improv naysayers this might have been a worthy splash of cold water.