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Live Reviews

Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV) 2004

By Published: July 9, 2004
Driving up to Victoriaville (located 100 miles northwest of Montreal) with several other "respectable journalists", an approximate eight hour road trip from Manhattan to the Quebec city, I was introduced to an oasis and forum for unfettered improvisational music that annually visits this small town. It is known as the Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV). For listeners with preconceived notions of what "jazz" entails, there's at least a show a day that will both whet your appetite and stretch your personally defined parameters.
"This whole festival is all about doing what it does. So long as there is a color to it, an identity. The idea is to open up ears to different kinds of music. Though it's never been a jazz festival, a strong part of the art of it is jazz. I try to keep it as wide and varied, loud-gentile-chaotic, so you can go through a full day of music and go through different moods," says festival organizer Michel Levasseur. The three main venues - the Cinéma Laurier (basically the town's movie theater), the Colisee Des Bois-Francs (a transformed hockey stadium), and the Cégep (the quaintest performance space of the three) - are all within a few minutes walking distance from one other, and the varied size and space of each venue offers a refreshing listening perspective from one group to the next as opposed to music festivals that keep you planted to your seat or patch of grass for an entire day.
One of the festival's strong points is their mission to not only present unique instrument combinations, but also their commitment to presenting musicians and groups who rarely if ever make it to North America, let alone Eastern Canada. This year's 21st anniversary of FIMAV showcased many forms of expression - the many unaccompanied solos perhaps reflected the economics of improvisational music, but it also represents one of the greatest forums and challenges for individual artistic expression. This unique invitation was offered to three European specialists.

The legendary Belgian pianist, veteran improviser, and European music organizer Fred Van Hove created one of the most memorable improvisational solo piano concerts I have ever witnessed. A uniquely gifted pianist of legendary stature whose name and music is inexcusably an unknown entity to most non-European listeners, Van Hove before the concert spoke in an interview of his musical intentions and mission as an improviser which offered a descriptive and revealing preview into what indubitably became the highlight performance of the entire week-long festival for most: "I try very hard to change the sounds from the piano which I play from anyone else playing, but that is very hard work. You can succeed in that; as I always say - when Thelonious Monk played white notes, you knew it was Thelonious Monk. So, there's a way to do it personally. It's obviously not so easy though. If you come to the concert, you will hear that I am trying new techniques to have these sounds come out of the piano."

Without preconceived ideas or compositions, Van Hove stepped up to the piano with a clean slate and a blank mind, as he simply said beforehand, "I go to the piano, and I start." Lofting notes into space, his loose hands - occasionally crisscrossing - gently but rapidly swept each and every finger distinctly across the keys creating a solid and dynamic wave of connected flittering single notes (as opposed to Cecil Taylor's more clustery and at times characteristically frantic and dense playing). With a very natural flowing delivery from one end of the piano to the next, his simultaneous compositional momentum and improvisational sense worked quite literally hand-in-hand in extraordinary fashion. <> His work on the inside of the piano offered an interesting dynamic, utilizing a heavy ball and several brass mouthpieces, summoning an unamplified electric guitar technique reminiscent of Derek Bailey, John Russell, or Marc Ribot, allowing only so much of each note to reverberate. His handling of the slightly smaller in size though similar in weight croquet-like marble ball, created a slide guitar effect bordering on a Japanese koto with Gamelan-like echoes. Alternating between playing at length on the inside of the piano, and then - as if a separate movement within the same piece - returning to the "traditional" playing of the keys, the pianist performed a cyclic multi-dimensional and highly textural spontaneously played composition.

Van Hove's first piece lasted approximately 40 minutes ending in an immediate standing ovation. His second shorter piece had a much more rhythmic-centric component that was locomotive-like in its forward momentum and sheer force, utilizing a recurring dramatic theme in the bass clef with randomly placed treble flurries for heightened urgency as well as quick reprieves with suddenly placed pauses and short-lived rests. A "Flight of the Bumblebee"-like chase between his hands took the intensity of the apex from Ravel's "Bolero" up yet another notch, as my hands even began to hurt as I sat and concentrated, staying on the train without mentally wandering for even a split-second afraid that, otherwise, I would never be able to hop back on if I fell off! With both of his hands working simultaneously in the great stride tradition (e.g. Luckey Roberts and Willie "The Lion" Smith) - Van Hove was even Tatum-esque in his technique and musical ability. The 20-minute finale similarly brought the audience immediately to their feet with thunderous and appreciative applause - ending an event that served as a precursor to his visit a few days later to New York's Vision Festival (where he performed with trombonist Johannes Bauer) - and by all accounts was nothing short of an historic occasion. Many were in agreement to Lavasseur's comments afterwards, "It was a rare moment. It was like seeing one of the giants."

Another solo set was by the near 60-year old French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro whose every tune called for a specific reed change to match the desired timbre and emotion. Nimbly working around the burly horn as if it were his "second" instrument (he left his alto sax across the Atlantic for this occasion), Lazro focused solely at times on the altissimo register while tending to ignore the more natural bottom-end range generally expected from a baritone sax. His style consisted of a miraculous circular breathing technique which maintained a continuous and almost overwhelming and certainly unrelenting delivery through very dense material, including one of his set highlights - an abstract blues dedication to Joe McPhee and Evan Parker (with whom he's recorded and toured as a trio). The closer, Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" offered a reprieve to the set's technically transcendent characteristics, and offered to even the most untrained of ears an invitation to listen in and enjoy what was a festival highlight.

The ever-musical Dutch percussionist Han Bennink - the last of three invited unaccompanied soloists - with two of the strongest ankles and feet in the business, worked his pedals in overdrive, providing extraordinary sights and sounds alike. He stuffed the ends of both his drumsticks in his cheek pockets cranking the sticks counterclockwise while tapping them against his teeth and humming a melody akin to "His Truth Is Marching On"; he took more than one drum solo literally sitting on the ground which he played ignoring his kit altogether - mind you, he had casually yet musically knocked piece by piece of his drum set to the ground in the most rhythmic fashion imaginable (after which he played the portions of his kit while they lay flat on the stage floor!); he also kept time on his cymbals with his drum stool, lightly tapping them with the stool's legs while he transported it from behind his kit to center stage along with his snare (ala Max Roach, Bennink is one of jazz' finest jazz brushers on the snare, ending a portion of a solo appropriately with the Dizzy Gillespie/Kenny Clarke bop anthem "Salt and Peanuts"); and finally Bennink capped off a solo that found him in the middle of the audience rhythmically tossing each of his drumsticks from 15 feet away hitting his cymbals onstage without missing a beat! Like any of the classic rent party pianists from back in the day, Bennink can light up rhythms on just about anything that might be considered a percussive tool, creating the most musical of sentiments that respective "instrument" may have ever known previously and will ever know again.

Also invited to this year's FIMAV were several New York City-based ensembles that, strangely enough, rarely if ever perform here under such guises as the FAB trio, Tim Berne's Expanded Science Friction Band, Ellery Eskelin's trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black, and the so-called "Emergency Replacement Band" of William Parker, Charles Gayle, and Henry Grimes.

The FAB trio (double bassist Joe Fonda, drummer/percussionist Barry Altschul, and violinist Billy Bang), is a collective between two veteran string players and the unheralded Altschul whose sole release to date was last year's Transforming the Space (CIMP). The trio offers intriguing dynamics with the double arco, and likewise double pizzicato, playing of its string instruments inciting Altschul's swing-based circular free-bop based rhythms and solo percussive displays. Through the course of their well-rounded set, the triangular improvisational exchanges showed a multi-dimensionality combined with a solid foundation in jazz, blues, and swing. Eye contact and interaction were a constant throughout, and Fonda and Altschul even pulled a hat trick each for Bang's composition, "For Don Cherry". The former of the two added flute to his arsenal while the latter picked up Fonda's bass and admirably offered a confident bass line before handing it back like a baton after a minute or so to its rightful owner who meanwhile was taking his last breaths on the small wooden wind instrument. Altschul then took a seat behind his kit, and the group returned to its original format while eyeballing one another's every move and expression, facially and instrumentally. Fonda stiff-arms a very direct intense tone from his strings, and after a unanimous standing ovation, it was the his composition "Song for My Mother", the encore, which featured the composer's extended bass technique with occasional coloring provided by Bang who eventually entered melodically though he was surprisingly over-attentive to the sheet music before him (one would have thought, it was presumably a new composition, though in actuality it's an over 16-minute rendition of what they've recorded).

Tim Berne, another New Yorker, brought his Expanded Science Friction Band, which set up in tight formation. Berne in his latest "expanded" edition pairs longtime collaborator Marc Ducret (guitar) against new member David Torn (guitar and electronics). Torn's main concern as the group's second guitarist was of fitting into this already fine-tuned ensemble. He focused his efforts on not overlapping his more synthesized sounds over Craig Taborn's array of electronic creations and vast musical capabilities, rather than concerning himself with Ducret's disparate guitaristic approach. Ducret's style is more an action/reaction of finger on strings, while Torn's is more on general effect, whether feedback, loops, or sounds varying in volume. His loops along with Taborn's electronics and keyboard work (which in comparison to Chick Corea plugged-in is, given, vastly different though arguably far superior) strived to achieve what the laptops and electronic events heard elsewhere during the festival generally failed to accomplish: filling the space without loosing the music's dynamics. Drummer Tom Rainey, consequently, was left ample room for his subtle stick work which ideally suited Berne's flights of fancy and sporadic runs on alto in particular.

There was spirit and purpose in the music, not unrelated random, bland soundscapes, as a swinging at-times music center was always maintained from which the musicians' contributions continued to revolve around. Berne and Ducret's empathy and syncopated lines worked as a singular instrument, while Taborn and Rainey convincingly weaved in their individual improvisations. A well-deserved standing ovation invited the musicians back for an encore that featured the random percussively placed expertise beats of Rainey in and around the similar sporadic-ness of the band before settling into a smooth ballad for the like-mindedness of a breath-heavy Berne and Ducret. The result, a short but sweet vignette called "Twisted".

Ellery Eskelin's trio, the festival opener, was invited to FIMAV to celebrate their 10th anniversary as a group, and their years together showed. It was a taste from home which actually made me feel further away, being that they more frequently are touring across the Atlantic than on North American soil (playing the tune, tragically, of less than once a year here in NYC). The leader's fluent French detected from his introductory and interspersed remarks between tunes was a sure giveaway of his frequent travels (he tours Europe at least twice a year). His NYC-based trio of Andrea Parkins (accordion, sampler) and drummer/percussionist Jim Black featured music that similarly recalled Bernard Hermann's Hitchcock scores, Tom Waits' subtle yet wacky musical arrangements, and West African Yoruban chants and Olatunji-influenced drum circles, as well as reminders of New York's "musical" city-life sounds. All of which was wrapped in a tight swinging jazz trio consisting of one of the more unique instrumentations found, providing a constant three-way textural interaction of lively improvisations and fresh collective statements throughout.

The very strong set was top-notch, suiting this festival's profile (if there is one) like a glove with its dedicated improvisational and experimental nature of as much music as musical sounds and effects. Parkins was attentive to every breath Eskelin made, playing parallel lines and consciously offering occasional counterpoint that alternated and overlapped his deep delivery of bellowed notes. One had to be conscientious of their seating in the cinema for the best listening vantage point which was always a good ten rows back center (otherwise the amplification became an unfortunate distraction from either side with the tower of speakers that deemed itself unnecessary for more of the non-electronic, primarily acoustic and "jazz"-oriented music in particular).

And then there was the last-minute invitation of double-bassists William Parker and Henry Grimes with Charles Gayle on alto. Parker affectionately called them the "Emergency Replacement Band", as they subbed for the ailing Derek Bailey, who was to play with John Zorn and Ikue Mori. The trio performed for the first time during their sound check, and the set itself served as a taster to their highly anticipated appearance a week later here in New York at the Vision Festival with the addition of two more bassists, Sirone and Alan Silva, which wound up being as overblown an affair as well. Parker played predominantly fast-paced walking pizzicato lines over Grimes' rushed arco, and the two occasionally role-swapped. Grimes' short, quick stroke technique was unrelenting, in effect removing any space or breathing room out from under the music itself. Gayle's pure, strong, spirited, and imaginative lines on alto were both harsh and warm delivered with a characteristic intense tone. He would have been much more successful, though, with one less bassist, or even as the fourth invited unaccompanied soloist to the festival. Gayle fluttered overtones that were at once slow then jumpy, but for 45 minutes there lacked any character development in the collective (an occupational hazard for many under-rehearsed avant-garde ensembles); Gayle at least kept things musical and interesting as the focal point. It was the much shorter near 5-minute second number that made their set worthwhile, however, featuring a briefly unaccompanied and much more patient and resonant Grimes.

Of the Canadian and European groups, the longtime duo of virtuosi François Houle (clarinets) and Benoît Delbecq (prepared piano) offered another highlight. Theirs served as a polar-opposite performance to the aforementioned "Emergency Replacement Band" as far as utilization of space. Houle is a clarinetist from the other side of Canada in Vancouver who is equally influenced by Jimmy Giuffre and the late John Carter as he is by modern classical composers such as Conlon Nancarrow and Ligeti as was evidenced in the encore performance "Nancali", a compositional tribute piece to both composers as well as the title track to the duo's excellent 1997 release on Songlines. Houle blew on two clarinets simultaneously and then one like it was a shakuhachi flute, conjuring up a world of sounds as similarly did Delbecq who utilized a partially prepared piano that created wooden and metallic percussive sounds alike conjuring up marimbas and steel pans. Outwitting even the best of sampler specialists, these two made electronic experimentation superfluous, naturally creating a cornucopia of colors and effects simply with their hands and breath. With eyes closed, the mere twosome quite literally expanded into a small ensemble whose creations were unquestionably musical, yet always pushing the brink of experimentalism, spontaneity, and music forms. Delbecq occasionally added or adjusted his array of objects in the strings of the piano's inside mid-way through his improvisations, as Houle would play his clarinet whole, then separate and play only the top half portion of his instrument, showing his in-depth mastery in the worlds of jazz and new classical in particular which were evident compositionally and via their complex improvisations.

English reedman John Butcher, who's developed a language on the saxophone closely linked to fellow countryman Evan Parker's (incorporating circular breathing, clicks, pops, and single-note variations), flutters breaths through his mouthpiece making one wonder whether such sounds have ever been recreated through a horn. Such a convincing likeness of blowing bubbles from under water one moment, then inspirational if only occasional licks reminiscent of Johnny Hodges circa '20s Ellingtonia, and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" the next. Alternating between tenor and soprano, Butcher notelessly breathed through his horns, warming up to the hints of an actual note before kissing without the puckered exclamation, conjuring up all sorts of images through an amazing (though occasionally electronically processed), generally unadulterated vocabulary. Interestingly enough, the trio's pre-encore captured Butcher's soloistic nature at its best, a context that can be at times difficult to listen to him outside of at least in the realm of his more "jazzier" music projects. His trio of Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer) and Andy Moor (electric guitar) were at their most spaciously empathetic towards the closing of their set.

Other "jazz" events included ECM clarinetist Louis Sclavis' Napoli's Walls, Montreal trombonist Tom Walsh's NOMA, Quebec guitar veteran Andre Duchesne, Englishman and AMM founding member Keith Rowe's minimalist "Four Gentleman of the Guitar" project, and American guitarist Vernon Reid who rocked more than jazzed even in his rendition of Monk's "Brilliant Corners" (which he dedicated to the recently departed Elvin Jones). Lori Freedman played a creative bass clarinet and clarinet with the unnecessary accompaniment of Kaffe Matthews who provided superfluous and disconnected sounds on computer laptop and digital sampler that distracted and muffled Freedman's intent more than complemented the overall impact of the music, while percussionist Cyro Baptista' Beat the Donkey group turned out to be the most highly attended crowd-pleaser. Their exhausting performance took place in the largest of the three spaces and was as much performance art as an extravaganza of percussive syncopation. Think Blue Man Group and Max Roach's M'Boom meets a Bobby McFerrin vocal ensemble fronting the Afro Celt Sound System and you're pretty close.

This music festival is neither for the faint of heart nor for those lacking "open ears", and jazz fans certainly have their pick of some adventurous music interspersed within a growing trend of electronics. The spirit of improvisation, which is at the very root of what separates "jazz" from most forms of music, is placed at the forefront of their events, which likewise borrow the concept of freedom and expression, two of the more significant elements inherent in "jazz". With much of the programming bringing up the age old question of what is art, or rather what is music in this case, FIMAV served as a platform for encouraging experimentation which generally succeeded on most fronts, occasionally falling short elsewhere. Kudos to festival organizer Levasseur, who again was centrally responsible for one of more original music festival programs in existence, especially where the very nature of jazz and its foundation of improvisation is concerned.

In this day and age where so-called "jazz" festivals hypocritically feature the likes of Al Green, Buddy Guy, or Lou Reed - FIMAV does not function under the misrepresentation of being a "jazz" festival even though it is much more that than most others under such auspices. It presents as diversified a music program as possible annually, and Levasseur's closing remarks hit the nail on the head in this era of music labeling: "Improvisation is a much stronger word than jazz, as is originality, creativity, and humanity." As stated in the FIMAV program, their mandate clearly states what's most important in who and what they present: "The discovery, the creative risk, the new...all with respect to tradition...and continuation!"

Visit FIMAV on the web at .

Photo Credit
Martin Morissette

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