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Live Reviews

Jazz Em Agosto 2007

By Published: October 7, 2007
Jazz em Agosto 2007
Gulbenkian Foundation
Lisbon, Portugal
August 3-5, 9-11

The bass clef gets little love in music — always the bridesmaid, as it were. Flying to the upper octaves represents exhilaration while a bass solo is often seen as an opportunity to chat or go to the bathroom. But the 2007 edition of Lisbon's Jazz em Agosto paid tribute to the lower register. With just 11 sets over nine days time, the stages on the grounds of the Gulbenkian Foundation were graced with ten basses and five tubas
Living legend Ornette Coleman presented his new band, now up to three basses; the Norwegian group Crimetime Orchestra featured two basses and a baritone sax; and contrabassist extraordinaire Jöelle Léandre appeared solo as well as with the group Quartet Noir. Joe Fonda included a tuba in his low-end Bottom's Out, and Portuguese tubist Sérgio Carolino led a quintet with three other tubas and drums.
Along with the focus on deep pitch, the festival featured minimalist improv (Quartet Noir and the excellent French band Hubbub) and funky groove (Crimetime and the Swiss group Ronin), and some innovative groupings of like voices (Carolino's Low Frequency Tuba Band and the a cappella quartet, Timbre), not to mention a fair share of pioneers in the history of contemporary improvisation: Coleman's quintet closed the fest, and the trio of Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell opened the first night.
Without a rhythm section, Abrams was the closest thing the trio had to percussion, and at times Lewis was particularly keened to him, almost playing the part of bassist as Mitchell held the front with his horn-defying multiphonics. Lewis spent brief moments at the laptop, processing Mitchell's sax and his own trombone and kneading in ambient sounds. He seemed restless, using the computer like a real-time instrument, sauntering back and forth between horn and computer but never letting the electronics ring freely. Abrams's playing was often sparse, letting single, sustained notes or chords hover, sometimes waiting minutes between interjections. Mitchell, meanwhile, ran overlapping lines on flute and saxophones, but even he came off as more subdued than usual. It was a far cry from their remarkable 2006 album Streaming, but was nevertheless a gorgeous set.

If they were striking new ground — in their short history as a trio or their overlapping careers stretching back to the '60s, Coleman used a new group to reach even further back to his earliest records.

Playing a white saxophone, and picking up his trumpet or violin for only the briefest of moments, Coleman led the band through rapid-fire short songs with the basses (one arco, one plucked and one electric) churning like the muddy Mississippi (or perhaps the Tigris) in the middle. The good news was that despite a recent health scare its owner, Coleman's saxophone sounded as bright and buoyant as ever. The Bach prelude from Tone Dialing showed the group to be more focused yet adventurous than the final Prime Time lineup. Without the crisp electric guitar, Al MacDowell stretched to the top of his electric bass neck to fill out the group's sound, but Coleman's sax was the only thing really at the forefront. Soloing—or at least stretching out — might be the primary vehicle for the practice of Coleman's harmolodics, and as such the quintet might do less harmolodicizing than did previous groups, but that didn't hurt the music. It was free in spirit but constrained by time, bursts of energy with no space to wander. Elsewhere, the new quintet has done concerts with very long pieces. Coleman might be using this group to loop his long career into a single piece, by reintroducing "Lonely Woman into the songbook and having the band play in styles from different decades of his trajectory. If that's so, then in Lisbon they were firmly rooted in his Atlantic years.

Portugal's own free-improv legend, Carlos Zingaro, made his first appearance at the festival, in a duo with Jorge Lima Barreto. The pianist's thick, heavy chord clusters (Barreto even playing at one point wearing oven mitts), his liberal use of the sustain pedal and small electronic sound-makers came off as a series of barbs tossed his duet partner's way. He threw an uneven array of sounds at Zingaro, who responded with taut bold lines. If improvisation is a conversation, theirs was heated but gentlemanly.

Zingaro is perhaps best known outside his home country for his work with Léandre, but unfortunately they didn't appear together on the program. She did give an impressive solo recital, including compositions by John Cage and Scelsi, as well as Taxi, her own composition about traveling with a big double bass, and several improvisations. Léandre moves so quickly between "traditional playing and "extended technique that the two become one approach—like trying to make a meaningful distinction between consonants and vowels: it can be defined, but you don't use those rules when you talk.

With Quartet Noir, she created fast, graceful, delicate, small movements like a swarm of gnats circling in the light, but singing. It was a surprising half-hour before the group seemed to break into solos. Pianist Marilyn Crispell was the first to take off, and then only for a couple of minutes. Saxophonist Urs Leimgruber moved from quiet flutter to loud, noteless exhalations, persistently repeating forced tones as if calling to the ducks that inhabit the foundation grounds. Fritz Hauser, a parade bass drum next to his kit, manipulated the skins with deft variety. The aesthetics overrode the egos, but the shared mission made all of their voices come through all the more clearly. A shorter second piece ended with instruments fading, then whistling, then tidying up, Urs noisily banging a chair around, Joelle wiping down her bass, Fritz folding his laundry, Marilyn, ever sweet, watching, smiling, then they slowly danced to the rear of the stage and flew off, flapping their arms.

Hubbub—a quintet of two saxophones, piano, guitar and drums—proceeded with a similarly unilateral intensity. From the outset, they all reached for the same monolithic prize. There was plenty of drama, but watching them robbed their music of the mystery evoked by their recordings. Their sounds seem to come from nowhere, and seeing them play unfairly divided them into separates. Textural guitar and breathy saxophones moved slowly behind the deceivingly quick piano and percussion, creating a taut tension.

A good festival programmer knows to mix it up, to toss some fun in with the high-minded abstractions. Low Frequency did convincing interpretations, with effects and tongue-pop percussion, of Hendrix, Zappa and The Beatles, with especially impressive soloing from Oren Marshall. The 12-piece Crimetime were strong- armed but not heavy-handed, traditional (in a Mingus/Mancini continuum) but still fresh. They played a long suite with good solos and sparing, effective use of electronics, better than the Charlie's Angels theme but not as good as Ellington's music for Anatomy of a Murder. And Ronin's syncopated maracas, electric bass and Fender Rhodes built into something between Miles Davis and Philip Glass, then emptied into jam rock.

Bottom's Out were, likewise, there to entertain. Fonda filled walking bass lines with double time, double stops and subtle variations. His accompaniment was more interesting then his own soloing, even. As in the Fonda Stevens groups, or his duo with Anthony Braxton (recently reissued by the Portuguese label Clean Feed), Fonda is always an inventive support man. The unusual instrumentation (Joe Daley on tuba, Claire Daly on baritone sax, Gebhard Ullman on bass clarinet, Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon and Gerry Hemingway on drums) wasn't just for show: the bassoon got the best solo of the night, and Rabinowitz insisted on melody in the midst of a stellar, scratchy-improv encore.

A different level of enjoyment— rather like a TV show in the midst of a film festival—was offered by the vocal group Timbre, featuring Lauren Newton, another frequent Léandre collaborator, and occasionally augmented by singer Bertl Mütter's trombone. They filled the room (moving from back to front) with harmonies and devotional chants, breaking language into phonemes and finally breaking from elongated tones to percussive improv. They stood out, oddly enough, for making the prettiest sounds of the fest. And while a bit of discord might serve them well, they served to brighten up the festival program. In a context like the one programmer Rui Neves creates every year, pretty music can prove to be challenging in its own way.

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