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Live Reviews

Jazz em Agosto 2008: Days 1-3

By Published: August 15, 2008
Days 1-3 | Days 4-6
Jazz em Agosto
Lisbon, Portugal
August 1-3, 2008



Jazz em Agosto—jazz in August—is the centerpiece of the jazz calendar in Lisbon, and it's a singular event, one that combines uncompromising music at the cutting edge of the art form with a setting that makes the most of the Portuguese capital's climate. It's a chance to hear some brilliant music in a city and region that are both tremendously beautiful and rich in history. Both the setting and the support for the festival come from the Gulbenkian Foundation, a charitable endowment that sponsors both medical research and the arts and which has given Lisbon a large park that contains a museum, modern and traditional art galleries and several performance spaces, among them an outdoor amphitheatre that's a celebration of the balmy Lisbon nights. Rings of concrete seats surround a stage with a sophisticated light cage surmounting it. Behind the stage is a grassy area like an African savannah, while all about there is a sea of trees cascading over each other, from palm to coniferous and deciduous, all rustling against each other in the evening breeze, testament to Lisbon's astonishing capacity to grow things. A silver-coloured broadleaf tree ranges overhead, while the shadow of an ornamental cedar rockets upward, all brought to surreal heights with the changing lights.

2008 marks the 25th anniversary of the festival, which began modestly in 1984. There were four concerts that year, each by a local performer (though Maria Joao would soon be an international artist), and they occurred once a week throughout the month. That pattern continued for a while, not really a festival pattern at all, but the artists changed and eventually so too did the format, events becoming increasingly concentrated in a week or on two successive weekends. The performers shifted largely from the local to international artists, often with an emphasis on musicians on the cutting edge: Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor have all appeared in Jazz em Agosto. The festival has varied in scale. At one point it reached an extraordinary 38 events including workshops and screenings, but in recent years it has usually mounted around ten performances with a few ancillary film screenings and discussions. It's not going to compete quantitatively with some more expansive festivals, but it has achieved an extraordinary level of quality.

In that beautiful physical setting, Artistic Director Rui Neves virtually orchestrates the festival. Brought in to create a distinct festival in 1985, he left in 1991 and returned in 2000. Neves is a man with a vision, and he often programs projects that are rarely heard outside CD collections and their home turf. He likes big projects and challenging artists and coherent themes. Sometimes the theme is national: in 2004 he programmed a host of bands from the Vancouver free jazz scene, opening with the enormous NOW Orchestra under George Lewis's direction. Two years later a Coltrane-themed festival opened with an expanded Rova's rarely performed Electric Ascension. In 2007, the theme was the lower register and there was a plethora of bands combining low-frequency instruments, including a tuba quartet and two bands with three bass players each. That same year he opened with George Lewis in trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell—a singular incarnation of the musical achievement and collective spirit of the AACM, but one rarely heard beyond the contemporaneous CD. Another recent year opened with the Globe Unity Orchestra.



Day 1: August 1



For 2008 the festival theme is extensions, and that can be taken in terms of geographic extension as well as carrying forward. Split over two weekends, the first weekend, August 1-3, focused on the music of Japan with an addition nod to the late Eric Dolphy. This year started with an extraordinary project rarely heard outside Japan: Otomo Yoshihide's 14-member New Jazz Orchestra. Even the name has an intriguing irony. That "New" may in part not be new at all but a reference to the New Jazz label of the early 60s that launched many of the first recordings of John Coltrane, Steve Lacy and, most significantly for Yoshihide's project, Eric Dolphy, the late multi-reed player who was a brilliant presence on more of the most important jazz records of the early sixties than any other musician.



Yoshihide's performance began in the soft, wordless vocalizing of Kahimi Karie against Cor Fuhler's rattled and scraped piano strings, guitar and bass joining in until improvisation suddenly broke into a tune, Dolphy's "Hat and Beard," a composition dedicated to Thelonious Monk that first appeared on the album Out to Lunch. That theme led in turn to a free tempo improvisation that would range from the subtle detailing of Yoshihide's guitar against Axel D?rner's trumpet to the post- punk noise of Mats Gustafsson's baritone and Yoshihide's over-driven guitar. "Something Sweet, Something Tender" followed, also from Out to Lunch as the Dolphy invocation became increasingly specific. Following a long improvisation between bass and baritone saxophone (that seemed to include a passing reference to "Stormy Weather," a pop song memorably etched by Dolphy with Charles Mingus). There was more Dolphy to come— "Straight Up and Down," also from Out to Lunch—but there was also Yoshihide's own music, including "Lost in the Rain," an incredibly complex drone employing every instrument on the Orchestra. In the near-forest of the Gulbenkian it took on the life of a vast insect hum. As an encore, the band played "Looking up at the Stars in the Night Sky," a song popular in Japan in the sixties.



Day 2: August 2



In the afternoon the festival screened filmmaker Hans Hylkema's ,em>Eric Dolphy: Last Date, his 1991 account of the great multi-instrumentalist's last month alive, June 1964, filtered through the recording released as Last Date. Most arresting are the images of Dolphy's practice room and interviews with California associates Buddy Collette and Roy Porter. There are also interviews with the musicians Dolphy played with on Last Date: Han Bennink reads from a diary he kept at the time, while Misha Mengelberg's recollection is refreshingly combative. The featured band was Satoko Fujii's Min-Doh Ensemble. Her most lyrical performing unit, it combines her piano with Andrea Parkins' accordion and laptop and the brass of trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring.

A fascinating grouping, it began with a storm of sound, dense chromatic clouds of piano cut through by knife-edge brass and an odd breathing in and out of accordion. It was a dramatic opening for a subtle performance that often emphasized brass overtone patterns and an intense sensitivity to timbre, often employing its voices in solo and duet formations. The program was a mix of Fujii's broad-ranging compositions and traditional Japanese folk songs, and the music seemed particular attuned to the urban garden of the amphitheatre setting. A duck quacked loudly as the band took the stage, while airplanes passing overhead (Lisbon has its airport in the city core) managed to coincide with both the opening and closing notes of the performance. Fujii herself was using the piano interior almost as much as the keyboard, employing metallic resonators and sliding glass to create a rich tapestry of sound.



Tamura is an intriguing trumpeter, one whose experiments with sonority have taken him deep into Japanese traditional music, his half-valves and bent tones often suggesting the wail of the shakuhachi, wistful, elusive and breathy until sometimes not a hint of trumpet remains in his sound. At other times there's a jazz-based lyrical intensity that suggests deep roots in Miles Davis. The sonic elements in Fujii and Tamura's playing receive greater emphasis in this context and they're expanded on with Parkins' highly electronic use of the accordion, often creating feedback and percussive effects, and Hasselbring's beautiful upper register and his own near-shakuhachi-like sounds combined with extensive use of quarter-tones. Every trombonist has a slide, but Hasselbring also has the ears to use it. Register was almost a point of play between the brass, Hasselbriing with an upper-register sweetness evocative of Tommy Dorsey, and Tamura exploring a lower register few musicians have uncovered. In the concluding traditional song, "Kariboshi Kiriuta," Fujii—a skilful practitioner of traditional music—added her voice to the performance while Tamura seemed to play a duet with himself, shifting between flute and trumpet timbres and high and low registers. The group's repertoire has been very well captured on their Victo CD from 2006.



Day 3: August 3



Day three commenced with a screening of A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky, Claudia Heuermann's highly self-referential film about John Zorn's music. While the film's structure may suffer from some dramatic self-consciousness, it's an effective portrait of Zorn as composer and personality, both intense and multi- dimensional. (There's an intriguing moment when Zorn chides "visual" jazz critics for comparing the band Masada to Ornette Coleman solely because of the quartet's instrumentation. Later there's a filmed passage of the quartet in which Zorn pays a dead-on imitation of Coleman). Filmed over a decade, there are plenty of terrific snippets of Zorn performances, highlighted by appearances of co-workers from Bill Frisell and Joey Baron to Yamashita Eye and Dave Lombardo.

The last of the Japanese bands to perform was the youthful trio PAAP, formerly called Radar and with CDs released on both the Tzadik and Bikemondo label. For any listener, there are performances that one just doesn't get, and for any festival that takes genuine chances there may be a performance that can both create and raise a collective eyebrow. Evidently led by bassist and vocalist Inada Makoto, PAAP (completed by saxophonist Mizutani Yasuhisa and pianist/accordionist Katori Kouichirou) generally possessed limited instrumental command, nor were there any strongly developed personal or group vocabularies. Yasuhisa, however limited, was the most adept of the three, while Kouichirou was the most musically interesting, generating runs and clusters that were genuinely random. The music was generally subdued except for the shouted/ screamed vocals of Makoto who seemed to exercise far more control over the other musicians— dictating the instruments they would play on any given piece—than he did over his bass, depending at great length (over ten minutes at one point) on open strings drummed with a bow. I do not understand Japanese, so the lyrics may have possessed a significance and relevance that was lost on me. There may have been a corresponding theatrical dimension too—something like Ionesco's The Lesson—that eluded me.



The weekend concluded with a duo performance by John Zorn and Fred Frith, Zorn a fitting conclusion to the first weekend of the festival as the person who has done the most to introduce contemporary Japanese music to the West. Zorn and Frith have been working together in different projects for three decades, including one of the Zorn's most celebrated projects: Naked City. They've also worked extensively as an improvising duo, so they were able to call on decades of close interaction as well as a vast arsenal of extended techniques for this performance.

Beyond those techniques, what made the duo so successful was the freedom they exercised in choosing levels of interaction. There were clearly moments when they were attuned to the most microscopic nuance in one another's lines, arriving at some stunning unison concords, often on dramatic high notes; at other times they seemed free to simply co-exist in time and space, each setting up an independent barrage of sounds, whether it was Zorn simultaneously combining reed squeals, circular breathing and bits of scales or Frith rapidly shifting from upright to horizontal guitar positions, de-tuning, inserting various ad hoc bridges and dampers to subdivide the strings, or attacking the instrument with pick, paint brush and bow. As unlikely as it might seem, the results were superbly musical, the highlight coming with Zorn trilling to extended drone lengths while Frith beat a complex rhythmic accompaniment on the guitar. Each played an extended solo to demarcate the three extended duets, with Frith finding orchestral levels of complexity as he combined loops and delays to overlap a host of rhythmic attacks and diverse sounds. While Zorn has accumulated extended techniques from every available source, including the squall of the Sun Ra altoists Marshall Allen and Danny Davis and the multiphonics of Evan Parker, he has a fundamental affinity of sound and line with certain post- Coltrane altoists like Sonny Fortune and Gary Bartz, a hard-edged modal purity that he applied with telling effect to the Masada themes that sometimes emerged here.

After a break of three days, Jazz em Agosto continues the theme of extensions with performances by the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet, Memorize the Sky, Sylvie Courvoisier's Lonelyville, a solo performance by percussionist Fritz Hauser, an accordion/bass duet with Pascal Contet and Barre Phillips, and a grand finale with Peter Brotzmann's multi-generational Chicago Tentet.

Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

Photo Credit

Joaquim Mendes / Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation



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