Jazz em Agosto 2008: Days 1-3
Jazz em Agosto
August 1-3, 2008
Jazz em Agostojazz in Augustis 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 Mitchella 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.