Montréalaise Phillippe Lauzier and Pierre-Yves Martel bridged the border in a quartet with Norwegian guitarist Kim Myrh and Australian saxophonist Jim Denley, making not just an international ensemble but an intriguing double duo of strings and horns, with Martel's reeds and Lauzier's viol de gamba pairing with the travelers in a constantly shifting quest toward quartethood.
The trio of Catherine Jauniaux, Malcolm Goldstein and Barre Phillips represented an even greater degree of border-hopping.Goldstein and Phillips are both US-born, although the former lives in Montreal and the latter in France, where the Belgium-born Jauniaux also makes her home. Phillips was the common denominator here. He's worked with Jauniaux (see While You Were Out, their recent CD with Ned Rothenberg on Kadima), and it was at a gig he played with Goldstein that Jauniaux suggested the trio. So it was, in a sense, a familiar premiere, a trio of two duos, or a conversation among friends (and occasionally birds). They played sometimes abstract yet quite coherent spontaneous songs with a deep cohesion. When Barre tickled his bass, Jauniaux laughed. If Jauniaux emphasized, Goldstein underscored. If Goldstein swayed, Phillips slid. And if Jauniaux growls, both men paid attention.
The European ensembles were a like blend of improv and high structure. Former New Yorker Charlemagne Palestine played with German minimalist improvisors Perlonex. (Palestine would object to the term: during a festival press conference he announced, "I make enough of a racket with one finger that it's not minimalism.") Those familiar with the usual antics of "Charlemagne the Charlatan" may have been disappointed in his tame behavior, but that perhaps allowed more room for the music to happen. They started as a trio plus one, an initial drone from Perlonex so it was up to Palestine to respond, or not to respond, and in either event certainly not hurriedly. He opened on the rim of his cognac snifter (imbibing for pitch adjustment) then adding faintly repeating piano notes. After 10 minutes, the piano grew louder, then was replaced by his nasal, falsetto chanting. While one could debate about who did the most heavy lifting, Palestine was soon clearly anchoring the proceedings. Another 10 minutes in and the trio had risen to subsume him, only to be met by his hollering. With the primal scream, they found peace, and found their quartet; by the half hour mark, all became churchlike.
Two other Euro impro groups proved to be positively sublime, most notably a group called "Six" led by Jacques Demmierre and Urs Leimgruber. They were, at first, a very quiet sextet, even with the often boisterous Thomas Lehn on analogue synth. The reeds of Leimgruber and Houle (the only North American in the group) produced a backing of prolonged tones and breaths, while Demmierre's piano and Charlotte Hug's violin supplied more melodic moments then might be expected. The talented, under-recognized and under-recorded Dorothea Schürch appeared with a singing saw, although the sounds produced by her on that saw weren't any closer to singing than her own vocal techniques. The ensemble could have been seen as a triple duo (two women with vocals and bowed things, two men with reeds, and two men playing percussive non drum things), although they didn't meet in such a way. Rather they arrived fully as sextet, pushing the volume during the second half of their set.
The French / Norwegian quartet of Xavier Charles, Ivar Grydeland, Christian Wallumrød and Ingar Zach played with plenty of drama, somewhat alternately between pulse and drone and never quite sparse; always rich with sound, but never quite busy or propulsive. Grydeland's guitar was heavy at times, while his banjo was used to great tonal-percussive effect. They played with an extraordinary delicacy, often feeling like the precise inner workings of some strange, complex clock, things always falling together somehow.