Vision Festival 2010: Day 6, June 28, 2010
Since Kowald's death, they decided to carry on collaborating together as a duo, but always leaving a space for the departed bassist. Perhaps that explains one of the reasons this pairing works so well: the use both make of silence, contrasting long pauses with exuberant tempests of sound. Evidence of their rapport can readily be found on their only release to date: Wisdom in Time (Intakt, 2007). However there is a further significant ingredient to their success, that goes beyond the musical, which is the visual element added by Sommer's theatricality, well in evidence this evening. While the German is not quite at the Han Bennink level in the drummer as showman stakes, he could be a contender.
An explosive drum attack from Sommer matched by a brief vocal shout from Smith broke the anticipatory hush, which was then allowed to prevail again before the drummer essayed a more open soundscape of gongs and cymbals into which Smith interjected his annunciatory blues drenched trumpet. Sommer switched to brushes which he not only swept over his kit but swooshed through the air, creating phantom percussive components. Against this rolling cadence, the trumpeter engraved sustained tones. Like Sommer, he was very precise and deliberate in what he did, yet simultaneously inspired and even impetuous.
With his short cropped white hair, walrus moustache and expressive features, the German was already a charismatic presence, a quality only exacerbated by his playing antics. At one point he beat his kit with a shaker in one hand and what looked like a broom head in the other. He kept time in crisp bursts, occasionally with vocal shouts, which prompted the American to add some tongue clicks to his trumpet line, generating a reciprocal structure. After rising to strike a prayer bowl, the drummer moved away from his kit entirely, adding a spatial dimension to the show, with a gong which he struck and aired across the stage around the unperturbed, immobile but intensely focused American. Though undeniably entertaining, the sonic output of Sommer's capers was never less than integral to the performance.
While well versed in each other's idioms, their responses still avoided the obvious. So when Smith suddenly erupted with a raucous blast, Sommer's reaction was to stop, the ensuing silence allowing the trumpeter's fizzing overtones to reverberate. Then after that fleeting cessation he unleashed his own complementary onslaught, establishing a tremendous loping rhythm over which Smith burned with majestic fanfares. But again displaying a penchant for the unexpected, the brassman changed tack to gurgle, splutter and wheeze. Typical of all Smith's oeuvre, there was that compositional sensibility even in an extemporized context which distinguishes the great improvisors from the merely good. The audience agreed with a standing ovation after the first installment.
To much laughter, Sommer began the second piece by smiting his kit with the towel he had been using to mop his brow. In sympathy the trumpeter beat time on the floor with a mute. After a long interval the drummer launched a cantering tattoo against which Smith pitched distant muted trumpet, illustrative of the impressive use of volume as an expressive device by this duo. Sommer again augmented the musical with the visual (why are so many of the most visual performers European/non American?) by employing long red plastic tubes as drumsticks, later to be replaced by bright orange gourd-like shakers.
During a lull, the German inserted a whistle in his mouth and then blew a full on rhythmic barrage above the meter demarcated by the orange shakers, over which the trumpeter waxed incandescent, until they stopped as abruptly as their set started. It was a consummate end and elicited another standing ovation. Even with air conditioning in the hall it felt hot and Smith was clearly soaked in perspiration. Both men had put a lot into it and the only shame was that they weren't able to play for longer than 35 minutes. Nonetheless it was another of the festival's high points.
In the intimate setting of downstairs theater, Azares played between sets in the main stage. Leader Jean Carla Rodea has assembled an intriguing cast: Joe Morris' name has the highest profile, and with him centrally positioned, but their performance came across as a collective venture, with the only composition from drummer Gerald Cleaver's pen. As often the case with improvised music, they began incrementally with vocal moans and wails from Rodea, Joachim Badenhorst's insistently probing clarinet, and Morris' guitar scuttling and then built inexorably from there.