Enjoy Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: November 11-13, 2010
Now more than a decade old, the Anglo/Norwegian improvising collective Food has gone through its share of changes. Initially a quartet featuring drummer Thomas Stronen, saxophonist Iain Ballamy, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and, first, bassist Mats Eilertsen and then Tim Harries, the group was cut in half to a duo a few years back, when Henriksen, Eilertsen and Harries' schedules were simply too busy to make further commitments to the group. Food continued as a duo, even performing as such at the 2006 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway. But more often, in recent times, the duo of Strønen and Ballamywhich also includes the use of electronics to expand considerably its sonic potentialhas worked with guests. Quiet Inlet (2010), the group's first for ECM after a string of releases on the Norwegian Rune Grammofon label, featured guitarist Christian Fennesz and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, but only individually, the two not recording together on any of Quiet Inlet's seven improvised tracks.
Which only made the quartet's Enjoy Jazz appearance at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache ("Old Firehouse") all the more special. This time, all four played together, in an evening that drew an enthusiastic responseso much so, that after a loudly demanded and well-deserved encore, the group had to come back out onstage for a final bow to appease the still cheering crowd, with one particularly enthusiastic fan running up to the stage to tell them just how much he enjoyed the 100-minute show.
The set highlighted the strengths of all four musicians. Strønen, a remarkable colorist who combined innovation on his kit with equally forward-thinkingand, oftentimes, simultaneoususe of drum pads to trigger all manner of sounds, from bells and tuned percussion to otherworldly electronics, was equally capable of a powerful backbeat, as he drove the set's closer to its inevitable conclusion; Ballamy, just as adept at the electronics, but even more impressive on tenor and soprano saxophone, eschewing displays of virtuosity that have been well proven in the past with groups like drummer Bill Bruford's first Earthworks band on albums such as Stamping Ground (Summerfold, 1995) and his own nostalgic More Jazz (Basho, 2007); Fennesz, a sound sculptor whose main instrument may be guitarand there were times when it was clear, as he layered expansively overdriven chords as the group pushed to a louder climaxbut equally a creator of alien landscapes above and below the melodic, horn-driven frontline; and Molvær, whose career has been on an upward trajectory for years, but has demonstrated particular growth this past year, with the release of Hamada (Sula, 2009), as well as performances like his stunning set at Molde Jazz 2010, with guitarist Stian Westerhus and drummer Erland Dahlen, just about blew the roof off of Kulturhuset Klubb.
Together, it was clear that the group was both constantly searching...and finding. New ideas abounded by the minute as, at one point in the set, Molvær walked closer to Ballamy and encouraged the saxophonist to blow through the microphone attached to his trumpet, which was in turn processed along with Molvær's own lines. The result was exciting, and filled with the sense that something new and important had just happened. Strønen was an endless wellspring of ideas, as he seamlessly moved between his kit and his electronics, with a sense of construction that did more than create pulse and color, it created narrativeas the drummer would punctuate an idea, for example, by pulling the tip of his stick along the top of his cymbal and, at the same time, driving the point home with a single, thunderous push from his bass drum.
Nils Petter Molvær
A combination of ethereal atmospherics and, even for Food, surprisingly grounded rhythms made it a performance to remember. With a set this strong, hopefully the combination of Strønen, Ballamy, Fennesz and Molvær won't be a one-time event.
Day 5: Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers
After a week of spacey free improvisation, progressive rock antics and groundbreaking solo performance, Enjoy Jazz returned to the mainstream for its Friday night show at Ludwigshafen's Konzertsaal Pfalzbau, with Cuban piano master Chucho Valdes and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers. The capacity crowd came for a party, and Valdés and his crack bandtrumpet and saxophone, bass, drums and two percussionistsdelivered, in a set that lasted only about 95 minutes including encore, but nearly blew the roof off the venue at various points.
Valdés, 70 next year, and moving a little slower for ituntil, that is, he sat down at the pianowasted no time pushing the energy up with the first tune, that also featured percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé Bata on vocals, and a lengthy opening solo from the pianist that set the tone for the entire concert: barring two ballads, high energy dance musicmuch of it culled from the pianist's latest, Chucho's Steps (World Village, 2010)of greater rhythmic complexity under the hood, with testosterone-filled solo features for everyone in the band. Valdés seamlessly tossed in quotes from familiar music like George Gershwin's enduring "Rhapsody in Blue," and played with a combination of lithe linear dexterity and driving voicings, and while he was situated on the far side of stage right (in this large venue, where the sound was somewhat less than ideal, the group was, perhaps, spread out a little too far for comfort, but it didn't seem to affect the communication going on across the board), he was clearly the center, the focal point, for both the band and the audience.
From left: Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé Bata, Yaroldy Abreu Robles
The music was also often defined, despite its inherent danceability, by tempo and meter changes, all executed with the effortless ease of a clearly well-rehearsed ensemble. Individual performances were stellar, but especially drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro, whose solo early in the seton "Zawinul's Mambo," which also gave an Afro-Cuban vibe to the late Joe Zawinul's megahit for Weather Report, "Birdland"raised the roof and pushed the already energized audience into even higher gear, while saxophonist Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez and trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Álvarez delivered Valdés' high velocity themes with muscular aplomb. Near the end of the tune, the group returned to "Birdland" territory, with Lázaro Eivero Alarcónlargely appearing emotionless, but occasionally cracking just the slightest of wry grins to show he was, indeed, enjoying himselftransferring the late Jaco Pastorius' iconic fretless bass line to his acoustic bass.
From left: Lázaro Eivero Alarcón, Juan Carlos Rojas Castro
Valdés constantly changed the line-up, from septet to quintet and, on one occasion, down to a trio, which gave the performance some important diversity, and if there was any single criticism, it was that the performances were, with the exception of one ballad, relentlessly busy, with every solo leading to a flurried climax that, while undeniably indicative of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers' singular and collective virtuosity, could have benefitted from a little spaceeven on the ballads, including Valdés' lovely "Begin to Be Good."
Still, that was a sentiment clearly not shared by the majority of the audience, as Valdés paced the show to whip it into a frenzy, with a few brave women even venturing near the stage during the set closer, to dance and let the band know, as did the entire audience, with its enthusiastic applause and standing ovation (a rarity in Europe, as opposed to its near-de rigueur status in North America). A remarkable solo from percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles engendered so much applause that he had to take a second bow, mid-set.
With a few dance steps from Bata during the encorewhere a surprise vocal spot from Alarcón had the entire group rallying around him at the song's end, as he finally cracked a huge grin, and seemed a little embarrassed by all the attentionthere was plenty of reason for the crowd to go wild. Valdés guided the group with a combination of hand signals, glances and, towards the end of the set, more overt direction as he got up from his piano chair and moved center stage to conduct. A charismatic performer who clearly knew how to give the audience what it wanted, Valdés proved himself a consummate showman, but backed it all up with vibrant charts and high octane playing that made it one of the most exciting performances of the past week at Enjoy Jazz, if not the entire festival.