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Live Reviews

Jazzahead 2011: April 28 - May 1, 2011

By Published: May 16, 2011


Ultimately, the best thing to do was try a little bit of both. And so, while the JazzX meeting, with attendees from across the continent—magazine editors, journalists, professors and bloggers—looked to hammer out some of the practical issues facing an initiative that hopes to provide the same content in a myriad of languages, it was necessary to step out a little early in order to catch at least a bit of Partisans' 30-minute set. Whatever regret there might have been for bailing on the meeting dissolved instantly, on entering Borgward Saal, where the British quartet was already half-way through its set, drawing largely from its most recent record, By Proxy (Babel, 2009).

Partisans, from left: Thaddeus Kelly, Phil Robson, Gene Calderazzo, Julian Siegel

Partisans' co-leaders—guitarist Phil Robson and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Julian Siegel
Julian Siegel
Julian Siegel

, both leaders in their own right with tremendous recent releases including Six Strings & The Beat (Babel, 2008) and Urban Theme Park (Basho, 2011) respectively—were front and center, performing with the kind of energy that belied the unorthodox hour for their performance, but bassist Thaddeus Kelly and drummer Gene Calderazzo were just as essential and impressive, especially Calderazzo, who lit a fire under everything yet demonstrated no shortage of taste and restraint when necessary. It's no surprise that, while both Robson and Siegel use largely different personnel for their solo recordings, both continue to recruit Calderazzo as their drummer of choice.

In its brief set—and despite my catching only the final fifteen minutes—Partisans demonstrated everything that's great about a British scene that's currently experiencing a golden age as vibrant and innovative as the late-1960s, when so many of today's living icons first emerged. The group swung hard when it wanted, but its concepts of harmony and intricate melodic invention were as bleeding edge as it gets, and while the energy level was high, the contrasts—essential to building great tunes, great solos and great live performances—remained in full view throughout. Robson may largely adopt a warm, hollowbody-style tone, but he proved willing and capable of kicking in one of the ugliest fuzz tones heard in nearly half a century, as he did towards the end of the set—exactly what the music called for, as Kelly and Calderazzo turned up the fire in the engine room for some of the showcase's hottest moments. Siegel, no less incendiary, managed to weave spontaneous melodies whether it was over knotty guitar/bass counterpoint or thundering ostinati.

Phil Robson

Hearing Partisans perform rendered a longtime wish a reality. It may have only been fifteen minutes in length, but as the first showcase caught on Jazzahead's first full day, it was a tremendous way to get started. The vibe may have been different a few hours later, when ECM Night took place at Sendesaal Bremen, a ten-minute cab ride away from Jazzahead Central, but it was no less revealing, and proved that power can come from many places...even silence.

Colin Vallon Trio

Featuring crystal clear sound, especially in the low end, the dual-purpose of the performance space/studio became obvious upon entering Sendesaal, with the space for musicians occupying nearly one half the room and the audience seating, the other. This generally disproportionate ratio was even more obvious when Swiss pianist Colin Vallon and his trio took to the stage with his trio, featuring bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer, the latter no stranger to fans of singer Susanne Abbuehl's April (ECM, 2001) and pianist (and fellow Abbuehl band mate) Wolfert Brederode's Currents (ECM, 2008). The trio was positioned near the front of the large stage with plenty of room for Mathias Eick
Mathias Eick
Mathias Eick
's quintet, and still there was even more open space behind the trumpeter's setup.

Physical matters aside, when Vallon, Moret and Rohrer came onstage and took their places, the pianist sat at the piano stool, nearly completely still—and absolutely silent—bringing the audience to the same quiet, anticipatory state, a remarkable achievement from which other artists who have issues with ambient audience noise could learn a thing or two. Vallon managed to command complete silence and undivided attention in the most benign, non-confrontational fashion possible.

From left: Colin Vallon, Patrice Moret, Samuel Rohrer

And Vallon's music required absolute attention, as the pianist began a set focusing heavily on material from Rruga (2011), his ECM debut (but third as a leader) for which each member had contributed compositions—a first for Vallon, who composed most of the music on Ailleurs (Hatology, 2006) and Les Ombres (Unit, 2004)—rendering the trio even more egalitarian. Rohrer's "Noreira" perfectly demonstrated the trio's strength—mining what, on the surface, appeared to be a relatively simple premise, but through a collective dynamic that organically ebbed and flowed, building this song (inspired by an ancient city in the eastern Alps) from gentle forward motion to more propulsive power and climax—curiously, almost imperceptibly, yet ultimately with an unshakable feeling of inevitability.

In addition to a conventional kit, Rohrer created near-orchestral breadth through use of his hands, cymbals placed on his drum skins, and bows on both his cymbals and the sides of his drums. He soloed rarely, but when he did it was filled with a tumult of ideas possessing internal logic all their own and never resorting to virtuosity for its own sake. The same could be said for Moret, who provided a strong anchor for the group—yet doing so almost invisibly—locking with Rohrer at times, elsewhere acting as a tension-building twister and shaker, but through Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
bass, acoustic
's elegance and spare simplicity.

Colin Vallon

In one of his soft-spoken introductions, Vallon praised the hall, saying, "The music kind of plays itself," as the pianist, too, avoided "look at me" pyrotechnics, commanding attention with an uncanny sense of restrained abandon. He employed a variety of preparations that, in one case, skewed his piano to make it sound ever-so-slightly out of tune, coupled with an unusual buzzing sound. Early in the set, the pianist appeared to be bowing his strings, creating a series of curious harmonics that were matched by Rohrer's bowed snare drum. Despite being capable of far-flung flights of freedom, and hints of jagged angularity, the surfaces remained largely rounded, and there was an intrinsic lyricism at the core. At a time when young piano trios seem to be emerging almost daily, Vallon—not exactly new, given he's been at this for nearly a decade—has carved out a unique space for himself, and with sympathetic partners in Moret and Rohrer (both have been a part of this trio for at least three years now), he's got a trio capable of exploring the spaces between the notes, the silence between the pulses, and a sonic landscape where the trio's instruments are clearly defined but pushed gently outside all perceived sonic or stylistic boxes.

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