Summer Jazz Cycling Tour 25: Groningen, The Netherlands, August 26-27, 2011
August 26-27, 2011
Only in the Netherlands. Where else would anyone think to create such a harmonious conjugation of jazz and cycling? Now in its 25th year, the annual ZomerJazzFietsTour (Summer Jazz Cycling Tour) takes place in the bucolic countryside just outside Groningen in the northern Netherlands. In some ways its existence is only to be expected, as almost everything else in Groningen involves a bicycle. Over 57% of urban journeys in the city are conducted by bike , and the railway station has over 10,000 cycle parking places.
Multi-venue festivals are nothing new, but the special Dutch twist was that the audience traveled from one to another along a network of cycle paths. With 27 acts in one day it was not possible to see everything, so sometimes hard choices had to be made. And it was not only a decision guided by taste, as the distance to be traveled and the time available to do so also needed to be taken into account. Each act performed two 45-minute sets with a half hour intermission, sufficient to allow transit to the next event if desired. Performances took place in rural medieval churches, barns and a specially erected tent in the central village of Garnwerd.
Something in the mix obviously appealed, as in each venue the congregation spilled from the pews into the aisles of the churches and even onto the steps leading up to the pulpit. Not only was the support plentiful, but it spread across the generations with families and youngsters alongside those more grizzled jazz lovers.
But like all good cycle tours, first we must consider the Prologue. Held in the Theater de Machinefabriek in Groningen, the evening before the festival proper, the Prologue gave an opportunity to hear three of the acts from the next day in a more central setting, which avoided the need for pedaling.
Swiss-American vocalist/accordionist Erika Stucky was as much comedienne as musician in a one-woman opening set, which started with her dragging a shovel on stage and finished with her encouraging the crowd to boo her performance. In-between, she accompanied surreal films of herself wearing a dog mask and throwing a baby (!) with songs and accordion. Communicating in a mixture of English and Schweizer Deutsch, she had the audience in fits of laughter, Her Swiss side manifesting itself in some semi-ironic yodeling, but it was the encore where her singing was most unaffected, channeling country singer Patsy Cline in a beautiful cover of "Crazy." Not typical jazz, but improvised and strangely captivating.
De Jongens Driest Allstars
Next up was Dutch band De Jongen Driest in an Allstar version, augmented with international guests. The hometown core of trombonist Joop van der Linden, saxophonist Janfie van Strien and sousaphone player Arno Bakker has appeared many times over the years on the Tour. Guest drummer Michael Vatcher added syncopated wit to the tight horn vamps, mournful brass dirges, and driving klezmer. His duet with the electronic samples of C-mon (from Dutch band Kypski) was a highlight. Vatcher played with the appearance of someone puzzled by what he was being asked to do, the Dutch sense of humor evident at the same time as the dashing musicianship. Sicilian trumpeter Roy Paci joined for the last three numbers, adding bite and illuminating "Looking For Work," the outstanding selection of the set, in a rambunctious mano a mano with alto saxophonist Matt Darriau, out of Brooklyn, over tumbling drums.
The Ex & Brass Unbound
The final concert of the evening produced a complete change of pace, combining the Dutch punk band The Ex with the multinational horn section of The Ex & Brass Unbound, in a high energy collision. At first the horns were lost in the mix, but later adjustments meant their boisterous interjections cut through the interlocking guitar and drum riffs. Chicago reedman Ken Vandermark took a squalling tenor saxophone solo on the second piece, while the three-way horn explosionwith the baritone saxophone outpouring of Mats Gustafsson and trumpet incisions of Roy Paciwhich ended another number, was one of the highlights. While the band's loud volume and declamatory vocals weren't to everyone's liking, calls for an encore still ensued.
From left: Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark
One of the attractions in a star-studded lineup was the number of groups from Berlin invited to participate, in honor of that city's jazz scene. Helpfully programmed together on a Berlin-themed route, it was possible to catch at least one set from each band, demonstrating the broad range of music associated with the German capital. One of the prevailing characteristics was the easy fluency between atonal chaos and tuneful order, which helped make potentially difficult presentations more readily accessible. What follows was this writer's experience of the festival, but there were surely many others, with the artists left un-sampled, including New York reedman Ned Rothenberg, the strings of Okkyung Lee and Wilbert de Joode, British duo Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston, and Belgian big band Flat Earth Society.
Claudio Puntin Trio Dolce Vita
Not that anyone would accuse Italian clarinetist Claudio Puntin's chamber trio, performing the music of his countryman Nino Rota, of being inaccessible. Their ethereal opening arrangement mirrored the atmosphere in Aduard Church, illuminated by light streaming through the windows, before German bassist Johannes Fink and cellist Jorg Brinkmann slipped into an airy swing behind the leader's bubbling bass clarinet. On the second piece, Puntin followed a section of drawn out string harmonics with invigoratingly manic clarinet projected through a megaphone hung above his mic, for a distorted tone like a kazoo. Together they conjured a program redolent of Italian sunshine, often more lazy Sunday than lunchtime Saturday, but delicately spiced with arco squeaks and braying clarinet cries.
Tristan Honsinger's Hook, Line and Sinker
A line of cyclists snaked across the flat landscape en route to the small unadorned Fransum Church for an assignation with American expatriate cellist Tristan Honsinger's new band, going under the moniker Hook, Line and Sinker. Recently relocated to Berlin, Honsinger has availed himself of some of the best talent the German capital has to offer. Unlike some of the cellist's groups, this one deals in pure improvisation.
From left: Axel Dorner, Antonio Borghini
Honsinger led off quietly, but soon sonic waves were breaking over the assembled throng: the explosive nature of these eruptions belying the chamber instrumentation. It seemed everyone was conversant in an alien language on the borderline between music and sound, delivered through a synthesis of extended and conventional techniques. On tenor saxophone and clarinet, Tobias Delius, a regular ICP Orchestra associate, traded in muffled distortions and blurts interspersed with small vocalizations.
Trumpeter Axel Dorner carefully selected his interventions, whether foghorn blasts, delicate growls or long tones sustained by circular breathing, modulated by a torpedo shaped mute. Honsinger's musical invention was supplemented by a deranged theatricality, undercutting a repeated romantic classical motif by tottering in circles around the stage area bowing as he shuffled along. In some ways Italian bassist Antonio Borghini played the straight man, but in this company even that involved technique such as attenuating resonant notes with the butt of his bow to produce buzzing reverberations.
Two particular episodes stuck in the mind from among the kaleidoscopic shifts. The first stemmed from a staccato exclamation from the leader which inaugurated a blistering series of similar spiky outbursts from everyone, separated by silence. Later, in the second piece, bowed bass and cello conspired to evoke the baroque period, inspiring Delius into a soaring clarinet excursion. Such was the overall speed of response and level of interaction that there was a feeling that anything could happen. And that's probably the highest praise you can give a set of improvised music.
Thomas Borgmann's Boom Box
Well-signed cycle paths meant it was easy to arrive at Oostum Church, perched on a tree-covered mound above the surrounding pastures. Unless, that is, you were the driver charged with transporting Berlin saxophonist Thomas Borgmann and his band to the venue. They arrived ten minutes after their scheduled start time, having spent a considerable time navigating the maze of country roads to no avail. But once settled down and prepared they were well worth waiting for.
From left: Willi Kellers, Thomas Borgmann, Akira Ando
On tenor saxophone, Borgmann gave praise, impassioned but with a light tone, preaching the gospel according to Albert Ayler. Ably supported by Willi Kellers' percussive embellishments and Japanese bassist Akira Ando's insistent pulsing counterpoint, Borgmann span melodic variations on extemporized themes, sweetly bird like on soprano but more prone to overblown rapture on tenor. Kellers varied his timbral palette with a steel pan which contributed an unpredictable air to his natural breathing rhythm. As the heavens opened outside, Borgmann touched on Ayler's "Ghosts" to initiate a final series of visceral pyrotechnics in an emotionally charged set of lyrical free jazz, well-reflected on the group's recent Jazz (Jazzwerkstatt, 2011).
Tobias Delius' Booklet
Another unfettered jazzy threesome appeared in nearby Kleine Wetsinge Church. Having competed his duties with Tristan Honsinger, reedman Tobias Delius was now fronting his own Booklet Trio, featuring Canadian expatriate bassist Joe Williamson and Australian drummer Steve Heather in a program where the occasional tune drifted into the spotlight, played "now you hear me now you don't" and then departed; still, the show managed to hang together in a way that made sense.
Delius's distinctive approach melded distortion, thematic material and skronk into a mischievous whole. While playing the saxophonist looked out into the audience, his expressions varying from challenging to quizzical as the whistles and split tone shrieks jostled with fragments of melody in constantly changing ratios. Williamson's measured bass lines wove the thread around which Delius suspended his oddly phrased bluster and tenderly etched ballads. On drums, Heather was equally sensitive, rubbing his hands across the drums heads or blowing overtones on harmonica in the improv sections but keeping time with brushes on the songs.
Gebhard Ullmann Bass x 3
Feerwerd Church, with its wonderful acoustics, hosted German reedman Gebhard Ullmann with a two-bass hit, courtesy of American expatriate Chris Dahlgren and Antonio Borghini, making his second showing of the day. In keeping with the lower register focus, Ullmann concentrated exclusively on bass clarinet and his specially constructed bass flute. It was a real pleasure to be able to appreciate every nuance of the bassists' craft. Dahlgren, in particular, used preparations to modify the sound of his bass, with vibrating devices, sticks and clothes pegs all pressed into use. In tandem, the strings supplied an exquisitely textured cushion for Ullmann's abstract musings, often conversationally echoing, then extending each others' moves. At one point a church bell tolled and Dahlgren replicated the peal with ringing high notes plucked from his fret board. On bass clarinet, Ullmann expanded the legacy of Eric Dolphy, percolating up from the depths, with flutters and circular breathed squeals.
From left: Antonio Borghini, Gebhard Ullmann, Chris Dahlgren
The group's attention to sound was exemplified by the fourth piece, announced as "Transatlantic," which largely consisted of a triple-voiced drone. While Borghini maintained an intense focus with steady sawing, Dahlgren draped a metal chain around the neck of his bass and then bowed the strings so that as they resonated, they caused the chain to vibrate. A true tone scientist, Ullmann barely adjusted his bass clarinet dirge except to add slight creaking interpolations. It was a splendid concert full of mesmerizing detail.
D'Agaro, Schlippenbach, Bennink
Italian reedman Daniele D'Agaro had previously formed liaisons with two of the first generation European improvisersGerman pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and Dutch drummer and enfant terrible Han Benninkbut this was the first time all three had worked as a unit. They affected an egalitarian outlook, recalling von Schlippenbach's longstanding threesome with British saxophonist Evan Parker in instrumentation, though hewing somewhat closer to structural certainties than that celebrated ensemble's triangulations.
It was fitting that the trio provided the final act of the festival, as its ethos of working between consonance and dissonance was a perfect summation of the festival itself. Even though the group might be considered one of the last bastions of the avant-garde, Bennink displayed a predilection for foot-tapping tempos which permitted ready entry into the collective improvisations. Likewise, Schlippenbach was also happy to delve into the Thelonious Monk songbook, referencing both "in Walked Bud" and "Well You Needn't" during the evening.
From left: Alexander von Schlippenbach, Daniele D'Agaro
D'Agaro showed himself adept at both free form fantasywith his clarinet spiraling high into the stratosphereand locking into the Monk tunes, with his tenor breathily paraphrasing the melodic lines, before garrulous atonality held sway. Bennink proved as irrepressible as ever, powering the ensemble whether with sticks or brushes, dropping bombs seemingly at random into even the most swinging passages, and using his foot on drum schtick sparingly. There was a breathtaking passage in one of his solos where his fierce rat-a-tat explosions suddenly stilled to leave him keeping the beat on his hi-hat alone which generated a striking contrast. Schlippenbach moved between angular comping and all out noise propagation with flats of hands and even forearms called into service.
Overall, the set was playful and responsive, as the trio switched mood and density almost instantaneously, alternately fiery and honeyed, in a great ending to a unique festival.
It actually didn't end there, though, as there were still two shows to come in the tent at Garnwerd: the first, with a duo of DJs spinning 78s for the weary festival goers now resting their aching limbs and partaking of the bar; while the second, from Belgium's finest Maroccan Brass, encouraged those same aching limbs, rejuvenated by beer, to dance into the small hours. Having taken so long to discover such a marvelous combination good for both the head and the heart, needless to say I'll be heading back next year.
Photo Credit All Photos: John Sharpe