May 17-20, 2012
There are many ways to weigh a music festival, but one method that sets a fairly reasonable standard for excellence is whether or not there was at least one point that elicited feelings of good fortune. Not just if it was enjoyable or if highly respected artists appeared, or if it was like a month in Berlin or London or New York compressed into a long weekend, but that there was even one concert that actually stoked the embers of gratitude.
The 2012 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville achieved just that with its first concert. And even if after that opener the rest had been just so much gravy on the poutine, the 28th edition of the annual Quebec jazz and new music festival would still have been the strongest in years. It felt like a return to form (after a few years of shrinking budgets and audiences) in no small part due to two appearances by festival favorite John Zorn and strong showings from the fertile Chicago and Montreal scenes.
That bar-setting opener was British experimental vocalist Phil Minton, leading a chorus of singers in a group improvisation of utterances and vocalizations. His Feral Choir of 31 Victoriaville denizens began the concert in the rear seats of the large cinema used as one of the festival's three staging grounds. It's a common ploy, starting at the back of the room and moving toward the stage, but it was especially effective having the members seated in the audience with no instruments to hold. There was no way to tell how many would rise to join the bird-whistle procession as Minton led them slowly to the stage. He proceeded to guide them through gibberish, screams, laughter and sustained, nearly sung notes more about unity than pitch.
None displayed anything approximating Minton's vocalese virtuosity, but they made up for it en masse with sheer velocity and will. It came off as something like Portsmouth Symphonia doing Luciano Berio, and was wonderful even before Minton upped the game. The second section was a composed piece called "Grunwick,," based on a key moment in race relations within the British labor movement. If nothing about the performance gave indication of the historical origin, it was still a charged and moving piece; a powerful, wordless drama with Minton giving a strained, almost tortured performance over the whispered hissings of the choir.
Woven through the rest of the festival were three threads of geographical associations: Chicago's longstanding Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and, from Montreal, the Ambiances Magnétiques collective and bands spawned of the group Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The geographical divide was stitched together by Montreal's Constellation Records, which has released recordings by GY!BE-related bands, as well as AACM saxphonist Matana Roberts.
It was the material from that 2011 release that Roberts brought to the festival. Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres is a sprawling work about slavery and Roberts' own family history. The concert, like the album, featured herself on saxophone and vocals with a ten-piece band of Montreal players. Drawing upon gospel and antebellum song as well as a language informed by the protest jazz of bassist Charles Mingus, Roberts gave a driving and sometimes harrowing concert with horns and strings augmented by musical saw and occasionally heavy electric guitar. The suite didn't present a clear storyline but still reached a dramatic peak with an a cappella slave auction that eventually found a sort of redemption even if its female slave protagonist likely didn't.
The next chapteror the next ten, perhapsof the history of race relations just south of the Canadian border was told by Wadada Leo Smith in another suite condensed from his staggering new foujr-disc set Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). The album employs both jazz quartet and quintet, and a chamber ensemble, but for the condensed (still 80 minutes) concert version Smith rescored some of the orchestral sections for a band featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Susie Ibarra.
The concert employed silence, tension and fantastic peals from Smith's trumpet, as well as wonderfully evocative real-time video art showing the band and photographs of the music's subjects (Malcolm X, southern fields) into a powerful piece which might well prove to be the 70-year-old Smith's magnus opus.
If the first two AACM-related concerts concerned themselves in overt ways with civil rights and racial oppression, the third (which closed the four-day festival on May 20) might be said to have shown overcoming by example. The trio which calls itself The Trio includes two of the organization's four founding members and a Columbia University professor who is also the AACM's historian. Namely, that's pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who led the big band that grew into the AACM more than four decades ago and who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia; Roscoe Mitchell, who holds the Darius Milhaud Professor of Music chair at Mills College and who has arguably done as much to advance the language of the saxophone as anyone since the 1960s; and trombonist George Lewis, the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago, 2008), the definitive text on the seminal collective.
Together they played a music that was wizened and deeply intuitive. Calling it improvisation is almost misleading, as the three are so deeply in sync aesthetically, philosophically and politically that they are playing a music they know well even if it isn't scored. Or, as Lewis would likely argue, that is exactly what informed and heightened their shared improvisation. At times, all three reduced their expressive gestures to single notes and brief, isolated glissandi. Abram's piano seemed often to set the pace (and set it slowly) while Mitchellon soprano and sopranino saxophones and flute (and a piccolo he didn't pick up), often far from the microphonedefined the perimeters. Lewis' trombone filled the field defined by the other two but he also redefined the playing field from his laptop, processing the sound of the other two while folding in voices, his own field recordings, a bit of drummer Han Bennink and layered variants of white noise. All three took unaccompanied soloslong a hallmark of the AACMincluding Lewis at the laptop which made for dramatic listening and an intriguingly unsettling stage presence.
The Constellation contingent of the Montreal presence included bassist Thierry Amar and drummer David Payant, who both played in Roberts' band and later the same day with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, delivering roundhouse punches with heavy, violin- inflected rock. The day began with the melancholy instrumental chamber pop of Montreal's Esmerine, led by the emotive cellist Rebecca Foon. The sweeping moodiness of that set was matched beautifully by the lightbox scenes of Clea Minaker, who stood onstage with the band, dropping leaves and feathers over the glass platter of the projector. Like Jesse Gilbert's video work during Smith's concert, Minaker's imagery worked fantastically well as a dimension of the music. Both artists' work represented another aspect of the festival as well. Music is certainly FIMAV's primary objective, but Artistic Director Michel Levasseur also brings the work of visual artists in to the performance halls and in recent years has expanded into the town's common areas with outdoor sound installations, this year curated by Quebec City sound artist Érick D'Orion.
The other segment of Quebecois representation came by way of the always reliable Ambiances Magnétiques, and if that venerable collective has been looking to position itself as a new music organization, it's been doing an excellent job of it. The Ensemble Supermusique is a sort of cream-of-the-crop band (perhaps operating a bit like New York's Bang on a Can All-Stars), counting among its membership saxophonists Jean Derome and Joane Hétu, percussionists Michel F. Côté and Danielle P. Roger and turntablist Martin Tétreault, some of the finest of Montreal's musique actuelle composer/performers.
They played as a tentet, opening and closing with a pair of wonderfully atmospheric pieces by Tétreault. Hétu's contribution was "Poème à faible résistance," a striking work even to a non-Francophone; her voice acting is becoming as strong a part of her work as her saxophone playing. The ensemble also mixed a couple of improvisations into their set, which came off (to their credit) as cohesively as the composed pieces. If the genre of scripted discontinuity and small gesture is waning in the days since Zorn, Otomo Yoshihide and others have changed strategies, Ensemble Supermusique is to be thanked for keeping composed chaos fresh.
The other part of Ambiances Magnétiques institutionalization came in the form of a sort of repertory group led by violist Joan Jeanrenaud, who released the remarkable solo recording, Fammi (&records) in 2010. With violinist Joshua Zubot, fantastic drummer Pierre Tanguay and bassist Nicolas Caloïa, René struck a Stephane Grappelli bop that could melt and reform in quick minutes and turn to upbeat Quebecois folk the next. The set list was comprised of an Ambiances Magnétiques songbook, with old and new pieces by Derome, Norman Guilbeault and Rene Lussier, as well as some of René's own pieces. The quartet was lively and precise, and, along with Ensemble Supermusique, showed once again what a unique group of composers and interpreters there are under the Ambiances Magnétiques banner.
Much of the rest of the schedule was filled by New Yorkers, or at least players from the States. Zorn conducted his Modern Jazz Quartet-molded William S. Burroughs project Nova Express (Tzadik, 2011), with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Trevor Dunn, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Kenny Wollesen, although the concert seemed to fall short of the dynamism of the recent CD release. Better was a new project, The Concealed, with Zorn again conducting (his saxophone was not to be seen), which added violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Erik Friedlander to the MJQ instrumentation for a lushly romantic set of compositions based on mystic texts but falling into purely enjoyable listening.
The anticipated appearance of another icon of New York's Downtown music ended up not happening for reasons not given, and as a result the trio Blixt became a duo of guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim and drummer Morgan Ågren, with spirits and energy level high. To fill out the bill, Henry Grimes (who was not scheduled to play but was in attendance for the whole of the fest) played a solo set on violin and double bass. Grimes may be at his best when he's on his own, and made a strong showing for an excitedly receptive crowd.
Brooklynite guitarist Mary Halvorson played a memorable set with her new quintet. Halvorson's infectious ideas as a composer, and perhaps more so as an arranger, come through all the more strongly with the five-piece, and can only be expected to grow with the promise of a septet in 2013. The pieces often were built on strong unison horn lines and Halvorson's guitar less adorned than usual, with the rhythm section shifting tempi and intensity somehow independent of but still reinforcing the melody lines.
Halvorson's playing seems to have grown along with the size of her ensemble. She's always been a bold guitarist but with this new band she's demanding greater versatility of herself. She did stomp on the overdrive now and again, but for the most part let the warm voice of her big hollowbody come through with less electronic augmentation than she has often used in the past. While the moods swunga jazzy progression banged and fuzzed, a proggy vamp delivered with surprising delicacy, even something like a calypso through a prismthe structure continually shifted and remained solid.
The New York/New England power trio Spanish Donkey laid a heavy, heavy drone with a scream of what truly sounded like Jimi Hendrix-induced controlled feedback. The set may have been a shock to people who think guitarist Joe Morris and keyboardist Jamie Saft permanently reside on the polite side of avant jazz. Saft and drummer Mike Pride erect monoliths of sound under the name Kalashnakov, and seem to be concerned first and foremost in the trio with reframing Morris' playing. Morris, of course, is more than there for the challenge, and if an idiosyncratic single-note style is what he's best known for, he's also taken to bass, banjo, mandolin and ukulele, so Spanish Donkey is hardly the pony's second trick. At FIMAV, the aural onslaught was heightened by a rigorously democratic mix: everything was at such an even level, including a buzzing synth that stayed just safe of subsuming them all, that at times the only way the noisy keyboards and harsh guitar could be differentiated was by virtue of the players' body language. When on occasion the smoke cleared, Middle Eastern riffs and psychedelic organ became apparent.
Reinvention was key to a set by Quebec's Maïkotron Unit with Connecticut-based trumpeter Stephen Haynes. While they were, on the one hand, a classic piano-less quartet, the unit had a way of shape-shifting with instruments they'd morphed in advance. Frankenstein monsters of brass and reeds filled the stage: a double-reed soprano sax with an elongated neck, a trumpet body held vertical with a clarinet mouthpiece, a rather unholy sousaphone and a fairly ingenious system for mechanized mutings. But more to the point, Michel and Pierre Côté (a pair of brothers unrelated to Ambiances Magnétiques' Michel F. Côté) have learned how to play their hybrids, how to trap air and nudge it through the tubes. The quiet flutters of the ill-begotten instruments made for nice contrast with their passages of free jazz.
There are many ways to weigh a music festival, and one that might be a bit too demanding a measure is perfection. Perfection can be fleeting, and is too nebulous to really pin down. There were several moments of perfection during the 2012 FIMAV, but one stands out as the sort of thing it often takes a such festival to pull together. Manitoba-born, Berlin-based bassist Miles Perkins convened a quartet with British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, French pianist Benoit Delbecq and Canadian drummer Thom Gossage that delivered pure and serene abstraction. The music was soft and beautifully intricate, accented by mellow flugelhorn and subtle piano preparations. They played open-ended compositions with open improvisation; they played something like jazz and something like new music; and they played together with never a misstep. The point of a term like musique actuelle, or "music of the present," is to defy definition, but there could be worse things than if the Miles Perkin Quartet was offered up, by way of example, as a definition of the art.
All Photos: Martin Morissette