RDV De L'Erdre 2012
This was to be a day of indigenous stand-outs, although Rêve d'Élephant Orchestra is actually part French, part Belgian. The first thirty minutes of its set was a model of complicated excitement, full of dangerous arranging and making absolute usage of its three-drummer backbone. Guitarist Benoîst Eil frequently rose up to make a scathing comment, and the other front-liners were nicely contrasted by the size of their horns: Pierre Bernard on flute, Alain Vankenhove, trumpet, and Michel Massot, juggling tuba and trombone. Not a saxophone in sight. Around midway, there was a derailment into shorter pieces that existed more as atmospheric interludes than fully formed compositions. This was all the more apparent following the dense substance of the first stretch. The group did manage to cohere again during the last 30 of its 90-minute set, but that exhilarating starter-run remained as the memory that all would depart cherishing.
Sweden's Fire! trio had only recently released its In The MouthA Hand album (Rune Grammofon, 2012), and its appearance at RDV marked only its second showing as the expanded Fire! Orchestra. As with the disc, Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi was sticking around as a special guest. Mats Gustafsson played less saxophone and manipulated fewer electronic bursts than usual, but he also had to bear the weight of conducting this 12-piece behemoth. Whilst the trio usually reeks of improvisation, this orchestral version is subject to prompts and organization. Gustafsson's signals weren't as elaborate as those employed by, let's say, Butch Morris and John Zorn, but he was exceptionally attuned to each potential surge, encouraging solo or duo interludes, then cueing a bombastic reentry by all forces. The spirit went back to the late 1960s and early '70s, that era where a particular blend of chaos and order prevailed. Cutting bolts of coordinated slamming, full-tilt staccato treble onslaughts. Gustafsson blurted on his suddenly hoisted tenor, and then urged his female saxophone wing to enter the fray, raising the levels in turn. Elin Larsson and Anna Högberg were clearly following Gustafsson's merciless trail.
Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg were more stylistically unusual than most singers, operating in strange zones of high-range extremity, or singing in tongues, studiously avoiding some of the well-worn avenues traversed by many improvising vocalists. Their styles complemented each other, offering different sides of a similar approach. Ambarchi wasn't as audible as he is on the album, and his guitar alterations were sometimes difficult to unpick from Jochim Nordwall's electronics. Both of them were often too submersed in the mix, particularly when set alongside the ripping levels of the horn players. Gustafsson appeared to be aware of this problem, prompting Ambarchi to play a completely unaccompanied section. Even then, the results were somewhat hesitant and introverted. This was a combo that frequently rose up to a screaming exultation, so the guitar and electronics existed mostly as a surrounding embellishment. Pianist Sten Sandell partially suffered from the same mix problems, but bypassed them by hurtling up to the trebly-cascade end of his keys. Besides, this was the music of massed liberation, so it was futile to expect perfect balance of all elements at all times. Close to the climax, Gustafsson counted down to a full eruption, sustained in slow motion as the strobe lights froze the agony. Once again, the Mix stage presented music that held all of the possibilities, from stark exposure to ramming monstrosity, all the while holding the audience in its bone-hard clutches.
Nothing could possibly follow this ejaculation, but a short stroll back down the hill to the floating stage found Italian saxophonist Stefano di Battista in fully- entertaining flow. Once again, all of the other stages had concluded their programs, and Battista was a good choice for balancing several jazz languages, veering from mainstream bop to a funkier danceability, made easier by the inclusion of guitarist Fabio Zeppetella. They played a pair of genuinely won encores, and sent their audience all cheerily off into the night. At least they dispersed the nightmare forces that would have gathered if Fire! had been the final invocation witnessed.