Burghausen Jazz Festival 2013
It was hard to know who was having more fun being at Wackerhalle on the first official night of B-Jazzthe packed house there to hear singer Cassandra Wilson, or Matīss Čudars. When the Latvian guitarist took to the stage with the members of his quartet alto saxophonist Toms Rudzinskis, double bassist Lennart Heyndels and drummer Niels Engelthe huge round of applause clearly took him aback, but if the group was nervous performing in front of such a large audience, it didn't show one bit.
Performing music from the group's recently released debut, Melancholia (Self Produced, 2012), Čudars, in particular, proved himself someone worth watching. Thoroughly engaged and engaging, the guitarist's masterful command of his instrument belied his youthful age (22), playing with the kind of maturity and tasteful restraint rare in someone so young, though he was absolutely capable of cutting loose when the music demanded. Clearly ambitious, the guitarist has already spent time at the renowned Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music at The Banff Centre in beautiful Banff, Canada, situated in the eastern end of the Rocky Mountainsthe annual three-week workshop whose artistic director is trumpeter Dave Douglasand is wrapping up four years studying in Amsterdam, where he met the members of his multinational quartet.
Heyndels and Engel formed a particularly formidable rhythm team, capable of handling the demands of Čudars' writingwhile richly melodic, often knottily constructed, with unexpected stops and starts, metric shifts and demanding dynamics. Both also proved themselves to be strong soloists, in particular Heyndels, whose occasional opportunities demonstrated firm yet pliant touch and tone, and an ability to navigate Čudars' changes with confidence and ease.
If there was a weak link in the groupand it was a relatively small oneit was Rudzinskis, though it was more about tone than what he was actually playing; as capable as his band mates, his sound was a tad on the thin side, and with so much robust music happening all around him, it sometimes got swallowed up. But if he can address his tone, Rudzinskis may well be someone as worthwhile to watch as the rest of the group.
While it was clearly a collective when it came to playing, this was clearly Čudars' group, both musically and visually. With a youthful enthusiasm that was never excessive, Čudars was the kind of player who commanded attention onstage; clearly having the time of his life in front of such a large audience, he made the absolute most of it, and while he seemed, at times, to be somewhat awed by the experience, when it came time to introduce the music and the band, he was confident and direct with the audience. A modernist writer whose music possesses hints of everything from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummer Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band to groups like James Farm, Čudars was clearly a great pick by the B-Jazz panel of judges, and if his performance was anything to go by, then his CD will be worth checking out and he'll be worth watching; truly a young artist with a promising future.
The last time encountering Cassandra Wilson, it was a less-than-satisfying experience. Her 2009 performance at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Ludwigshafen, Germany, suggested that her days as a groundbreaking artist were behind her, as she seemed to be resting more on her laurels than giving it out to her audience.
The good news is that with her B-Jazz appearance, that Ludwigshafen show may have been an anomaly...or, perhaps, that she needs to be more astute in her choice of band members. The group in Ludwigshafen was marred by an unnecessarily busy percussionist and a guitarist who took excessively long solos, perhaps because Wilson seemed more interested in floating around the stage than singing. All that changed in Burghausen. A tight quartet led by musical director and guitarist Brandon Ross, the group also featured a compelling soloist in violinist Charlie Burnham (who also played a little mandolin and harmonica) and a rhythm section that, grooving effortlessly and with inimitable depth, featured longtime collaborator, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer John Davisnone of whom, by the way, were in the Ludwigshafen band.
It didn't start out to be a very good day for Wilson; arriving later than planned the evening before, her luggage didn't make it to Burghausen until an hour before showtime, forcing festival staff to help her find suitable clothing in town (which she did). Still, there were no signs of stress or upset when, first the band, and then the singer took to the stage, performing music from Wilson's latest album, Another Country (EOne, 2012), but dipping farther back into her catalog to touch on songs from Silver Pony (Blue Note, 2010) and one of her breakthrough recordings, New Moon Daughter (Blue Note, 1995), from which she delivered a significantly rearranged version of "Harvest Moon," after giving the audience the opportunity to choose either singer/songwriter Neil Young's tune or, from Belly of the Sun (Blue Note, 2002), the Jimmy Webb classic "Witchita Lineman."
What made Wilson's performance so much better than her Ludwigshafen show was that the singer seemed completely engaged with her band; and Burnham provided more than a few set-defining frisson moments on violin, using a wah wah pedal to great effect to give it a near-vocal timbre. With a warmer tone than usual for the instrument, he was the perfect complement to Ross, who alternated between a nylon-string guitar and steel-string frame guitar, as capable at finger-style picking of Another Country's title track as he was a more visceral, blues-centric approach on the rootsy "Saddle Up My Pony." Wilson played a little guitar too, appropriately using a red Fender Stratocaster for minor-keyed blues, "Red Guitar," though she said, at the end of the song, that it was a borrowed guitar: "It's a nice guitar, but I play a Telecaster,' she joked.
Even in Ludwigshafen, the quality of Wilson's voice was never an issue; it's just that her performance felt more like a "show" than a group of players getting together for a set of music that ranged from the Mississippi Delta to the Caribbean. Here, her rich-toned voice was as good as it's ever been, and her interpretive skills equally strong. Wilson's aversion to over-singing has always been a strength; when she does deliver the occasional bit of near-scat, it's all the stronger because it's not a huge part of her delivery.
Wilson engaged with the audience on a very personal level as well, saying how particularly nice it was to be back in Bavaria, as her first record label (JMT) was from the provincial capital, Munich. When she returned for a well-deserved encore, she'd made a comment, earlier in the set, about having to leave early the next morning, but that she needed to find a good German beer, so when one of the stage staff came out with the obligatory bouquet of flowers, another joined him with a glass of beer. Wilson took a deep sip, raised her eyes to the sky and was clearly happy. As, it was equally clear, was her audience.