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2013 Jazztopad Festival

John Kelman By

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Vågan and Nilssen have grown together as a fiery rhythm team that moves as one when required, but do more than support the rest of the band, instead providing a constant and exhilarating push-and-pull that lifts the music right off the page as something that clearly lives and breathes. Wania, in the company of this group, transcends his fine playing in his own trio, pushed to even greater heights as he contributed one particular solo that was met with a huge round of applause from the audience. He may come from Norway, but Vågan appears to be the bassist of his generation best carrying the torch of Charles Mingus, his muscular tone and powerful right hand something that might make a drummer almost superfluous, were it someone less talented than Nilssen who, over the past half decade, has made it into the top tier of a significant cadre of fine Norwegian drummers.

Obara played with the kind of visceral energy that often goes unchecked and results in unfettered but unfocused soloing; in his hands, however, there was no such risk; instead, as increasingly emancipated as his playing has become, his solos never felt like superfluous displays of virtuosity; instead, he always seemed to play with an end in mind, even if it's one that was being constantly shifted by his band mates to go places none of them might have anticipated. It may have been a set lasting a mere 30 minutes, but Maciej Obara International Quartet proved itself a group primed for greatness, and those who have heard this band in its early days, as it grows almost exponentially from one gig to the next, can count themselves fortunate; as strong as this group seems with each gig, the best, it would most certainly appear, is still yet to come.

After a brief but much-needed break, it was off to Browar Mieszczański—a converted brewery, with brick walls, a room that was far longer than it was wide and, with all that, surprisingly good sound—for the first evening of Tokyo Jazz Festival Presents: Japan, a series of performances that took place over two days as a reciprocation for Jazztopad's presentation of Polish jazz at the 2013 Tokyo Jazz Festival. Whether or not this series represents the best Japan has to offer is hard to say; but between two double bills over two nights, and some of the Japanese musicians participating in living room concerts the following two afternoons, there was certainly a strong representation of at least part of the country's scene, ranging from rampant traditionalism to total rejection of orthodoxy.

First up at Browar Mieszczański, the percussion duo Sixth Sense, led by Kan Hayashi, who performed on Japanese taiko drums and shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Joining Hayashi was Takahiro "Matzz" Matsuoka who, while also playing taiko drums, was more generally focused on convention percussion instruments including congas, bongos, timbales, kit bass drum, cowbells, wood blocks, shakers and cymbals. Opening with each percussionist taking some time in the spotlight before coming together for a mélange of rhythm and color, Sixth Sense's raison d'être was clearly to popularize traditional music of Japan through performance and education.

It was a set that took a lot of energy; after the first piece, Hayashi took one drum center stage and, with remarkable power and athleticism, delivered a piece that, supported by Matsuoka, drew huge rounds of applause from the sold-out crowd. Hayashi then returned to his place behind his other drums and attempted to speak to the audience...but was so winded that he needed to take a moment to catch his breath, before going into an explanation of each of his drums, including what they were made of and what animal skin was used for the drum head. Between Hayashi and Matsuoka, the English may have been limited, but they still managed to come off as something of a comedy duo as they explained their music and instruments...Hayashi even demonstrating how an instrument resembling a bronze ashtray can, when combined with a second one, create something capable of sustaining interest all by itself.

The duo also performed a more ethereal piece driven by a pre-recorded synth track, as Hayashi switched to shakuhachi. It was an impressive performance that set the stage for the second act on the bill: Chiri, the group that includes Australian drummer Simon Barker and Korean Pansori singer Bae Il Dong, the inevitable consequence of Barker's trip to Korea documented in the film Intangible Asset 82, screened earlier in the week.

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