ELBJazz Festival 2013: Hamburg, Germany, May 24-25, 2013

John Kelman By

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ELBJazz Day 2: Trilok Gurtu/Nils Petter Molvær/Jan Bang Punkt Live Remix

With rain returning in full force on ELBJazz's second day, the best bet was to stay dry and warm inside, and with three back-to-back and intersecting performances, there was no better place to do so than in the Fischauktionshalle..

Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu (now based in Hamburg) has a new recording, Spellbound (Moosicus, 2013), and thanks to some serendipitous programming, he was able to perform some of it with the same guests that appear on the album. Gurtu was also slotted to perform in the trio with Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and live sampler Jan Bang that was supposed to debut at last year's Kongsberg Jazz Festival and the All About Jazz Presents: Doing It Norway series. Sadly, that show was cancelled, so it was a particular pleasure to be able to see the trio in action, for its first time, in Hamburg.

First, Gurtu took to the stage at the Fischauktionshalle with Spellbound's core trio of Turkish pianist/keyboardist Tulug Tirana and bassist Jonathan Cuniado. The recording is a tribute to trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry, a significant mentor and motivator for Gurtu in his early days, and while the recording features a different trumpeter on just about every track, live the percussionist recruited Germany's Mathias Schriefl, who appears on one track on the album, to handle most of the work. Gurtu opened his hour-long set alone, with his large array of percussion that included a standard drum kit (replacing the lower-seated Rototom-based kit of his earlier years), tabla, cajón and all manner of hand percussion, cymbals and water bowls. When the quartet with Schriefl entered, it was for one of Gurtu's characteristically knotty themes, based in Indian linearity but with Tirpan providing a broader harmonic context, an appealing and thrilling east-west amalgam that had the close-to-sold-out crowd loudly applauding from the get-go.

The program had been switched, to put Gurtu's band first—a logistically wise decision, since Bang, who would come onstage for the second of the three shows, would then remain onstage for the final show of the night, the Punkt Live Remix—and while the next show would also bring Molvær out for a full hour of completely free improv, for the percussionist's set the famous Norwegian trumpeter was invited to come out and recreate the track on which he guests on Spellbound—a medley of two hard- hitting fusion compositions from trumpeter Miles Davis' early '70s electric era: the title track to A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and "Ife," a live staple for the legendary trumpeter that was recorded after the sessions for On the Corner (Columbia, 1972), appearing on Big Fun (Columbia) two years later. Molvær brought a perfect combination of his own electronics-expanded instrument and, for some (but not for those who know him), some unexpectedly impressive chops. It was an early highlight, but the entire set—despite ranging from thrilling electric highs to a more subdued but equally stellar duo between Gurtu, on tabla, and trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, performing one of the two Spellbound tracks on which he appears (written by Gurtu and dedicated to Cherry)—was exhilarating, from start to finish.

If Cherry was the primary force behind Gurtu's recording of Spellbound, he's not the only one; trumpet has figured on other Gurtu recordings, and so here, Gurtu pays tribute not to any one player, but to the instrument itself. It's unfortunate that there wasn't time—stretched out as the material was—to hear more songs from the recording, like Gurtu's look at Miles Davis' "All Blues," from the genre-changing classic Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) (with relative newcomer Ambrose Akinmusire guesting), but instead, Gurtu gave the crowd a terrific cross-section that included "Berchidda," a tune that featured Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu on the recording but who was more than capably replaced by Schriefl at the ELBJazz show.

And if the emphasis appeared to be on trumpet, both Tirpan (as fine a pianist as he was a colorist on synths) and Cuniado—who may have kept to the rear of the stage, but whose strong bass playing helped drive the grooves that were kept in tandem by Gurtu, but which also allowed Gurtu the opportunity to assume a more dominant role— were integral to the performance. While his choice of textures and polyrhythms were never less than ideal, Gurtu was also a charismatic performer who engaged the audience between songs, sometimes in English, but most of the time in German, his adopted country for many years. On "Like Popcorn," the one tune that features Schriefl on the recording, Gurtu's expertise in konnakol was as commanding as Schriefl's impressive solo work.

With the venue operating on a tight schedule, and with the audience refusing to let the percussionist go without an encore, he returned alone, with just five minutes to spare, for a solo piece that emulated natural sounds like thunder, birds and insects, demonstrating that this inimitable percussionist really is without equal when it comes to the whole package of Indian percussion, jazz-centric swing and whatever textural additions the music demands. Brief though the set was, it was clearly one of the highlights of ELBJazz 2013.

With the stage largely cleared, save for Molvær's laptop and pedals and Gurtu's percussion rig, Jan Bang's sampler and another board were brought onstage for the first of two sets that were completely spontaneous, but both demonstrating how anything is possible when there's intrinsic trust amongst the musicians, ears that allow them to hear what's going on around them in order to push and pull the music, and the kind of egoless desire to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Perhaps more than many other contexts, Bang's live sampling—something he's been doing since the mid-'90s, first with fellow Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft and then, as a member of Molvær's band for the decade that ended in a final live performance at Bang's annual Punkt Live Remix festival in 2007—was easier to discern in this context. From the early part of the hour-long set, where he sampled the trumpeter's already harmonized horn, processed it further and fed it back to expand the soundscape, to a hilarious closing percussion solo from Gurtu—who, after trying to get the audience to sing back an almost impossibly complex konnakol line, found Bang unexpectedly feeding it back to him with nary a nanosecond's hesitation, leading to an even more entertaining back-and-forth between percussionist and live sampler, with Bang beginning to return Gurtu's lines with more significantly effected alterations—the communication level amongst the three was almost impossibly high.

In between, the set moved across a broad terrain, ranging from ambient landscapes driven by Bang's sampled orchestral sounds, to jagged free-play. What was most impressive was that, in-the-moment it might have been, it had an inherent and, perhaps, inevitable shape; a sense of development that suggested all three players were synchronized in a desire to not just play with color, melody, rhythm and harmony, but to create an actual narrative that gave the set an unmistakable beginning, middle and ending.

There were smiles aplenty, in particular from Bang, a player whose instrument may be a black box of knobs and dials, who is, well and truly, a real instrumentalist. Even in the most ethereal contexts, Bang has always moved to an internal rhythm that can be seen in his body language; how thrilling, then, to be playing with a rhythm master like Gurtu, the two coming together to create a rich undercurrent of pulsating sounds over which Molvær's was able to layer his unfailingly beautiful lines. And though Molvær's was the only seemingly melodic instrument onstage, this was, of course, not entirely true, when Gurtu moved to tabla and began to create rhythms that spoke with their own thematic constructs.

Backstage, after the performance, there was already talk of continuing this collaboration, so while it's impossible to know where it will go, the good news is that it absolutely will continue, and if a recording were to emerge from this new constellation, then all the better.

While the annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway is predicated on the idea of live remixes of shows that have just concluded in another room in the same venue—and Punkt has, since its first year in 2005, become a truly movable feast, taking its core concept on the road to cities including London, Mannheim and Tallinn, amongst other international destinations—its co-founders, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, have now expanded the concept to doing individual live performance and remix combinations, rather than one, two or three-day festivals. Still, its remix at ELBJazz 2013 set another precedent for an already precedent-setting concept: remixing a show that had taken place earlier in the evening, in another venue, in this case German indie rock band The Notwist, four hours earlier, across the harbor in the Blohm + Voss shipyard. While Bang and Molvær were busy preparing for their trio show with Gurtu, Honoré was over at the AM Helgen stage taking a multi-channel feed off the Notwist's soundboard, bringing it back to the Fischauktionshalle in time for a midnight remix that, with Bang, guitarist Stian Westerhus (who performed his final trio gig with Molvær the previous evening) and trumpeter Arve Henriksen, was both standard operating procedure for a Punkt Live Remix and something a little different.

Of course, standard operating procedure for Punkt Live Remixes is that there is no standard operating procedure and so, just as Bang, Molvær and Gurtu did 90 minutes earlier, this group of four Norwegians hit the stage for an hour-long remix- -the difference, of course, being that while Molvær/Bang/Gurtu drew its entire set from the ether, the Punkt Live Remix had some foundational premises upon which to build its set, most noticeably a deep, foghorn-like low register blast that would crop up, time and again, almost as a rallying point for the quartet to move onto something else.

Much has been written about Westerhus, his relentless unorthodoxy and various collaborations—beyond Molvær's trio, Puma, Monolithic and his commission for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, his duo, in particular, with singer Sidsel Endresen that seems to go from strength to strength and height to height with each and every performance. But while Westerhus continues to defy all logic, with such an intimate command of his four amplifiers, uncountable foot pedals and other devices such as guitar preparations and use of a bow, what's been happening increasingly over the past couple of years is that the guitarist is balancing his more jagged and aggressive tendencies with an increasingly lyrical and beautiful side. Of course, lyrical and beautiful for Westerhus sometimes occurs at the decibel level of a jet plane at 15 feet, but it still means a greater contrast in his work that's turning him into an even more remarkable artist, even as he moves towards a new phase in his own career with a burgeoning interest in composition to augment his longstanding in-the-moment spontaneity.

Honoré is almost always the silent, still partner to the more animated Bang— a remarkable sampler and sonic manipulator who may rarely crack a smile, but whose engagement in the music was clearly as complete as his partners. Still, at ELBJazz, he was seen smiling far more often than usual, and why not? The remix, lasting for a full hour—in itself an oddity, since most remixes at the Punkt Festival rarely extend, for logistical reasons, beyond 30 minutes. With the liberty of 60 minutes, Bang, Henriksen, Westerhus and Honoré had much more time to explore ideas, ranging from ethereal atmospherics and, with Henriksen's trumpet in particular, a deeply profound but equally unpredictable lyricism, to more angular explorations of jagged shorelines and stark, craggy mountainscapes.

Henriksen, whose breadth also seems to expand year after year, first began singing a decade or more ago in a choirboy falsetto; in the ensuing years he's added throat singing (or, at least, an emulation), guttural growls and cathartic screams to his sonic palette. At ELBJazz 2013, add to that a standing near-frontman as, for one of the first (if not the first) times he actually arose from his chair to sing, microphone in hand rather than leaning into it, seated, in a stand. Henriksen said, after the show, that his forthcoming sequel to 2008's Cartography (on ECM, but the forthcoming record will not be; the label is yet to be determined) seems to be heading, if not exactly towards song form, then to some degree, at least, in that general direction. He also revealed that when, standing onstage and singing, he almost—almost—moved right to the front of the stage; perhaps that will happen in September, when Punkt's ninth edition, in its hometown of Kristiansand, Norway, takes place.

It was a strange remix, given the source material—"a lot of major chords," said Honoré before the show—but as invariably happens with any Punkt Live Remix, whether or not it actually succeeds, the trip is always worth it. In this particular case, not only was the trip worth it, but the remix was a smashing success, an indication that somehow, these intrepid musicians who know each other so well (well, Westerhus is still a relative newcomer to the Punkt family, but he's so malleable that he seems able to fit into just about any context) always seem to find new things to say, new places to go, new constellations to explore. The ELBJazz audience may not have really understood what it was hearing—most of them are not likely to have been at the Notwist show earlier in the evening—but it didn't matter, as Punkt Live Remixes are invariably capable of standing alone on their own merits. With such a long time available to this evening's participants—the opposite of most ELBJazz performers, who find an hour a short time to play—this was definitely a remix to remember.

As many people headed over to Mojo for the after-party, those who hung around backstage after the Punkt Live Remix were treated to a real dose of reality: by 1:30AM, just a half hour after its set, everyone was being rushed out of the hall, because in exactly two-and-a-half hours, the Fischauktionshalle was going to be a real fish auction hall once again, with catches coming in from the North Sea and all signs of ELBJazz gone—and for those who attended the festival and, in particular, the three shows this evening, something truly not to be forgotten. For a first-time visit to Hamburg, the single biggest thought—beyond finding somewhere dry and warm—was how to secure a return invite next year, when ELBJazz turns five.

Photo Credit
John Kelman


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