European Jazz Jamboree 2009

AAJ Staff By

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Zurich-based soprano saxophonist Jurg Wickihalder performed originals and Steve Lacy works solo at the French Institute (he also performed a tribute to his former teacher Lacy at Babylon Kino). Unconsciously casting a double sometimes triple shadow of himself on the perpendicular walls of the fifth floor chamber music space from the room's lighting, the extraordinary visual and aural effect reflected at least a trio of musical personalities heard through a mix of interestingly titled and performed originals and covers, including "The Last Breath," "The Soprano Goes Shopping," Lacy's "Ducks" and "Art." A real experimentalist, at times found blowing from the opposite end of his horn, the saxophonist incorporated a well established vocabulary of solo performance on his instrument in addition to a full range of extended techniques including an obvious mastery of the instrument's altissimo register. Wickihalder also proved to be quite the melodicist, working within and around themes. The only downsides to the single set were his occasional paced right-foot taps which became more and more an unmusical distraction; and even though it was an exquisite set of music there did seem a certain element not present: stretched notes and portions could have been more raw, less-planned. It came across just a tad too "perfect." These observations aside, it was a perfect match of artist to venue, with sound acoustics carrying every breath and pressed sax pad, an excellent showcase for an up and coming talent.

Of the rare non-tribute events, and another example of a perfect artist to venue match, a standout included The Salmon duo of reedman Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (clarinet and alto sax) and Griener (drums) at the Oval Room. Their project, documented on the superb eponymously titled Intakt release of the same name, showcases the duo's now matured near 5-year musical relationship in this context. Petrowsky— a veteran of some of Germany's earliest free jazz—firmly planted his feet and dug deep for unreserved experimentation, while Griener the self-taught and active drummer in Germany (and this year's edition of EJJ) successfully fed his duo partner rhythms to ricochet improvisations off of.

One spontaneously improvised number after the next left appreciative and receptive listeners in awe. Each improvisation's conclusion featured a near-telepathic closure, as if written down or planned beforehand: to say the two worked as one would be an understatement. One such improvisation featured Petrowsky (playing alto then clarinet) ending with a held high-pitched squealing note that stopped on a dime, transitioning seamlessly to a more jazzily characteristic warm clarinet tone in time. This served as a microcosm of the duo's capacity, naturally moving from one extreme to the next with such ease. A following high-energy Petrowsky improvisation on alto was complimented by Griener's focus on bass drum which seemed to encourage the reedman to take slower, more paced breaths on his horn. The reedman accommodated, revealing an empathy not always found in this pared down context whose common ingredient can be the major pitfall of two preoccupied musicians too busy playing to their own content to listen to what their partner is playing (or in some cases not playing).

In midst of a 10-date European tour, the decade-old virtuosic and leaderless trio of Urs Leimgruber (soprano, tenor saxophones), Jacques Demierre (piano) and Barre Phillips (bass) functioned on equal footing at the acoustically magnificent French Institute while stretching any preconceived notions of sonic boundaries with their extended coordinated original improvisations (as is evidenced on each their three recordings to date— one for Victo, Leo and most recently psi). As opposed to the younger (and former student) Wickihalder's soprano playing, the fellow Swiss Leimgruber proved he was undoubtedly more from the Evan Parker than Lacy school, with not much in the form of melody but plenty of rhythmic, propulsive and percussive effect in his use of extended techniques.

Starting on soprano, the saxophonist quickly moved over to tenor, though interestingly it wasn't until the trio was about half an hour into their first group improvisation he actually played the deeper horn with all its parts intact. Having removed the neck, which he placed into the bell of his horn, rattling it back and forth while pressing keypads for percussive though not necessarily consistent rhythmic sound effect, he proceeded to blow through his neck-less and mouthpiece-less horn as well as his hornless mouthpiece. He then quickly put his horn back together, began to blow but continued to maintain sounds not customarily associated with the saxophone, perhaps tricking listeners not in the front row to think his sax might even still be disassembled! No matter, though—the sonic adventure never lost its momentum.

The omnipresent Phillips, eyes for the most part always open and senses at their fullest, added appropriate plucked pizzicato notes then occasional if quickly stroked arco statements, supplying an organic foundation to whatever his partners played (the room's acoustics reverberated even the friction from the bow's hairs on his bass' strings). One of the standout treats of the entire festival was to hear this distinctive voice and pioneer of solo bass performance play live in this near-naked context. Demierre, too, thrived in this environment. From violently bouncing his right-elbow relentlessly at one juncture up and down on the piano keys like a metronome, to performing more delicate, flowing lines—it was his superb work from within the piano that left the most indelible impression. When experimenting on the strings, he gently strummed harplike one moment then plucked in twelve-tone fashion with such ferocity the next. Actually it was a surprise to find out afterwards only one string miraculously broke! There are certain shows after which you just don't feel rushed to immediately stand after it's all over; rather you sit and absorb what sounds might still be resonating off the walls (and in your head), particularly after such an aural onslaught. This was one of those shows.

Of the not-as successful tributes: tenor/soprano saxohonist Wolfgang Schmidtke's quintet played Wayne Shorter's music a tad too politely. "The Earth Is A Drum Suite" dedicated to Don Cherry, the festival's largest scale performance featuring the Independent Jazz Orchestra under conductor/composer/arranger Jürgen Scheele, failed to capture the musical spirit of its honoree (though featured standout soloing by Skidmore). And Dave Burrell's rather tame, though no less musical, solo set of Monk and Ellington with a Scott Joplin- ish sometimes Jelly Roll Morton-like flair failed to truly surprise.

Tenor/soprano saxohonist Schmidtke's quintet played Shorter's music a tad too tried and true. With trumpet/flugelhorn (Schriefl), piano (Bob Degen), bass (Dieter Manderscheid) and drums (Thomas Cremer), the instrumentation also didn't offer much in the form of surprise either— this instrumentation is closely associated with Shorter. Opening with Shorter's "Fall," Schriefl (on flugelhorn) as the first soloist offered a patient warm tone and delivery over Cremer's brushes, mixing well harmonically with the leader's tenor (particularly their held coordinated concluding note). Switching over to trumpet for "Speak No Evil," Schriefl took some intriguing liberties on the opening head, playing noticeably behind the beat, an experiment that paid off handsomely. When it came time for his actual solo, it was electric in the vein of primo Freddie Hubbard—quick paced, with a searing tone and compositionally exquisite unto itself. However, other than the closing measures, there were few other instances in which the group's interpretations of the Shorter material ventured too far off the beaten path.

Shorter's oft-covered "Pinnochio" featured an unaccompanied Schmidtke on soprano, as opposed to Shorter's tenor on the original (from Miles' Nefertiti). Refreshingly, the solo then led into a hardly recognizable variation of the upbeat theme by horns and rhythm. And finally a total and original departure from the expected while paying proper tribute to the original: trumpeter Schriefl changed gears altogether through the motoring theme, emphasizing breath and hints of notes and tones ala Dörner vs. Miles. While very much still in the tradition of Miles, his performance was far from replication, and served as a welcome venture from the original. The momentum didn't quite carry over, though, for "Ana Maria" (with flugelhorn and soprano) wound up still overtly derivative.

The "Earth is a Drum Suite," dedicated to Don Cherry, featured the Independent Jazz Orchestra under the baton of Jürgen Scheele. Featuring frontline primary soloists Jens Winther (the Danish trumpeter recently turned Berlin resident) and Skidmore, the jazz orchestra consisted of three trumpets, three trombones, a four-person reed section, a string section of four violins and cello, plus rhythm section and percussion.

The opening extended piece frankly could have been the concert itself. Skidmore's ecstatic solos, each the set's highpoints, reached such passionate heights, arguably as intense and succinct as he's ever played in his five decade-plus career. The tribute concept here, however as novel and grandiose in its multi- movements, turned out to be quite misleading or at least misdirected. Cherry's music has never naturally lent itself to such a big band setting for starters (as opposed to the surprising ease Dolphy's music lent itself to the previously mentioned Eberhard reeds and brass quartet). His music is much more organic, regardless of setting. That said percussionist Dudu Tucci did an admirable job, at times, trying to maintain some level of earthiness utilizing congas, shekere, talking drum and a kit of small instrument effects. Another awkward element to this "tribute," it should be noted, was the selection of trumpeter. Given Winther's a proven technician and now a Berlin "local," he has, however, been more often than not associated with Miles not Cherry and for good reason. Winther simply doesn't represent the style that is/was Cherry's, one of the forerunners and pioneers of what later would be labeled "World Music." Cherry was beyond technique, something less tangible and something Skidmore certainly offered in solos that either preceded or followed Winther's (another advantage the tenor man had over the trumpeter was the established rapport developed the previous week with the band's bassist and drummer in trio context—see above review).

The second piece, lengthy but not as long, sounded as if condensed it could have been tacked on as yet another movement to the first composition. Both Winther and Skidmore soloed, as did conga player Tucci, whose monstrous and time-consuming feature, interspersed and complimented by ensemble fanfare, was the piece's centerpiece. However, it was Skidmore again who made much of the preamble almost worth the wait as he shook notes furiously from his horn in Coltrane fashion with a type of virtuosity and soulfulness the rest of the performances sorely missed. For a change of pace, the almost three-minute coda, a balladic statement, the adagio movement if you will, may have been more effective had it capped the first piece as the night's closer. Not to deny the unquestionably strong big band arrangements and execution but there unarguably was something missing since Cherry's name but not spirit in music was attached to this performance.


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