European Saxophone Ensemble: Helsinki, Finland, October 9, 2012

Anthony Shaw By

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European Saxophone Ensemble
Koko Jazz Club
Helsinki, Finland
October 9, 2012

For want of a better explanation, some great gigs really do just happen—the place, the people, the acoustics, even the weather conspiring to make the program truly fantastic as well as fitting. And on Wednesday night, October 9, down at the Koko Jazz Club, tucked away behind an Adventist church on the edge of downtown Helsinki, was just such a conspiracy.

Stumbling on the European Saxophone Ensemble completely by accident, there were twelve saxophonists from twelve different countries—all youthful, some downright young—playing seven different varieties of saxophones with a singularity of purpose, a single mind.

Needless to say mountains of time had been used to reach this level of integration, where twelve individuals meld into an organism that lives and breathes through its diversity as much as its unity. And behind this drive for diverse creativity is a Frenchman—plotting, pushing, persuading and, above all, practicing until those individuals could stand up and create a two-and-a-half hour program of stealth and spontaneity that beggared words. Over the last two decades, saxophonist Guillaume Orti has been involved in some of France's—if not Europe's—leading improvisational bands, including Kartet Trio, the Belgium-based Octurn, and Reverse. Now, under his directorship of the ESE, Orti has taken the concept of a big band to a higher level, where the spontaneous and the scripted are blended in a supercharged polyrhythmic mix, with boundless youthful vigor and flair.

Catching this program in the middle of its European tour was a piece of luck. The ensemble was starting the second leg, having had two longer summer residences and two performances in Italy and Ireland. Come the evening, after a long day's rehearsal, the five pieces were comfortable for the players and sparkling for the audience. Koko holds at most 80 people; some sat a little stiffly around tables in front of the band, others spread over the adjacent foyer/bar area. This evening, the club was maybe half full, leaving ample space between chairs for the musicians to mingle during their entry, and again two-and-a-half hours later on their exit. And what a revealing start, all twelve saxophonists blowing around one chord, creating a shimmering, rolling blanket of sound that threatened to wrap the audience up and carry it away on a magic carpet ride.

Instead, the band broke out into more familiar staccato stabs of sax sounds that weaved and tumbled, hinting at melodies, building up tensions and releases between the individuals, and utilizing Orti's light-handed direction as much as conductorship to work with each others' sounds and energies. Solos were created in profusion, but even more exciting were group exercises, usually between triads throwing ideas at others across the stage and working together to interpret the music. Over the two sets, five composers' extended, intricate pieces were featured, as well as three sub-quartets performing short pieces of their own composition at points throughout the program.

Most appealing of all, however, was the rapport between the band and its environment. Mingling with the audience is nothing new on music's contemporary scene, but deliberately utilizing the location as a founding element in the presentation is rarely seen. With an acoustic setup, players repeatedly changed places, creating new modes of interaction within the bigger group, as well as changing their orientation to the audience. In saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock's piece, the audience was recruited to follow the meandering troupe out into the lobby, where the performance continued, split into two parts, reformed and again juggled around the totally new performance area. As local baritone member Linda Fredriksson commented, for the musicians the evening was an exciting but especially liberating experience playing under such deft leadership. The European Saxophone Ensemble project is an ongoing setting for training and development, but also offers audiences on current tours the experience of a panoply of masterly European youth musicianship mediated through the crystal prism of Orti's vision.

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