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French Connections - The Jazzdor Experience

Henning Bolte By

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Jazzdor is a French festival with two annual editions. The main part is held in the Strasbourg area (France) in November and the other one in Berlin (Germany) in June. Both editions present a considerable number of bilateral and multilateral collaborations; an essential part of the festival's philosophy and policy.

The Strasbourg festival is the older part and home of the organization. The Strasbourg festival covers two weeks in November, collaborating with the neighboring German city of Offenburg that also offers a stage for some bigger concerts held. The festival presents two or three groups a day, four groups incidentally. This year's 32nd edition took place November 10-24. This article covers the five-day stretch of November 14-18.

Gardening and French satellites

As a festival, Jazzdor is a place of cultivation: a gradual process of cultivating music of individual musicians in fitting, developmental, exploring and challenging combinations. It is also a place for the cultivation of different kinds of music in contrastive or complementing interconnections. It is a gardening thing, complementing deeper rooted plants with younger plants offering new colors, textures etc.. The task is entrusted to musical master gardener Philippe Ochem and his proven team.

This year offered a vast variety of vegetation, sensuous ensembles of plants, bushes, trees and lawns. During my four day's attendance there were no less than nine different but interconnected types of vegetation as the area of percussion discussion (Edward Perraud / Julian Sartorius), pianoscapes (Eve Risser, Roberto Negro, Colin Vallon Trio, Dieter Ilg Trio), the blooming scrape space area (Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, Illegal Crowns, Louis Sclavis/Benjamin Moussay) and the roar + soar place of the duo of Mette Rasmussen and Chris Corsano, and The Thing.

There were also the primal grounds of Sidsel Endresen and Stian Westerhus, the trancextension of Daniel Erdmann Velvet Revolution + Cyril Atef and the time l(e)aps of Post K as well as the strungulation of the double quartet of IXI and Melanoia. Finally the audience could enjoy the orchestral maneuvers of Airelle Besson leading the Euroradio Jazz Orchestra 2017.

The program is set up in a clear long-term developmental perspective to stimulate exploration, discovery and growth. On the one hand it is built around French satellites, French groups with guesting musicians from outside or French musicians guesting in groups from outside. On the other hand musicians and groups that made/make a relevant/important contribution to developments in the jazz field are presented like this year's vocalist Sidsel Endresen or guitarist Mary Halvorson.

The French satellites in this part of the festival were Benoit Delbecq (p) playing with New York group Illegal Crowns, Edward Perraud (dr) in a duo with young Swiss drummer Julian Sartorius, Cyril Atef (dr) and Theo Ceccaldi (vln) in German saxophonist Daniel Erdmann's group Velvet Revolution, Patrice Héral (dr) playing as part of the trio of German bassist Dieter Ilg, Airelle Besson (tr) leading the Euroradio Jazz Orchestra 2017 and Quatuor IXI (string quartet) playing with German drummer Dejan Terzic's group Melanoia.

Areas of gardening

I will walk along the promenade through the festival's different areas of gardening and cultivation; not in in chronological order, but in another order somehow making sense starting in the percussion discussion area.

Percussion discussion

Sartorius and Perraud, drummers from different generations, are both known for their astonishing creative use of a vast variety of sound sources and materials they produce music from. They perpetuate the line of Max Roach's percussion discussion and the Pierre Favre Singing Drums Ensemble with Favre, Fredy Studer, Paul Motian and Nana Vasconcelos and last year's drum duo of Hamid Drake and female French-Japanese drummer Yuko Oshima.

The doubling of instruments in general opens up a great space to give shape in lively interaction with the doubling of drums as maybe one of the richest variants. During their duo set at CEAAC, Sartorius and Perraud traversed a rich, thrilling and entertaining percussive landscape, finely balancing groove-emphasizing parts and vast orchestrated tinkling, ringing, crackling sound varieties. They gave a wonderful example of how to enliven a diversity of materials, make those vibrate, talk and sing—a true enjoyment.

Primal grounds

Voice and percussion are the primal means of human music making, originating from incantation, coordination of work rhythm and joyful communal celebration. Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen is not just singing along (song line patterns) or scatting out of instrumental beddings. From a wide variety of human vocalizations and ways of singing she has distilled a unique deeper bare core of voice that she freely, without any pre-structured steering, shapes in real-time, in highly sensitive, confronting, liberating and deeply touching way. One of her longer-term partners in crime is Norwegian heavy electric guitarist Stian Westerhus. Both musicians work, in a radical way, on the materiality of their respective sounds. Endresen articulates language like sound units free(d) from conventional denotative meaning. At certain moments it resembles speaking in tongues. The sound itself and its special quality of articulation and voicing is the message then. The unveiled, seemingly less quality is just more, gives leeway to a higher intensity and direct way of vocalization and its emotional impact. The same applies to Westerhus and his electric instrument. He goes to extremes to detect the core in the ongoing process of playing. At times it was quite disturbing and confronting but also full of gentle traces. From this all together great moments arose during this concert when melodic contours of a distant, indestructible beauty emerged and shone. This would be impossible without the invisible hand and sensible ear of sound designer Asle Karstad. He is always at Sidsel Endresen's side, who is armed solely with a mike when she is performing. His mastership to secure the naturalness and balance of the sound is extraordinary. With him the listening is not smoothed or pushed by enhancing, broadening or pumping up the sound. He ensures the listening audience is IN the sound.

Scraping space

The band name Punkt.Vrt.Plastik stands for the three different perspectives of the trio's members: it's Point for Swedish bassist Petter Eldh, Garden(ing) for Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Sculpture/ing for German drummer Christian Lillinger. The constellation has been emerging from the October Meeting 2016 at Amsterdam Bimhuis. Having seen it performing four times within a year -at the Bimhuis meeting, at the Jazz Festival Münster in January 2017, at Berlin Jazzfest and at Jazzdor Strasbourg in November 2017—I could observe a rapid resounding development. The musical roles are clearly differentiated, dynamically layered and they now fit together and into each other wonderfully. The music now has a clear identity, a compact and sophisticated structure, strong dynamics without losing the attractive playfulness. The unit made a huge leap within just one month.

Illegal Crowns, a quartet unit consisting of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and pianist Benoit Delbecq, performed its very own kind of unrolling and furling polymorphic music containing intriguing dialectics of continuity and fragmentation, of confusion and orderliness, materiality and ghostliness as well as sophisticated rhythmical variation and appearing catchy melodic snatches. Despite highly sophisticated playing it didn't burn in my experience and the potentials of the music didn't come out full force. It was different in the Roar+Soar area of the festival.

Roar + soar

Suitably the same evening Illegal Crowns was followed by the duo of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen from Trondheim, Norway, and US-American drummer Chris Corsano and The Thing in the festival's main venue Fossé des Treize, both roar+soar units par excellence.

Both configurations make music in a (highly) predictable way while holding on to misty darkness as well. It would become a trailblazing affair open to how the musicians would achieve a soaring state and at which intensity.

Rasmussen's doughty far-reaching cry carried on by Corsano's dauntless propelling, fine-grained precise drumming provided a great uplifting experience especially through the combination of 'small' sonic gestures and hard blowing from an inexhaustible roaring energy. Reinforced by the visual wild grace of both musicians the performance left a strong mark. Both musicians have a slim body elegantly facing a strongly blowing wind, together riding huge waves in bold upswings and racy downswings.

The subsequent appearance of The Thing was a transition from a gracefully roaring duo to an athletically raging herd. The Thing, this particularly close and strong Viking unit of Swedish reedist Mats Olof Gustafsson and his two Norwegian companions, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, is presently one of the most successful live-acts playing a great diversity of festivals and venues. The Thing's music making is highly predictable in its roaring sort but not in the way it leads into soaring climaxes, which is emerging from deeper abysmal grounds.

For sure the threesome will roar and rage full force and no doubt Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten will soar. The question is, what centrifugal force will their relentless roaring and raging unlock and how will it start to soar, transcending itself? It is different every time, in terms of intensity and lucidity, dustiness and duration. On a scale of 1 to 10 the Strasbourg performance ultimately reached a full level 9 of density and intensity. It was a full-grown Klanggewitter the three musicians induced via strong and puzzling maneuvers. The actions to get there, to achieve it, were theatrical as well as (trail blazingly) real. Musicians can achieve the skills to reach these kinds of limits, that's one thing. However, to get to The Thing's upheaval intensity is quite a different story. Doubtlessly these three masters pushed the music and its experience quality to the highest level (again).

Trancextension

Velvet Revolution plus Cyril Atef, one of these new plants in blooming colors, turned out to be a memorable highlight. Atef, the magician of the vitally pulsing, veering beat, marched in, bombarded German saxophonist Daniel Erdmann, French violinist Theo Ceccaldi and UK vibraphonist, then kept the threesome under straight seditious fire incessantly, thereby sparking an intoxicating, trancing drive. Frenetically they spurred each other concluding in a joyous, blazing finale. It became a stirring, exuberant affair with the audience extending the reach of the music and considerably pushing the Velvet Revolution envelop to new frontiers.

Drummer Cyriel Atef is a master of the deep dry vibrating bass drum (as we for instance know from dub-reggae), His beats are highly intoxicating and irresistibly trancing. As a musician he is completely his own man with a multiple identity. Known from his group Congopunq, his duo Bumchello with French cellist Vincent Segal as well as his wide ranging collaboration with the likes trombonist Yves Robert and the singers Cheb Mami and Brigitte Fontaine, Atef was a daring as well as natural choice to team-up with for Daniel Erdmann's Velvet Revolution; daring because you would not associate the music of Velvet Revolution (see the group's latest album A Short Moment Of Zero G on the BMC label) with Atef's way of drumming and natural because pushing the group's envelope impulses of a dissimilar complementation was needed. The multiversal Atef revealed to be an ideal choice. Under the reign of his beats Ceccaldi could heavily exert his Paganini side, Erdmann could turn into a tough tenor of the Von Freeman type and Jim Hart metamorphosed into a vibraphone dervish. It was of a different order than music with underlain electronic beats.

Theo Ceccaldi is one of the strongest, most dazzling and fanciful musicians of the younger French generation. As ubiquitous musician he has made a strong mark yet. If the question rises what connects German composer Hanns Eisler, Free Jazz, French musette and dub reggae, the answer no doubt will be German saxophonist Daniel Erdmann living and working now in France. Jim Hart played an important role in the London LOOP collective and has made his mark in the British scene. He is now residing in France and found his allies in Velvet Revolution.

Pianoscapes

In this corner of cultivation the plants were in full attracting bloom. Roberto Negro and Eve Risser, regular guests of the festival in a variety of configurations, did a solo-recital and German bassist Dieter Ilg and his German-French trio gave his understanding of Bach.

Roberto Negro spontaneously created abundant beauty in a succession of changing wondrous constellations, an astonishing sonic glasperlenspiel. He has an unbridled and inexhaustible phantasy such that it almost reached the point of saturation. He happily saved it by a wonderfully emerging downswing. Dreamily he rose from the piano chair to receive the applause and seemed astonished as if it all was not real but part of a David Lynch movie.

Eve Risser's "Nouveau solo" turned out as a travel along her personal history of listening to and absorbing music, a forward oriented retrospective inspection of her musical Bildungsgang. She worked it out in deep contemplation, remaining light-hearted, leaving to her listening audience enjoyable space and a tacit participative role.

It started with a passage that sounded like far echo of Keith Jarrett. Subsequently so many things happened, full of jaw-dropping findings as for instance in the magical piece with e-bow, that my ears/mind started to float. It was a manifestation of the art of dancing with your own shadow, the art of unifying diversity. It all happened in a spontaneous flow combining the thoughtfulness of the compositional process and the magic of the moment's intuition. It was a flowering plant of instant rare beauty dissolving as momentary as it had emerged, leaving an airy trace—the miracle of almost ungraspable great form. When she turned from the piano facing the audience she appeared to be a smiling oracle stepping out of its hidden laboratory, her space of concentration.

Bassist Dieter Ilg, originating from the other side of the Rhine opposite Strasbourg, works in the classical piano-double bass-drums constellation in the role of leader. The trio comprising pianist Rainer Böhm and drummer Patrice Heral, played recognizable (Bach) standards in an ultimately solid way. With great care they extended, stretched embellished and—the most exuberant pianist Rainer Böhm -flared up the original Bach pieces and adapted it to contemporary rhythmic feeling. The group delivered beautiful tied gift packages provided with solemn comments to lead the audience into the music.

Strungulation

'Strungulation' sounds like creepers ... ! It applies to a string quartet strung with a jazz quartet vice versa. It is about the entanglement of two dynamic units with a highly profiled line-up: the Melanoia quartet of German-Serbian drummer Dejan Terzic and the French string quartet Quatuor IXI, both of which had performed at the festival earlier. The French part is the unit of violinists Theo Ceccaldi, Régis Huby , Guillaume Roy and Atsushi Sakaï. The German part is the unit of guitarist Ronny Graupe, pianist Achim Kaufmann, drummer Dejan Terzic and saxophonist Christian Weidner.

It is a delicate combination with great potential, a challenge to get entangled in distinguishing balance. It revealed a richly unfolding, evolving and intertwining kind of music. "Traum im Traum" (Dream In A Dream), the strongest piece of the concert, was a piece as made for it. It offered multiple possibilities, taken up and elaborated on brilliantly live, except for the sound quality. It was a real pity that the sound quality did not sufficiently carry the music played. As a consequence a fine-grained rendition of the music's richness could not be achieved. Too much of the richness of the music was noised or drowned out. The inclusion of a capable sound designer would be necessary to get a well-contoured deep end sound (Klangbild) under various performance circumstances.

Orchestral maneuvers

Of a different kind were the orchestral maneuvers of the Euroradio Jazz Orchestra (EJO) 2017, a 13-piece ensemble of musicians under the age of 30 from different European countries (Norway, Zweden, Estonia, Austria, Slovenia) under the direction of French trumpeter Airelle Besson.

Putting together a large ensemble of young musicians, commissioning an original repertoire and sending the ensemble on a European tour, is a yearly recurrent thing (dating from 1965) undertaken by the union of broadcasting companies engaged in jazz programming. After the North Sea Jazz Festival dropped out to host the event the BBC took over and commissioned the work and this year Radio France was the one to commission a French musician to write for the ensemble and direct it.

Radio France still has a strong engagement with its daily (!) jazz program, Open Jazz, directed and presented by Alex Dutilh. The next day's edition of this program was broadcasted live from Fossé de Treize, the central home venue of Jazzdor.

Musicians were requested based on the orchestration of the compositions. It proved to be quite difficult for French horn and flute and in the end a 50:50 balance of female and male musicians turned out—without explicitly striving or demanding for it. The musicians gathered for a 4-day rehearsal period in Paris. The ensemble played a couple of concerts among those the one in Bischwiller, a 12.000 inhabitants commune in the Alsatian Hinterland of Strasbourg.

Airelle Besson led the ensemble in a full-house concert in the big hall of the MAC, Bischwiller's multidisciplinary cultural center. She did it convincingly with natural authority and great enjoyment. It turned out as a multicolored, appealing and captivating concert worth the nightly trip via winding provincial roads.

Wrap up

The five days in the rich musical vegetation of Jazzdor Strasbourg were full of highlights and brought even many moments of higher lights resulting from well-considered selections and a well-balanced inside-outside relationship on the basis of a far-sighted artistic view. It was suitable not only to present 'new things' but also to support and maintain artistic development.

Photo Credit: Henning Bolte

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