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Jazz em Agosto 2007 Gulbenkian Foundation Lisbon, Portugal August 3-5, 9-11
The bass clef gets little love in music always the bridesmaid, as it were. Flying to the upper octaves represents exhilaration while a bass solo is often seen as an opportunity to chat or go to the bathroom. But the 2007 edition of Lisbon's Jazz em Agosto paid tribute to the lower register. With just 11 sets over nine days time, the stages on the grounds of the Gulbenkian Foundation were graced with ten basses and five tubas Living legend Ornette Coleman presented his new band, now up to three basses; the Norwegian group Crimetime Orchestra featured two basses and a baritone sax; and contrabassist extraordinaire Jöelle Léandre appeared solo as well as with the group Quartet Noir. Joe Fonda included a tuba in his low-end Bottom's Out, and Portuguese tubist Sérgio Carolino led a quintet with three other tubas and drums. Along with the focus on deep pitch, the festival featured minimalist improv (Quartet Noir and the excellent French band Hubbub) and funky groove (Crimetime and the Swiss group Ronin), and some innovative groupings of like voices (Carolino's Low Frequency Tuba Band and the a cappella quartet, Timbre), not to mention a fair share of pioneers in the history of contemporary improvisation: Coleman's quintet closed the fest, and the trio of Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell opened the first night. Without a rhythm section, Abrams was the closest thing the trio had to percussion, and at times Lewis was particularly keened to him, almost playing the part of bassist as Mitchell held the front with his horn-defying multiphonics. Lewis spent brief moments at the laptop, processing Mitchell's sax and his own trombone and kneading in ambient sounds. He seemed restless, using the computer like a real-time instrument, sauntering back and forth between horn and computer but never letting the electronics ring freely. Abrams's playing was often sparse, letting single, sustained notes or chords hover, sometimes waiting minutes between interjections. Mitchell, meanwhile, ran overlapping lines on flute and saxophones, but even he came off as more subdued than usual. It was a far cry from their remarkable 2006 album Streaming, but was nevertheless a gorgeous set.
If they were striking new ground in their short history as a trio or their overlapping careers stretching back to the '60s, Coleman used a new group to reach even further back to his earliest records.
Playing a white saxophone, and picking up his trumpet or violin for only the briefest of moments, Coleman led the band through rapid-fire short songs with the basses (one arco, one plucked and one electric) churning like the muddy Mississippi (or perhaps the Tigris) in the middle. The good news was that despite a recent health scare its owner, Coleman's saxophone sounded as bright and buoyant as ever. The Bach prelude from Tone Dialing showed the group to be more focused yet adventurous than the final Prime Time lineup. Without the crisp electric guitar, Al MacDowell stretched to the top of his electric bass neck to fill out the group's sound, but Coleman's sax was the only thing really at the forefront. Soloingor at least stretching out might be the primary vehicle for the practice of Coleman's harmolodics, and as such the quintet might do less harmolodicizing than did previous groups, but that didn't hurt the music. It was free in spirit but constrained by time, bursts of energy with no space to wander. Elsewhere, the new quintet has done concerts with very long pieces. Coleman might be using this group to loop his long career into a single piece, by reintroducing "Lonely Woman into the songbook and having the band play in styles from different decades of his trajectory. If that's so, then in Lisbon they were firmly rooted in his Atlantic years.
Portugal's own free-improv legend, Carlos Zingaro, made his first appearance at the festival, in a duo with Jorge Lima Barreto. The pianist's thick, heavy chord clusters (Barreto even playing at one point wearing oven mitts), his liberal use of the sustain pedal and small electronic sound-makers came off as a series of barbs tossed his duet partner's way. He threw an uneven array of sounds at Zingaro, who responded with taut bold lines. If improvisation is a conversation, theirs was heated but gentlemanly.