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Jazz em Agosto 2008: Days 4-6


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Just as Jazz em Agosto has a tradition of starting with a bang, it usually ends the same way
Days 1-3 | Days 4-6
Jazz em Agosto
Lisbon, Portugal
August 7-9, 2008

After a break of three days, the Jazz em Agosto theme of extensions continued into the second weekend with programming that often hinged around the thematic idea of generations, featuring recent associates of Anthony Braxton in two bands—the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet and the trio Memorize the Sky—and the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, a band in which the tenor saxophonist has for a decade drawn inspiration from younger musicians, most notably Mats Gustaffson and Ken Vandermark.

Day 4: August 7

Day Four started with a screening of Misha Mengelberg Afijn, an engaging portrait of the Dutch pianist with directors Jellie Dekker and Dick Lucas in attendance. As well as being a window on Mengelberg's music and unique personality, it was an introduction to the impact the Fluxus movement and neo-Dada had on the rise of the European jazz avant-garde in the 1960s and '70s. In the manner of Jazz em Agosto programming, it picked up on notes from the preceding weekend, wherein Mengelberg had appeared as accompanist and commentator in the film Eric Dolphy: Last Date. The best moments came in the contemporary compositions with Mengelberg's finest instrument, the ICP (Instant Composers' Pool), including input from Ab Baars, Toby Delius and perennial partner Han Bennink.

That night the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet launched its set with a piece called "Miscellaneous," both title and piece a key to Bynum's aesthetic, which employs symmetrical and asymmetrical elements to develop hives of contrast. Bynum was joined in this group by Matt Bauder on clarinet and tenor saxophone, Jessica Pavone on viola and electric bass (though on this night the electric bass went unplayed), drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarists Mary Halvorson and Evan O'Reilly. The guitarists are in a sense emblematic of Bynum's patterning, even visually: Halvorson plays a classic jazz archtop with a sound and approach that's a radical updating of Billy Bauer, Tal Farlow and Johnny Smith—fleet, resonant and densely involved; O'Reilly uses a solid-body guitar and an assortment of foot pedals to create a sustained ensemble voice that was both orchestral and electronic.

What's most arresting here is the way that Bynum's weave of composed and improvised elements keeps summoning up interstitial stage textures long abandoned to jazz history. Thus a sudden harmonic maelstrom of voices can give way to one of Fujiwara's animated polyrhythmic solos (odd shades of Gene Krupa) or Bauder's athletic equivalent to Charlie Ventura's "Bop for the People." Bynum himself managed to create sequences of shifting trumpet timbres, ranging through a host of mutes (including a bowler hat) and approaches that touched on the "jungle" effects of Ellington trumpet colorists such as Bubber Miley, Arthur Whetsol, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams.

The second half of the group's performance was given over to "WhyExplicities," a long suite dedicated to Anthony Braxton from a forthcoming CD called Asphalt Flowers, Forking Paths. Bynum's compositional practice does not derive directly from Braxton's—he clearly has his own developing methodology—but he has learned what is perhaps at the core of Braxton's thought, which is to use composition to create contexts in which improvisers and certain traditions (free jazz) can again create surprise for players and listeners alike.

Day 5: August 8

Day Five began with critic Bill Shoemaker moderating a panel on The Changing Scene, matching Taylor Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson with Barre Phillips in an engaging discussion of the ways things have changed— from mentoring to economics—for musicians taking up careers in jazz in the roughly four decades that separated the participants. While Phillips could recall a world in which an array of non-jazz musical work presented itself to the apprentice, Bynum could cite current Ivy League tuition fees.

The trio of Memorize the Sky is unusual in several regards. Saxophonist and clarinettist Matt Bauder, bassist Zach Wallace and percussionist Aaron Siegel have been working together since student days in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the '90s, so it's an unusually longstanding musical relationship. Different still is the trio's music, which runs counter to anything you might expect from a tenor-bass-drums trio: Memorize the Sky is insistently minimalist, practicing a style more likely to appear in Europe—French, German and Swiss models come to mind—an approach emphasizing sustained sounds with minimal movement and a consistent blurring of acoustic and electronic elements. The dominant group mode is a beautiful drone, repeated bass tremolos, the repeated rub of a large horizontal bass drum, a tenor saxophone with circular breathing and odd oscillating tones and percussive key-pad noises, sometimes augmented with electronics. Siegel's use of the bass drum was particularly deft, serving as a resonator for numerous small instruments.

Exalted technical skills are constantly apparent in Sylvie Courvoisier's Lonelyville project, an arresting combination of the leader's frequently prepared piano, the strings of violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Vincent Courtois, with the electronics of Ikue Mori and the percussion of Gerald Cleaver. The impulse of Third Stream music has rarely been so explicitly addressed in recent years as in the Lonelyville project, which seems to combine multiple modes of improvisation with composed elements.

Courvoisier's compositions tend toward strongly melodic themes, often making the most of Feldman's bravura violin playing. Often involving frequent reiteration of thematic materials, at times the compositions seemed so dominant that the improvised solos were as an afterthought. While the kind of expressive virtuosity practiced by Feldman and Courtois strongly suggested late nineteenth-century Romantic music, their functions within compositions seemed to harken back to the improvised cadenzas of the late eighteenth. Feldman in particular produced solos that were brilliantly executed but largely decorative in content. In this regard, Courtois, who seemed to take the composed materials further afield from their immediate implications, was the more convincing improviser, and likely the most technically gifted cellist I've ever witnessed in an improvising context, shifting readily from the most virtuosic flights of bowing to a convincing equivalent of walking bass.

Courvoisier, for her part, seems to have utterly different identities as composer and soloist. As a composer, her work is highly structured and tuneful; as an improviser, she's deeply involved in both the sonic exploration of the piano interior and in a kinetic dance about the keyboard that abounds in register contrasts and percussive clusters. While the former is complemented by the work of Feldman and Courtois, her more radical impulses as an improviser are echoed in the electronic work of Mori, whose blips and squiggles were a direct electronic extension of the pianist's keyboard flurries. Gerald Cleaver's highly varied percussion, too, seemed particularly attuned to the timbral detailing in Courvoisier's improvisations.

Day 6: August 9

Solo percussion concerts are a regular feature of Jazz em Agosto, with both Gunter "Baby" Sommer and Le Quan Ninh appearing in this format in recent years. This year featured Swiss percussionist Fritz Hauser, some of whose best-known performances have used the traditional patterns of marching band drumming and just a few drums and cymbals as vehicles for complex interactions of rhythm and sound. Here his solo performance consisted of two pieces. Appearing in the intimate Auditorio Dois of the Gulbenkian, Hauser first exploited a substantial array of orchestral and Asian percussion, including wood blocks, gongs, orchestral and Chinese drums, a bell tree and an array of cymbals.

Encircled by percussion, Hauser began with a short phrase hammered out on small gongs, then gradually worked his way around the circle of drums from wood blocks and bells to gongs and tom-toms, always elaborating the same pattern, sometimes subtracting strokes for the more resonant instruments, sometimes adding rhythmic detail, but never surrendering the fundamental motif however different its handling. After sustaining this exposition for half an hour, Hauser took up his second piece, a diametrically opposed essay in percussion minimalism.

Seated at the same table at which he had begun, Hauser concentrated all his attention on a small gong, flat on the table, beating out a rapid pattern until harmonics began to sing out over the rhythmic pattern. The piece continued for ten minutes, Hauser creating a complex piece, moving his small sticks around the gong to create varying waves of harmonics that intersect and interact. However unlikely the source, it's dense, whole music.

The next performance, presented in the same intimate theatre as the Hauser, was a duet between accordionist Pascal Contet and bassist Barre Phillips, appearing together for the first time as a duo. As with the Hauser performance, it's highly evolved—and involving—music, produced with a relatively narrow palette. The two favor short pieces, first finding ground for dialogue, mining it briefly, then ending abruptly to seek another approach. It's consummate improvisation, with two players who share a devotion to rapid musical evolutions, whether touching on a folk motif or serialism. Thus Phillips can sustain a musical continuum while constantly shifting specific techniques, whether it's bowing or pizzicato or suddenly tapping on a string with the end of the bow. It's stunning how Phillips rethinks the idea of the musical line into a sequence of different sounds, an interest reflected in Contet's own preoccupation with sound, sometimes treating the bellows as its own sound source, whether for the passage of air or as an instrument for tapping. Often defying musical description the Contet/Phillips duo is one of the musical highlights of the festival.

Just as Jazz em Agosto has a tradition of starting with a bang, it usually ends the same way, and it's unlikely there's a more forceful (or louder) acoustic band than the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, which for this occasion has 11 members. Now together for a decade, the Tentet has gone through some slight changes in both personnel and approach. If its essence is the overblown saxophone mayhem generated by Brotzmann (alto and tenor), Mats Gustaffson (baritone) and Ken Vandermark (tenor), on this occasion it had largely jettisoned the compositional input that was once a feature, as well as the services of a full-time trumpeter (a daunting task in this band and a position variously occupied through the years by Toshinori Kondo, Roy Campbell and Magnus Broo). In their place, Joe McPhee played pocket trumpet and flugelhorn as well as soprano sax. Each piece began with a brief melodic figure stated by Brotzmann, a Coltrane—or Ayler-like diatonic motif as much invocation and launching point as theme. These were elaborated in a densely orchestral way, the group moving through distinct instrumental groupings and densities in support of a variety of solos and duos. The sheer volume and density of the aggregation's music is matched by its emotional depth—it's a coruscating, visceral journey that touches on chaos and paradise with the forward momentum of a locomotive.

The structure of the band's music is also the structure of its personnel: there's an essential dialogue between the surging, emotional, Dionysian elements in the band and a detached Apollonian order. The former is represented largely by Brotzmann, Gustaffson and Vandermark, who are joined in the expressive dimension by trombonist Johannes Bauer and electric cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, who are every bit as capable of sonic assault as the overwrought reeds. Counterpoised to this emotional energy is the almost stately lyricism represented by Jeb Bishop, whose trombone playing is distinguished by a clarion upper register; Per Ake Holmlander, who plays tuba (and an odd brass instrument that looks like a hasty encounter between a euphonium and a valve trombone) with a similarly detached tunefulness; and McPhee, whose brass and saxophone sing alike with a sweetness that is in contrast to the vocalic chaos that characterizes much of the band's music. Meanwhile bassist Kent Kessler and the drummers Paal Nilssen-Love and Michael Zerang create a dense backdrop against which these differing positions contend, or more appropriately, the Apollonian voices somehow survive. On this night the total effect is both brilliant and cathartic.

Coda: An essential part of the Lisbon jazz scene is the record store Trem Azul and its record label Clean Feed with producer Pedro Costa at its center. Rare among the few remaining dedicated jazz stores, Trem Azul has a space large enough for performances. During the interim period of the festival the store threw a party.

With at least a hundred people in attendance, Mats Gustaffson gave a stunning solo performance on baritone saxophone incorporating circular breathing, vocalizing through the horn, and extended periods of sonic layering in which harmonics built upon harmonics to create thick textures of sound. One of the features of Gustaffson's playing is the frequent use of extreme contrasts in dynamics. While the inconsistent volume levels can be distracting in a group context (creating a kind of constant filtering in which he moves from overwhelming to near inaudibility), it's a dramatic highlight of his solo performances. His work is rooted in the tenor saxophone innovations of Albert Ayler and Evan Parker, but in transposing them to baritone he has found a special instability of pitch and tremendous resources of volume. At one point he improvised a quieter piece that bore strong resemblance to a spiritual—as movingly human in its emotional depth as music ever becomes. There was also an impromptu band that included Gustaffson, Bynum, Bauder and drummer Chris Corsano (most familiar for his work with Connecticut saxophonist Paul Flaherty, Corsano was on tour with singer Bjork) along with a group of able Lisboan musicians. It was as spontaneous and intense as music ever gets.

Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

Photo Credit

Joaquim Mendes / Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

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