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Jazz em Agosto 2017

Mike Chamberlain By

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Jazz em Agosto
Lisbon, Portugal
July 28-August 6, 2017

Where to start with my description of the Jazz em Agosto experience? The gorgeous setting of the amphitheater in the garden of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Fundacão Calouste Gulbenkian) in central Lisbon? The musical highlights of the fourteen concerts over ten days? The many amazingly creative and sympatico people I met? The beauty of the city of Lisbon and its people? Whatever—we'll get to all of that and more, and if I may indulge myself, a little personal history.

For a number of years, I'd wanted to attend Jazz em Agosto, based not only on reports from journalists and musicians, but also because I wanted to see how Portugal has changed since I lived in Porto for nine months in the mid-80s.

Jazz em Agosto did not disappoint, nor did Lisbon or the country as a whole.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was established by the Armenian industrialist Calouste Gulbenkian, who made his fortune in the oil business and died in Lisbon in 1955. The mission of the foundation is to promote education in the arts and sciences. To further that end, the foundation built a facility comprised of three museum buildings and a garden on a 19-acre parcel of land several kilometres north of the Tagus River and the main part of downtown Lisbon. Jazz em Agosto began in the early 80s (this was the 34th edition) and is a resolutely independent enterprise, in the sense that it is beholden to no corporate sponsorship and also in its artistic direction. Artistic director Rui Neves has held the position for most of the festival's history, and his vision is to present high-quality, forward-looking, and adventurous music in the avant- jazz tradition.

The setting for the concerts is unique in my experience, an open air amphitheatre in the foundation's thoughtfully designed English-style garden, a favourite place for the city's citizens to walk around and relax in, or to visit the foundation's collections of ancient art and contemporary Portuguese art. Behind the amphitheatre is a small lake surrounded by trees, and the musicians enter the stage from the rear before each evening's performance, the musicians emerging from a set of stairs sunk into the ground, to create a dramatic effect, akin to gladiators entering the arena as the trees wave in the almost constant breeze that blows in Lisbon in the evening.

Due to an airline snafu (the airline shall remain unnamed, but it is Portugal's national carrier), I missed the first concert on Friday, July 28, by Steve Lehman's group Sélébéyone, but I did manage to make it for Lehman's solo performance on alto saxophone and computer the next day at 6:30 and for the that day's main concert by Sun of Goldfinger, the trio comprised of David Torn on guitar and electronics, Tim Berne on alto sax, and Ches Smith on drums. Berne wailed freely over the wall of electronic sound laid out by Torn, who fired out shards of guitar notes, and Smith interjected with quirky intelligence and subtlety that pushed the improvisation in unexpected directions. The three were totally in synch with each other and, at one point, with one of the jets that passed overhead (the amphitheater sits directly under the approach to the nearby airport, and the sound of airplanes coming in to land is a signature of the festival). Really good stuff, and a promising start to my festival experience.

The next evening's performance, by the French collective Coax Orchestra, was, unfortunately, an incoherent mess. The concert started promisingly enough, with a fanfare that sounded as if it would lead to a unified piece, but the group swiftly turned the concert into a showcase of the different styles in which they dabble, with no unifying thread. To compound matters, guitarist Julien Desprez, who had treated us with an inventive and unpredictable solo set earlier in the evening, was criminally underused for the first half of the concert, and at a couple of points, the group locked into a groove to which no dynamic tension was added.

Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann have been touring their unlikely combination of pedal steel guitar and saxophone on the heels of their CD Sex Tape. When I saw them in Montreal in June, they seemed road-weary, but their performance in Lisbon was quite a lot more intense and focused, the latter-day Brotzmann at his most lyrical as Leigh bent and distorted the notes coming from her steel guitar, pushing Brotzmann in different directions throughout the performance.

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