Jazz on a Summer's Day
July 13, 2013
The setting was historic, on the grounds of a 12th century castle. The program tilted toward tomorrow, with an ear for the future. That picturesque, present day progression made the 29th Jazz on a Summer's Day a timeless musical present for devoted fans in this charming, well-represented burg of boppers.
The site was a gift for the eyes, and well-aligned for featured performer Vijay Iyer
and his doctoral views regarding the aesthetics of sensory transfer.
It isn't often that a stroll at a jazz concert includes crossing a moat on a renovated drawbridge, or seating areas are amidst medieval compounds, restored as part of a museum complex. Best of all, the primary cultural attraction, the music, was exemplary modern jazz.
Any one of the concert's three performing groups would have made for an exceptional show. As a trifecta, this was just about as solid a night of jazz as could be found and, considering the musicians' expertise and pedigree, one of the Rhineland's finest single venue bills of the year. With this region's tradition of excellent jazz promotions, that's considerable praise.
The engaging, New York-based Iyer has arrived as one of jazz's latest torch bearers. The pianist was one of the critics' darlings throughout 2012, gathering numerous awards to international praise. This year has seen similar accolades and an expanding consumer base for the widely credentialed, academically diverse composer.
For the hundreds in attendance, it was a chance to witness one of jazz's premiere practitioners in close and scenic proximity. Considering ticket and concession prices at many of the other venues or festivals on Iyer's current itinerary, Jazz on a Summer's Day was a bargain.
The event resembled a huge family picnic with great bands. Visitors strolled up to the modest stage throughout every set for non-intrusive close-ups. A few almost looked over Iyer's shoulder while he ran through intricate intervals.
Iyer has played many major venues during this leg of a European tour, but few could be more engaging for spectators than a castle courtyard. Where else could you sit on a stable bench, in your own horse stall among medieval farm relics, quaffing potent local brews with a good view of the stage? The open air sound was clear, amidst the thick surrounding structures.
With a regularly rotating series of recent global projects, today's modified compatriot trio consisted of seminal bassist Stephan Crump
and oft-situated drummer Tyshawn Sorey
. "He's an honorary trio member, we've done so many projects together," said Iyer.
Iyer introduced them as "dear friends," and they played like it, with apparent kinship and joy.
Initially, judging from body language and unsubtle mumbling, it took a while for the entire audience to perceive Iyer's vision. Then, by the second half of the set, it looked like the polite gathering had been hypnotized and converted, proverbially signed and sealed.
It was a chance for the multidimensional Iyer, with published research on listener interaction, to minimize the distance between artist and audience. The trio presented familiar songs with interesting variations, and some graduate school moments as Iyer mused on literary asides and tidbits of music theory in relation to popular culture.
"It feels like you're so far away," Iyer told the comfortable crowd, who remained in the late sunset shade of a large tent, fifteen yards back from the stage structure. "I can't see you but I know you're out there. That's going to be our theme."
A few footnotes and a deeper mathematical understanding might have helped decipher some of the band's complex patterns. A 2007 All About Jazz Megaphone article
, written by Iyer, referred to aiming at tonal targets "not just different, but shocking...at maximum creative risk."
Iyer demonstrated masterful practice of what he was preaching. Many equations became clear through progression, but some scattered intricacies sounded too mechanical or lacked either swing or zing.
There's a stale concert formula for giving the people exactly what they expect, or at least what they think they want. It was refreshing to watch Iyer challenge his audience, something from which many managers might fully dissuade an emerging headliner.
Challenging perimeters made the show exceptional, but it didn't mean everyone fully appreciated it, or that there weren't some lapses. More than a few spectators packed up their picnic baskets and headed for the stone arch exit during the band's opening selections.
It was a long humid day, but it also appeared that the audience preferred a more straight-ahead approach than songs like "Break Stuff," based on hip-hop literature, or "Hood," after techno producer Robert Hood. Iyer's percussive interpretation of electronic format there was impressive, but not the most accessible piece.
Krefeld's good karma may have led to an extraordinary improvisation. After a lack of sufficient lighting left a generally dark stage, Iyer had one of those "make lemonade" moments and let his ivories illuminate the bandstand by improvisations that fit the unusual visuals.
Accustomed to high definition surroundings and dexterity, Iyer noticed a lack of spotlights. "I think we need some more lights up here, we're kind of in the shadows," he hinted, with an unrequited pause.
What sparse lighting there was cast wild images of the musicians across a surrounding canopy, with intriguing effects. While the players' elongated silhouettes cavorted across brightly contrasting white plastic, numerous folks moved to watch beside the stage, as if viewing a puppet theatre.
Whether Iyer actually jammed with the shadows or not is pure speculation. If not a conscious effort at interpreting sound and form, it was one hell of a coincidence, considering Iyer's resume. If he kept multiple meters with fingers almost curled, or stretched the digits across layered scales, the sounds and sights seemed in sync. Plenty of people filmed the canvas with various devices.
Iyer could have probably cruised through any standard in his sleep, and a more traditional trio format sounded great, served sunny, swinging side up. Future Bop, perhaps?
"Star of the Story" transformed a disco-era hit into slow burning, melancholy fusion. The band tossed each other a few curves and seemed to be enjoying it. So did the smiling audience. Sitting in the central grass or sharing a pilsner at distant concessions, almost everyone swayed in a hard groove.
The set was not at all about Iyer alone, as his cohorts shared a similar vision.
Engaged in deep, private conversation, Crump offered oscillations during the soulful "Lude" that sounded drastically retuned, but with nary a machine head adjusted. His bow seemed to carry the overhead clouds. As Sorey sequenced a slow burning "Bode" with whispering poly rhythms, his cymbal brushes floated like fireflies.
They hit a collective high point during "Accelerando" and a cohesive peak during "Dogon AD," by Julius Hemphill
, with a funky churning like grist for the jazz gods. Ultimately, Iyer's innovative approach to composition may be an acquired taste, but anyone who adjourned early missed gems from one of the very best trios in the game.
The prevailing case for Krefeld's abundant, abstract charm was eloquently stated by the casual precision of every artist, and also how the crowd mingled in the courtyard. For all the peripheral chatter and clatter, there were times when everyone was so tuned in it seemed like a group meditation. Sporadic intervals of calculated disharmony were a constant characteristic of the evening, but there was little discord in the proceedings. A huge crescent moon looked almost too good to be real.
The program opened with the latest collaboration between frequent German partners, saxophonist Angelika Niescier and pianist Florian Weber
. The debut of their New York Quintet project featured a formidable lineup of US representatives, with Ralph Alessi
on trumpet, Chris Tordini
on bass, and the multitasking Sorey on drums.
These downbeat dignitaries had previously mingled under different formations, and their obvious rapport got things off to a quick, upbeat start. Krefeld was somewhat of a return engagement for Niescier and Sorey, who appeared in a trio here in 2009.
The interaction between Niescier and Alessi built and sustained a driving meter as the quintet piled on polyrhythms to build and deconstruct a chordal castle of its own, brick by brick. Alessi stood out with short solos and provided deep accents, as the group swelled from gentler initial interludes to near fusion chaos. Tordini was a constant anchor in the eye of the storm, while everyone excelled at complicated transitions during extremely varied passages or tempos.
The quintet's positive chemistry may have been a case of sharing familiaritybut not being too familiarwith each other. As they smiled and signaled to each other, both strong camaraderie and communication seemed apparent. It was a case where the musicians felt emotional energy from the surroundings and returned it to the crowd, musically.
"Looking around backstage, we felt like it was 1419 or something and we were playing at some medieval fair," the band observed. Time capsule couplets, indeed.
Steadily emerging Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick
has gained notice as a composer well worth a listen. His busy annual schedule ranges from major festivals to small clubs to morning media gigs in public places. Today, his band was locked in tight for nearly all of its hour-long set and it briefly usurped the show from Iyer's trio, one of the most heralded groups in current jazz.
Eick's ensemble came out strong and two drummers deep, behind a pair of his most recognized efforts, the title track to Skala
(ECM, 2011) and "Williamsburg," from his 2008 ECM debut, Th Door
. The group's shared history made for a very tight unit. Certain crescendo extensions were probably included mainly as an excuse for the band to show off a little, but that was a good thing. Everyone earned a little extra time in the overcast sun. If you've got it, flaunt it.
Eick demonstrated keyboard skills that employed effects as a searchlight not a distraction during excellent ballads. His show was strong from beginning to end, and further enhanced Norway's already dynamic jazz reputation with receptive German fans. Andreas Ulvo
worked multiple decks for the heavy lifting keyboards, and excelled as an anchor for switching rhythms that allowed the twin percussionists to assume some leads. Drummers Kenneth Kapstad and Andreas Bye worked as a duo, not a duel, and created great cadence during ascending suites. The quintet maintained a passionate, hot-potato exchange of solos that smoldered and steamed through a mainstream menu sprinkled with multiple effects. "A" level stuff all around.
Bassist Audun Erlien romped passionately across a wide range of tones up and down the wide neck of his instrument. For whatever reason, be it a mixing board whim or centuries-old sound wave sirens, Erlien's electric bass stood out under the clear blue panorama.
The entire program was well-received, and uneven recent weather turned to beautiful cobalt skies that highlighted a surrounding palette of forest greens. There was a much less commercial feel than exists at many such events, to the sponsors' credit. It was easy to imagine the crumbling walls of time, and a connection to whatever musical threads run through generations of man.