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Jazztopad 2015: World Premieres

Ian Patterson By

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Having long been fascinated by Hindu music, clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel began formal study in 2012 when he first travelled to India, taking classes with renowned flutist Ravichandra Kulur, though he also cites sarod player Ali Akbar Khan as significant in his approach to Southern Indian Carnatic music. Inevitably, perhaps, Saagara's music was clearly a mixture of Indian and Western traditions, with Zimpel's improvisations, whilst Indian/Asian flavored, more firmly rooted in the free-jazz tradition.

In Sagaara's first incarnation Zimpel was the only melodic player, but the addition of violinist Mysore N. Karthika has significantly broadened the group's sound. His delightful solo on the opening, blistering number was one of all too few extended interventions from the violinist during the concert. Magdalena Karciarz' constant shrutri-box (bellows) drone bled in and out of the mix as the percussive/melodic waves rose and fell in intensity. Giridhar Udupa's ghatam, Bharghava Halambi's deceptively powerful khanjira and K Raja's thavil—powered by finger-caps and stick—combined in exhilarating unison charges, with clarinet and violin often in harness. Intricate konnakol passages were no less spectacular.

The guts of the set drew from Saagara's eponymous debut CD (Zaiks/Beim, 2015), released to coincide with this European tour, though some of the music was specially commissioned for, and premiered at, Jazztopad. Whilst Southern Indian Carnatic music lay at the heart of the performance, the atmospheric, layered melodies of "Lines" stemmed from a mantra-like refrain from Waclaw on khene, a mouth organ of bamboo pipes, concertina-like in timbre, that's indigenous to Lao. Clarinet lines and percussion swelled the sound but the piece never really broke free of its cyclical patterns to soar as it might have done.

Sagaara was at its most compelling when the range of dynamics was most pronounced; on a new composition Karciarz' shrutri-box drone intro paved the way for clarinet then violin over a percussive bed that oscillated between thundering unison attacks and jaw harp subtlety. An extended three-way percussive exchange of breath-taking virtuosity provided a set highlight, with the contrast between a delicate finger cymbal pulse and dizzying ghatam charge a curious delight.

A blistering ensemble number of celebratory energy closed the set and a standing ovation brought the musicians back to the stage for a short, fiery coda.

Indian music meets jazz/Western improvisation is not a new concept but there are few exponents quite as thrilling as Sagaara. With the tragic passing of U.Srinivas in September 2014 it may be that John McLaughlin/Zakir Hussain's Remember Shakti---the most internationally famous of such cross-cultural groups—is no more. That being the case, then Sagaara would make a worthy heir indeed.

Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quintet

Unique, boldly uncompromising and challenging might well describe NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton's performance at Jazztopad, and indeed, much of his monumental work these past fifty years. Who else would conceive a quintet comprising two harps, a tuba, trumpet and reeds? The peculiar looking stage set-up promised something out of the ordinary and Braxton's quintet duly delivered a compelling show where the borders between composed and improvised music were tantalizingly blurred.

Braxton has refused commissions for the past forty years, so it was perhaps fortunate happenstance that the veteran composer's new music coincided with Jazztopad's world premieres program.

With Braxton using multiple reeds and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum affecting almost as many changes including a wide variety of mutes—hat for one—the duo gave a wonderful display of virtuosity, searching for the broadest possible spectrum of sonorities. Their dialog, abstract and heady at times, was underpinned by Dan Peck's bowels-of-the-earth, bottom-end rumblings and the contrasting timbre of Shelly Burgon and Jacqueline Kerrod's quietly explorative, dual harps.

Both harpists had previously worked with Braxton on his operatic works but this was the first time for either in one of his small ensembles. Perhaps for this reason, and given that the band hit the NFM stage after only one full rehearsal, their roles occasionally felt a little peripheral and it wasn't until half-way through the hour-long performance that they featured prominently—ushering in Braxton's most lyrical, lulling playing. It will be interesting to see how the harps' improvisations grow into the music as this quintet gets further gigs under its belt.

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