Minnesota Sur Seine 2005: Intercommunal Music on the Mississippi


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In light of everything that came the week before, and left days earlier on a plane back to France, there was something in the room belying a Twin Cities music reality that few take the opportunity to see -- there are players here that, in the words of JT Bates, 'take what [they] do each day and turn it upside down.'

Opening Night / Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Days Five-Six-Seven
Days Eight-Nine


Despite the status of New York and Chicago as cultural capitals of America and the world, not to mention each city's firmly-cemented place in the jazz canon, it is never more true than today the intercontinental bridge that improvisation has built. As international ensembles like the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet make their presence felt on the scene here, not to mention the fact that Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love seems to have played more shows in the States this year than in Scandinavia, the idea of an international jazz festival in America is still quite rarely played out. To be sure, the Empty Bottle Festival in Chicago brings together its Euro-American band of heavies, but it is far from a true "jazz meeting" or "workshop"—you don't see Alexander von Schlippenbach jamming with Aram Shelton, for example. Enter Jean Rochard, Sarah Remke and the Minnesota sur Seine Festival.

Minnesota sur Seine began in 2004, ten years after Rochard's arrival in Minneapolis (or, rather, St. Paul) to produce a series of recordings with French reedman Michel Portal and the Paisley Park-based rhythm team of Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson. Following Rochard's initial stay in the Twin Cities, he quickly became enamored not only of the cities, but also their vibrant jazz community, one which has produced in recent years such groups as Happy Apple and two-thirds of The Bad Plus, and which boasts a slew of improvisers rarely documented outside the Upper Midwest. Rochard and his partner Sarah Remke saw the opportunity to build something, a bridge to not only 'international renown' but also international connections and collectivity between the vanguard of French jazz and lesser-known American players in a locale that, for all intents and purposes, is quite obscure.

Rochard, who has for the past twenty-five years acted as ringleader of Nato Records and its onetime-attendant festival, has produced Twin Cities groups like the aforementioned Happy Apple and its caterwauling free jazz cousin Fat Kid Wednesdays (they share reedman Mike Lewis), Philly guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson and his band with French baritone saxophonist Francois Corneloup, Ursus Minor—these latter for Rochard's Minnesota-centric Hope Street label. Remke's encouragement led to expanding Hope Street and the successes Rochard has found in recording French and Minnesota artists into a festival—Minnesota sur Seine (which is, most emphatically, Remke's brainchild).

Its first year featured performances by Michel Portal, English keyboardist Tony Hymas, Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesdays in a week's worth of music. Word of mouth quickly spread and by the final days of 2004's festival, groups like those of Portal (revisiting his "Minneapolis We Insist suite) and Happy Apple with Francois Corneloup (sounding for all the world like an Alan Skidmore-John Surman fronted fusion group) let loose to packed houses.

This year's festival lineup, spread out over ten days (October 14-23), brought some of the expected figures (Ursus Minor, Happy Apple, Fat Kid Wednesdays, Tony Hymas, Twin Cities Hot Club) back for another round, but also enticed English saxophonist Evan Parker to make the trek, as well as offering the first stateside appearance of veteran French pianist Francois Tusques, young electro-acoustic pianist (and Hugh Grant lookalike) Benoit Delbecq, cellist Didier Petit (heard in trio with Parisian bass clarinet wizard Denis Colin and percussionist Pablo Cueco), a Breton folk-improvisational outfit featuring bassist Helene Labarriére, and France's acoustic answer to English violinist Phil Wachsmann, the maniacally intense Dominique Pifarély. Almost as rare as Francois Tusques and the Bretons was a live rendition of Left for Dead, the poetry-jazz-symphonic collaboration of Tony Hymas and poet Barney Bush, which had not seen live performance in the United States until this year.

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Opening Night / Day Two

The festival began in an almost quaint fashion with the first night's concert of solo piano by Benoit Delbecq, to the accompaniment of wine and cheese at the Lind Memorial Library at Minneapolis' Alliance Francais—an intimate and communal gathering of like minds, for sure. Though Delbecq is perhaps more often heard on the electric piano, he ranks among the greatest exemplars of prepared piano technique—his arsenal an array of specifically-carved sticks and carefully-placed blocks (indeed, his countryman Tusques produced probably the first jazz solo prepared piano record, 1972's Le Piano Prepare, for Le Chant du Monde). To be sure, there are those pianists who find plucked and muted strings a necessary effect to add to their dense palettes, but Delbecq takes cues from John Cage and Lou Harrison in using preparations to expand the piano's rhythmic possibilities outwardly from its tonal ones.

The first piece offered a minimalist overlay of rhythms with a marimba-like quality; indeed, the circular patterns of Pygmy music infuse pieces like "Aka, a call-and-response between unprepared and prepared keys. The second piece, "Within the Meantime, offered abject incongruity between romantic, Bill Evans-esque lines with strategically-placed preparations and their bent near glisses. Steve Lacy and Alan Silva were among Delbecq's mentors in the 1970s and '80s; "Slices was the pianist's homage to Lacy, a loping, widely-spaced paean whose uneven melodic snatches belie Lacy's influence as much as the rhythmic repetition does Mal Waldron (indeed, Delbecq closed with Waldron's "Left Alone, done in a weighty left-handed dirge and dedicated to the victims of recent hurricanes).

Minneapolis' West Bank punk and hip-hop venue the Triple Rock Social Club offered its brilliant acoustics (yes, their revamped music room offers some of the best sound in the area) for Ursus Minor's meeting with four rappers from Minneapolis and Paris on the festival's second evening. Ursus Minor is itself an international ensemble, joining French saxophonist Francois Corneloup, Englishman Tony Hymas on Fender Rhodes, Philly free-funk guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and Minneapolis drummer Stokley Williams; this context found them with local MC's Eydea and Brother Ali and French underground rappers Spike and D'de Kabal.

The quartet began with a lengthy improvisation as they slowly found their footing, Corneloup playing somewhat conservative phrases on soprano as they seemingly had a groove dropped upon them—and not necessarily an inspired one at that. Williams' ham-fisted percussion approach nearly overwhelmed the additive and subtle approaches of Hymas, Johnson and Corneloup. But things changed when Eydea took the stage unaccompanied after about fifteen minutes, a monologue of frustrated uncertainty and fractured imagery marking a very free approach to cadence and verbiage, forceful in its abstraction.

As the musicians entered, comping to Eyedea, one thing was quite clear—this MC's freedom necessitated a sympathetically 'free' group, and Ursus Minor quickly rethought their approach, opening up the sonic stew to feed Eydea's verbal surrealism. Brother Ali entered second, a more methodical and less maniacal delivery but equally abstract and forceful; D'de Kabal and Spike tag-teamed through their several performances a complex web of political statement to match the decidedly imagist and painterly words of Ali and Eyedea. Not being myself predisposed to hip-hop or the idea of combining it with improvised music, this set nevertheless came off strong overall and proved that the genre-crossing stones need continual overturning.

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Day Three

The third day of the festival found listeners with two sets of duos at the Black Dog Café in lower-town St. Paul, starting with Corneloup and Dominique Pifarély. The two presented a series of contrasts, primarily based on dense scrabble and false fingering from Pifarely's string work, overlaying delicate pinched and bent tones from Corneloup's soprano or hushed and breathy meditations from his baritone. In many ways, their duo flies in the face of instrumental expectations—the vertical, symphonic squall of a one-man Ligeti orchestra rather than the effects of nimble finger work; husky baritone offering itself in measurement and care, at least until the final piece when resonant blats made short work of Pifarély's efforts at slinky speech. Apparently this was the first occasion of the duo's officially working together, a true testament to the power of their communicative abilities and strength of their individual concepts.

Bass clarinetist Denis Colin (late of Tusques' trio) and bassist Anthony Cox followed, though initially Cox was without contrabass and began the set with an electric, yielding spare linear interplay that, while not particularly inventive, at least avoided the electric's usual pitfalls (a funk line or two did creep in). Colin is an experience, especially in this naked a setting, applying both Lacy-esque cadences and a swaggering, ecstatic bravura to the instrument, something befitting his lanky, swaying frame as he maintained a penchant for middle- and upper-register cries. Cox seemed to deep-six most of the conversational potential of this duo, whether it was through his electric noodling or attempts when on contrabass to out-mass Colin, neither approach exactly sitting well with the deft ecstasy of the bass clarinetist's phrasing — for he (like Portal) has that strange ability to make the Dolphy-esque sound completely non-Dolphy.

Benoit Delbecq's second performance of the festival also came on Sunday, in a context that might seem somewhat more 'regular,' as he joined the local electro-acoustic trio of laptop artist Cepia, drummer JT Bates, and James Buckley on bass and electronics in Minneapolis' Soap Factory Gallery. For the set, Delbecq donned the Rhodes and an assortment of samplers and electronic devices. Despite a completely different musical context, Delbecq was still Delbecq—bringing forth long, repetitive lines full of rhythmic and phrase-based overlays girded by alternately spare-and-moody and vamp-heavy accompaniment. Electronic beats, those processed hallmarks of drum 'n' bass, become in his hands a tool of phrase, an approach similar to his prepared piano work whereby tonality is subverted for rhythm-based melodic pattern. The lengthy, unrehearsed improvisation that the quartet began with (and which made up most of the performance) was surprisingly free of doldrums, at one point Delbecq's Rhodes and fragmented samples riding atop a lengthy wave in a sort of "Black Beauty for the electro set — indeed, for the electronic improv naysayers this might have been a worthy splash of cold water.

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Day Four

The Huss Music Room in St. Paul (probably the best venue of the week) hosted the fourth night of improvisations, beginning with a percussion ensemble centered around Pablo Cueco and the Iranian zarb, and adding JT Bates on his augmented trap set and St. Paul-based drummer Patrice on birembau and assorted hand percussion (Stokley Williams was to be the fourth drummer, but did not show—the music was probably more open as a result).

Cueco began solo, playing three lengthy pieces that in some ways offered insight into the history of jazz percussion. Slung over the knee, the drum's center begets a mass of bass tidal waves, the sides struck with fingertips and wrists keep time much as a ride cymbal, or provide hi-hat and snare accents and as many press rolls as Cueco could come up with. His pedigree includes time spent in Tusques' Intercommunal Free Dance Music Orchestra during the '70s, a group of varying size that nevertheless had as its meat-and-potatoes a battery of hand percussionists, and some of the most phenomenal ones at that—Sam Ateba, Guem, and Cueco among the leading lights.

For the fourth and fifth pieces, the trio was in full employ, beginning with Bates in an unaccompanied and highly fragmented exploration that, even when joined by the other percussionists, remained a loose metallic framework (a la Paul Lovens or Tony Oxley—indeed, admitted influences) that markedly counterbalanced the wood-and-skin of Cueco and Patrice.

Poetic Scrap Metal, the ad hoc quartet of Corneloup, Pifarély, Bates and bassist Adam Linz, closed out the evening—and despite the presence of the Fat Kid Wednesdays rhythm section, the sonic maelstrom created by this foursome was far from the free-bop leanings of that band. The roiling stew of the previous day's duo was augmented by one of the most capable and inventive rhythm sections of the Upper Midwest, Bates ever the maniacal wizard often leaving his stool and hovering above the kit like a mad classical percussionist (or a percussive surgeon) and Linz providing the massive, swaying anchor.

The second, and probably heaviest piece began in spare counterpoint, slowly building a series of interwoven lines until midway through (and almost imperceptibly) a rousing swing emerged with a dervish-like violin solo blasting out like Ornette's "Snowflakes and Sunshine over a lickety-split tempo. The third piece offered effects-pedal violin resonance and the hollow masses of Linz' bass and Corneloup's baritone, a swirling mass of drones holding the tension until the group erupted again for a storming closer. One of the most electrifying performances of the week, it was of the type that made one want to stick around the hall afterwards (as many did), the vibrations enough to raise hackles even after the sounds dispersed and the air in the hall a direct conduit to that 'elseness' that great improvisation produces.

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Days Five-Six-Seven

If the idea of 'regular group' seems foreign to the festival, the fourteen-year run of Denis Colin's trio with cellist Didier Petit and Pablo Cueco surely fits the bill. Adding Minneapolis vocalist Gwen Matthews to the ensemble (Colin and Matthews met at last year's sur Seine) provided an interesting detour from the usual Dakota Jazz Club fare, however. On the festival's fifth night, the set began with the trio's take on Eastern European and Iranian folk themes, Petit's cello droning as he let out banshee-like wails along with Colin's bass clarinet, creating a woody minor-key stew. Petit, in addition to wordless vocals, also used the body of his instrument to create percussion duos with Cueco's zarb.

By the third piece, Matthews entered the fray, for a stunning rendition of the Jeanne Lee-Archie Shepp classic "Blasé, Matthews adding not only scatting, but guttural throat singing in tandem with the multiphonics of Colin's bass-clarinet. It is a rarely-sung piece in the vocal jazz canon, and one could not have hoped for better treatment. Though a few of the numbers in the set seemed to try too hard on Matthews' end, "Blasé more than made up for any 'typical' fare.

Another of the projects Rochard has curated as producer is the collaboration of Shawnee poet Barney Bush and Tony Hymas, which has resulted in three albums, the most recent under the Left For Dead moniker. For the fifth night's main concert (the first of this music Stateside), Bush and Hymas were joined by Evan Parker, experimental guitarist Jean-Francois Pauvros and drummer JT Bates (depping for Englishman Mark Sanders, who was kept away by visa problems), in addition to two tribal singer-percussionists in ceremonial garb. Though for some Parker may have been top billing, his role was chiefly as a sideman in the ensemble, fleshing out with his tenor (and, in one lengthy instance, throat-singing) the orchestral aspirations of Hymas and the lyric weight of Bush's stark, meaty poems. Bush's words capture the alienation, confusion and rage that make up the psychology of contemporary Native experience—Hymas' keyboard orchestrations and the power surges from Parker, Pauvros and Bates served as tasteful girding for these massive portraits. Of course, the weight in words was greater than hopeless sketches, brought forth through deft transitions between contemporary Native life and pre-cognitive, super-temporal spiritual experience, a hope that settles over all the pain, and is as much in Left For Dead as it is John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.

Tony Hymas as an acoustic pianist is in some ways heir apparent to the Paul Bley school of ambiguous tonal centers and tempi, and Minneapolitans had the rare chance to hear him unplugged on the next night of the festival, leading a quartet with Minneapolis-based tenor/alto powerhouse George Cartwright (late of Curlew and a force in his own trio) and the Bates-Linz rhythm section. Though it was hard to say how well-rehearsed the group was as Cartwright fumbled through a few of the theme statements, the improvisations were full of fire, Cartwright's screaming tenor glossolalia a thing to behold for sure.

The second set opener sounded for all the world like an outtake from Anthony Williams' Spring record (Hymas has a history with Sam Rivers, who was a mid-60s regular with Williams), a delicately convoluted theme that led into a post-bop/free tightrope piece—Hymas' affinities for Herbie Hancock's 1965 pan-tonal explorations was not lost on this listener. Cartwright contributed an "untitled piece to the proceedings, an off-center yet funky reconciliation of his roots in the South and in vanguard jazz, and it offered him room to stretch his alto legs on a hot salvo of Braxton-inspired jubilant power. Unlike most gigs of the festival (the Colin-Matthews group being the only other exception), playing St. Paul's Artist's Quarter allowed the quartet two sets, letting them open up and peel a significant amount of paint over the course of an evening.

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Days Eight-Nine

The next night, held at the Varsity Theater, offered the week's strongest shows, not to mention two of the rarest. Francois Tusques, a name synonymous with the nascent French free jazz movement in the late '60s (he recorded the first record of free jazz in France, the eponymous Free Jazz, in 1966 with Michel Portal) and whose ensembles and projects since then have ranged from Afro-Latin jazz to operatic suites, concluded his first visit to the US with a quintet performance that was nothing short of staggering.

Expanding upon the duo with Adam Linz that started off his proceedings two days earlier (including his gorgeous "Ellington Suite and a homage to Don Cherry), Tusques, Linz, Bates, Colin and Minneapolis/Chicago reedman Douglas Ewart stormed through the pianist's "Blues Suite and three other compositions, including the 1971 classic "Portrait of Erika Huggins (recorded on Tusques' Shandar LP Intercommunal Music, with Sunny Murray).

As a soloist, Tusques integrates Monk, Waldron and Satie into a highly rhythmic foundation; as a composer, this rhythmic-surrealistic mélange marks him as a member of the Monk school, though his pedigree obviously delves into further reaches. The opening section of the "Blues Suite, "Porcelain Cat in a Shop Window, offered pointillistic descending chords beneath a warm, woody Colin solo. "Coltrane and Dolphy presented a scorching duet for Ewart's soprano and Colin's bass clarinet, the theme a searching modal piece where Tusques' roiling lower-register chords garnered a bit of Waldron's insistent minimalism and Ewart's vicious soprano solo seemed to elevate and elevate above the rhythmic maelstrom, a hackle-raising high-volume slab of improvising that the Varsity has probably rarely seen.

The Lacy-esque 'palindrome' theme yielded a Tusques solo brimming with crepuscles of spatial interaction, consonance and dissonance, humor and gravitas, as he and Bates generated an empathy recalling Dave Burrell and Andrew Cyrille on Grachan Moncur III's New Africa (1969, Actuel)—they are stylistic and perhaps conceptual kin. "Portrait of Erika Huggins, penned for the UCLA student-turned-martyr of the Black Panther Party, was given a much cleaner and more fully-realized run here than on record; the theme recalls Waldron's fist-raising "Right On! (another homage to the BPP), the B section using 'turning the beat around' to advantage, a skewed challenge for Colin and Ewart that they more than lived up to.

If Tusques' set was, as a fellow attendee waxed, "the best sounding jazz gig [he'd] ever heard, then the Breton folk-improv hybrid advanced by vocalist Erik Marchand, accordionist Janick Martin, violinist Jacky Molard and bassist Helene Labarriére which followed was one of the most brilliantly-conceived variants on traditional music I've experienced. Though the combination of voice, accordion and violin is the background of Breton music (and of course improvisation is central in this as any folk music), the addition of a free-improvising bassist and reevaluating tradition with the language of free music adds an entirely new dimension—the closest thing I could think of was Barre Phillips and Carlos Zingaro sitting in at a café jam in Brittany.

The stately, droning minor-key themes culled from the Breton and Celtic archives perked these peripherally familiar ears from the outset (think Pentangle or Donovan's Moorish numbers), Marchand usually contributing a few verses before the trio of instrumentalists broke out into extraordinarily dense, fierce improvisations. One in particular began with a perverse pizzicato bass solo that would have made Reggie Workman eat his heart out; this moved into a fleet trio improvisation with Martin and Molard dancing atop Labarriére's masses. A Breton blues began with unaccompanied violin, a scrabbling, bent workout of harmonics and ponticello technique opening out into a surging ballad of harmonics over which Marchand projected his sea-song dirge—and indeed his is one of the most commanding voices in this sector of music that I've heard.

Labarriére returned the next afternoon to sit in with Minneapolis' young vanguard for a rousing free-bop performance with tenor man Chris Thompson, bassist Chris Bates and JT Bates—a twin-engined thrum that reinforced the French bassist's status as one of the most versatile in contemporary music.

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Though a few wags were irate that Evan Parker came all the way to Minneapolis to 'sit in,' his entrée into the Fat Kid Wednesdays set on the festival's closing day at the Huss Music Room was a near-perfect foil for the youthful exuberance of saxophonist Mike Lewis and the trio. Lewis' acrid alto led the way on the first improvisation, blazing a trail of dry, repeated motifs a la John Tchicai (Parker goading with his Trane-like bursts only serving to push Lewis higher) with Parker wholly reveling in free-bop mode—a mode that has crept to the fore again as he continually reevaluates.

The two saxophonists are good front-line partners, noncompetitive and both deferential to and inspiring one another in lilting, conversational duets that soared over the surging rhythm section. The only mar of the set came shortly after the beginning of the second piece, as Parker's unaccompanied soprano (in classic circular breathing dervish mode) was cut off with percussive bass slugs from Linz (couldn't he have waited a few minutes?), rectified as a spare exploration of rhythm units and Lewis' tenor harmonics focused the improvisation into a time-stalling sound canvas.

Lewis entered the third piece on soprano, though his approach is worlds away from Parker's—Parker returning to tenor over a stop-time rhythmic romp, Lewis nagging the same bent phrase as Parker's improvisation went vertical (the Tchicai comparison again). The set closed with the addition of Hymas and bassist Anthony Cox to the lineup (Cox had opened the concert solo), though whether anything was gained from the lengthy encore is questionable—the piano was rather difficult to hear and Cox appeared quite lost in this context, at least compared to the singing free-bop pedigree of Linz. Of course, this was the Fat Kids' gig as much as it was Parker's, and it was a sincere pleasure to hear the trio elevate alongside a storied saxophonist who was having one hell of a good time.

But after the dust settled, what makes Minnesota sur Seine a necessity, something that should be offered to both the jazz-public and the musicians again and again? Recording and touring situations are only part of the deal—indeed, Denis Colin's now augmented trio engaged a brief US tour following their Twin Cities sojourn, with a record cut shortly after. Brother Ali is Paris-bound in January for the Sons d'Hiver Festival, and will likely record with Ursus Minor or some variant of it; Poetic Scrap Metal may indeed defy geography and work together further.

But Fat Kid Wednesdays have found the admiration of French musicians and bassist Adam Linz plans to join Tusques for more gigs in France this Spring (indeed, it was a year ago that he came to Tusques' attention, and vice versa, after Fat Kids toured France). Indeed, the French players found much to be happy about in Minneapolis as well—Delbecq championed the "opportunity to play with musicians who rarely come to Europe, and bridge some of the gaps that exist between American and European players. Tusques, a fixture at every gig whether playing or not, was invited by Linz: "My hope is that my music can now reach audiences here, and possibly lead to more projects with American musicians, which I haven't done in 30 years!

Rochard has always been one to throw things at the wall and see if they stick—indeed, Nato records has a history of fueling such so-bizarre-they-might-work meetings as Han Bennink and Steve Beresford—and sur Seine follows in that very tradition. Breton folk music meeting free improvisation? A free jazz saxophonist, classically-trained pianist, funk drummer, four MC's and one of the most un-pigeonholeable guitarists these ears have heard in some time? A perfectly co-operative quartet of three young jazzmen chomping at the bit and helping to light a few fires under one of the most respected European jazzmen? All of these heretofore hard-to-fathom possibilities bore realistic fruit at this year's Minnesota sur Seine.

There was, for me, a postscript, which occurred at Acadia's Tuesday night improvisers' series following the festival. Trumpeter Kelly Rossum, a University of North Texas-educated purveyor of fat and guttural smears in the Bill Dixon-Jacques Coursil school of brass playing, convened his quartet with Chris Thompson and Chris and JT Bates for a set of wide-open, earthen-toned improvisations.

JT, ever the physical player, hovered above his kit approaching it as if to say 'what is this pile of junk before me and what sounds can I make with it?' Chris Bates was hell-bent on working out the connection between post-bop anchor and palette for a deconstructive workshop, while Thompson interjected terse free-time Newk into the conversation. In light of everything that came the week before, and left days earlier on a plane back to France, there was something in the room belying a Twin Cities music reality that few take the opportunity to see—there are players here that, in the words of JT Bates, "take what [they] do each day and turn it upside down. One can only surmise that players like Francois Corneloup, Denis Colin and Francois Tusques thought the same thing about Minneapolis—every which way is up.

Thanks to Sarah Remke, Jean Rochard, JT Bates, Adam Linz, Benoit Delbecq, Francois Tusques, Guy Le Querrec and Serigne Laloux, and the staff of Minnesota sur Seine for making this article possible.

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