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Not Two...But Twenty! Festival

John Sharpe By

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Not Two...But Twenty! Festival
Wlen, Poland
September 21-23, 2018

Intro

There are some things worth celebrating in style, one of them being marked persistence in the face of adversity. That pretty much describes the continued existence of any jazz record label in these straitened times. To mark its 20th anniversary, Not Two Records convened an unprecedented line up of thirteen musicians from nine countries for a three day festival in the small village of Wlen in south-west Poland.

The talent on display was mouth-watering: Peter Brötzmann, Agusti Fernandez, Barry Guy, Mats Gustafsson, Per-Åke Holmlander, Maya Homburger, Zlatko Kaučič, Joëlle Léandre, Rafał Mazur, Paal Nilssen-Love, Steve Swell, Mikolaj Trzaska and Ken Vandermark. Each evening the assembled company performed in different configurations over four sets, which took in everything from hushed quiescence to rampaging drive. What was notable was how consistently they hit the heights.

That so many top names should gather in the bucolic Polish countryside provided eloquent testimony to not only the importance of the Not Two imprint, but also the regard in which label boss and promoter Marek Winiarski is held. Over the last two decades, the label has emerged as one of the world's most adventurous sources of avant-garde jazz, ranking alongside the likes of NoBusiness, Intakt and Clean Feed, and has released over 270 albums since its inception.

Winiarski founded Not Two in 1998 after his first label GOWI folded when his partner, drummer Zdzislaw Gogulski, declined to get involved in CD production. The moniker for the new venture came from the title of one of GOWI's most successful releases which featured reedman Mikołaj Trzaska and a guest appearance by Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie, but also denoted that henceforth Winiarski was in sole command.

On the face of it, a palace in rolling wooded environs of Wlen was not the location you would expect for a festival of avant-garde music. But there are precedents, with other left field events such as the Nickelsdorf Jazz Konfrontationen and the Ulrichsberg Kaleidophon likewise sited far from centers of population. They work on the principle that if the cast is sufficiently appealing, then the people will come. And so it was here too: the concerts took place in front of an enthusiastic select audience of friends, family, supporters and well-wishers from Poland and further afield all of whom had made a special effort to attend.

Barry Guy/Maya Homburger

Winiarski and Not Two have been prominent supporters of English bassist Barry Guy, regularly inviting him for extended residencies as part of the Krakow Jazz Autumn, as well as releasing the results on Mad Dogs (2014), Mad Dogs On The Loose (2015) and Tensegrity (2016). Guy and his wife violinist Maya Homburger began the first evening in splendid fashion, revisiting some of the material from Tales Of Enchantment (Intakt, 2012) which adroitly brings together their passions for Baroque and Contemporary classical music in a synthesis beyond genre. Along with Homburger's recitals on subsequent days, these were the only scores to feature during the festival which otherwise mixed and matched the peerless improvisers in spontaneous creation.

They began with the 9th century hymn, "Veni Creator Spiritus," Homburger playing as she walked up to the stage area from the back of the room, straight away generating a special feel of serenity and contemplation. That was only reinforced by a beautiful interpretation of H.I.F. Bieber's sonata "The Annunciation" after which they moved into slightly more abstract realms with first a haiku-like piece by György Kurtág, and then Guy's title suite from their album.

Though kindred spirits, they reveled in unlikely permutations. At one point Homburger's bat whistle register arco contrasted with a percussive metallic wobble, elicited by Guy placing metal rods between his strings and striking them with a stick. Tuneful fragments materialized from the more austere fabric of exquisite dissonance, creating a surreal dream-like atmosphere. Another sequence utilizing metal rods and scratchy violin attacks gave chance elements to the bravura exhibition, before a thrilling unison dash and terminal flourish. What a start!

Peter Brötzmann, Barry Guy, Zlatko Kaučič

There was something resolutely old school about the next set which reunited Guy with German reed titan Peter Brötzmann for the first time since an encounter in Stockholm in 1998. Slovenian drummer Zlatko Kaučič, who has previously collaborated with both, completed the trio. Brötzmann still burns with undaunted fire. His characteristic clarion call signaled full on assault and the other pair both leapt into the fray. They proved a superb foil to Brötzmann's cathartic wail, throbbing in stop start spasms of strummed bass and woodblocks on cymbals.

Kaučič revealed himself as a timbrally audacious percussionist, using one solo break to call forth scuffs, crackles and squeals from his kit by rubbing and rasping on the drum heads. But that's only one aspect of his work, as can be heard on the absorbing 5 CD set Diversity (Not Two, 2018), which also couples him with Evan Parker, Lotte Anker and the late Johannes Bauer among others.

Guy's amalgam of thorny plucks and swooping resonant slurs engendered an edgy undercurrent to a reflective passage from the saxophonist. But when Brötzmann launched a sudden scream, he and Kaučič responded with an instantaneous flurry of noise, only to cease in perfect attunement as the reedman once more turned reflective.

But they also showed a contrary streak. So when Brötzmann later began variations on his tender "Master Of A Small House" theme, rather than dial back the intensity, both maintained a monumental din, forcing the German to prolong pushing into the red, until right at the end a local power cut brought darkness and an immediate cessation to an extraordinary set. While it's unlikely to happen, one can only speculate as to what this trio could pull off as a going concern.

A quartet set involving Brötzmann the next evening alongside Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández, Swedish tubaist Per-Åke Holmlander and the aforementioned Trzaska was typical of the substantive fare presented over the three days, in that it evolved through a series of mercurial combinations, encompassing a range of moods, sensuous to brutal, cerebral to earthy. One particularly spine tingling moment occurred when the two reedmen hit on and then intermittently diverged from the same tone, while a brief closing piece was as taut as it was restrained.

As with all the sets, the level of listening and communication was at times simply breathtaking, making it both invidious to single out particular performances or to attempt detailed blow by blow accounts. Such accomplished improvisers make the off-the-cuff transitions and the collectively navigated endings seem preordained. It's no exaggeration to say that every set had something to recommend it.

Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Rafał Mazur

Nonetheless some sets especially lingered in the memory, one of those being the performance by Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, supplemented by Polish acoustic bass guitarist Rafał Mazur. Like many of the artists, Gustafsson has workshopped projects through residencies at the Krakow Jazz Autumn, one such being the amazing Hidros 6 -Knockin' (2015). With Mazur employing hefty amplification you could dub this threesome Almost But Not Quite The Thing.

And the understanding between the Scandinavians after years of touring meant that this was one of the most cohesive and focused shows of the three days. Their set commenced at blistering pace, with the customary 0-60 acceleration. Nilssen-Love showcased the relentless power and precision for which he's famed, egging Gustafsson into falsetto shrieks on baritone saxophone, while Mazur kept up a subliminal rolling thunder which contributed just the right amount of snarl.

Seemingly exhausted the hornman dropped out to leave Nilssen-Love to glean spectral tone colors from his kit, while Mazur took the opportunity for more nuanced play, sliding nimbly up and down the fretboard, his hands regularly meeting near the middle. A regular presence on the Krakow scene, Mazur's idiosyncratic instrument has appeared on disc with many of the visitors to the city's legendary Klub Alchemia, with titles including Spontaneous Soundscapes (2017) with Fernández and Threefold (2018) with drummer Ramon Lopez. He alternated between guitar and upright styles, applying a bow on occasion to grind out almost electronic screeches, and also exploited feedback from his amp.

Even when wielding brushes, Nilssen-Love achieved more volume and attitude than many drummers with their entire arsenal. When he and Mazur abruptly paused, Gustafsson plugged the breach with gargantuan howls, before subsiding to expose an unsuspected folky side. As Nilssen-Love delineated a tribal cadence with a pair of shakers, the saxophonist reiterated his incantatory phrases with vocalized inflections, physically twisting as if trying to emulate their shape. As they shifted from a roar to a whisper, illustrating once again their command of dynamics, Gustafsson incongruously squeezed the tiniest of murmurs from the giant baritone, before a gentle lullaby to end the rapturously received set.

Joëlle Léandre, Barry Guy, Zlatko Kaučič, Steve Swell, Ken Vandermark

The closing set of the second evening was another humdinger. It started with a duet between two of the finest proponents of their instruments, Guy and French bassist Joëlle Léandre which blended humor with stunning prowess. Léandre too has benefited from the Not Two largesse, notably through the issue of the acclaimed 8-CD collection A Woman's Work (2016). The joshing and conversation prior to the start spilled over into the performance as well. Each watched the other like a hawk, ever alert to the slightest nuance, quizzical expressions morphing from surprise to shock, supplying a visual commentary on the musical wellspring.

Their level of interaction verged on the preternatural. Guy evoked Léandre's vocal sigh with his bow, while Léandre answered Guy's delicate pizzicato with an arco phrase of her own. When Léandre scraped her bow upwards across the bridge, Guy took up his bow and did the same, but at a slower pace, conjuring apposite counterpoint. While Guy exploited a rack full of implements in a continuous exhibition of extended techniques, Leandre's retained a relatively traditional approach, albeit enhanced by vocal gymnastics, but each deployed whatever they needed as the musical imperative became apparent.

Léandre panted, groaned and muttered as she played. Guy activated a volume pedal to bring the quieter sounds into sharp relief. He also interpolated John Edwards-type slapping on the body of the bass to throw in rhythmic accentuation. As they negotiated the ending, each stretched a hand towards the other, connecting literally as well as metaphorically in a delightful gesture. Cue frenzied applause.

The pursuit of novel timbres resumed when they welcomed Kaučič onstage. He brandished a pair metal cups which he grated and struck on the cymbals in bursts of noise echoed by the twin basses. Moving on, Kaučič introduced some bubble wrap which he scrumpled and rustled. Guy emulated his lead, crinkling up some brown paper. Then things took a theatrical turn as both started to dust and wipe Léandre, who offered her shoe for Kaučič to shine. Guy again followed suit by offering his sandaled foot. Somehow this comedy cabaret birthed a high voltage furor with Kaučič thrashing his kit with metal wires while Léandre and Guy sawed to a frantic conclusion.

At which juncture American trombonist Steve Swell joined the ranks, adding his mastery of timbre and exploratory restlessness. Swell, who traded in a refined personal language that embraced the history of jazz from New Orleans to freeform, has featured regularly on Not Two, since presenting his dynamite Slammin' The Infinite band on Remember Now (2006) and https://www.allaboutjazz.com/steve-swell-swimming-in-a-galaxy-of-goodwill-and-sorrow-and-live-at-the-vision-festival-by-john-sharpe.php>Live At The Vision Festival (2007), right up to the release of Kanreki: Reflection & Renewal (2015) celebrating the trombonist's 60th birthday. Interplay between the four blossomed in a series of fast changing convulsive exchanges, neatly sidestepping expectations, as at one point Léandre's bowed whistle butted up against Swell's brassy melodicism, undercutting any sentimentality.

Finally American reedman Ken Vandermark completed the quintet. Among all of the artists present, Vandermark was probably the most strongly associated with Not Two, thanks to its unswerving support for his vision, embodied in the renowned 10-CD box documenting the Vandermark 5seminal week at Alchemia (2005), as well as further multiple disc sets devoted to his Resonance Ensemble (2009) and the DKV Trio's Sound In Motion In Sound (2014) as well as Nine Ways To Build A Bridge (2014) honoring his half century.

Having waited so long to take part, his arrival onstage heralded some fiery tenor skronk which pushed the group into driving free jazz territory at which it also excelled. But tension dissipated, as it was succeeded, in a study of opposites, by a piece as soft as the first was loud, drawing listeners to the very edge of their seats.

Maya Homburger

Every set of the final evening was a treat. It commenced with an atmospheric candle-lit recital from Maya Homburger in a high ceilinged semi-restored outbuilding chosen for its wonderfully resonant sound. With intense concentration, it felt as if she imbued every note with emotion and a higher meaning in a program featuring movements from Bach "Sonatas and Partitas," which bookended a dramatic rendition of Guy's "Aglais" written for unaccompanied violin, from the album of the same name (Maya, 2008).

Joëlle Léandre/ Mikołaj Trzaska

Once the audience had relocated to the room in the main palace building where the majority of the music took place, they were regaled by a further solo recital, this time from Joëlle Léandre. She exulted in electrifying, rich bow work full of light and shade, which pitched deep reverberations against fizzing harmonics, and intimate string caresses against abrasions below the bridge, all complemented by her vocal embellishments. Insistent repetitions vied with intermittent motifs in a transcendent stream of invention which spoke of a vigorous unbridled joy.

Trzaska's initial alto trill echoed Léandre 's vocalizations in a quicksilver hook up which was full of responsive dialogue and exuberant interplay. The reedman remains one of the stalwarts of the Polish scene and can be heard in tandem with Joe McPhee on Magic (Not Two, 2009) and Vandermark on Last Train To The First Station (Kilogram, 2011) as well as the excellent Riverloam Trio (NoBusiness, 2012) with Olie Brice and Mark Sanders. Just one dazzling episode among many came about when his expressive vibrato-laden alto intertwined with the Frenchwoman's bowing in a wavering colloquy, gloriously weaving in and out of consonance.

Peter Brötzmann/ Paal Nilssen-Love

Two birds of a feather, Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love combined to breath-taking effect. They have toured and recorded together since 2001, in duo, trio and quartet format and in Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet, as well as enjoying a clutch of live dates in the company of Steve Swell on Not Two. As such their inspired synergy could be anticipated, but it still didn't prepare for the sheer muscle and élan of their partnership. Nilssen-Love met the reedman's annunciatory tenor bellow with a typhoon of ferociously crisp figures. And so it went on until Brötzmann stopped on a zloty and the drummer instantly latched on, seizing his cymbal to stop the vibrations.

Although calmer, the next piece still came freighted with tension, as Brötzmann's throaty lyric growl drifted atop Nilssen-Love's malletted tattoo. As the German paraphrased some of his favorite melodies, he grabbed the neck of his instrument, as if trying to throttle it, producing an effecting muffled yowl. His piping distortions enticed the drummer to reboot on brushes, cycling through a variety of translucent percussive patterns. There were further lyrical overtones to the last piece, where the saxophonist seemed to channel his hero Sidney Bechet on something related to Gershwin's "Summertime." As the seasons turned distinctly inclement, Nilssen-Love ratcheted up the energy for the set to culminate in a viscerally-charged maelstrom. Fantastic!

Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson, Steve Swell, Per-Åke Holmlander

The Swedish/American summit was another of those unfettered sets that unfolded in a liquid flow without any recourse to meter or melody. It began with an arresting juxtaposition between Vandermark's clarinet and Gustafsson's baritone saxophone. Their collaborations harks back to the late 1990s so it was little surprise when Gustafsson seamlessly rounded off Vandermark's abbreviated opening gambit almost before he had finished it. That established the template for a formidable duet at first pointillist but then garrulous. All the years of joint working were coming through when Vandermark's plosive popping was answered by similarly compacted baritone formulations. But even then Gustafsson had a trick up his sleeve, spreading yet another layer of sonic complexity by brushing the lower keys of his horn with his hand to fashion a ghostly metallic pulse.

Although the duo was complete in itself, Vandermark quipped "About time!" as Swell and Holmlander walked onstage. The tuba player has been a fixture in almost every European improvising ensemble of note over the last decade or more, appearing with the Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vandermark's Resonance Ensemble, Guy's New Orchestra and Gustafsson's Fire! Orchestra. In 2017 he also enjoyed a residency in Krakow, which has resulted in the 3-CD Carliot—It's Never Too Late Orchestra (2018). His low harumphing grounded an exchange of chamber sonorities which quickly heated up, only for everyone to halt in unison. While it would have made a fabulous ending, they'd only been going two minutes, so Swell pulled out his slide for a long exhalation. Holmlander blew pithy rejoinders and gradually they embarked on a droney section, both reedmen utilizing circular breathing to sustain their braided lines. As different groupings came and went, Gustafsson softly chanted on baritone, laying the foundation for a concluding polyphonic tumult.

Zlatko Kaučič, Barry Guy, Rafał Mazur, Agustí Fernández

While the final set of the festival might have looked like an augmented piano trio, in reality that was far from the case. With only a Yamaha digital piano available due to the remoteness of the setting, Fernández was unable to indulge his penchant for under the bonnet resonance manipulation. So if anything it was the twin basses of Mazur and Guy which formed the centerpiece of what was a truly democratic interchange. Of course Fernández confined to the keys still constituted a major force as evidenced by the choppy opening he sculpted with Kaučič, as his gnarly runs vied with the Slovenian's scrap metal textures.

While Mazur investigated the bottom end, Guy erupted into sudden spates of activity or nimble treble flutters which contrasted with the Pole's buzzing rumble. Kaučič too was always on the lookout for the unexpected. At one point when he was extracting utensils from his suitcase, he alighted on the zip and started rhythmically jerking it to and fro. Not to be outdone, Guy found a case of his own and began a zipper duet, causing the affronted drummer to shout: "don't steal my tricks!" From there, they built through a series of crescendos, Fernández hammering the treble register, until a gradual wind down brought the proceedings and the evening to an engaging halt.

Outro

But it wasn't quite the last act. Unbeknownst to Winiarski, the organizing team had one last stunt. They had prepared a series of cards containing instructions, pictures and oblique symbols which were laid out on a table. So now the label supremo had the opportunity to become an orchestral supremo too and lead the assembled musicians in one final conduction. After much persuasion he showed the band a card and they were off. Fortunately they were all much more practiced at this sort of endeavor than him and weren't phased by anything he threw at them, such that a coherent piece of music arose from the random instructions. All the concerts were recorded for potential future release, though whether this set makes the cut remains open to question. But such was the overwhelming success of the event that, future birthday celebrations notwithstanding, there must be every chance that musical happenings at Wlen come along more often than once every twenty years.
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