Not Two...But Twenty! Festival

John Sharpe By

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


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.
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