Not Two...But Twenty! Festival

John Sharpe By

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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.


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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