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Punkt in Mannheim: Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 11-12, October 30-31, 2009

John Kelman By

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Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street

It's been a little over a year since trumpeter Jon Hassell performed at Punkt 2008 in Kristiansand, and his Mannheim Punkt performance revealed a significantly altered Maarifa Street group. Still present were Jan Bang—doing programming, beats and live sampling, where he sampled his band mates, processed what he recorded, and fed it back to them to spur more improvisational stretching—and remarkable violin virtuoso Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche. Gone were bassist Peter Freeman—who had worked with the iconic trumpeter innovator for more than a decade—and percussionist Pedram Khavarzamini, replaced by Norwegian guitar anti-hero Eivind Aarset, also doubling on bass.

The result was a group far less grounded in conventional rhythm. As Hassell said in a 2009 AAJ interview, ... "when bass and drums get together they lock in and start going someplace. I actually resist that groove thing because in a way it's so easy to do." When he spoke of ... "what's a groove to me is Pygmy or other forms of African drumming, where there's not an even division between the 8th notes," who knew that he'd be moving even further in that direction, without conventional percussion? Between Bang's samples, and Aarset's unparalleled ability to pull completely unorthodox textures from his guitar and mad scientist's desk of effects, computer and other devices, the music—much of it culled from Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM, 2009)—possessed a pulse to be sure, but one that was deeper, more elemental than what has come before. Aarset's ability to take the simple sound of tapping his electric guitar body and turn it into something huge and deep, as well as his mbira emulation, lent the performance an entirely different complexion.

Hassell's effected trumpet tone, with harmonized-and reverb-drenched tones augmenting a natural timbre that's equally distinctive, was the thematic focal point in the 50-minute set. Bang drove the music's form with the rich orchestral chords of Last Night's title track, while Aarset contributed the breadth of colors that have cemented his reputation as one of today's most creative guitarists. M'Kachiche—who plays the violin with the body on his lap rather than in the crook of his neck—demonstrated here, as he did at Punkt 2008, that the more traditionalist tendencies shown in his participation with Norwegian keyboardist Jon Balke's Siwan (ECM, 2009) project maybe at the root of his approach, but he's as much a forward thinker as the rest of Maarifa Street. Feeding his violin through a small array of effects, the alterations were subtle but, like the rest of the show, turned the music into a confluence of the old, the new and the yet-to-be-discovered.

Hassell's ongoing quest for musical integration, where cultural markers come together in something that's referential but not exactly reverential, has been evolving at a more rapid pace in the last couple years as he's busier than ever. With an unorthodox group performing unconventional music that's both cerebral and physical (bringing together, as Hassell calls it, "The North and South of You"), the trumpeter's lifelong musical quest is one that may never actually reach its destination but, with performances like that of Punkt in Mannheim, is certainly finding its way closer to it.

Live Remix: Erik Honoré and Kammerflimmer Kollektief

Germany's Kammerflimmer Kollektief's 2007 Punkt performance in Kristiansand was, with the benefit of hindsight, more successful than it appeared at the time. The core trio—guitarist/electronics manipulator Thomas Weber, bassist Johannes Frisch and keyboardist/vocalist Heike Aumüller—worked with Punkt's Erik Honorü to create a Live Remix of Hassell's performance that expanded the cultural references to include a kind of skewed hint of American blues.

With samples of Hassell's music creating a near-static harmonic center with barely a hint of pulse, Weber layered bluesy lines that made the remix feel as though it were the late 1960s in London, with the more psychedelic version of early Pink Floyd. Frisch's unfettered yet measured approach to his double-bass—creating more texture than rhythmic anchor—lifted the remix into the ether as he applied his own series of arco-driven harmonics. Seated on the stage without a chair, Aumüller added sounds from both a harmonium and small electric keyboard, while Honoré drove the base context of the remix as he grabbed snippets of Hassell's show, processing and looping them into an even richer sonic tapestry.

It was a rare opportunity to see the people involved in Live Remix working while the source performance was still going on in the performance space below. Listening carefully to the music, certain ideas were discussed that gave the Live Remix its starting point. Despite being only sketchy discussions, they demonstrated Punkt's approach to Live Remix, which allows for maximum expression but inevitably begins with a core idea. As creative as the main performances always are, Live Remix is more consistently about music without a safety net, one where it's impossible to predict what will happen. They may not always work, but the trip is always worth taking. Still, at Punkt in Mannheim, all three remixes were highly successful experiments that provided an unfamiliar audience with three stellar examples of the festival's creative breadth.

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