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

John Kelman By

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Ensemble Modern

Ensemble Modern has been around for nearly 30 years, evolving into one of the world's greatest new music ensembles. Best-known outside classical circles for its remarkable look at the music of the late Frank Zappa on The Yellow Shark (Ryko, 2003) and its collaboration with Fred Frith on The Traffic Continues (Winter & Winter, 2000), the fluid personnel of Ensemble Modern has, perhaps more importantly, acted as a significant advocate for contemporary classical composers including Heiner Goebbels, Helmut Lachenmann, Mauricio Kagel and George Benjamin. For its 50-minute Punkt performance in Mannheim, the ensemble was trimmed down to seven pieces—five brass players, one percussionist and a pianist/sampler.

Beginning with "Sequenza V," Luciana Berio's composition for solo trombone, Ensemble Modern demonstrated that new music needn't be serious music.

A piece that requires extended techniques including multiphonics, singing while playing, using a plunger in rather unusual ways, like rattling it in the bell of the trombone. But most important is the delivery of the piece, and Ensemble Modern's Uwe Dierksen delivered Berio's piece—a tribute to Glock, called "the last of the great clowns"— with a prerequisite mix of instrumental virtuosity and comedic timing. Engaging the audience by playing brief, vocal- like phrases, then stopping to ask for a response, Dierksen, at one point, emulated a racing car while miming and, ultimately, asking the audience, simply and directly, "Why?"

Trumpeter Sava Stoianov's performance of Edison Denisov's "Solo for Trumpet in B" and Rainer Römer's look at Iannis Xenakis' "Redondo," a solo piece for percussion, were more serious but just as compelling. The three solo compositions led to the set's longest piece, Heiner Goebbels' "Herakles 2," first recorded by Ensemble Modern on La Jalousie / Red Run / Herakles 2 / Befreiung (ECM New Series, 1993). A challenging piece to perform, it was an equally difficult listen, and yet the almost sold out crowd was enraptured by the Ensemble's navigation of Goebbels' knotty compositional constructs.

At a festival that rarely has problems, the only problem with Punkt in Mannheim was that the Alpha Room was considerably smaller than the main hall and, with a large audience, there was the risk of not making it into the Alpha Room, which is exactly what happened for the Ensemble Modern Live Remix, with Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré; particularly disappointing as the word is that it was the best remix of the night. Still, speaking with Honoré after the evening was over, he reiterated one of the fundamentals of Punkt that also distances it from many other festivals: they don't work through agents to make musical connections, it's all done via networking. Whether meeting musicians for the first time at Punkt festivals taking place outside of Norway, or on tour with other groups, it's these experiences that lead to future collaborations. Based on the Ensemble Modern remix, it's clear that this may be but the beginning of future collaboration.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Another of Punkt's fundamental premises is this: while the Live Remixes are, indeed, highly improvisational in nature, the grist for these experiments needn't be. In past years, Punkt has drawn on everything from jazz of a stricter definition (2006's duo performance by Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap) and stylistic cross-pollination (2006's Wagner Reloaded Project and 2007's Trio Mediaeval Performace) to contemporary classicism (composer/double- bassist Gavin Bryars' 2008 performance) and Zen Funk (Nik Bartsch's 2008 performance with Ronin).

Britain's Sweet Billy Pilgrim exemplifies Punkt's broadest purview. A thinking person's rock band, the group has appeared at more Punkt festivals than any other group—first, as a slimmed-down duo in 2006, and then as a full four-piece unit at Punkt's London festival in the fall of 2008, and finally earlier this year, at the 2009 edition of Punkt in Kristiansand. Eight weeks later, to the day, Sweet Billy Pilgrim played its first gig in Germany as the closing group at Punkt in Mannheim, and while the set and performance was similar to that in Kristiansand, there were some differences.

The most notable difference was the addition of some programmed tracks, triggered by drummer Alistair Hamer, fleshing out some of the songs culled from the group's 2005 independent debut, We Just Did What Happened and No One Came, and its second release, Twice Born Men (Samadhi Sound, 2009). When the group was at Punkt, it was days away from finding out if it was to win Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize, for which it was nominated. Eight weeks later, the group didn't win the prize, but the combination of receiving the nomination, having their new album out on British singer/conceptualist David Sylvian's label, and the evident growth of Twice Born Men is giving the group the trajectory it's deserved from the very beginning.

Tim Elsenberg, the writing force behind Sweet Billy Pilgrim, is a clear triple threat: a fine guitarist who combines the traditional leanings of Richard Thompson, the progressive tendencies of Robert Fripp and, occasionally, a jagged indie rock disposition; a singer whose rich expression is all about nuance and absolutely nothing about melodrama; and a songwriter who's equally capable of appealing hooks and more complex song forms. With Hamer, keyboardist David Preece and banjoist/bassist Anthony Bishop all singers as well, there was plenty of opportunity for moving, four-part harmonies, especially on the set closer, the near-hymnal "There Will It End." All the more remarkable, then, that Hamer comes relatively recently to singing; with some of the vocal arrangements resembling rounds, there are brief moments where Hamer—an even better drummer, with a terrific kit sound and a relaxed strength that, at times, speaks with the same kind of behind-the-beat backbeat of Fairport Convention's Dave Mattacks—was singing on his own, and sounds like he's been doing it for years.

As ever, regardless of the often revelatory nature of the music, between songs the group is as informal and self-effacing as it gets, sounding like a bunch of lads down at the pub. The instant appeal of Elsenberg's songs is almost at odds with their often quirky nature; yet as knotty as they can sometimes be, they never feel contrived. Instead, Elsenberg's songs possess a charming honesty that's impossible to deny. Lines like, "Sometimes I catch a flicker, and I think you see it, too. Sometimes I see a dead man, with his dying left to do," from the gentle, folk- centric but sonically expansive opener "Atlantis," and the direct yet evocative "It breaks my heart, like photographs," from "Stars Spill Out of Cups" captured Enjoy Jazz's particularly attentive crowd from the start and held them for the balance of the 50-minute set.

The idiosyncratic "Future Perfect Tense," with synth lines from Preece that might sound cheesy if they didn't fit so well with everything around them, was a highlight of the set, as was "Kalypso." While the greater soundscaping of Sweet Billy Pilgrim's albums means considerable rearrangement/reassignment of the parts in performance, with the addition of Hamer's triggered programs the group is gradually bridging the gap. Live, Sweet Billy Pilgrim is definitely a performing group, with a different set of dynamics, neither better nor worse than on the albums, only different. But as the group gradually integrates more technology into its live sets, a collective voice is beginning to emerge that holds even more promise for the future than is already being delivered in the present.


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