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Trane in August: Lisbon's 2006 Jazz em Agosto

Kurt Gottschalk By

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The point of the programming probably wasn't to posit a line from Coltrane to Braxton but it seemed a question that proved itself anyway...
It's not often to be expected that John Coltrane might headline a jazz festival, at least not for some time now—or perhaps in spirit he headlines most of them. Either way, his presence was strongly felt during the Jazz em Agosto festival, held on the beautiful grounds of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal.
Besides a screening of The Sound of Miles Davis, a television broadcast from 1959 featuring Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quintet and the Gil Evans Orchestra, and a talk by Larry Appelbaum, the Library of Congress archivist who discovered the Monk/Coltrane recording released by Blue Note last year, the 12th installment of the Lisbon festival included a talk by British saxophonist Evan Parker about Coltrane's technique and legacy and an updating of Trane by the ROVA quartet.
ROVA opened the festival with their remarkable Electric Ascension, a reworking of the Coltrane's 1965 free jazz landmark. The saxophone quartet was augmented by Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Fred Frith on electric bass, Nels Cline on electric guitar, Otomo Yoshihide on turntables, Andrea Parkins on accordion and keyboards, Thomas Lehn on electronics, Tom Rainey on drums and violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman. The suite varies in personnel and tone from one performance to the next, but this time they opened electric, with distant thunder from Nels Cline's guitar as the wind picked up in the outdoor theater, then the low drone of Fred Frith's bass, static from Otomo Yoshihide and Thomas Lehn, and then Andrea Parkins's accordion. The backline filled out, horns overlaying the five-note theme, huge and unhurried, not just stating the phrase but stating the purpose. The visual of the wind metaphor is not to be understated—Larry Ochs's white locks blew as if from the band's own electrical storm as he took the first solo. They rode the full band theme for a good while before breaking into what made ROVA's second Ascension pertinent, the radical reinterpretations by smaller subsections. Initially it was the backline again, with Cline (who has also thrown down on Trane's Interstellar Space a few years back) pushed it over. The improv world has opened up to a much wider variety of sound and subterfuge since 1965, and so it only makes sense 30 years later to open Coltrane's magnum opus up to turntables, electronics, electric guitar and—why not?—accordion. Coltrane's piece was about the limits of possibility to begin with, and while those limits have been stretched in the ensuing years, they can, and should, still be challenged. Doing less would be a slap to his vision.
It was hard not to think of Coltrane during Evan Parker's solo set, especially in light of the talk he was to give the next day, but it was also hard to think of Trane, his lines in contrast with Parker's circles, Trane's overblowing at risk of drowning out Parker's tidier multiphonics in the mind's ear, even if the improvisations were laced with Trane's themes. He even began his talk by playing "One Up, One Down" on soprano, stating the theme and then rolling it into speedy circles, drawing the line he'd dotted the day before.

During his talk, he recalled his early listening to Coltrane, and seeing Trane with Eric Dolphy in his band in 1961, calling it "a revelation, it was Coltrane in the moment."

Parker also speculated about how Britons might reacted to the fire of Trane's latter years had a 1966 European tour—which would have been his second opportunity to see the legend—not been canceled. "It's hard to imagine what the response would have been in England," he said. "I'm fairly sure it would have been hostile—it was maybe a step too far for many people."

ROVA's Larry Ochs appeared again with Frith (this time on electric guitar) and percussionist Le Quan Ninh. Frith quickly put to rest any idea that it would be the quiet sort of gig Le Quan's presence might have suggested, and within minutes the trio built into a hellish parade, Ochs with his sopranino as grand marshall, Le Quan's bass drum laid on its side emitting thunderous rhythm, Frith as the rest of the band going past in a slow but frenzied blur. They didn't stay there long, of course, Frith is fond of either pulling the rug out from under or putting up drapes to match whatever was happening a minute before. He and Le Quan played some heavy rock, some glacial noise, even moments of upbeat country and pensive blues, with Ochs often content to sit out.

Frith began their second piece even more loudly then pulled back on tempo (but not volume) to find Le Quan and Ochs decidedly not following. It was tense, deliberately so and not to detriment. Ochs entered early on the encore and on tenor at that, as if to ensure there was room for him at the table. It was the first time they sounded like a trio, which isn't to say it wasn't a great set, because it was. In a festival that doesn't take a lot of risks—largely known names and established ensembles—it was the one wild card.

Le Quan also played a solo set which proved to be the highlight of the festival. He began with nothing more than two long bamboo rods, playing the stage, playing the air, playing until they splintered and then playing them more, eventually moving to his side-mounted bass drum, working a pinecone on the head, stones tapped against the tuning keys, usually keeping a quick and often prominent pulse. His talents stretch beyond a musical sensibility to just the acrobatics of his craft, balancing one stick and a cymbal held in his hand with another, even scooping another stick off the floor with the cymbal he's playing.

He dedicated the set to "the people who are suffering now in Lebanon and Israel," the only such acknowledgement during the festival despite the thwarted airline attacks in Britain happened halfway through the week that left musicians who were playing the second weekend with 30+ hour trips. But Le Quan's concert wasn't the sort of bombast and anger the dedication might have suggested—it seemed full of peace, joy, meditation, momentum.

Le Quan's solo set was in fact one of only three sax-less sets, the other two being by Cline in a trio with Rainey and Andrea Parkins and trumpeter Rob Mazurek's group Mandarin Movie, both of whom also played the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec three months earlier, and both sounded much better than at Victo, in part because they allowed more "solo" sorts of spaces, but definitely because the outdoor stage saved them from saturating themselves quite so much (a rarity, but they're both dense groups that can overwhelm the midrange). At the same time, they both seemed to make an effort to differentiate their sets, shorter pieces, more varied styles and approaches. Parkins made use of the grand piano on stage, forcing the trio into almost jazzy sections, and Mandarin Movie allowed themselves to be a horns-and-rhythm-section band at times, something which didn't happen during their Victoriaville squall. Rob Mazurek in particular stood out with a nice, muted, unaccompanied trumpet solo with only slight electronic effects augmenting his playing.

The saxophones reigned supreme throughout the rest of the fest, and as strong as any were the tenor and baritone of Rodrigo Amado, whose Lisbon Improvisation Players were the only Portuguese musicians on the bill. They played a powerful set with Texas trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, the only other set that came close to the level of risky group improv shown by Frith, Le Quan and Ochs. It wasn't entirely uncharted territory—Gonzalez recorded with the group on the recently issued Spiritualize (released by the Portuguese label Clean Feed). They sounded confident and comfortable together, and the Players would seem to represent some of the best of the city's jazz improvisers. Amado's playing is tasteful and articulate, and he was adept at fitting within—not in front of—the rhythm section, leaving the foreground open for Gonzalez. Bassist Pedro Gonçalves and drummer Bruno Pedroso were understated yet dynamic. Gonzalez played well the role of "featured soloist," a role he was more than ready to fill with bright solos and a great sense of timing.

With the exception of the Lisbon Improvisation Players, the second weekend was dominated by the New York area, with Junk Magic, the Claudia Quintet and Connecticut resident Anthony Braxton's sextet.

Cor Fuehler's Corkestra played themes from busy to jazzy to almost Webernian, although there was little of what might have been expected from a band made up of members of the ICP Orchestra, The Ex and The Necks. A trio of strong saxophonists, flute, electric guitar, upright bass, and a pair of drummers, all flanked by a grand piano and a cymbalon—there was so much dynamic on stage it was impressive that what came through most was the compositions, but they did; Even in a piece that was essentially a showcase for Ab Baars, it was the structure that was at the forefront. And Fuehler's ideas, applied even to a Thomas Lehn / Andy Moor / Tony Buck hardcore improv trio, or a Baars / Tobias Delius / Ann LaBerge wind trio, or even pieces that could have been composed by Sun Ra or Michel Legrand, were quite good.

Junk Magic expended a lot of energy to stay in the same place, which is only a problem if the assumption is that music is about getting somewhere. Instead they put simple melodies against fast, flat, funky drum and bass and prolonged sax and violin solos as if they were alternately floating and frantically treading water. The breakdowns would happen more in float mode—they didn't quite pull out the disco, though they could have, and the audience (one of the biggest of the seven nights) would probably have responded well. Leader Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes, comped by smooth playing from Mat Maneri on viola and Mark Turner on saxophone, sometimes struck a surprising Weather Report chord.

More mysterious were the choreographed TV monitors, three small sets alternating between static and off, perhaps in homage to Lisboeta pianist Jorge Lima Barreto's large-screen static and snow of the previous year. Or maybe the whole was to be taken as a set of variations on a Weather Report. It was a strong set, deserving of an encore although planned encores are tacky things, and that was apparently what the video monitors were for. Nevertheless, the encore was the strongest thing the played, a loud, dark, jazz dirge that continued the rhythmic backline / tidal frontline dynamic.

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