XFest 2010: Real Time Together

Gordon Marshall By

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Various Artists
XFest 2010
119 Gallery, Lowell, Mass.
February 26-28, 2010

Call it XFest. Curated by musician Walter Wright and held annually at his 119 Gallery in Lowell, Mass, the pace of it couldn't be closer or faster. Within its three days of rapid-fire sets, musicians who have never played together before and sometimes never met, somehow find common ground—or scintillatingly conflicting ground.

Experts might argue that the best performances rise out of extensive, long term collaborations. In fact, this may even be true in a large sense. That's not the point of XFest. The point—well, it's open-ended. The event is made exciting by its premise of spontaneity alone, leading to sterling conversation between sets and to future connections among the musicians.

Beyond that, XFest does indeed produce great music, and lots of it. Many already very good performers rise above themselves, challenged by newness. Discoveries in sound and sense abound. Everything in some way contributes toward a whole that works, beyond even the music, revitalizing a community and metropolis.

The whole that was XFest 2010 consisted in a series of sets in long strings, a half-hour apiece, one appearing on the heels of the next, with time for participants and audience to mingle. Each set featured a guest performer from out of town, accompanied by Boston-area musicians who for the most part also had not performed together, taking place on Friday evening, February 26, and Saturday afternoon and evening, with established groups playing on Sunday.

Friday evening, February 26

The first guest, trumpeter Gordon Allen of Montreal, Quebec, set the tone blowing creatively in a restricted register, as part of an offbeat quartet featuring Mitch Ahern on a homemade instrument—a 1950s era washing-machine door attached to a quasi-fret board with electronic controls attached to it. Ahern colored in an understated background for Allen. Josh Baker played a bicycle wheel, with various sticks. Claire Elizabeth Barratt achieved unique equipoise between executing ballet steps and wielding a cello. Both reinterpreted Allen's steady, airy lyricism with alternating outbreaks of percussion and sonority. The piece had an air of stillness, almost of timelessness, except that that very force of will giving it that feel ultimately pushed it toward an even more satisfying resolution.

Equally satisfying, the next quartet, featuring the stunning Audrey Chen on cello and Joshua Jefferson on alto sax—waxed by contrast raucous, funky and provocative. Karlheinz, on electronics and Set Bailin on drums rounded off the unit. They tended to pound the beat too hard but, to be fair, they laid down the groove to begin with. Chen duly overpowered them at one point with a kind of primal scream, which was a cue to Jefferson to mount a madly heroic attack on sax of his own. It is this type of drama that is often the most by turns gripping and amusing in the festival.

A trio with Lou Cohen on laptop, Karen Langlie on cello and electronics, and Mark Dwinell on monochord had an ethereal, kosmiche feel to it. As Cohen is highly versed in classical theory it is tempting to speculate on the development of the piece on a technical level—though it is probably best just to take in the meditative, warm chill of such layer upon layer of drone breaking out one beneath the other.

Katt Hernandez is a master of microtonal music, having studied with Joe Maneri. In her duet with Max Lord on electronics, she started with an almost crying-like voice sound on her violin, segueing into some classical improvisation and then into a childlike, distorted folk melody. At times she would mime Lord's electronic static. Eventually, though—and rightly—Lord let her have the day and she broke out in what was by and large a solo of her glorious, free-for-all multi-directionality.

The great highlight of Friday night was the face-off between multi-reedists Ras Moshe and Steve Norton, with Dave Miller on drums. Moshe started out on flute with Norton on bass clarinet, calmly paying homage to Eric Dolphy, for whom those instruments were signature. Then Moshe picked up his tenor and unabashedly pounded out his grand Coltranisms, drawn from late-period laments and spirituals. Moshe is a true power player, in contrast to the diaphanous Norton, who had picked up soprano. It almost appeared that Moshe wasn't listening; then Norton started pushing more melodically charged sheets of sound of his own, and Moshe piped down and joined him in a pensive dialogue to end the number. It was like watching two mighty crosscurrents finally meeting in harmonious flow.

Note should be made for the great freeform dancer Joe Burgio, who graced a group including guitarists Chris Welcome and Nick Coella, and bassist Kit Demos. Burgio was the center of this band's energy, absorbing the latter incandescently, and reflecting and flashing it back to the band with movement effortless and indelible.

Saturday afternoon, February 27

Tension among musicians began to dissipate as the fest wore on, which was a good thing in itself, though on occasion it made for less exciting music. That said, the social dimension was also inspiring, and a good reason for why all was so satisfying in the end.

Trumpeter Allen returned with a trio on laptops and electronics. In an inherent struggle for a player of an acoustic instrument, he acquitted himself well, in some cases miming the synthetic elements, then going beyond them and extrapolating the sources into melodic journeys. New Yorker Al Margolis and Bostonian Jed Speare featured on laptops, with veteran Tom Hamilton, also from New York, on electronics. This was a unique set in that its worth went beyond music. The shifting textures and dynamics made for experiments and discoveries not always easy on the ear, but somehow always therapeutic and thought inducing.

Joshua Jefferson on alto sax and Andrew Eisenberg on percussion, known for their Boston duo Skinny Vinny, appeared with formidable, high-profile New York bassist Shayna Dulberger. The trio engaged in astute game of give and take, often with humor. The humor was extended by the two dancers Burgio and Paul Kafka- Gibbons, who engaged in a kind of Samuel-Beckett-like mini-drama, though this proved an unfortunate distraction in the end, as Jefferson and Eisenberg had to give up attention to Dulberger to devote it to the dancers—a shame also on account of the great grace the former had on hand to show.

Moshe also reappeared in a new context, a group including Miller and Welcome, and Matt Plummer on trombone. This was a provocative number with shifting beats and dynamics, Moshe again switching between flute and tenor. With the four of them familiar from playing together in New York (though breaking the fest's rule a bit), there was great implicit and intuitive dialogue. Welcome in particular shone with his spare, edgy jabs at his strings.

Saturday evening

Emilie Mouchous on electronics and Eric Dahlman on trumpet kicked off Saturday evening. Burgio also made a comeback with another mindful dance accompaniment, with video artist Greg Kowalski providing great, psychedelic visuals on a screen behind the stage. Dahlman sprung a spry lower-case, or minimalist performance that started out jarringly, with interrupted breathing sounding like someone choking on a snorkel underwater, yet pulled through— into some tight, effective blues-inflected fragments that mysteriously fit together.

The next two sets did not succeed. In one, the fine New York guitarist Welcome was buried in sludgy noise rock. In the other, a lyrical effort by trombonist Plummer was undermined through lack of cooperation.

Drummer Dave Miller returned next in the context of four electronics-based performers, including Mark Dwinell on monochord. This piece had a slow buildup, with Miller on brushes. In the end, everything coalesced grandly, with the synthesizers building and Miller structuring a fine polyrhythmic coda after patiently following and supporting the piece as it had developed. It was one of those pieces, structuralist in nature, that made total sense only after all was added up retrospectively: the destination was the path.

Angela Sawyer featured in the final set I caught, with Speare, Margolis and Eisenberg returning. The latter three worked around Sawyer with restrained interplay, while Sawyer led with powerful, high volume outbursts on voice and duck calls, challenging the ear to tell which was which, as well as to rethink our notions of the beautiful: Sawyer's Kantian background becomes clear.

Again, the fest as a whole was in addition to a great music event, an ecstatic, intoxicating social affair, with owner Wright always playing the good host, always around introducing people to one another and supporting the musicians in their efforts. Gallery manager Y Sok Woodward cooked a delightful Cambodian dinner. Lowell's pulse is slippery and alive.

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