Vocalist Almut Kühne

ArtActs ’20
March 6-8, 2020
St. Johann in Tirol, Austria

By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor/Gallery O

Having passed the age at which Austrians can legally either vote or drink, the ArtActs (AA) festival entered its third decade in March 2020 with prodigious programming that spanned the perimeters of jazz and improvised music. Along with the annual three days of notable music from top-flight international improvisers presented at the Alte Gerberei (AG) arts space, one unprecedented event was Captured Memories, an exhibition of photos taken over the festival’s first 20 years by eight photographers including JazzWord’s Susan O’Connor.

Vocalist/clarinetist Isabelle Duthoit; alto saxophonist Colin Webster; percussionist Hamid Drake

As always though, music was the main focus of AA, with perhaps the most energizing performance being the climactic set by the UK’s 4 Blokes, which concluded the festival on a high note. It performed sounds associated with legendary South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, who could not attend. With skill and sensitivity, Mark Sanders took the ailing drummer’s place with the other “blokes”: pianist Alexander Hawkins, bassist John Edwards, and alto and soprano saxophonist Jason Yarde. Energetically moving through a series of themes that reflected Kwela, groove, free music and devotional rhythms, the combo had as its base the clip-clops, back beats or shuffles from Sanders, and Edwards’ thumping string pops, walks and pressurized bowing. Concurrently Yarde, on both horns, infrequently put a sweet balladic sheen on some episodes, but more commonly moved between pressurized squeaking split tones and clarion multiphonics. When he wasn’t feeding chord changes to the soloists, Hawkins’ playing was equally divided. He produced flowery Chopinesque forays to meet Yarde’s decorative slurs, or used flat-palmed power or Church of England-like flourishes to march the rhythmic pacing forward. Able to roll theme and variations together into a concentrated foot-tapping narrative at faster and faster paces, the four created a festival resolution that was energetic but easygoing.

Another quartet which created the same sort of pivoting links was a continental group that played the second set on opening night. Consisting of local clarinetist Paed Conca, Swiss drummer Julian Sartorius, and two Swedes — alto saxophonist Anna Högberg and bassist Elsa Bergman, the group created its own take on Free Jazz, mixing stop time and swing with urbanity. The members made maximum use of the contrapuntal intervals propelled by Conca’s dipsy-doodle shrills and Högberg’s intense slurps and smears, sometimes realized by unscrewing the mouthpiece and blowing straight onto the neck of her instrument. Along with these reed distinctions were Bergman’s buzzing arco underpinnings or swaying spiccato thrusts used to best effect during challenges between the others’ harsh or sweet reed tones. As well, there was Sartorius’ sophisticated percussion patterning, with dry taps and melodic counter-rhythms predominating.

Percussionist Michael Zerang

Percussion sophistication from two master drummers was also one of the hallmarks of the band Uruk, which enlivened Saturday night’s penultimate set at AG. Both from Chicago and both playing congas and miscellaneous instruments, Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang were paired with Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger and French vocalist/clarinetist Isabelle Duthoit. Standing while the other players were seated, Duthoit’s theatrical hand gestures complemented the raw yodels, stentorian grunts and ululating cries which made up her distinctive vocalizing. All the while, muted or with open-horn, Hautzinger’s sympathetic obbligatos came in the form of air leaks or capillary blasts. Perfectly in sync from years of collaboration meanwhile, the drummers pounded out a fluctuating but grounded rhythms that allowed for extended, disjointed brass breaks or speaking-in-tongues vocalization that surprisingly didn’t interrupt the sound flow. Besides occasionally adding verbal murmurs to the performance, Drake sometimes sounded a frame drum while Zerang popped bongos and a bell tree for additional noise coloration. Eventually the four reached a cohesive mix and abruptly stopped.

The following day, using three microphones to capture higher pitched and lower tones, Hautzinger gave a solo recital in a nearby college. Utilizing the room’s spatial resonance and occasional expectant silences, he angled his trumpet in varied directions, blew across the mouthpiece and used half-valve effects. The result was an exercise in restraint where tongue slapping percussion shared aural space with unaccented air passed through the body tube, and where valve work and sonorous timbres shared space with atom-sized beeps. The microphone setup also allowed brass timbres to pan from one to the other, creating true surround-sound impressions.

Trumpeter Franz Hautzinger; bassist John Edwards

Playing full drum kit, Uruk percussionist Zerang was also part of a trio that closed Friday night’s proceedings with fellow Chicagoan Dave Rempis playing alto and tenor saxophones, and Graz-based Elisabeth Harnik on piano. Rempis, who had created a brief solo concert of stabbing but controlled improvisations at the Captured Memories photo opening, effectively matched his tough smears and slurs to Harnik’s pianism, which touched on sprightly bebop as well as more expected modern notated traditions. Allying himself with one or the other’s output, Zerang produced choppy yet controlled accompaniment. Making use of piano string stops, slides and foot-pedal extended strums, Harnik’s piano preparations brought out slap tongue and key percussion asides from the saxophonist, just as her cross-handed pressure and glissandi encouraged his dry heaves. Technically adept as well as adventurous, some of her most notable moments came as Harnik snaked her fingers across the keyboard, or added hammering with the other elbow and extended forearm as if having decided that facing hard accents from Rempis and Zerang wasn’t properly expressed with a single elbow smack.

Exploring the same sort of parameters, but in a divergent manner was the trio of Viennese violinist Irene Kepl and two Britons, alto saxophonist Colin Webster and bassist Edwards, when they played at the AG just before Uruk. To celebrate AA20, Kepl composed and presented Laut Schweigen, a multimedia project for an octet of musicians and a vocal choir that was premiered on the final evening of AA. Enthusiastically received, the work was too dense and sonically varicolored to be dissected after a single hearing. As a free improviser with Edwards and Webster however, the violinist’s command of col legno and spiccato sweeps locked in with the bassist slithering up and down the bull fiddle’s neck with slaps and buzzing plucks, and the saxophonist’s uncoupled shaking slurs. As Kepl’s rasps across the strings intensified, so did Webster’s flutter-tonguing and Edwards’ parallel pumps, leading up to a frenetic foot-tapping interlude that was half hoedown and half hip-hop. While the program was multiphonic, it was also polyphonic enough to allow the narrative lead to circulate among the three. That meant that below-the-bridge pops and near-the-tuning pegs scrapes from Edwards were as frequent and audible as sul tasto sweeps from the violinist and split tone and tongue smears from the saxophonist.

Pianist Elisabeth Harnik; violinist Irene Kepl; bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann

Equivalent improvisational consensus was exhibited by two duos featured at the AG on Friday and Saturday nights. The first-time meeting between Viennese pianist Ingrid Schmoliner and percussionist Drake, which opened the festival on Friday, appeared no less stable in its presentation than the playing from the established Berlin-based duo of vocalist Almut Kühne and tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann that opened Saturday’s performances. For Schmoliner, darkened tremolos focusing on the piano’s lower-pitched keys comprised the preferred mode while her buoyant swirls also included references to 19th Century romanticism and hypnotic tone repetition. Meanwhile, Drake’s jazz roots were audible in his drum top rebounds, brush-dusting and hi-hat snaps. Yet his swing commitment was open-ended enough to come up with appropriate tough ripostes to the pianist’s power chording and preparations which often suggested bell-tolling within its flowing interface. Drake’s final frame drum and chanting invocations appeared to perfectly presage slithering keyboard lines as well as toy-piano-like echoes in Schmoliner’s concluding solo.

Like Duthoit, Kühne mostly concentrated on propelling nonverbal yodels, squeaks and shrill tongue jujitsu during the duo’s numerous tunes, though there were some points during which she appeared to be telling stories in a real or imaginary language. However, unlike the instrumental trio that operated alongside French vocalist Duthoit, the German singer’s only accompaniment came from Ullmann, who used a looper, effects pedal, mixer, reed samples and live processing to assert his contributions. His clarion tones made it possible for Kühne to move from a bare whisper and near-lullaby to altissimo retches with no sense of musical dislocation. The two completed the set by jointly attaining lyrical modulation from the vocalist with rhythmic impetus from the processing matched with a bass clarinet obbligato.

If many sets ended with similarly expressive understatement, then the continual tone challenges during the Sunday night set by American trumpeter Peter Evans and his associates was its antithesis. Propelling capillary wiggles and brassy bites with the ferocity of a modernized Hard Bopper, Evans’ crew consisted of American bassist Jordan Sand plus Germans Philipp Gropper, Oliver Steidle and Liz Kosack. Tenor saxophonist Gropper’s frequent sharp bites were intended as Tonto-like amplification to the trumpeter’s Lone Range-like forays; while rock-oriented, steadfast drummer Steidle and masked keyboardist Kosack – in this case also entombed in mummy-like gauze – actually drew more attention to her than her playing. Alternating between organ-like pulsations and sudden waves of programmed fuzz, Kosack joined Steidle’s near-head-banging power and Evans’ skyrocketing trumpet choruses to propel a sound that except for touches of swing, could be welcomed in a rock club.

Drummer Julian Sartorius; clarinetist Paed Conca and alto saxophonist Anna Högberg; tenor saxophonist Dave Rempis

It is this acceptance of the unexpected that has drawn audiences to ArtActs each year. Considering the 20th anniversary celebrations highlighted these performances as well as those more visual and electronic-oriented, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that AA will present innovative shows for at least another 20 years.