A reliable French tradition like chewy baguettes and soft-ripened cheese, France’s Météo Festival, now in its 35th year, continues to present la crème de la crème of musicians in concert without the program ever becoming homogenized. The festival took place August 22 to 26 in Mulhouse and began and ended with absorbing and innovative sets by veteran Improv saxophonists Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. Performances that included minimalism, hard-core Free Jazz, electronics, and Rock. Notated and folkloric music were also part of the schedule.
The Parker and Brötzmann approaches couldn’t be more different even though the two have collaborated since the 1960s. Parker was part of a tense, constricted duo with pianist Matthew Shipp, which took place in the city’s elaborate, century-old Théâtre de la Sinne. More restrained than usual, Parker, especially when playing soprano, appeared oddly muted as he followed paths that often appeared more discursive than they should be, though he made up for this with imaginative, if expected, displays of circular breathing, often a cappella, for more dramatic effects. Tougher on tenor saxophone, his lines still lagged a bit behind Shipp’s whose up-and-down shakes and pitch-sliding motions frequently dominated the proceedings. Shipp’s intense improvisations were frequently couched in a form of glissandi so brisk that notes seemed to blur as they sounded.
Playing Météo’s closing set at the commodious Noumatrouff club beside Mulhouse’s tram yards, where almost all night time concerts took place, Brötzmann’s gutsy sound was explosive as always, especially when playing tenor saxophone and unmistakable on that instrument, clarinet or tárogató. Notable too was the unusual instrumentation of his trio. The reedist played off against high-pitched, flutter tonguing processed through electronic wave forms from Toshinori Kondo’s trumpet; and with only Heather Leigh’s pedal steel guitar to accompany and link the others’ output. A combination of finger-picking twangs and dissonant scrapes, the steel guitarist inhabited a space where Brötzmann’s reed honks and Kondo’s plunger asides could coexist, as well as interjecting pauses among the others’ pressurized expositions. In the chalumeau register, Brötzmann’s clarinet playing was so calm that it suggested folkloric runes or half-remembered Songbook classics. Overall the trio’s achievement was such that even when Leigh’s twangs, Kondo’s vibrations and reed wails were heard in triple counterpoint, the sonic relationship was obvious and spine-tingling.
Less obvious were the contributions of Kondo at Noumatrouff the previous night when he was featured guest with Turbine, a quartet whose interlocking parts included two bassists Benjamin Duboc and Harrison Bankhead and two percussionists Hamid Drake and Ramon Lopez. Like shoving an extra piston into a calibrated motor, Bankhead upset the designated two steps more than Kondo’s echoing tones when he spent part of the set at the piano as well as scat singing while bowing bass strings à la Slam Stewart. With Duboc showcasing his Arco prowess, leaving time-keeping to Bankhead, a rhythmic Blues groove was quickly realized. Nevertheless Drake’s frame-drum reverberations and Lopez’s tabla strokes, coupled with the realization that the rhythm was flowing powerfully effortlessly and quietly throughout the performance raised the result far above standard swing interplay.
Another group which equalled this cohesion, while adding a soupçon of 1960s Free Jazz was drummer Edward Perraud’s Incertum Principium, which played at Noumatrouff mid-point Thursday night, featuring bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, alto and baritone saxophonist Benjamin Dousteyssier and trumpeter/fluglhornist Aymeric Avice. With the bassist holding down a fat, adhesive beat and Perraud propelling the improvisations with multi-faceted rhythms, centred on the cymbals and bass drum, sticks, the front line had a foundation on which to harmonize or challenge one another’s contributions which often extended into the near-atonal. Avice’s talents extended to playing different lines on both his horns simultaneously; building solos out of micro tones or with mellow lyricism from an open horn; as well as propelling continuous textures for effect. Everything made sense musically though. Spiky and squeaky on alto, Dousteyssier’s strident baritone work was not only tongue-slapping descriptive, but in the lowest register provided a continuum that freed rhythm section members to solo. Håker Flaten’s sweeping spiccato soared in this context. More earth-bound was his electric bass playing with BIC at the same venue Wednesday night. A Jazz-Metal offshoot, created by showy French guitarist Julien Desprez, it was most notable for the frenetic alto saxophone cries of Norwegian Mette Rasmussen.
The complete opposite to frenetic was Musica Elettronica Viva which played the opening set at Noumatrouff Friday evening. Consisting of pianist Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum on keyboards and electronics and Alvin Curran, who added shofar to his keyboard and electronic asides, MEV is three Americans, who are important composers, yet have been exploring non-idiomatic improvisations since 1966. With Rzewski’s semi-serious, semi-classical, often pastoral melodies as a base, the three still came across more like the Marx Brothers than the Mendelssohn siblings. All manner of samples including strangled soprano voices, cartoon sound effects and pretentious radio announcer tones – plus some slide-whistle and kazoo interjections from Teitelbaum – not only enlivened the proceedings, but deflated any so-called serious music tropes that could have been associated with the set. With an electronic continuum as a further anchor or disruptive force, Rzewski, Groucho-like was able to start, but never finish a Donald Trump anecdote while all manner of Hellzapoppin’ noises echoed around him. Humorous without being puerile and with sharp musicianship as upfront as electro-acoustic processing, MEV confirmed the trio’s continued relevance, sense of fun and constant innovation a half-century on.
Curran also led a workshop at the modernist Kunsthalle Thursday afternoon, allowing the dozen participants to experience this mixture of diversion and exploration. Commencing with players seated around a table ripping newspapers to shreds, the ensemble then moved Happening-like throughout the standing audience and among the venue’s visual art work, producing all manner of extended techniques from a collection of horns and strings from saxophones to an oud. Before a climatic tutti that raised the excitement level still higher, the players concertized while crouching, walking, jumping and lying on their backs, as well as kicked around hard objects for maximum noise echoes and hightailing into an adjoining room for some reverberating basketball bouncing.
On his own Wednesday afternoon performing on the pulpit of Temple Saint-Etienne, the 1858 neo-Gothic Protestant church in Mulhouse’s Place de la Réunion, Curran proved that a shofar, whose usage long preceded Christ, and a 21st century keyboard synthesiser were equal vehicles for improvisation. With lip burbles and resultant reverb, the cadences of the curved ram’s horn provided a mystical introduction to keyboard exploration. As sharpened drones underlined the proceedings, the processes produced all manner of narrations and commentaries, with pulses sharing space with textual outcries that included tremolo player-piano-like melodies, vocal and instrumental patches referencing folk-like, rhythmic swing and weighty so-called classical music. Curran’s music remains dramatic, droll and distinguished.
Another solo player who knows how to mix the exceptional with the jocular is trumpeter Franz Hautzinger, whose minute-long encore to his brass exploration was a speed-through of “Flight of the Bumblebee”. The final noon solo set at the mid-city medieval Chapelle Saint-Jean on Saturday, the brass player took full advantage of the acoustics created by venerable building’s cornices and projections. Tongue slapping or lowing to create rhythms, blowing across his mouthpiece for gutsy point-making, Hautzinger produced tones ranging from the aviary to the undersea whale-like, mixing the harsh with hyperbolic.
Eve Risser’s prepared piano recital Thursday noon was the other notable Chapelle set. Weaving a fishing line through her instrument’s inner strings, hammering them with a mallet and meshing keyboard clipping and string stopping, she clanked out staccato flanges that took advantage of the keyboard’s different tunings. But when these caustic tones became too comforting some of the improvisations lost their edge. Another solo standout was Oren Ambarchi`s guitar-triggered, table-top electronics created Friday afternoon at L'Entrepôt, a small club whose stage is usually occupied by chansonniers. Mechanical tricks aside, not only was an organ-like tremolo often produced, but Ambarchi skillfully managed to produce call-and-response interaction by himself. Playing almost entirely in the dark, percussionist Jason Kahn’s and electronics manipulator Norbert Möslang’s subsequent set at L'Entrepôt, trafficked in drone and industrial-style noises with its sheer power felt as much as heard. Unexpected twirls from Möslang’s table-top sound collected mixed with subtle beats from Kahn to add softer elements though.
That mixture of hard and soft, light and darkness was also used in an original fashion during Ambarchi’s brief duo with drummer Will Guthrie as the closing set at Noumatrouff the evening previously. However the gyrating head bangers who attended the show along with Météo’s other Rock-oriented sets may have been confused. Via electronics and drum back beats undulating cadences were present, but the improvising was more sophisticated than what would emanate from a jam band. Somehow managing to often sound like organist Jimmy Smith with his percussion sidekick in far different contexts, the two added a touch of pale funk to the proceedings. But their narrative ended up being more about drone and tone descriptive than dance beats.
True groove masters, though they might chafe at the description are the members of The Necks, whose hour-long closing set at Noumatrouff Wednesday night was one of the festival highlights. Shifting an undulating theme between Chris Abrahams’ focused piano chording and bassist Lloyd Swanton’s alternately Arco extensions and pizzicato rhythmic stops, drummer Tony Buck was free to shake up and color the narration with unexpected beats. In control no matter how far out the pianist moved to build a high-frequency wall of notes or the bassist shifted sensitively from folk-like accompaniment to romantic tone flutters, within an instant the three could interlock. Operating in triple-tandem, a splashy climax was never reached. Instead the three slowly stop playing making the finale inevitable.
Although not wishing to invoke a bromide that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it appeared that the POMO named MilesDavisQuintet (MDQ) aimed to furrow the same row as The Necks. In reality only pianist Xavier Camarasa, cellist Valentin Ceccaldi and drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq, MSQ was attuned to silences and paradoxically offered more weighty rhythmic thrusts than The Necks, this trio’s paramount stance was the constant rubbing and tugging of Ceccaldi’s strings, with its foot-tapping elements not ceasing even when he bowed. Even as Camarasa unveiled keyboard splashes and Darrifourcq varied the beat from jerky to fluid, the overall impression was that each instrument functions as percussion. Still an even more original approach and less provocative name would advance the band’s cause.
One cause that appears repeatedly like a zombie, although constantly declared deceased is the mixture of Jazz and so-called Classical Music called Third Stream. ONCEIM, a 30-piece ensemble of France’s most accomplished young veterans directed by Frédéric Blondy, experimented with the concept on two different afternoons at the soft-seated La Filature concert hall Friday and Saturday afternoons. Composed by AMM pianist John Tilbury, “Sans” mixed pre-recorded recitations with responses from the ensemble’s string and horn sections to little memorable effect. Eschewing pre-recordings, “Laminaire #7” was supposedly completely improvised. However with scant breathing space for any of ONCEIM’s exceptional musicians to assert him or herself, the effect too was more soporific than evocative.
Even as it heads into its seventh official decade, Rock music is supposed to be anything but soporific. Yet as other sets proved this can be anything but true. The highly touted Pere Ubu’s Moon Unit which preceded the Brötzmann trio’s Météo wrap-up certainly confirmed that. Directed by bloated, Stetson-wearing vocalist David Thomas, the group operated as if nothing had changed since their Cleveland debut in 1975. With Thomas very obviously checking the time after each song, the group ran through a familiar set list that combined attempts at primitive Blues, pseudo-surrealist lyrics, arena Rock guitar and synthesizer flourishes coupled with monotonous drumming. Bathed in nostalgia, many audience members sang along.
More vital, although not as musically cultivated as the players are capable of in other circumstances, was guitarist Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog trio with multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith, which shared the festival’s opening night performance at Théâtre de la Sinne. The political situation in the United States and pressing events elsewhere appear to have awakened Ribot’s inner Phil Ochs. Besides his ferocious guitar solos, which mixed Blues, Rock and slices of Jazz, Ribot sang a collection of agit-prop songs ranging from a celebration of abolitionist John Brown to a lament for Italian Socialist partisans. This lead to the audience demanding encores, perhaps sensing that the trio members’ political sentiments were as sincere and upfront as their music.
Beyond these highlight and disappointments, there were still more performances that took place during the festival’s five days. With this constant eclecticism supported by careful planning and always directed towards cutting-edge musicianship, is it any wonder that Météo has maintained its innovative reputation even mid-way into its fourth decade?