Jazz à Mulhouse gives a loving French kiss to Improvised music

By Ken Waxman
For CODA Issue 337

Impressive saxophone and reed displays were the focus of the 24th Edition of Jazz à Mulhouse in France in late August. Overall however, most of the 19 performances maintained a constant high quality. This may have something to do with the fact that unlike larger, flashier and more commercial festivals, Jazz à Mulhouse (JAM) is an almost folksy showcase for improvisation.

Located less than 20 minutes away by train from Basel, Switzerland, Mulhouse is a mid-sized city of 150,000 in eastern France long known as an industrial textile centre. Low-key, JAM is rather like the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV), with better restaurants.

Except for an opening concert by French guitarist Noël Akchoté, which this year was in a crowded downtown club that looks as if its standard fare is pop chansonniers, all other shows take place in two wildly dissimilar venues. The mid-day solo piano series is showcased in the acoustically austere Chapelle St. Jean. Located in mid-town, it’s a 12th Century stone church with vaulted ceilings, bas-reliefs at eye level and two gigantic sun dials, high up on opposite walls facing the stage.

In late afternoon, a JAM-organized free shuttle bus takes the audience out to the suburbs near the streetcar terminus for evening shows at the Noumatrouff, an expansive, hanger-like space that is usually a rock club, complete with grungy washrooms and a beer tent. With a two-hour gap between early-and-late performances, audience members mix, mingle, chat, chow down on their own food or what’s available from a couple of vendors, and sample the local beer.

What follows is a selection of most of the festivals highlights, with mention of a few less-than-stellar performances.

Disappointedly in fact, Akchoté opened the festivities with a nearly listless solo set that skirted shoe-gazing pop jazz. The Swiss Lucien Dubois trio which preceded him, featured a break-dancing drummer, a bass guitarist warbling lachrymose ballads and was only notable for the leader’s reed prowess..

In the piano series, Belgium’s Fred Van Hove and Switzerland’s Irène Schweizer represent the first generation of Euro improvisers and France’s Frédéric Blondy and Sophie Agnel the contemporary ones. With his waves of long white hair Van Hover, 70, resembles a caricature of a 19th Century classical virtuoso and his playing seemed to reflect this. Concentrating on easy-flowing glissandi and heavy-handed echoing timbres he created a waterfall of upwards pitched timbres with dense centres that were then smoothed down into sharp individual notes. Without using the pedals he exposed low frequency percussive rhythms that literally made audience members jump, then concluded with a calmer theme variation.

Harder and faster in execution, Schweizer’s recital exposed a cyclone of sharp note-twisting vamps that slithered between very low and very high pitches with references to classical music appearing and vanishing in seconds, plus slapped keys and subterranean pitches reminiscent of Herbie Nichols. Schweizer’s heightened rhythmic sense came through even when she used mallets to poke at the piano’s innards. With a continuous ostinato, her solo was more jazz-like than Van Hove’s, quoting “Blue Monk” and what sounded like “Prelude to a Kiss”. Despite her 10-finger flourishes, she telescoped variations so that the piece’s head was recapped before the end.

After a vigorous late-night concert the day before with fellow Gallic improvisers cellist Martine Altenburger and saxophonist Bertrand Gauguet, Blondy spent the first part of his recital exploring the nooks and crannies of his piano. With a mallet, a small cymbal and other implements he yanked buzzes, squeaks, pings and whistles from the strings. On the keys, he sometimes sounded like a combination of David Tudor and Knuckles O’Toole; on one hand creating high-frequency glissandi and suspended tones, and on the other alluding to “Flight of the Bumblebee”. Mumbling to himself and pulling faces while he played, Blondy’s frenzied key slashes, flying fingers and full forearm smacks led to an encore where his body language seemed to suggest that by nearly smothering the keyboard he could impale himself onto the sharp notes created.

A day earlier Angel, who along with Akchoté and British saxophonist Evan Parker, spent the week guiding and rehearsing separate student ensembles, was calmer than Blondy. More stately and sombre in her presentation than the other three pianists, much of her improvising focused on bottoming ostinatos and ricocheting timbres, as well as voicings that involved the piano’s wood as well as its keys. Paper clips, hard rubber balls and other objects were adhered to the piano strings before she began. During the course of her performance she would pluck a key then immediately stop it with a tool; create a series of lyrical patterns on top of vibrating drones, or wet her fingers with her tongue and apply those fingers to the piano strings. Climatic passages used the pressure of both hands to create throbbing, buzzing notes which worked their way into additional furtive arpeggios.

Masterful saxophone stylists were as well represented as keyboardists. Notable sets included one from British soprano saxophonist Tom Chant – with two unheralded but masterful French Free Jazz practitioners: bassist Benjamin Duboc and sensitive percussionist Didier Lasserre – who could be termed the discovery of the festival for a North American; Swiss soprano saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, whose sparse adaptive unity with French pianist Jacques Demierre and long-time American expatriate in France bassist Barre Philips set a high standard for chamber improv; alto and soprano saxophonist Gauguet; and an utterly time-suspending set from Parker’s long-time British trio of drummer Paul Lytton and bassist Barry Guy augmented by Catalan pianist Augustí Fernández.

With Blondy in full Jerry Lee Lewis-like pounding form and Gauguet, a breath-machine using every variety of extended reed techniques plus altering his sound by pressing his bell against a pant leg or swaddling it in tin foil, it was Altenburger who provided lyrical, yet perfectly in-synch connective passages. More admirable than congenial, the overall impression the trio’s set left was that some levity would improve this impressive chops showcase.

Chant’s pant leg was also put to good use during a few of his bubbling, note-stretching solos as well. But his output of small gestures and concise tones plus the powerful thwacks and plucks of Duboc’s tuning-peg-to-spike and sensitive double-bow exhibitions were subtly overshadowed by Lasserre’s bravura percussion skills. Missing no necessary sonic despite using a miniature kit of one bass drum, one snare and one cymbal, Lasserre unveiled squeaks, pats and silences with his bare hands and a variety of mallets and sticks for a cross section of discordant yet complementary tones. Other praiseworthy percussionists were the expected – Lytton with Parker and long-time Free Jazzer German Paul Lovens in his two appearances – and the unexpected: Japan’s Makoto Sato, with his soft mallets and Butoh dancer cool. Unfortunately Sato was part of the Marteau Rouge trio, whose guitarist and synthesizer player’s droning jams and amp sludge were more appropriate for ProgRock freak-outs circa 1967 then a 2007 jazz festival.

Polyphonically connective, the Leimgruber/Demierre/Phillips set was probably the festival’s most unpremeditatedly visual. It featured the saxophonist slowly disassembling his tenor saxophone and methodically twisting and blowing through different parts; Phillips sawing on his bass’ shoulder with his bow and playing so passionately that the bow’s horsehair streamed; and Demierre’s jack-in-the-box leaps and elbow-on-the keys emphasis. Additionally, the pianist pumped out stubby contrapuntal lines and buzzy soundboard textures, perfect accompaniment for the saxophonist’s pseudo duck calls and animated circular breathing.

Climax of the festival was literally its finale, an intense, nearly 90-minute set by Parker, Guy, Lytton and Fernández. An exercise in controlled brutality, the surges of sound unified during three extended improvisations, which despite the breadth of technique on display found the four operating like a well-coordinated assembly line, with motifs and themes passed from one to another.

This was in sharp contrast to the Charles Gayle trio set that preceded it. Now exclusively playing alto saxophone, Gayle still overblows his characteristic squalls, squeaks and screams, alternately altissimo and with fog-horn-like echoes. But despite excursions to the piano where he seemed to delight in producing dissonant Monkish runs, and donning the slouch hat and clown’s red nose of his “Streets” character as he tried out Stride riffs, something was lacking. Perhaps it was because British drummer Mark Sanders was in the rhythm section along with Gayle’s regular bassist Gerald Benson. The disparity between the bassist’s low-key swipes and the drummer’s harder and thicker tones was obvious. Obviously uncomfortable Gayle’s attempted to solder this disconnect by animatedly barking out command and counting out “Giant Steps” with foot stomps before trading fours with the drummer.

Back to the Parker crew: whether it was the unseasonable heat in the auditorium, the late hour, or the privilege of watching master stylists at work, but most audience members stayed hushed – nearly mesmerized – during the proceeding. Aloof, Lytton busied himself displaying and manipulating various parts of his stripped-down kit; banging small hard objects on top of his cymbals when the mood struck; resonating woody tones other times, and massaging rhythmic surfaces with his palms and a variety of implements. Athletic and limber, Guy appears to have the ability to produce sounds from both the front and back of his bass, no matter where the strings are located. Not only did he slip, strike and slide along his strings, but he also shook the instrument itself, gathered its strings together for massive plucks and multiplied the available textures with two bows vibrating among the strings, plus thwacking on the string set with what appeared to be a drum stick.

Although Spanish, Fernández often applied body English to his arpeggios and chords and moved his arms crab-like across the keyboard. At one point he bounded from the piano bench to trap high-frequency tinkles at the top of the soundboard, then manually manipulated the string’ speaking length. At times he seems to be karate-chopping the keys into submission. This physicality was usually complemented by Guy smacking and tapping his strings at his bass’s southern portion beneath the bridge and Lytton creating a cluster of cymbal reverb.

Initially tongue-slapping and twittering long sweeping lines so that his soprano saxophone sounded like a piccolo, Parker filled his solos with circular breathing, verbalized honks and shouts. Always in control, his nearly endless streams of intense vibrated notes didn’t vary as he remained rooted on one spot while playing.

Other groups that made impressions earlier on, ranged from the gargantuan to the diminutive. In the first category was the 22-piece Lille (France)-based La Pieuvre band, the members of which were lead in a conduction by Oliver Benoit. The many-armed group, (“Octopus” in English) smeared and rappelled through accelerating crescendos, dark, dramatic pauses and a fog of buzzing and blowing. With blustering brass solos and a collective improvisation for its saxophone section, at time the Octopus seemed to suck all oxygen from the room.

Also notable were two duos: Kiff Kiff from Lyon, France and Germans Lehn/Lovens. Trombonist Alain Gibert and his son, bass clarinetist Clément, who are Kiff Kiff, played for the most part airy, “folkloric” tunes – sometimes with words – that brought to mind the original Jimmy Giuffre3. Nevertheless there was nothing effete about the improvisations, since when he wanted to, the older Gibert produced a roistering gutbucket tone, and the younger paid homage to Eric Dolphy in many of his solos. Still among five days of more-or-less “out” music, Kiff Kiff’s lightly rhythmic melodies probably sounded more Mainstream then they are.

No one could confuse the agitated improvising of drummer Paul Lovens and analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn with the Mainstream. A former pianist, Lehn uses his electronic instrument like a keyboard and lunges, swivels and sways as he plays. Divorced from too-clean electronic signals, his old-fashioned synth quacked like Donald Duck, expelled trumpet-like spetrofluctuation, buzzed, clinked and clanked.

Meantime Lovens – who the day before had a busier interaction with French bassist Joëlle Léandre and Anerican-born, German-resident vocalist Lauren Newton in a set that didn’t seem to gel – appeared more relaxed with Lehn and his playing more commanding. A photo of Lehn with his white shirt and narrow black tie, was prominently featured on the JAM program and posters and he wore this nearly traded-marked outfit each time he was on stage. With Lehn, whose input-output interface and triggered pulses were warm and humanistic, Lovens used a combination of single strokes and connective rhythms to cement moods..

The percussionist rubbed his snare top as Lehn plucked chords from his sythn, and hit his attached cymbals vertically and horizontally while sometimes spinning smaller, unattached others. A common trope was scraping a vertical drum stick on the ride cymbal creating a tone as constant as, but less irritating than, chalk on a blackboard. Textures from Lovens’ wood block were often exposed as were thumps from his bass drum. Overall, this unshowy exhibition of sensitive percussion styling was a festival trait he shared with Lytton, Lasserre and Sato.

A focus on music-making, not crowd pandering is what sets apart Jazz à Mulhouse from more commercial festivals Still, there was enough high quality audience-pleasing music to explain the respect it engenders.