Festival Météo, Mulhouse, France

August 24 to August 28
By Ken Waxman

Proving that varieties of improvised music can sound as different as the personalities of those who play it, the annual Météo festival offered a cornucopia of noteworthy sounds from the bombastic to the barely audible, solo or in groups.

Venues in this Upper Rhine French city, located 30 kilometres northwest of Basel, Switzerland, also reflected this sonic diversity. Performances take place in the hushed surroundings of a 12th Century chapel downtown, and on the city’s outskirts, a capacious night club usually used for rock shows; and, new this year, within the expanses of an abandoned 1930s’ thread manufacturing factory.

The factory, Friche D.M.C., proved an ideal space to appreciate veteran trombonist Radu Malfatti. Accompanied by the sound wave produced by fellow Austrian Klaus Filip, Malfatti’s technique consisted of barely-there gurgles, split-second soft tones, soundless slide motions and blows across the mouthpiece – all of which were separated by lengthy silences. Contrast this with the solo tour-de-force of Swiss tenor saxophonist Antoine Chessex in the Chapelle St. Jean, which took full advantage of the building’s spatial conditions. Entering the room in the process of vibrating a high-pitched tone, he seemingly never removed the reed fom his mouth during the next half hour. His key percussion, altissimo runs and granular pulses combined to reveal multiphonics, drones with vibrating overtones. This non-stop polyphony not only refracted his ideas outwards, but as he constantly moved on stage and off, the permeative substance of the ancient walls lined with sculpted statues reflected back onto his improvisations.

A variant of this strategy was expressed at the D.M.C. by Dutch alto saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit as part of his duo with the split-screen cinematic images and electronic pulsations created by American Phil Niblock. At first, pacing back and forth while reverberating long, concentrated tones, the pressurized trills were soon not only intensified by the exposure of partials and overtones, but swelled to take on pipe organ-like qualities as Ankersmit sampled, processed, then synthesized loops of his original solo as he continued playing live. Joined by computerized drones from Niblock’s software the result was akin to surround sound stereo seeping from every part of the industrial structure. These protracted, relentless surges perfectly complemented the images of repetitive and nearly interchangeable oceanic tasks, filmed in China and Brazil.

More animated even than Niblock’s images was The Thing XXL, which boisterously dominated the Noumatrouff stage, which hosts many rock acts. If Heavy Metal Improv exists than it’s exemplified by The Thing’s core: reed-biting, note-slurring Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson; Norwegian Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten, who thump the bass and finger-pop its electric cousin with finesse; and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, with his hard-hitting backbeat. Added were Swedish trombonist Mats Äleklint, Dutch guitarist Terrie Ex and Americans, trumpeter Peter Evans and Jim Baker on piano and synthesizer.

Energetic Ex’s rough, whiny, bottleneck tones, extended by biting the guitar strings for added distortion or percussively dragging its head on the ground pushed the combo towards rock, an impression intensified when the horns combine for R&B-like vamps, Baker made like Jerry Lee Lewis and the drummer expressed himself in rolls, pops and rebounds. But while the strains of “Iron Man” peeked from among the many riffs, it also appeared as if Evans used “In the Mood” to signal tempo changes; The trumpeter’s slurring and soaring tone exchanges with the saxophonist were exhilarating – and jazzy; and Aleklint’s triple-tongued tremolo was as sophisticated as it was affecting. Although Gustafsson came across as a bar-walking Big Jay McNeeley sometimes, at other junctions he muted his sax bell against his pants leg for unusual, timbres or trilled a touching interlude on his invented fluteophone.

Of course if pure noise was literally a raison d’être, BTR’s Noumatrouff midnight orgy of aural destruction provided a reason to live. Experienced British percussionist Roger Turner, plus the crème of French sound provocateurs, turntablist Alexandre Bellenger and electronics manipulator Arnaud Rivière rumbled, squeaked, flipped, scrapped and buzzed everything in sight. Bellenger for instance, more frequently smacked the record players’ tone arms, amplified the turntable rumble to do-whistle intensity or beat on LPs with sticks than used the machine to play music. Then if vinyl wasn’t being scratched, the sounds from it were being played at warp speed, repeated endlessly for effect, sped up to warp speed or hand-propelled backwards. Meanwhile Rivière sawed or smacked whatever he got his hands on, with oversized circular blanks and other implements ricocheting to the ground as often as he played them. Meantime the unperturbed Turner soldiered on, using mallets, sticks and what appeared to be large red chopsticks to pummel his snares and toms for clip-clops, paradiddles and ruffs, pausing every so often to rub his drum heads with a small cloth or smack hand cymbals together.

Lacking a drummer, but able to summon the same rhythm, while bringing an original take to improvisations was Beirut-based Trio A. Consisting of bassist Raed Yassin, trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj and guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui – the later two also gave inventive solo concerts at Chapelle St. Jean – the textures evolved from Yassin’s bull fiddle foundation produced was mostly resting the instrument on its side and striking the strings with the bow or rubbing the wood at its belly and waist. Sehnaoui smacked his strings with a tuning fork or miniature balls with the guitar in table top position, or right-side up twanged taut claw-hammer licks or restricted himself to precision licks on its neck or on the strings below the hole. Capable of crying tremolo buzzes with plenty of tongue, Kerbaj also produced a malleable more reed-line tone as he deconstyructed his instrument. Besides blowing through individual parts, a balloon inserted between the mouthpiece and the horn’s body helped create unique multiphonic or staccato slurs, ranging from basso burps to altissimo airs. As trumpet grace notes turned to whistles and screams while the string players whapped the wood of their instruments the overall textures owed more to musique concrète than any Lebanese melodies. The finale was signaled by an unaltered trumpet blast.

Trumpet textures from staccato to soothing, plus contrasting percussion strategies, NUTS’ Noumatrouff concert supplied a positive Météo send off, as well as more examples of improvised music’s endlessly appropriate variety. Trumpeters Itaru Oki from Japan and American Rasul Siddik from are along-time combatants in the free jazz trenches, while Japanese drummer Makoto Sato and his French counterpart Didier Lasserre were a study in contrasts by themselves. Riding herd on this creativity was French bassist Benjamin Duboc. Preserving the steady chromatic nature of the interaction with thick arco strokes or using both hands to pluck, bow and vibrate a stiock placed horizxontally within the bass strings, Duboc gave plenty of space to the others. Upfront, wearing shades and a fedora, Siddik shook fragmented Don Ayler-like licks from his horn when he wasn’t banging a tiny gong with a mallet, ratcheting a selection of wooden implements or shaking maracas. Equally resplendent in slouch cap and silvery outfit, Oki blew liquid staccato timbres from his upturned horn, occasionally unfurling a rubber hose or blowing simultaneously on two wooden flutes to realign the wriggling contrapuntal output of the brass. Never trading fours, but always cognizant of each other’s movements, Sato and Laserre knit a rhythmic carpet. Using a standard kit, with more mallet work than per usual, Sato provided the beat. Limited to hi-hat, one snare and a bass drum, the percussionist broke up the time by scraping chains, a tambourine and a detached snare on his snare skin, as well as sawing on a cymbal in tandem with Ito’s flute flight. Besides this his rolls and drags were enough to project the rhythmic necessities.

Other performers, including those whose allegiance to too-heavy rock beats or overpowering electronic pulses as well as cerebral sound experiments also played, but no matter in what formation or surroundings, each to a greater or lesser extent confirmed Météo’s commitment to sonic diversity.

—For All About Jazz New York October 2010