Festival Report:

Météo Music Festival August 23 to August 27 2011
By Ken Waxman

Météo means weather in French, and one notable aspect of this year’s Météo Music Festival which takes place in Mulhouse, France, was the weather. It’s a testament to the high quality of the creative music there that audiences throughout the five days were without exception quiet and attentive despite temperatures in non air-conditioned concert spaces that hovered around the high 90sF. More dramatically, one afternoon a sudden freak thunderstorm created an unexpected crescendo to a hushed, spatial performance, by the Greek-Welsh Cranc trio of cellist Nikos Veliotis, harpist Rhodri Davies and violinist Angharad Davies, when winds violently blew ajar the immense wooden front door of Friche DMC, a former thread factory, causing glass to shatter and fall nosily.

Luckily other Météo highlights were strictly of the musical variety, some taking place in first-time festival venues. Two mammoth churches hosted improvised pipe organ concerts; a library presented brief children’s concerts; the city’s Belle Époque theatre showcased formal concerts by vocal-oriented trios; a soon-to-be demolished parking garage showcased a reunion of two British free music pioneers; and major documentaries about Germany’s tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and France’s baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro were screened at the Cinéma Le Palace.

Lazro performed in person one noon hour in the 12th Century Chapelle Saint-Jean. Here his unique reed projections which move from juddering altissimo cries to percussive tongue slaps and dark, echoing renal growls met the shrilling reed quivers and vocal retches, pants and cackles of French clarinetist/vocalist Isabelle Duthoit for a magnificent display of in-the-moment conceptualism. Besides this chapel, the other regular Météo site was the Noumatrouff. This funky space is mostly for rock shows, a role it seemed to revert to one night when Dutch punk-jazzers The Ex unrolled an enthusiastic set, featuring a vamping horn section. With chairs removed that one time to create a dance floor, enthusiastic fans swayed or pogoed, with the vibe contrasting markedly with the cerebral solemnity of other pure improv shows.

That’s seriousness, not humourlessness though. French bassist Joëlle Léandre for instance, in a premier meeting with cellist Vincent Courtois at the Noumatrouff, added episodes of near-vaudeville to the duo’s profound and classically-tinged improvising. While his timbres often resulted from stentorian plucks, strumming the instrument horizontally strumming like a blues guitarist, or creating spiccato pulses by rubbing two bows on the strings, Léandre’s inimitable improvising encompassed more the string sleight-of-hands. Sometimes miming as she loudly popped the strings or vocalizing both basso and bel canto as she played, Léandre rubbed her bow all over the bass, kicked it the odd time, kissed it in supplication, eventually lowering the bass and herself downwards as she played, ending the set with both she and the instrument lying on the stage.

If Léandre’s performance was the most theatrical, she wasn’t the only bassist to make an impact. Rappelling and leaping jack-in-the-box-like over his strings to prod florid double stops or striking them resolutely with a stick, Briton Barry Guy consolidated the approaches a trio with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and Spanish drummer Ramon Lopez evolved during its set at the Noumatrouff. Splattering rhythms from his cymbals, bongo and conga plus shaking wooden rattles, the drummer wasn’t overly assertive, but went his own way. So did the pianist, whose internal string plucks showed up as often as elbow and forearm keyboard rhythms or in a turnaround, romantic glissandi. The three were sequentially chamber music players performing a sonata, sound explorers or a hot jazz band trading fours

Muscularly buzzing rhythms, plucking above and below the bridge, British bassist John Edwards joined drummer Steve Noble and guitarist Alex Ward as N.E.W., an improv version of a rock power trio during Météo’s concluding concert. As Noble slapped mallets full force on his snares or broke-up the beat by vibrating Chinese cymbals and a gong on drum tops, Ward ripped out staccato slide-guitar flanges. What jazz-rock could have been if it hadn’t degenerated into 1970s formula, N.E.W. earned two tumultuous encores. Just as powerful in execution was French bassist David Chiesa’s methodical plucks in a chamber-music-like situation with violinist Mathieu Werchowski at Chapelle Saint-Jean. Chiesa not only plucked thickly to back the fliddler’s spacious spiccato angling, but displayed cunning pumps and stops himself.

Low-string double duty was the role of Sydney-resident-turned Berliner, Clayton Thomas, who elsewhere assayed a children’s concert. During different night at Noumatrouff, his pressured bow and object string-sawing and chunky plucks not only anchored the sound pictures invoked by the Berlin Sound Connective of alto saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit, turntablist Ignaz Schick and percussionist Burkhard Beins plus off-stage mixing by France’s Jérôme Noetinger; but also made tremolo pops as the solid centre of The Ames Room, an obdurate free-jazz ensemble with bass-drum pounding fellow Aussie, Will Guthrie and Parisian Jean-Luc Guionnet. Guionnet’s tension-laden alto saxophone multiphonics only vaguely related to the sputtering but distant timbre washes he showcased at an afternoon church pipe-organ performance.

Unlike Guionnet’s blaring reed expression, Ankersmit’s irregular vibratos were eclipsed by Beins’ Styrofoam rubs and cymbal thrusts and Schick platter scraping and radio-static mixes. Other saxophonists were more upfront. Like Lazro, except using a soprano, French saxophonist Michel Doneda distilled an ever-shifting collection of flat-line air, gruff vibratos, flattement and piercing multiphonics into a timbral foil to Japanese-American Tatsuya Nakatani’s peerless percussion moves that involved rattles, cymbal slams, gong reverberation, soft mallet smacks and using his lips and mouth on drum tops to produce ratcheting timbres.

Another rewarding sax exposition came from Paris altoist Christine Abdelnour in an afternoon duo with Berlin pianist Magda Mayas, following a sweaty climb of four sets of stairs leading to the top floor of the abandoned Garage Sax. As spatially oriented as Cranc’s concert, but warmer (musically) in execution, the two slapped and clattered a series of minimalist timbres into an undulating whole. As Abdelnour alternated between sounding juddering squeaks, trouser-leg-muted textures, horizontally blown, mouthpiece suckles and undulating split tones, Mayas industriously applied a mallet to the piano strings, snaked a fish line through them stopped keyboard vibrations manually and used friction for distinctive scrapped note clusters.

Mayas was proving her take on the sort of inventive prepared and standard piano lines John Tilbury pioneered. His performance with pioneering table-top guitarist Keith Rowe, following the Mayas-Abdelnour’s set was another instance of the prototypical sonic textures Rowe and Tilbury have weaved and together for more than four decades. With the pianist’s distinct leitmotif of knife-edge patterns, key stopping and tremolo chording melded with the guitarist’s measured, flat-key plucks, constant electronic drone and bursts of radio-tuned voices and static, Tilbury and Rowe made it appear that outside bird songs and church bell-tolling were an expected part of their mesmerizing, strategy. When the open-ended sounds faded away, everyone was convinced that the duo had rendered a matchless performance, although no one could detail just how it had been done.

Something similar could be said about the Météo Music Festival. Year after year artistic prescience and organizational smarts combine for a smooth-running and musically sophisticated sound feast with evolves seamlessly.

—For New York City Jazz Record October 2011