Festival Report:

“Might I Suggest”
By Ken Waxman

With characteristic British understatement, saxophonist Evan Parker’s curated “Might I Suggest” (MIS) festival celebrated its second birthday in late January uniting German and British improvisers at the second-floor Vortex club, located in London’s moderately gentrified Dalston district. Quality of the performances during the six evenings testified not only to the worth of Parker’s recommendations but also to their scope. With funding from the Goethe Institute, the performances ranged from Kurt Weill songs performed by vocalist Norma Winstone’s trio to the electronic processing utilized by bassist Adam Linson’s Systems Quartet; and from the intense expression of guitarist John Russell’s expanded British-German unit to the balanced arrangements Bavarian-born, London resident Hans Koller crafted for his Fun House Living (FHL) nonet.

Koller was a triple-threat. His quartet, filled out by Canadian saxophonist François Theberge, bassist Percy Pursglove and veteran drummer Jeff Williams ran through a series of standards and Koller originals one evening; with steady Oli Hayhurst on bass and flashy Gene Calderazzo on drums, he backed German avant pioneer saxophonist Gerd Dudek, 73, two night later; and during the second set of his first gig premiered the seven-horn FHL with Pursglove this time on trumpet and himself on valve trombone. Enlivened by expressive work from contemporary UK heavy-hitters like saxophonist Julian Siegel and French hornist Jim Rattigan, FHL specialized in slowly building, steady-tempo themes played with conscientiously stacked horn timbres, featuring sharp interjections from Siegel’s tenor or soprano sax plus stirring capillary momentum from Pursglove and fellow trumpeter Robbie Robson.

Besides Koller, the most active MIS participants were German: drummer Paul Lovens and bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall. Lovens’ unique percussion set encompassing miniature hand-held gongs, wood blocks, a Chinese-motif decorated, cunningly wired, snare plus a mini-pancake tom, was not only heard to its best advantage in pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s trio with Parker; but also created ingenious beats to frame the chromatic tonal experimentation of guitarist Russell’s below-the-bridge plucks alongside juddering growls from Ute Voelker’s accordion, the narrowed split tones of Stefan Keune’s soprano or alto saxophones, plus resonate sweeps and measured pizzicato from Phil Wachsmann’s violin. Together for four decades, the Schlippenbach three’s variant of classic Free Jazz is now almost a mode onto itself, with Lovens’ clip-clops, cross-handed rim shots and hand-slapped cymbals plus the pianist’s high frequency pulses, Monkish asides and dynamic cadences framing Parker’s magisterial split tones and herculean displays of circular breathing.

Mahall and percussionist Paul Lytton were the acoustic components of the Systems Quartet, which otherwise featured Axel Dörner sourcing microtones from his slide trumpet while processing sounds through his laptop; and Linson’s percussively thumping or atonally bowing his bass in addition to using real-time electronics to process multiple variants of each of the quartet members’ timbres. While Lytton’s unmatched cymbal sizzles and shell side scraps plus Mahall’s staccato reed bites were most obvious, Linson’s electronic work multiplied the number of textures in a restrained fashion, so it was never certain whether Dörner’s singular Theremin-like pitches were self-created or synthesized or whether the spacey crackles that suddenly emanated from Mahall’s horn were aided by Linson’s manipulations.

There was no doubt about the source of Mahall’s stand-out playing a couple of nights later, when his acoustic horn prowess and offbeat humor were put to good use in a duo with pianist Aki Takase. With fare encompassing Forties film ditties, Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”, Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica” and original from both players – including “Trumpet for Beginners”, a hesitant, huffing-and-puffing line the reedist composed as an affectionate dig at the style of Dörner, his long-time associate – the pianist’s characteristic mixture of pounding Fats Waller-emulating stride plus angular Monk-like digressions came in handy when meeting the reedist’s idiomatic command of the curved instrument.

Monk’s repertoire was also celebrated on MIS’s concluding night by the Dudek/Koller quartet, playing appropriately related themes by John Coltrane, Tadd Dameron and other 20th Century heavy hitters. By conviction a Trane devotee, the German saxophonist was most effective when the quartet tackled less familiar material like Herbie Nichols’ “Step Tempest” and Ornette Coleman’s “Congeniality”. On the former Dudek’s spherical lines and stentorian flutter-tonguing reconfirmed the melody while the pianist’s slurred fingering and chromatic note exposure created theme variants. On “Congeniality” Dudek subtly changed the tempo once the head was stated, while Hayhurst and Calderazzo maintained the original line. Further on, the saxman’s lower-case, altissimo slurs evolved in stark contrast to Koller’s decorative note clusters and novel voicing atop the bassist’s and drummer’s rhythmic pull.

Similar reconfigurations were the stock-in-trade of vocalist Winstone’s emotive second set one night previously, accompanied by pianist Nikki Iles and reedist Mark Lockheart. Concentrating on Weill’s American-period songs, except for the inevitable “Mack the Knife”, the singer brought an adult wistfulness to melodies like “September Song”, “My Ship”, and “The Bilbao Song” – in the middle of which she cleverly interpolated the street-smart verse of “The Alabama Song”. Her renditions were helped immeasurably by outstanding lyrics provided by, among others, Maxwell Anderson and Ira Gershwin.

Those glorious German-American musical collaborations could be heard as a precursor to similar first-class German-British teamwork presented at the Vortex that week.

—For New York City Jazz Record March 2012