Festival Report:

Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon
By Ken Waxman

Metaphorically and literally the 2013 edition of the Ulrichsberger Kaldeidophon moved further afield than usual for a festival that has taken place annually at the Jazzatelier in this Austrian alpine village of 3,000 inhabitants near Linz. Not only were improvisers from the UK, US, Eastern and Western Europe represented, but for the first time, a concert for clavichord by Japan’s Makiko Nishikaze took place in a restored 14th Century church in Glöckelberg/Zvonkonva, about 10 kilometres away in the Czech Republic.

In essence the Japanese composer’s precious and delicate creations, sometimes extended with toy piano or bamboo pipe interludes, resembled both baroque and gagaku music. Yet they were like the cooling palate-cleansing sorbet offered between the entrées of a heavy multi-course meal. That nourishment was supplied in abundance May 3 to 5 by three intense free jazz ensembles, seasoned by artfully created solo and group creations and concluded on a high note with a trencherman’s desert of highly caloric jazz rock

Together for 25 years Sweden’s GUSH, consisting of Mats Gustafsson on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, pianist Sten Sandell and percussionist Raymond Strid knew exactly how to mesh tonally. Often rearing back to extract the proper stentorian tones, muting the saxophone bell against a trouser leg, or snorting from a splayed-leg athlete’s crouch, Gustafsson pushed out endless streams of pressurized glossolalia and hardened altissimo tones. At points his burly moose-like cries were intricately parried by Sendell’s resonating piano strings or tremolo keyboard runs extended by pedal work; that is when the pianist wasn’t involved in single-note narratives or key clipping. Somewhat distanced, Strid was the model of restraint, smilingly clicking his drums, emphasizing patterns by clanking a stack ever smaller attached cymbals or slapping a mallet against a miniature gong held in his teeth. Proof of the trio`s cohesion came during the final improvisation when Sandell`s pseudo-ragtime pulses, Gustafsson’s reverberating whines and Strid’s teasing pings reached a point of layered cohesion.

Another cohesive unit was Foxy, which melded the skills of pioneer (percussionist Barry Altschul), Baby Boomer (bassist Mark Helias) and Gen X (tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon) free jazzers. Roaring through a set of new compositions by the saxophonist the trio belied the generation gap with sophisticated contributions from each, underlying group dynamics while showcasing spectacular individualism. A ‘60s avatar, the drummer can press roll like Art Blakey as easily as he breaks up the time with balanced nerve beats and exotic sounding side slaps. A steady beat maker, Helias has particular bow command, wielding it for distinctive vibrations and slaps on “Elusive” which connect the saxman’s slurred tones and reed sucking. Exiting that tune with a vibrato so wide he could be playing the head of “Three Coins in a Fountain”, regularly inflates his vibrato to Aylerian properties, slathering his lines with slurps and splats or running thick R&B styled honks through his solo. “Quintessential Kitten” demonstrated this as Irabagon’s a capella bugle-like intro swelled to double tonguing yet turned perfectly in sync with the others as Altschul’s rolls and Helias’ pumps changed the tempo to a relaxed swing feel.

Bill Elgart, another American free-jazz drummer of Altschul’s vintage who has lived in Germany since the mid’70s, provided the foundation of the trio filled out by Berlin bassist Meinrad Kneer and Amsterdam multi-reedist Ab Baars More elegant and insinuating in his playing than Altschul, Elgart’s strategies involved timed smacks on his distinctive red plastic cowbells and frequent mallet pops on mini cymbals. Memorably he timed those pulses in tandem with Baars’ airy shakuhachi blowing and Kneer’s below-the-bridge acro strokes and shaking vibrations. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on his other horns, Baars mixed contralto clarinet squeezes alongside the bassist’s rubbery spiccato and the drummers bass drum bops; or thickly vibrated tough cadences and wide sprays of sound to toughen the rhythmic, but decidedly non-bluesy tone exchanges with the others.

Another percussionist resourceful percussionist is Gerry Hemingway, now a Swiss resident, who moved between vibraphone and drum kit for his duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, sometimes managing to stretch far enough from the metal bars to simultaneously stroke the cymbals. With an affiliation going back to the ‘80s, the two know one another so well that Hemingway’s primary role was as colorist, using techniques as common as ratamacues and rattles or as distinctive as humming onto drum tops or stroking vibe bars with a bow. With dynamic glissandi often crystallizing into romantic interludes that resembled “Prelude to a Kiss”, Crispell continually confirmed her facility in the atmospheric. But when it appeared that gentility was becoming paramount she let loose with carbide-hard, repeated note clusters or two-handed, high-intensity chording that involved the entire keyboard. Reaching a crescendo of exuberant percussiveness, the two proved that legato melodies and jagged accents can be mutually connective.

Reinforcing his keyboard mastery the day before was Russian-American Simon Nabatov who now lives in Köln. Tackling a solo program of Herbie Nichols compositions, the pianist was respectful of themes such as Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Third World” emphasizing the lyricism of the former and the staccato progressivism of the latter. No exercise in foot-tapping homogeneity however, Nabatov’s bouncy, pressurized renditions emphasized not only the serrated tightness of Nichols’ lines, but also the composer’s unbreakable links to early traditions such as stride. Taking this relationship one step further, his wholly improvised encore was as old-timey as it was modern, quoting “Dinah” and confirming the direct keyboard line from Earl Hines to Nichol and by inference To Nabatov.

Drawing on another tradition where jazz meets rock via blues licks and pummeling percussion was the concluding trio of Americans Elliot Sharp on electric guitar and curved soprano saxophone and electric bassist Melvin Gibbs plus Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli. Solid muscular and louder than any other concert, this however was intelligent fusion. With his foot-pedal dexterity, Gibbs was able to emphasize the versatility of his instrument, conflating surf runs and feedback into programmed loops that made the result more complicated rather than simplifying the improvisations. In a similar manner Sharp’s whammy bar dexterity and bottleneck whines confirmed the sounds’ links to minimalism and Delta blues; his single line flutter tonguing on saxophone brought in the jazz-improv basis. As for Niggli, his backbeat was chunky enough, but his bass drum kicks plus paradiddles plus shakes from a strong together pyramid of hand cymbals demonstrated his role as creative colorist.

This thematic mixture extended to the Austrian-Romanian-Polish-Czech band F.O.U.R. Alive with nervous energy the pleasure in its presentation lay in observing how Raimund Vogtenhuber’s juddering electronic processes could link up with Adam Stodolski’s slapped and scrapped basss lines and Petr Zelenka’s electric guitar fuzztones and rock-music-like warbles without sabotaging sound-singer Claudia Cervenca presentation. Encompassing guttural mumbles, operatic tones and aviary warbles, sometimes amplified with live sampling her often theatrical declarations were often as obtuse as they were musical. Profoundly European, the continuous exposure of evolving bands like this as well as established improvisers from the US and elsewhere demonstrates why this off-the-beaten-path festival is still going strong for 28 years.

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2013