Festival Report

Crak Festival Paris
By Ken Waxman

Completed in the mid-16th Century in the flamboyant gothic style, the mammoth and solid Eglise St-Merry characterizes the Beauborg area on the right bank of Paris as much as the nearby ornate 19th century Hôtel de Ville and the brutalist, high-tech architecture of 1977’s Centre Georges Pompidou. During the second annual Crak Festival September 26-29 however, St-Merry’s musty arches, pulpits and 30-foot-high ceilings served as an unexpected backdrop for sounds from the 20th and 21st centuries and beyond.

This year Crak, which is an onomatopoeic description of the continuous, evolutionary friction among musical genres, not only highlighted accomplished improvisers from the City of Light, but a cross section of players now in Berlin. Featured were two large ensembles, Berlin’s Splitter Orchestra and Paris’ L’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et d’Improvisations Musicales (ONCEIM) plus numerous smaller groups.

Two of the more stimulating bands were Pan-European trios which turned expected ensemble roles on their proverbial heads. They were Trio Inédit that matched French drummer Antonin Gerbal, Austrian bassist Werner Dafeldecker and German inside-piano specialist Andrea Neumann; plus Trio Sowari with French tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, German percussionist Burkhard Beins and British laptoppist Phil Durrant. Elusively accented, but hardly effete, Inédit’s on-going narratives put the drummer’s cuffed hi-hat and intermittent bass drum whaps upfront with the bassist’s individual string stretching and wood rubbing eschewing rhythm but providing coloration. Meanwhile Neuman’s bow-sawing on the edge of her instrument’s frame produced ostinatos which gave the performance its shape. Her solos subtly matched koto-like strums with exploration of single-string microtones. Contrarily, with rhythmic juddering from Durrant’s computer in the double bass role, Sowari hinted at jazz’s common sax-bass-drums groups, as Denzler’s side-of-mouth, balanced and meticulous delivery suggesting a new century Lester Young. However Beins’ cymbal scrubbing plus mallet smacks on horizontal floor tom and bass drums made no effort to swing on its own. So it was left to a percussionist and saxophonist collaboration to eventually turn the performance from menacing to melodic.

Another instance of interactive communication was Contest of Pleasures with German slide trumpeter Axel Dörner, French clarinetist Xavier Charles and British soprano and tenor saxophonist John Butcher. Having developed a strategy that depends on protracted pauses and intuitive three-pronged harmony, the results can be as upsetting as a sudden pistol shot or as calming as a lullaby. Overall, interaction trumped individuality even though at points each explored the furthest reach of his instrument. Similarly the rigorously self-created and applied experimental tuba timbres of the UK’s Robin Hayward brushed up against the strategies of Norwegian Morten J. Olsen on a horizontal bass drum during another set. With the percussionist constantly spinning his drum as he rapped on its top and sides with different sized mallets, the connection with Hayward’s blasts or breaths produced an effect that was as portentous as it was balanced.

Seventeen Berlin-based improvisers were present as were 23 Parisians on subsequent evenings to aptly demonstrate the opposing Gallic-Teutonic views of large ensemble improv. Interpreting a composition by guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage – whose bow-sawing and string pummeling solos were one of the highlights of a set with five other computer, electronic and noise-makers the final evening – the ONCEIM’s polyphonic group performance sounded completely notated. In truth each orchestra member interpreted written instructions that marked the duration and the clef within the person was to play. Mariage used hand signals to select the players in a final variation. Notable in its ability to sustain unhurried tension over a protracted period, the effect of the performance was almost agonizing, since except for a couple of quasi-lyrical motifs from the violinist, nothing else modified ONCEIM’s constant sonic pressure.

Arrayed so that they faced every which way on stage, the Splitter Ork’s performance also differed from ONCEIM’s traditional orchestral set up in other ways. It consisted of 30 minutes plus of free-form improvisation. With similar instruments paired and sub-divided into groups, the ensemble brought forward intimations of musical cultures ranging from rock and electronics to folkloric and free jazz, Splitter also had a wider dynamic range than its French counterpart. Here Hayward’s valve-twisting multiphonics shared space with unprecedented altissimo squeals from Chris Heenan’s contrabass clarinet; Dörner’s staccato slide trumpeting modified Liz Allbee’s pointillist tones on the standard trumpet; and quasi-lyrical linkages were propelled by the flute lines of Sabine Vogel and irregular sweeps from Anthea Caddy’s cello. As the performance reached a climax of intermingled timbres, it was further defined with a call-and-response section where Beins abrasive rubs on the drum top were paralleled by Olsen’s reverberating mallet pressure. Even electronic impulses were fully integrated into the piece. That meant that the resonances from Boris Baltschun’s computer, which were nearly inaudible in the sextet with Mariage; and the overt gestures of Berlin-based Mario De Vega, whose setting wire fires and snuffing them out with light-weight metal sheets was as visually arresting as the energetic antics of French noise-makers, circuitry and turntable parts-twister Arnaud Rivière in the same sextet; were fully integrated within Splitter.

Among the dour experimentation that characterized this second edition of Crak what was missing was a sense of humor. Luckily that was supplied in abundance on the final afternoon, with a tribute to the swing sextet of bassist John Kirby (1908-1952), which in its heyday featured trumpeter Charlie Shavers and alto saxophonist Russell Proscope. Running through a selection of the Kirby group’s repertoire, which included originals like “Jumpin’ at the Pump Room” and “Blues Petite”, warhorses like “Royal Garden Blues”: and swing versions of so-called classical themes like “Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” each brief tune was a gem of foot-tapping joy. With solos reduced to merry breaks, clear-toned trumpeter Louis Laurain and flutter-tongued alto saxophonist Benjamin Dousteyssier expressed themselves forthrightly, a change from their subdued dissonance in the ONCEIM.

As much of a contradiction this performance might imply compared to Crak’s other sets, the Kirby salute was really part and parcel of the same idea. Whether European and experimental or American and swinging the raison d’être of the festival is group expression rather than individual flashiness. Maintaining a mid-point between the two and lightening its entire tone will be the festival’s challenge in future editions.

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2013