Festival Report

Festival Jazzdor Strasbourg
By Ken Waxman

A mercantile and European Union government centre, Strasbourg is a sophisticated French city with a large university, massive fortifications, picturesque canals and a renowned cathedral. Although La Marseillaise was composed and first sung in Strasbourg it’s also part of Alsace which was ceded to Germany from 1871-1918 and 1940-1944. Overcoming this historical enmity, for the past 11 years Festival Jazzdor has included a series of concerts in the nearby German city of Offenburg.

This year’s festival (November 8 to 22) was no different. One of its highlights was Günter Baby Sommer’s Bopp-Art Percussions in Offenburg’s Reithalle in Kulturforum. Featuring the veteran drummer’s quartet of saxophonist Frank-Paul Schubert, trombonist Gerhard Gschlößle and bassist Antonio Borghini, it matched their fiery blistering improvisations with a three-man Taiko ensemble plus Katharina Hilpert’s ethic and traditional flutes which bridged the two solitudes. Although the white blouses worn by the percussionists made them look like chefs, their massive drums and gongs resonations merely spiced the program with the Sommer four which provided the main meal. The several courses included traditional Saxon marches, slinky set pieces and experimental excursions where the horns injected gospel-like and Dixieland inflections emotions into frenetic line deconstruction. Prominent were tunes such as Like Don” and “Art Goes Japan”, which honored Sommer’s heroes Don Cherry and Art Blakey. The former featured a Schubert reimaging of a Cherry head, while the dynamism of the latter was maintained as the bearded, diminutive drummer put an individualist stamp on many of Blakey’s distinctive runs.

Earlier in the week in Strasbourg’s soft-seated Pôle Sud theatre, another drum master, American Hamid Drake, was featured in the company of Sardinians: accordionist/pianist Antonello Salis and Paolo Angeli, who plays an 18-string guitar, as Giornale di Bordo. With Drake’s dreadlocks, Salis’ headscarf and Angeli barefoot in a striped sailor’s jersey, the trio was one of the most colorful festival attractions as well as one of the most musically sophisticated. With Drake’s beats solidly setting the pace, the performance never lost its jazz core, while Angeli’s dexterity allowed him to suggest both string quartet harmonies and the spiccato friction that would result if all the members of a gypsy guitar band simultaneously probed their instruments’ outer limits. As for Salis, he manhandled the keyboard with fingers, forearms and palms producing slurred timbres that combined the speed of bop with the tension/release from experimental works. Meantime his squeeze-box technique was as physical and intense, frequently joining with Angeli’s strings to produce a sound that was nautically conventional and swinging jazz.

A traditionally constituted string quartet of violist Guillaume Roy, cellist Atsushi Sakaï and violinists Régis Huby and Théo Ceccaldi as Quartor IXI were showcased another afternoon in the auditorium of Musée Würth in the nearby Alsatian city of Erstein. Playing what could be termed free-baroque, the note-packed themes never lacked melody, with Sakaï providing continuum and the others’ staccato lines were often excessively pressurized but never out-of-control. Improvisational smarts were on display in the last quarter of the program, when a particularly vigorous foray by Ceccaldi broke both a string and a bridge, with the concert completed in trio form. Here the vamps with a little freer with Sakaï strumming his cello like a bass guitar as Huby and Roy splattered tones throughout that swayed succinctly while remaining complete.

Other instances of string sophistication took place a couple of afternoons earlier during two solo bass concerts. Local Fanny Lasfargues used divergent implements plus interactive live processing in a concert Médiathèque Olympe de Gouges’ auditorium that even fascinated the many children on hand. At the CEAAC, one of city’s multi-purpose art spaces, German-French NYC-based Pascal Niggenkemper played acoustically, using sticks, a toilet paper roll and aluminum plates, strategically placed among his string to create a panoply of altered and original textures while at points improvising using two bows with the bass resting horizontally. The CEAAC was also the site of many early evening performances by maturing ensembles, the best of which was an Orléans-based cello, saxophone and drums trio [!] called Marcel et Solange. The three impressed because they were unafraid to alternate medium-tempo pieces with pyrotechnical explorations featuring percussion pops and rubato string motions; but the reedist must mute a tendency towards cloying sweetness in his solos. With mallet pops and sharp slices Lasfargues often replicated the timbres of guitar, bass and percussion while intricately embedding the electronics within her improvisations. Mellower than Lasfargues, Niggenkemper’s delight in wood rubbing and quirky note placement didn’t disguise his commitment to the jazz-inflected percussive qualities of his instrument.

Eschewing chordal instruments except for the piano was a specially created quintet at Pôle Sud which united Donkey Monkey: keyboardist Eve Risser and percussionist Yuko Oshima and Journal Intime: trumpeter Sylvain Bardiau, trombonist Matthias Mahler and bass saxophonist Frédéric Gastard. With the time-keeping function appropriated by Gastard’s sax and deepened by plastic tubes placed within its bell, the rest could play around with conventions. With the horns drifting from intimations of crime show themes and brass fanfares and Oshima’s drumming mostly rudimentary punk-rock bashing, Risser’s pianism, ranging from romantic introspective to tremolo to Latinesque tremolos kept the program flowing. Exhilarating in execution, the feeling that the parts didn’t mesh remained after the concert.

Similar unease was exhibited in an Offenburg double bill that aimed for multi-culturalism along with improvisation. French clarinetist Louis Sclavis’ Atlas Trio, featuring guitarist Gilles Coronado and keyboardist Benjamin Moussay was joined by Iranian percussionist Keyvan Chemirani; while German pianist Joachim Kühn and Catalan drummer Ramon Lopez performed with Moroccan string player Majid Bekkas. Basically Sclavis who has perfect control of his horns appeared to be showcasing two parallel concepts at the same time. Chemirani thumping his set of varied, gourd-shaped instruments, a frame drum and cymbals created exotic Middle-Eastern scales that never seemed to jibe with the herky-jerky currents Moussay’s fender Rhodes and Coronado’s electric guitar impulses outputting. At points sounding like a Bitches Brew emulation with bass clarinet in the lead, the guitarist allegiance was obvious rock with the hint of “Louie, Louie” during one solo. Leonine, with a resemblance to Beethoven, Kuhn played like a Teutonic Oscar Peterson with great waterfalls of glissandi and chord extensions washing over the tunes, while to keep up, Lopez’s fluency hardened into percussion showiness, spectacularly banging as he played. Additionally a double bassist would have been a better choice than Bekkas here, since his primitive thumb pops sounded identical on each tune, while his singing was out-of-pace. Kuhn also played alto saxophone at intervals, confirming his sill as pianist.

A more accomplished saxophonist was tenorist Michael Alizon, given the unenviable task of playing John Coltrane licks during organist organist Bernard Struber’s suite-like adaption of A Love Supreme. Appropriately presented Sunday afternoon at the quay-side Église Saint-Jean, the performance included trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo and drummer Eric Echampard plus a 12-person vocal choir. Intermixing his own material and a Langston Hughes’ poem alongside Trane masterpiece, Struber’s suite-like take was audacious and stirring if a bit pedestrian. Despite some soaring theme variations from Alizon and Capozzo, the choir was too stiff to pick up the composition’s blues-gospel implications and stumbled over some English words. Plus Struber’s pumping organ playing was more Strasbourgeoise than Sanctified.

These musical snapshots were only part of the 33 concerts that made up this year’s Festival Jazzdor. Having the courage to present without guarantees daring experiments like Struber’s, Sommer’s and the Donkey Monkey-Journal Intime mash up demonstrate how and why the festival has endured and grown over 28 years.

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2014