Festival Report

Artacts ‘15
By Ken Waxman

Situated in the midst of Austria’s Tyrolean Alps where chair lifts are a 20 minute walk from the central square, every second store sells ski equipment and alpine-outfitted fanatics crowd the streets, the resort of St. Johann in Tirol welcomed an equally committed but different type of fanatic March 6-8. Celebrating its 15th anniversary the annual Artacts Festival presents improvised music at the Alte Gerberei cultural centre and elsewhere. Evening performances ranged from the focused minimalism of the opening Gutvik/Kjær/Strøm trio to drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s 11-piece Large Unit that closed the festival with confrontational brawn.

Daytime shows were equally innovative. In the central square, a shack used to sell mulled wine was repurposed into a “sound cab”, where seven-minute, literally in-your-face solo concerts for audiences of two persons took place each afternoon. Saturday afternoon the Bundesmusikkapelle in St. Johann’s baroque-style Pfarrkirche was given over to “Escapes,” an insistent microtonal performance that took full advantage of the edifice’s spatial reverberations. Performed by a uniformed local 40-piece brass band, “Escapes’ was composed by theatrical singer Maja Osojnik, who fronted the Viennese improv-rock Broken.Heart.Collector (BHC) quintet at the Alte Gerberei Sunday night. Besides Osojnik, BHC’s penetrating power was dependent on Susanna Gartmayer’s protracted bass clarinet and contra alto clarinet blats plus the slurred fingering and e-bow buzzing from guitarist Raumschiff Engelmayr and one-named electric bassist Derhunt. Austrian alto saxophonist Tanja Feichtmair, whose dynamic conflating of flowing and biting lines was stunningly offset by Fredi Pröll’s measured micro-percussion stretching plus cellist Uli Winter’s controlled taps and stops on a Saturday night set, led a children’s workshop the final afternoon; while American trombonist Steve Swell demonstrated the results of his three-day workshop with local participants Sunday evening. While the drone from four guitarists, electric bassist, three pianists and two drummers often outweighed the twp horns, Swell kept the riff-heavy piece balanced, reaching an effervescent variant of free jazz.

If Swell’s pedagogical skills were on show then, his canny improvisational talents were stretched to the limit during Friday’s superlative set in collaboration with German reed avatar Peter Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love. Sometimes the trombonist wielding his slide like a scythe attempting to sweep many staccato timbres from his trombone to meet the immutable natural forces issuing from Brötzmann’s horns distinctly vocalized with near-human cries. Meanwhile the drummer outlined a multi-metered backbeat with the urbanity missing from his more rock-oriented outings. Switching among taragato, tenor saxophone and clarinet, the reedist aptly demonstrated that his playing was as powerful as ever on the day of his 73rd birthday. While Brötzmann’s saxophone timbres often yawped in the zone that moved past music to pure sound as Nilssen-Love pounded jackhammer-like to keep up, surprisingly his meditative clarinet variations encompassed obtuse romanticism.

Another veteran, 80-year-old American bassist Barre Phillips, provided a similar out-of-character moment when in the final section of an extended translucent improv with his Swiss colleagues, pianist Jacques Demierre and saxophone Urs Leimgruber on Sunday, he suddenly introduced a slap rhythm that replicated standard time so that Leimgruber’s soprano was soon outputting jazz trills while Demierre’s comping became more nightclub than New music. Mostly though the three worked in an architecturally balanced area where extended pauses contributed as much to the approach as sounds heard. When a flawlessly executed timbre made its appearance – whether it was Demierre stroking piano strings or fisting the keyboard; the saxophonist blowing watery air through his horn(s) or spewing staccato bites; or Phillips bow-battering the bass wood on or swishing the bow through the air then scratching a note – you sensed the profound contemplation that went into every gesture. Friday, Norwegians, guitarist Ketil Gutvik and bassist Jon Rune Strøm, plus Danish saxophonist/flutist Julie Kjær provided an original adaptation of that concept. Gutvik more frequently rubbed the guitar’s neck or clanged banjo-like twangs from between its f-holes than worked his strings; Kjær’s narrow burrs and shrill cries deliberately alternated with silences; while Strøm’s muscular ostinato kept the proceedings cohesive and gripping. With the lead passing among them, by the finale a movingly intuitive performance was confirmed.

Ironically, the Vienna-based Radian trio which played directly afterwards, were the trio’s antithesis. Evoking rock-improv, the group’s short songs were shaped by John Norman’s unvarying electric bass line with guitarist Martin Siewert’s sparse string runs and Martin Brandlmayr’s drums and electronics adding shape and color. Although there was visceral appeal in the tunes’ gritty resonance, the combination of guitar drones that touched on reggae, surf and hard rock plus a relentless drum and bass backbeat made the selections more rote than jazz-like. One quintet with unquestionable jazz bona fides however was All Included featured Saturday. Consisting of Swedes, saxophonist Martin Küchen, trumpeter Niklas Barnö, and trombonist Mats Äleklint plus Norwegians, bassist Strøm and drummer Tollef Østvang, it epitomized eclecticism, while maintaining a firm grip on bedrock blues and tough-guy swing. With clean arrangements that evoked Scandinavians’ mastery of cool, jazz, the quintet still stomped and slurred with flexibility as walking bass and tapping drums backed peppy trumpeting and Küchen’s reed exuberance that suggested Gene Ammons’ R&B or Archie Shepp’s wooziness on tenor and a weird mixture of Klezmer and Ayler on alto. All Included’s outstanding soloist was Äleklint, whose tremolo pops and slurs almost duplicated a big band section and whose tailgate solos sputtered with classic jazz passion.

Äleklint made his presence felt each time he played, whether brandishing his slide every which way during an intimate sound cab recital or spurring the Large Unit by grunting loudly and widely as if he was a hippo in the midst of a colonoscopy. Still he was only one factor for the Large Unit’s triumphant festival conclusion. Roaring with a full head of steam, engendered by rhythmic directness from the leader and his mirror image, second percussionist Andreas Wildhagen, the unit includes many of Scandinavia’s top improvisers, with its galloping excitement given solo voice by Äleklint; blaring snorts from tubaist Børre Mølstad; the rhythmic crackle from Tommi Keranen’s turntable set up; and round-robin, high-pitched vamping from the other horns. But volume didn’t take the place of nuance, as evidenced by Nilssen-Love’s sandpaper drum rubs; space made for Gutvik finger-style sluices; and, at one point, an understated showcase matching pure air dribbling from Kjær’s saxophone and Thomas Johansson’s trumpet with droning static created by Keranen’s machines

Providing a forum for unique sounds played by younger experimenters such as those in the Large Unit as well as older innovators secure in their mastery like Phillip and Brötzmann is what makes Artacts such a stimulating annual event.

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2015