Festival Report

Ring Ring
By Ken Waxman

Try to imagine any North American TV network telecasting a performance by Charles Gayle that’s simultaneously broadcast on radio and via live streaming. Impossible, right? But that’s exactly what took place mid-way through the annual Ring Ring Festival in Belgrade Serbia. Facing an enthusiastic studio audience, Gayle on piano and tenor saxophone plus Polish bassist Ksawery Wojcinski’s subtle string bending and German drummer Klaus Kugel’s aggressive, but un-antagonistic beats played for one hour. This unique programming characterizes Ring Ring (May 19-25) in colorful Belgrade, a city poised between East and West which has been subject to periodic sieges and bombardments since the 14th Century including NATO’s in 1999. Slightly constrained by the studio, Gayle’s tenor saxophone playing was less ferocious than in the past although still characterized by wide vibrato and molten intensity, which was put to good use on a run through of “Ghosts” and during duets with the bassist’s choppy thrusts. A unique pianist, Gayle favored the instrument’s dark register with boogie-woogie allusions, supplemented by his own voicing, which re-harmonized standards like “I’ll Remember You” and “What’s New”, dissected them, eventually revealing the melody, like an X-ray of the skeleton beneath the skin.

If Gayle, 73, appeared mellower than in the past, then Japanese reedist Akira Sakata, 68, linked with Norwegian polymath drummer Paal Nilssen Love and Swedish bassist Johan Berthling as the Arashi trio, crafted such electrifying sounds that the dynamic output could have powered the city’s extensive tram and trolley fleet for a year. At the DOB, a modernists youth club turned performance venue, Sakata growled vocal basso tones directly into the mike to boost the communicative properties of the equally harsh and quivering tones from his alto saxophone and clarinet. Plus, during those instances when Sakata turned this harsh-sweetness to communicative flutter-tonguing, he also sounded finger-cymbals and shook small bells, joining Nilssen Love’s gong smacking to add pseudo-Oriental buoyancy to the program, leaving the rhythmic thrust to Berthling’s skewed slap-bass lines.

It wasn’t just non-Europeans who enthralled though. The Hungarian Grencsó Kollektiv and the Slovenian Trojnik trio each displayed high-quality eastern European free music during concerts at the Kulturni Centar Rex, where most festival performances took place. Built in 1923 as a Jewish community centre and repurposed in the ‘90s after long abandonment, the barebones environment suggested both a funky arts space and a high school gym. Lead by veteran tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist István Grencsó, with pianist Máté Pozsár, bassist Róbert Benkő and drummer Szilveszter Miklós, the Kollektiv’s exciting take on free jazz involved the reedist swallowing whole dissonant note and tones ejaculating them with altissimo shrieks, while often harmonizing with the swirling inventions from Pozsár’s keyboard. Joined later by Serbian violist Szilárd Mezei to play compositions by the Hungarian free music pioneer György Szabados, the ensemble moved onto an even higher plane. Coupling Mezei’s tremolo bow slashes with the saxophonist’s clearly defined timbre-shredding the result was blazing, jumping free sounds as stimulating as anything in the jazz canon, but un-mistakenly Magyar. In contrast, Trojnik’s tenor saxophonist Cene Resnik, bassist Tomaž Grom and percussionist Vid Drašler took their clues from non-hierarchical British improvising. As reserved in performance as the Kollektiv was rambunctious, the trio sound depended as much on resonations from Grom’s paper-clip-prepared strings plus stick pressure on cymbals rotating atop tom and snare drums as the saxophonist’s minutely timed blowing. Playing directly before this trio, French alto saxophonist Audrey Lauro and Austrian violinist Mia Zabelka intricately expressed extrasensory dual confluence. Switching effortlessly from free-jazz-oriented, full-bore reed vibratos and chain saw-like powered string sweeps into intricately paced dual bow movements and flat-line microtonal reed slurps, the duo saluted two traditions simultaneously.

Creating reductionist minimalism with two musicians is challenging enough, but Switzerland’s Insub Meta Orchestra achieved an equivalent effect with 22 players. Despite four percussionists, three electric bassists and five variations of electronic players, emphasis was on extended silences and discriminating abbreviated tones, with highlights in soft mallets hitting pewter bowls, a single soprano saxophone smear, two violinists roughly scraping strings or intermittent oscillated machine pressure. Suspended between anticipation and release, the effect hinted at ancillary textures buried within the audible tones. A more formal, application of this scenario involved Catalan pianist Augustí Fernández plus British electronics manipulator Richard Barret collaborating with three members of the Belgrade-based new music ensemble, Ansambl Studio 6: trumpeter Nenad Markovic, cellist Ivana Grahovac and harpist Milana Zarič. Beginning with a Fernández solo advanced from the rubs, plucks and pops sourced from piano innards prepared with wood blocks and other implements, keyboard flourishes led to a finale that was impressionistic plus dirge-like. Joined by the others, Barret’s signal processing provided a persistent barely-there drone plus occasional organ-like judders as the remaining four constructed a dense collection of spectacular extended techniques, which once fused swiftly retreated like waves hitting the shore. Following the pianist’s lead, Grahovac and Zarič separated their string sets with implements that emphasizing percussive and discordant responses. Showier, Markovic disassembled his instrument, stroked the valves with blunt objects, bubbled his mouthpiece into a water-filled glass, and even replicated a rhino-like burp.

Throughout Ring Ring’s seven-day program, other forms of improvised music were explored, including performances whose genesis was in rock or pure electronics. Most notable among the latter were Polish analog electronics manipulator Mirt and Norwegian vocalist/musician Maja S.K.Ratkje, who performed at the Rex. Creating low-key, lo-fi improvisations based on a decelerated and deconstructed variation of Arne Nordheim’s “Solitaire”, Mirt sampled and processed the piece into a series of clangs, echoes and cuckoo-clock-like resonations. Working on a darkened stage, these wriggling timbres enthralled. Brightly lighted in contrast, Ratkje’s performance used excerpts from the electronic compositions of Eugeniusz Rudnik that mixed lively snatches of blasting noise plus human voices with her own in-the-moment bell-ringing, small instrument sounding and Nordic warbling to create an original statement. When it came to near-rock, Amsterdam’s The Ex energized the DOB with its proto-punk mixture, with Terrie Ex and Andy Moor pogoing while grinding out guitar solos and shouting anarchistic-oriented, but mostly incomprehensive, lyrics. Ken Vandermark got into the spirit, blasting out Stax-ready baritone sax lines, while trumpeter Nate Wooley not only joined in the horn riffing, but turned an instance of the close-miked tremolo patterning he uses in more experimental circumstances, into the introduction of an all-out rocker.

Presenting a variant of something for everyone without pandering, is why this festival in this storied city of jumbled modernist, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Balkan architecture and people, has managed to flourish over the past two decades.

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2015