January 7, 2017
By Ken Waxman
Appropriately the mid-point of Festival Jazzdor’s second week was November 11, when ceremonies honor soldiers who died during both world wars. Reflecting music’s universality though, Strasbourg’s Jazzdor presented several concerts in nearby Offenburg, Germany throughout the festival. This is despite the fact that Strasbourg, a French city of unique Alsatian meals and mixed French and German architecture, atmosphere and street signs, is in a region conquered by Germany from 1870-1917 and 1940-1944.
Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser’s playing was anything but neutral during his solo recital at the CEAAC arts centre, November 8. Propelling textures from lazy slurs to staccato slides and utilizing a series of mutes, note flurries were often segmented by silences. While his set encompassed roaming blues and the stark exercise of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza V”, he was most inventive deconstructing Duke Ellington “Mood Indigo” and “Creole Love Call”. Combining the melodic feeling of Ducal ‘bone players like Tricky Sam Nanton with the technical acumen of Albert Mangelsdorf, he saluted the tradition while propelling it forward with an original vision.
That description could also be applied to percussionist Hamid Drake, featured in two ensembles that evening at the auditorium of the Centre Socio-Culturel du Fossé des Treize. His duet with local percussionist Yuko Oshima produced faultless rhythms at moderate volumes despite each kit’s expansion with every variety of bells, gongs and small percussion. Prone to wordless chanting, as was Drake, Oshima’s skill was notable with smaller instruments. On the full kit she appeared stiff compared to Drake’s fluidity. Later Drake subtly thrust Parisians Sylvain Kassap, on clarinet, bass clarinet and melodica and bassist Benjamin Duboc into a swing groove. Unabashedly experimental, Duboc specialized in col legno punctuation or meditative string pops, while Kassap’s reed facility encompassed unbroken low-pitched glissandi or strident whistles, at one point splitting his clarinet in two and playing essentially different melodies on each. The set’s climax came when drum rolls, string body blows and a reed obbligato sutured into a polyphonic tapestry with every tone audible.
French-Turkish cellist Anil Eraslan and German pianist Julia Kadel tried for a mix of improvised and contemporary notated music the next evening at the CEAAC. But except for the livelier first and final tunes that diverged from formality to speed up to effervescence, too many of the others were precise and academic. Eraslan’s intense angled string-stopping and Kadel’s touch approximated recital precision not jazz freedom. The opposite situation marked the set by the Swiss trio of pianist Marc Perrenoud, bassist Marco Müller and drummer Cyril Regamay at the Centre Socio-Culturel that night. With heavy-handed drumming, a solid bassist and a pianist determined to convert each selection into a galloping foot-tapper, at junctures critical mass turned to overkill. Even as Regamay cemented the backbeat, the pianist stuffed so many notes into his solos that waltzes, blues and Latin numbers seemed to be stamped from the same assembly line. A concluding mash-up of “Autumn Leaves” and “Caravan” demonstrated that Perrenoud knows the tradition, but shouldn’t forget that refinement balances speed. Refinement was present later that night personified by Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier with Americans bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. This was discrete trio music where animation grew generically from interaction. Never rowdy, but always in time, the pianist often concentrated on the bass line as she shifted between a flowing intensity that echoed modern bluesy players like Ray Bryant or ranged over the keys with fingers, hands and elbows in a Cecil Taylor-like vein. A solid string-slapper, Gress provided the foundation on which Courvoisier floated, but was also stable enough so Wollesen could palm drum tops, clip-clop and shake rattlesnake-like textures from his kit.
November 10’s evening was a detour to the Salle du Cercle in the suburb of Bischheim for a cinema concert. Here the French trio of keyboardist Jérémie Ternoy, guitarist Ivann Cruz and drummer Peter Orins created an expressive background of alternating angularly atmospheric or intense melancholic sounds for a showing of F.W. Murnau’s 1924 silent classic The Last Laugh. As good as the performance was, it was literally overshadowed by the screen action.
Concerts on both sides of the border took place November 11, but the double bill featuring trombonist Nils Wogram at Offenburg’s KulturforumMoltkestraße bested a gig by tenor saxophonist Hugues Mayot’s quartet at the CEAAC. Aiming for the definitive funk-rock-jazz fusion Mayot’s quartet based its narratives on the guitar-like facility of electric bassist Joachim Florent, the fibrous, but often coarse drumming of Franck Vaillant and Mayot’s frenetic honks. Jozef Dumoulin’s keyboards and synthesizers were seriously underutilized. Except for the odd funk-organ-like riff, he was confined to atmospheric comping or silences. Highpoints came when the saxophonist uncorked multiphonic freak notes, but these few outbursts mostly subsided into too-mellow slurps. Confirming Jazzdor’s universal message, impulsive stylist Wogram was first paired with Serbian keyboardist Bojan Z then his Root 70 band with New Zealand alto saxophonist Hayden Chisholm, British bassist Neil Duncan and German drummer Jochen Rückert. Sparingly utilizing electric keyboards for back beats or glistening coloration, Bojan Z demonstrated his acoustic piano chops by suffusing Wogram’s hyperactive slide acrobatics with Slavic-tinged swing and elongated asides that mated classical techniques and easygoing asides. Still Wogram’s brass command which encompasses JJ Johnson-like dexterity, Ellington trombone section finesse and gutbucket emotion was so staggering that the keyboardist’s natural ebullience was downplayed. More balanced in the quartet, Chisholm and Wogram hinted at what Paul Desmond and Bob Brookmeyer would have sounded like with just bass and drums. Both cool and contrapuntal is execution, the quartet loped from beboppy blues to more complicated lines – one saluting George Russell – with the four sometimes functioning as two duos. Throughout the saxophonist proved conversant with Johnny Hodges style emotion as well as Desmond-like poised lyricism. Maintaining momentum on one memorable tune as the bassist and drummer cut the tempo in half behind his solo, the trombonist created extended textural deconstruction using shrill bagpipe-like tremolo as slyly as he hurtled in-and-out of vocalized tailgate ornamentation.
Three strong performances on the final day of this report suggest the best was saved for last. At the CEAAC, Swiss percussionist Julian Sartorius demonstrated how one player could stretch the technical requirements of a standard kit plus miscellaneous little instruments and a Shruti box for an enthralling show. Creating his rhythm from a single snare, Sartorius rubbed cymbals and metal balls onto the polymer for additional color, accented his hour-long improvisation with bass drum pumps and alternately created a droning ostinato or feathery marimba-like strokes from either side of the Shruti. Working up to almost transcendent intensity, he brought the set to a satisfactory end with single downwards drum stroke.
Taking inspiration from Anglo Celtic folk songs, the Bedmakers band of three French players – Robin Fincker on tenor saxophone and clarinet, violinist Mathieu Werchowski and drummer Fabien Duscombs – and German-French bassist Pascal Niggenkemper – turned centuries-old jigs, airs and ballads into modern improvisations. Traditionally played by bagpipes or fiddles the themes retained their earthy cadences but were reupholstered with reed slap-tonguing and slurps, the bassist slipping brass mutes and sticks among his strings for added resonance as they were slapped, and Werchowski slicing and plucking his strings in post-modern invention. By shrewdly linking the tunes to innovation, the Bedmakers confirmed the ballads’ adaptability as well as their timeliness. Plus the band produced the closest approximation to good time music at the festival.
An uncommon instrumental mix also linked to the melodic tradition was trumpeter Dave Douglas’ New Sanctuary band with guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Susie Ibarra that evening at Fossé des Treize. Evocatively stripped down, the combination of constant string picking, cascading, open-horn brass notes and focused drum beats that evoked the sounds of a simpler, better time, a sentiment articulated by Douglas, who noted that the presidential election had left “many Americans in a state of shock”, and thanked the audience for its “sympathy”. Playing what were practically études, the trio inventively explored various combinations and tempos. Functioning like interconnected parts of a single turning wheel, strategies involved Ibarra pealing bells and delicately shaking brushes to accompany sharp whistles from the trumpeter, or Douglas’ sour open horn tones meeting Ribot’s insistent flanges. Whinnying bugle-calls from the trumpeter were met by cuneiform string construction from the guitarist, while overt folksy strums from Ribot brought out long, loud rolls from the drummer. During the trio’s second encore, a skipping Reveille-like melody ended in bright swing, portraying future musical, if not political, harmony.
Festival Jazzdor 2016 took place November 4-November 18. This five-day report verified its commitment to outstanding improvised performances regardless of musical or geographical boundaries. And it confirmed why audience keep returning after 31 years.
—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2017