October 16, 2018
Chilli Jazz Congress
September 28-30, 2018 Heiligenkreuz, Austria
By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
Contemporary dance/movement and vocal improvisations were featured as much as instrumental creativity during the three days and nights of this year’s Chilli Jazz Congress (CJC), which took in late September in the tiny, whistle-stop village of Heiligenkreuz, Austria, east of Graz, short distances from the Slovenian and Hungarian borders. The multi-geographical location was fitting for this annual display of unadulterated Free Music since the 30 performers who worked in diffuse configurations, represented experimentations from 14 different countries
Dedicated to the concept of “no bands”, each of CJC’s 12 sets consisted of ad-hoc ensembles organized by a single performer, who then participated as an equal within the resulting improvisation(s) that took place in the auditorium of the local Gasthof Pummer Rudolf. While the spectacular free-for-all which launched Sunday’s full day of concerts featured 22 performers, including two vocalists and five dancers, most sets were made up of four to five participants. Relying on aleatory circumstances can sometimes result in awkward moments and over-extended permissiveness, but it’s a tribute to the talent, skill and collaborative spirit of the attendees that so many sets turned out so well.
One of the most eventful took place Sunday afternoon with an ensemble organized by Italian trombonist Carlo Mascolo that featured American pocket trumpeter Herb Robertson, British soprano saxophonist Adrian Northover, Dane Jonathan Aardestrup and Briton Paul Rogers on double basses plus dancers Dana Schachtner from Berlin and Elena Waclawiczek from Vienna. With the dual double bassists providing the pulsating backdrop on which Northover’s peeps, Mascolo’s elongated blats and Robertson alternately open-horn expansions or derby-hatted mute tone proliferated, the dancers glided purposely among the musicians. Schachtner draped herself over one bull fiddle in a pose of acoustic acceptance or thrust her arms in-between Mascolo’s slide positions in perfect rhythm to his soloing. Meanwhile Waclawiczek paid homage to the sounds by moving robotically to the sequences, although sometimes covering her ears. The set ended with the dancers, facing one another to project mirror images of each other’s motions, then positioning themselves side-by-side to move like a synchronized swim duo.
Mascolo’s collection of brass add-ons and extensions added some visual as well as sonic appeal to the CJC’s very-first set on Friday evening in a group a led by Aardestrup on electric bass, and including Portuguese alto and soprano saxophonist Paulo Chagas, Polish guitarist Tomek Les, Canadian dancer/percussionist Raphael Roter and Italian vocalist Elisa Ulian. Although the trombonist was able to produce distinctive timbres from a long rubber tube attached to his horn, sometimes extended with a bell mute; doubled trombone tones through a megaphone; and made distinctive sounds through parts detached from his instrument, the result amplified rather than distracted from the atmospheric theme created by guitar string pops, reed trills and stops or mallet positioned slaps on the snare drum from Roter, who was seated cross-legged on the floor. Later on the Torontonian athletically twisted and contorted his body in terpsichorean response to the music in front of the other players. Connecting hiccupping vocalese from Ulian and Rock-like shakes from Les’ strings, Aardestrup used his electric bass sluicing to up the exposition’s speed and pitch, finally herding the others together to climax in a balladic finale.
Throughout the CJC’s three days of sounds and motion, constant refutation to the idea that all freely improvised music sounds the same was repeatedly offered. Some sets, such as one which featured Taiwanese erhu player Chiao-Hua Chang and British cellist Hanna Marshall were as well paced and understated as a chamber recital. Others, such as when Romanian vocalist Claudia Cervenca, Rogers and Northover worked with Austrian dancers Waclawiczek and Anna Adensamer, with the latter as designated leader, took on the aspects of a dance recital. On the first the stinging sing-song of Chang’s instrument subtly complemented the cello’s mellow echoes and served as an intense and almost vocalized counterpoint to French poet Alexandre Pierrepont’s recitation. In the other, despite multi-stopped, multi-string vibrations from Rogers using his self-designed double bass bow, bright fresh peeps from Northover’s soprano saxophone and Cervenca’s repeated use of spacey wails and nonsense syllables, the dancers, deliberately or not, dominated the stage. Contorting themselves into positions that entwined or stacked one atop the other, crawling and slithering along the floor, while challenging the sounds with open-mouth silent screams or eye-to-eye indifference, the musicians became their backing band.
Far better balanced visually and musically was the vocalizing of Cervenca on the final afternoon when she countered in a sardonic fashion one of the many comic Dada-like verbal monologues which amplify the sometimes startling instrumental antics of long-time American-in-Europe cellist Tristan Honsinger. Also featuring the interpretive dancing of Italian Christiana Fusillo plus instrumental fills from Chilean alto saxophonist Diego Manuschevich and British trombonist Hilary Jeffery, the saxophonist’s reed bites and the trombonist’s leisurely tone extensions provided proper counterpoint to Cervenca’s well-though-out, sometime sultry syllable warbling as Honsinger ran through a routine featuring vocal crackling impersonations and nonsense phrase recitation. Time considerations made this set one of the few that actually seemed truncated, with the majority of the players ready to continue after protracted silence appeared to signal the ending.
With Jeffrey as designated leader, the set on Friday night was one of the few that exposed yet another facet of Free Form music: the unstructured jam session, or what could be termed one in a Free Jazz context. Purely instrumental, the other spirited participants in the piece were trumpeters Robertson and Austrian Alex Kranabetter; Canadian/Slovakian alto saxophonist Bea Labikova; French bassist Yoram Rosilio; and German guitarist Erich Schachtner. The only improvisation to be divided into two distinct tunes, the first consisted of tremolo challenges from all concerned which blasted apart the collective outpouring and then fused it together again. With the trombonist sounding out the melody’s parameters, slap bass licks and thickened guitar-string thumping doubled or accompanied the horns as when Kranabetter soloed above shaking flanges from Schachtner. Duos and trios were set up during the course of the performance with Labikova’s peeps and slinky slurs crossing into the territory claimed by the trombonist’s elastic slides. The most obvious challenge came when Kranabetter, propelling a staccato collection of high notes clashed good naturedly with Robertson’s relaxed brass mastery that found the American sourcing tones from his horn’s detached mouthpiece. With the addition of Jeffrey, a unison crescendo from the three brass players led to conclusive mellow harmonies. The demarcation of parts was even more prominent on the second tune, with the trombonist pacing himself in a balladic mode and Robertson not only blasting textures at the top of his instrument’s range, but also scat singing through his horn as he played. The climax occurred as the guitarist and bassist connectively stroked their string sets up the scale to join the others.
Unstructured and unpremeditated free-form improvisation may not be to everyone’s taste. But each year the CJC proves that collecting a crew of top-flight experimenters who gleefully interact with one another can produce a program as notable as any made in locations one thousand times the size of Heiligenkreuz (population 1,500).