August 11, 2019
Météo Mulhouse Music Festival
August 27-31, 2019
By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O'Connor
Having reached its 37th year without compromising its goal of presenting mature improvisers alongside younger musicians with newer concepts, the Météo Music Festival maintained that tradition throughout this year’s festival in late August. Creating an atmosphere where 21-year-old local drumming phenom Gaspard Beck is as welcomed and treated with the same respect as British saxophonist Evan Parker, 74, one of the pioneers of Free Music, confirms this. High quality sounds of all sorts were presented throughout the Mulhouse, France festival’s five days, with French performers featured along with those from Scandinavia, Asia, central Europe, North America, and pre-Brexit United Kingdom.
One instance of Gallic ingenuity arrived on the fourth evening when bassist Joëlle Léandre previewed her newest creation. Working with a hand-picked tentet that melded trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo and trombonist Christine Bopp, percussionist Florian Satche, the reeds of Alexandra Grimal and Jean-Brice Godet, plus the strings of Silvia Tarozzi (violin); Séverine Morfin (viola); Deborah Walker (cello), guitarist Guillaume Aknine and Léandre herself, the piece began with expected vocal mumbles and cries from the composer and selected others, and concluded with Léandre’s verbal meditation on the letter “g”, linking the “grief” of her father’s death with the obscenity of “guerre” (war). With the music arranged to highlight each band component, the bowed strings evolved from passionate impressionism to jagged runs matched with speedy guitar power-chording, while tympani-like tolling from Satche punctuated a bright exposition by Cappozzo, slurping plunger work from Bopp, and alternating sweet and sour squirms and slurs from Grimal and Godet. Notated in parts and free-form in others, the composition skipped along with pinpointed flourishes, becoming most dramatic during intermezzos when Léandre revealed an array of string and bow techniques.
Another spectacular orchestral display occurred on the same stage of the Noumatrouff rock club the previous evening, during the set by Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love’s 14-piece Large Unit. Together long enough to expand its Free Jazz groove with currents of funk, ethnic sounds and conduction, all were highlighted. Standouts included the slippery judders of Norwegian Kalle Mober’s accordion and the coloring and rhythmic challenges presented by Brazilian percussionist Celio DeCarvalho. Segueing with Ellington-like ingenuity though different modes on the extended “More Funk Please”, the Unit possessed the demanded quality with metrical beats from DeCarvalho, Nilssen-Love and additional drummer Andreas Wildhagen, with Jon Rune Strøm’s thumping electric bass. Although funk manqué was paramount, that didn’t preclude moody flute interludes from Julie Kjær, lyricism from the accordionist, detours into string stings from guitarist Ketil Gutvik, and after climbing atop a stack of amplifiers at the front of the stage, the use of hand signals and signboards to indicate soloists during a conduction by Tommi Keranen, who otherwise sourced imaginative whooshes and crackles from his turntables and LP collection. While a crescendo of driven vamps was attained by the band operating as one vehicle on that tune’s build-up and release and during the group’s other highlight – a danceable slice of Ethiopian Jazz – breathing space was left for individual expression and sequences where the narrative soared as it reflected challenges among quartet or quintet subgroups, including one featuring saxophonist Klaus Holm.
The soul that should go with funk was offered up with great effect at the Noumatrouff on Météo’s second night when singer Elaine Mitchener and her London-based septet presented what was billed as vocal classics of the avant garde. Following a hand-clapping Arkestra-like entrance from various corners of the club, the group provided a literate as well as lilting demonstration of Black Art. Vocal showcases personified intensity with a high-energy performance featuring poet Dante Micheaux intoning hard truths from the Jim Crow era to today’s brutality, and Mitchener’s vocal command, which ranged from lyric soprano to kittenish warbling to scatting syllable deconstruction. Instrumentally the music moved through equivalent pressurized permutations with Jason Yarde’s live processing of his electrified alto saxophone sometimes as prominent as Neil Charles’s walking bass line, boppish inserts from trumpeter Byron Waller, and timed rolls and stops from drummer Mark Sanders. One memorable detour featured pianist Alexander Hawkins creating a stylistic showcase of Blues and R&B-like shadings.
The one large ensemble that promised more than it delivered was a septet led by Norwegian Kim Myhr, which wrapped up Thursday night’s Noumatrouff program. Consisting of two other guitarists besides Myhr, an electric bassist and three percussionists, there was nothing offensive about the rolling sound collage of ambient-improv produced by this inflated rhythm section. However, the loops and repeated riffs moved as a slow and solid mass, with little diversity except when Myhr’s picking rotated among his six-string, 12-string and electric guitars. Shimmering constriction and mild tension were constantly built up, but without release the result was a backing track rather than storytelling.
A better use of reductionist techniques came during a Friday noon concert at the city’s medieval Chapelle Saint-Jean with Mexico’s Angelica Castello’s melding of timbres from the Paetzold (bent bass recorder), tape cassettes and electronics with the double bass of France’s Félicie Bazelaire. When the bassist joined Castello on stage after theatrically propelling her instrument from the chapel’s entrance through the seated audience, the two subtly and discreetly expanded low pitches to encompass the structure’s spatial qualities, echoing timbres off its stone walls and gradually packing the space with sound. With pre-recorded voices as intermittent back-up and string-stripping sweeps from Bazelaire, the sonic tension was steadily and ultimately relaxed to floating stasis.
Another uniquely constituted group that made use of spatial properties, in this case a vast room in the Filature concert hall, was the trombone trio of Germans Matthias Müller and Matthias Muche and American Jeb Bishop, the last of whom had also contributed pungent plunger work during the Large Unit concert. Illuminated by a few spotlights situated in different parts of the darkened space, the three players expelled rumbles, sotto voce, growls and crying air currents as they moved around the room. Eventually all settled in one place where each horn was fitted with a variety of mutes to provide multiple capillary colors. Even before the climactic meeting, Bishop’s alphorn-like cries, Müller’s breath-motion and Muche’s solid blowing, frequently united in triple counterpoint. Sometimes suggesting an imaginary a capella trio of Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown and Juan Tizol, and despite how many stacked harmonies and multi-directional slide asides were heard in their thematic variations, a commitment to the Blues kept the trio away from dissonance for its own sake.
If Blues vied with unvarnished improvisation in many other performances, then the cheerful Bedmakers quartet which made up the second part of the show at Météo’s formal opening performance at Théâtre de la Sinne, was the welcome exception. More rustic in musical conception than the gilded décor of the soft-seated, Franco-Prussian War-built theatre, the four – tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Robin Fincker, violinist Mathieu Werchowski, bassist Dave Kane and drummer Fabien Duscombs – added improvisational smarts to a collection of speedy, foot-tapping airs that related in equal measure to old-timey Appalachian music and Northern Europe’s Anglo-Celtic roots. No more purist folksong re-creators than Mitchener’s septet was slavish in saluting the 1970s avant-garde, the quartet’s sophisticated, transgressive takes on the tradition owed as much to John Coltrane’s blowing as James Child’s ballads. Especially notable during the show were the fiddler’s col legno string hammering, and modal-inspired split tones from the saxophonist.
A less comfortable instance of genre-mixing preceded the Bedmakers at Théâtre de la Sinne with Evan Parker playing soprano saxophone; pianist Sylvie Courvoisier – who also gave a comprehensive if somewhat less than gripping solo concert at Chapelle Saint-Jean the next day – violinist Mark Feldman and electronics from Ikue Mori, worked out a program with flamenco dancer Israel Galvan. Galvan emphasized the percussive nature of his art with echoing heel stomps and scrapes on the wooden stage and an elevated platform as well as with the echoing concussion of percussive hand claps and hand-held castanets. Still, as he slipped and slid across the stage, musical showpieces from the others, including Feldman’s flying spiccato, Courvoisier’s keyboard patterning and inner-piano string manipulating, and Parker’s augmented vibrations or nasal whines, while often in sync with each other, appeared removed from the dancer’s efforts, despite some attempts on Galvan’s part to connect using mime and exaggerated body poses.
On the other hand and more sympatico, was a cross-generational musical meeting between young Belgian electric bassist Farida Amadou and veteran British percussionist Steve Noble at the Noumatrouff Thursday night. Strumming and smacking her instrument’s strings in both the upright and table-top positions, Amadou – who contributed rhythmic riffs to an ungainly Rock-Jazz mash-up with the Paris-based Qonicho C! trio two nights previously – was precise in her interaction with the drummer. Vitality was in abundance as her mobile hand slaps and taps comfortably reflected Noble’s refined strategy. Leaving the accelerating energy to the bassist, he slithered his lanky body over his kit, using hands, brushes, sticks and mallets to create distinctive rumbles and rebounds. With miniature cymbals, a woodblock and such items as marbles sliding along or resting on drum tops, timbral expression was more prominent than beat-making; an oversized tambourine was also shaken at points to good effect. Overall, cultivated rhythmic thrusts and connection with Amadou came from Noble’s studied drum taps and rolls.
Another duet which reflected the city’s manufacturing history as well as its artistic reputation was one of the multiple performances that took place on Météo’s final day within the Motoco arts space, a hulking brick building that has been repurposed from a former textile and thread factory. During that particular afternoon set, the clanks, clatters and rattles from a manual loom produced the percussive tension needed as Anaïs Rousset hand-operated warp and weft whose oscillations were then processed and replayed through the computer of Julien Boudart. Fascinating visually, the synthesis of wood against wood, and the slither of spindle shakes produced an auditory soundtrack of sped-up whistles and cranks, but it was somewhat difficult to distinguish musical inspiration from mechanical necessity.
More striking was the surround-sound recital created by Dutch synthesizer programmer Thomas Ankersmit that took place in the same Motoco space a few hours later. Ankersmit, who prefers playing live to recording, instructed audience members to cup, wriggle or block their ears as the program evolved to catch more of the processed intonation and to interpret this synthesis individually. A collection of buzzes, gongs, sizzles and bangs, the waves of sound could at times suggest that of a tropical rainforest, the landing of an alien craft from outer space or a baroque, ecclesiastical organ recital that built up to a near ear-splitting crescendo of murmurs and tonal criss-crossing from amplifiers situated on all sides of the space, culminating in a thunderclap-like finale.
Analogously, French trumpeter Timothée Quost introduced unexpected sounds by linking ultra-sensitive microphones, speakers and a mini mixing board to his instrument in a solo recital earlier in the day at Motoco. Although he and synthesizer player Boudart had been part of a quartet who created an in-the-dark performance at the Filature the previous afternoon, that textural experiment came across as self-indulgent trance music compared to what Quost produced on his own. Manipulating his valves, angling his bell and mixing in pre-recorded found sounds, at junctures he emphasized various parts of his instrument, altered sound loops from buzzes to blares, and stopped, started or alternated gurgling breaths with harsh strokes on the trumpet’s metallic finish. Allowing for silences in between emphasized wails that encompassed tongue patterning, circling feedback and uninterrupted, valve-less blowing, the piece stretched on until screeching pitches abruptly disappeared.
Piano movement with skill and technique equivalent to Quost’s were part of Alexander Hawkins’ solo recital at Chapelle Saint-Jean on the festival’s third day. More concerned with squirming cadences than he had been the night before with the Mitchener septet, the pianist tinkled patterns in higher pitches and added streams of bubbling swing to his melodic development. As his dynamic patterns rang from the soundboard and expressed raucous tremolo runs on the keys, Hawkins never lost sight of melody. Building up to splattering slides and pressured glissandi, his quickest turn of phrase was still polished enough to confirm that emotion existed alongside dynamic heft.
While Hawkins and other young veterans expressed their skills during Météo showcases, local drummer Gaspard Beck is and was an integral part of the festival’s promise and future. As one who has participated in the festival’s musical workshops for at least a decade, he and fellow conservatory graduate – alto and baritone saxophonist Laure Fischer – were featured at the festival’s informal opening concert at the city’s tourism office on Météo’s first day. Demonstrating an unexpected maturity in his rolls, ruffs and rebounds, the barefoot drummer operated as a full partner to Fischer, who was also unshod. Neither an accompanist nor someone who tried to undermine her riffing resonations on either saxophone, Beck maintained a swing groove as the two played. Eventually when Fischer’s improvisations became more strident and strained on the concluding piece, his drum thumps and cymbal clatters kept pace until the two reached a buzzing rapprochement.
With many more middling to memorable performances on offer during Météo’s five days in various city locations, any one of its 27 concerts could define the past, present and – in Beck’s case – the future of improvised music. Those situations are how the festival continues to live up to its musical promise, and judging by this year, will do so in the years to come.