Urs Leimgruber (soprano saxophone) and Barre Phillips (bass)

Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon 2019
April 26-28, 2019
Ulrichsberg, Austria

By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor

Does isolation lead to inspiration and innovation? That conclusion was answered affirmatively during the 34th edition of the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon, held in late April in an Austrian hamlet of fewer than 3,000, about 60 kilometers north of Linz. The most arresting performances mixed wedges of Jazz, pure Improv, Avant-Rock, electronics, notated and so-called ethnic sounds.

Case in point was a set Saturday night featuring local alto saxophonist Tanja Feichtmair and Linz-born pianist Dieter Glawischnig, who connected despite an almost 40-year age difference. The pianist, whose long career encompassed directing mainstream bands, was able to bend his flowing keyboard flourishes into the saxophonist’s astringent peeps and snorts. As she croaked, tongue popped, and jerked out freak notes and reed bites, his ripostes took the form of boogie-woogie inferences, high-romantic deliberations and even a snatch of “A Love Supreme”. Still, Feichtmair’s reed explorations also touched on the tonal, sometimes harmonizing with his sparkling expositions to give them extra weight. She also opened up the tune with wide flutter tonguing during the first encore as Glawischnig performed his familiar theme song rife with processional tones and Wagnerian thunder which sounded as if it should be the Austrian national anthem even if it isn’t.

Vincent Royer (viola), Peter Jacquemyn (bass) and Gunda Gottschalk (violin)

An analogous duo, but this time taking inspiration from written as well as improvised music, was Briton-in-the-Netherlands bass clarinetist Gareth Davis and American cellist Frances-Marie Uitti who played just before Feichtmair-Glawischnig. Expert in extended techniques, Uitti casts aside the four-string instrument’s association with romantic sounds, with vigorous arco thrusts often aimed at the bridge, or upwards towards the scroll and used spiccato bow hammering throughout. Additionally she frequently intertwined two bows among the strings to uncoil opposing tremolos from different strings. For his part, Davis countered these textures with circular overblowing, eloquent long tones and exaggerated tongue stops, creating both basso and altissimo timbres. Eccentric, yet also exquisite, the sequences created by the two usually dovetailed into connective harmonies in the same key.

Quatuor Brac was another ensemble from a similar notated/improvised background that turned the perception of a conventional string quartet 180 degrees. On Sunday night the quartet, featuring Italian violinist Tiziana Bertoncini, and three French players: violist Vincent Royer, cellist Soizic Lebrat and bassist Benoît Cancoin held on to some of the limpid tonality that characterized quartets of this sort, but mostly concerned itself with microtonal bow jabs and timbral deconstruction as it moved through its program. With a continuum made up of the double bassist’s plucks and the cellist’s string ricocheting, melodic disruptions and deconstruction arrived from the violist and violinist. Royer’s whistling string stops also included high-culture variants of scat singing, which he expressed via whines, yodels and gargles, even though the true rhythmic impetus was expressed by Cancoin.

Tanja Feichtmair (alto saxophone), Gareth Davis (bass clarinetist) and Frances-Marie Uitti (cello)

For her part, Bertoncini matched brief bow jabs and Lebrat’s spiccato pacing with the violin’s output gradually becoming more atonal and sharper toned as she played. Also, as a way to dissolve comfortable textures, Bertoncini constantly attacked her strings with the frog and the tip of the bow, reserving stick pressure for sweetly soaring narratives. Set climax was a shift to sul tasto textures from all, which dissolved as long pauses gave a chance to savor each player’s sonic deviation.

Also on Saturday evening a string-oriented group improvised in another notable fashion but from a particular World Music-linked concept. This ethnic tinge results from the use of ghuzeng or multi-string Chinese zither, and sanxian, a four-string Chinese relative of the banjo, by Shanghai-raised Xu Feng Xia. At the same time Belgian bassist Peter Jacquemyn and German violinist Gunda Gottschalk didn’t play their instruments in a conventional, so-called Western manner. Beginning with bellicose strokes and chesty verbal murmuring from the bassist, and sparkling spicatto thrusts from the violinist, the program built up to a speedy multiphonic hoedown, with passing chords and rebounds from Xia’s strings. As Jacquemyn’s exposition became more dissonant and divergent, Gottschalk tried out formalist tropes, while Xia upset European conventions by warbling in an approximation of Chinese opera arias, as the other two vocally accompanied her.

When Xia switched to the sanxian and her vocalizing became louder and more frenetic, the climactic result could be termed an Asian-Jazz psychedelic freak out featuring Pete Seeger-like banjo chugging. At the same time, Jacquemyn alternated between probing the farthest regions of his bass with two bows angled in contrasting directions or sliding wrapping paper among the strings, creating screeching tones as a percussive ostinato, amplified with string pumps and wood slaps. Meanwhile Gottschalk specialized in dissonant fiddle splatters via flying spiccato and sul ponticello runs until Xia returned to the ghuzeng for hand-pounding sweeps backing diva-like vocalized screams until the end.

Previously the Who Trio wrapped up the Kaleidophon’s first night with yet another unconventional approach to traditional material, but in this case the repertoire of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Consisting of two Swiss, pianist Michel Wintsch and bassist Bänz Oester, plus Swiss-based American drummer Gerry Hemingway, the idea was to re-orchestrate and reconstitute the compositions of two of Jazz’s most eminent thinkers.

The results were mixed. There was no doubting the virtuosity of the drummer’s ability to swing even if using just a tiny bell or one cymbal; Oester’s rhythmic sophistication whether extending a traditional slap-bass sequence or taking a high-pitched almost cello-register solo; and the pianist’s quick changes from near Ahmad Jamal-like Bop comping, traditional keyboard fills or suddenly introducing dissonant dynamics. However, trying to associate lines with particular compositions seemed futile.

Suggestions of “Take the A Train”, “In a Mellow Tone” and other familiar tropes as well as fully realized variants on “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” and Hemingway vocally intoning “A Flower is a Lonesome Thing” flashed by, but the execution seemed like the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Notable trio and duo expositions were created with, for instance, Wintsch tweaking the piano’s internal strings and stopping keys while the other hand laid down a faultless groove, or all three were involved in pointed glissandi and bell echoing-timbre exchange. But if the performance wasn’t designed as a burlesque, why not devise a program of wholly original material and leave Ellington-Strayhorn to the mainstreamers?

Gunda Gottschalk (violin) and Thomas Lehn (synthesizer)

Even though different members of another band dabbled in mainstream or Jazz fusion in the past, one group that doesn’t now fit either of those labels is the exploratory band of Swiss players, pianist Jacques Demierre and soprano saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, plus long-time American-in-France bassist Barre Phillips. Now after more than 15 years as a trio, they’ve upped the exploratory ante even more by adding German analogue-synthesizer player Thomas Lehn to the group.

Nuanced in his programming, Lehn processed the textures of the other three during their opening set Sunday evening. But the group’s meditative wave forms were such that attention was never directed towards Lehn to the detriment of the others. Instead he provided a wiggling, jittery ostinato and ring-modular-like gonging underneath the others’ motifs. With Phillips keeping the unfolding narrative chromatic by vibrating simple section transitions, the introduction was distant and restrained, with timbre-stretched glissandi from Demierre doubled by Lehn’s wave forms and further emphasized by Leimgruber’s lowing circular breaths expelled from behind a Harmon mute inserted into his saxophone’s bell. Removing it later on, aggressive blowing on the saxophonist’s part signaled a buttressing of the interface with equivalent booming echoes from the synthesizer.

Refining the parameters in the set’s development with brief pizzicato strokes, Phillips’ sound tinctures presaged both reed whistles and stopped piano chording. A climactic sequence was reached as Leimgruber’s output elevated to angry bird-like peeps that were then coupled with spiccato string slams from Phillips and exploding crackles and thunder from Lehn’s electronics.

That sort of improvisational thunder also characterized two trios that fulfilled the Kaleidophon’s commitment to Free Jazz. One that played on opening night, included Argentinean-in-Amsterdam, tenor saxophonist Ada Rave, German prepared guitarist Nicola Hein, and veteran Dutch master bassist Wilbert de Joode. The other, which closed the festival and often attained the summit of free musical expression, was Neuköllner Modelle, consisting of two Swedes resident in Berlin, bassist Joel Grip and drummer Sven-Åke Johansson, with the latter one of the crafty doyens of free expression for decades. Filling out the band was Paris-based Swiss tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler.

Soizic Lebrat (cello), Xu Feng Xia (ghuzeng) and Barre Phillips (bass)

Rave’s bubbly slurs and slithery spews were driven along by de Joode’s stentorian pumps while Hein’s slurred fingering inserted overtone and palindrome tinctures that buzzed and flanged around the saxophonist’s narrative. As the saxophonist’s discursive tongue pops and low-pitched smears unfolded, De Joode’s hand slaps on his instrument’s wood and Hein’s distinctive unamplified guitar clunks created a solid beat. Methodical in his comping and soloing, the bassist turned the trio’s second improvisation into a demonstration of unusual techniques, drawing textures from below the bridge, highlighting descending thwacks for maximum rhythmic impetus and smacking the strings with his bow for unexpected elevated textures. Hein’s outbursts of high-pitched string splutters added to the polyphonic resolution which also depended on Rave’s discordant fills concentrating into wide horn-of-plenty overblowing and later some watery Blues notes.

Given enough additional power but without bravado from Johansson’s drums, Neuköllner Modelle’s trio interaction often floated on single snare cracks or cymbal accents. Grip’s collaborative output of slap bass thumps, sometimes spiced with harmonizing vocalizing, joined with the drummer’s strategy of relaxed rolls, cymbal pops and gentle taps to open up the sequence for long-lined blowing, honks and protracted split tones from Denzler. Later, while Grip exposed discordant bow angles and slices, the saxophonist countered with harsh twitters and burrs, with both players’ parts cannily prodded by drum rolls. After giving the saxophonist space to express himself via chest tones and finally renal barks and snorts, the drummer cannily diminished the interaction, so that narrative motifs from all ended up harmonized into a connective mode.

Wilbert de Joode (bass), Ada Rave (tenor saxophone) and Nicola Hein (guitar)

With this array of cultivated and sometimes surprising sonic strategies on display in 2019 as in years past, it’s no wonder that audiences keep returning to the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon.