November 12 – 14, 2022
Review by Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
Officially for the past 100 years, and unofficially for millennia before that, November 11 is the date for the annual raucous city-wide Kölner Karneval. By mid-day a good portion of the Köln area’s populace has dressed up in formal and improvised costumes of all shapes, colors and sizes to take part in outdoor and indoor parties, with the emphasis on tomfoolery and inebriation. Little did the majority of this year’s revellers know that during the subsequent three days a parallel celebration of musical imagination, color and improvisation was taking place each evening at the Stadtgarten.
Organized by a dedicated collective of local musicians, and as it has for the past 13 years, KLAENG 2022 presented nine sets of creative music featuring local, Belgian, Iranian, Canadian, Danish, Austrian, Greek and American players.
The festival quietly — at least compared to the carnival celebrations — announced its intentions with its first concert on the evening of November 12. The last date of the Soundtrips NRW 11-day concert series, Greek performers, vibraphonist Andria Nicodemou and Floros Floridis, who played clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, took the stage. After the first improvisation, as happens during all Soundtrips-sponsored concerts, the two were joined by locals, in this case drummer Dominik Mahnig and violinist Gunda Gottschalk.
Floridis and Nicodemou easily reached accommodation as he moved from clarion peeps to chalumeau sighs, at points launching a series of tongue slaps, honks and key percussion to keep up with the fluid tapestry of four-mallet staccato echoes created by the vibist. Sophisticated improvisers, the violinist and drummer easily joined the conversation with string-clutched spiccato runs and popping percussion patterns.
As well, when Gottschalk’s strokes turned to sul tasto scratches and Floridis propelled sharp bites, both the drummer and vibist maintained an ambulatory groove. Tones and motifs were mirrored by one duo of improvisers or another. Nicodemou, however, made the most original statements as she responded to the others’ squeezes, shrills and slaps by scraping her instrument’s bars with a violin bow, and resonating tremolo tones from a slinky toy stretched across the metal arrangement. Abstract by definition, Mahnig’s cloth-wrapped mallet smacks maintained linear motion, while at points Floridis’ reed overlay became both descriptive and humorous.
Similar closely matched group improvising that commanded close listening was demonstrated by two long-running bands: the Danish trio of pianist Jacob Anderskov, drummer Anders Vestergaard and veteran alto saxophonist Jesper Zeuthen which played on the second night; and on the final night, the Belgian group Octurn: saxophonist/clarinetist Bo van der Werf, pianist Fabian Fiorini, keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin and drummer Dré Pallemaerts with Dutch bass clarinetist Joris Roelofs guesting.
The themes and variations rolled out by the Danish trio were often atmospheric and astringent. Anderskov’s dark clusters worked themselves into waterfalls of notes that were matched by strong bass drum ruffs and cymbal reverberations. Meanwhile, Zeuthen’s keening pitches and accelerated split tones moved the narratives to the knife-edge of atonality. But those pointed thrusts never crossed the line into cacophony. That’s because the saxophonist’s flutter tones, rooster-like crowing and whistling split tones fit the ongoing exposition, even with sudden altissimo emphasis embedded in the elaborations of different themes.
If the Danes’ improvisations balanced one horn and one keyboard with percussion, then Octurn-plus worked out a strategy involving two reeds and two keyboards with percussion. Operating on top of Pallemaerts’ clip-clops and shuffles, Fiorini sounded out the melodies while Dumoulin added electronic crackles, synthesizer-like runs, and when needed, a bass line.
Meanwhile, van der Werf and Roelofs took turns projecting chalumeau and even lower tones. As the program evolved, vamps, clarion trills and tongue-stopping squeaks from the reedists created distinctive expositions, while Fiorini’s sometimes unaccompanied simple chording or processional strokes, and Dumoulin’s processed spills or organ-like tremolo washes accented or extended the interface. Notwithstanding the reed players intermittently introducing dissident echoes, basic melodicism that centred on straightforward piano comping and gentle baritone sax riffs left an impression of continuous linear motion.
Creating a different sort of motion, and perched on the boundary between notated and improvised music was Enso, the five-piece ensemble led by local bassist Stefan Schönegg. His composition Strings & Percussion, featuring himself, violinist Kari Rønnekleiv, cellist Judith Hamann, Etienne Nillesen on advanced snare drum and Toma Gouband playing gran casa and lithophones, expressed the coordinates and contrasts of two disparate instrumental groups. Layering each instrument’s sonance carefully, string harmonies lined up with stops and sweeps as constant percussion vibrations gave way to simple pops. With the sound of striking matches, Gouband rubbed miniature cymbals on his horizontal percussion as Nillesen smacked rubber-tipped mallets on his drum tops. After Gouband banged together two small stones, and Nillesen popped a drumstick tip on the snare and its rims, the string players countered with shaking accents unrolled at an adagio pace. Preceding the finale, short string shakes and gran casa rumbles slowly melded into one another.
Solo sets were also presented during KLAENG. One from local pianist Johanna Summer opened the second night, and on the first night artist-in-residence American bassist Thomas Morgan played a middle set interlude. Morgan, who also gave a lecture as well as playing with locals on Sunday morning at the city’s LOFT music space, is a methodical, low-key player. Sticking for the most part to mid-range fully rounded notes with a folksy tinge, his improvisations were always logical and horizontal. With stops and multi-string strums, he sometimes sped up his solo flights with solid plucks and variations. Still while lyricism and swing were the focus, innate good taste seemed to prevent him from leaving the balladic mode to hit any out-of-place note or tone.
Summer’s set of short tunes was similarly low key. Using tiny keyboard tinkles, and romantic and ecclesiastical inferences, she first created a mixture of warm ringing tones and Baroque-like note clusters, then subsequently used passing chords to speed up her syncopation to presto. While isolated tones sometimes echoed with movement, her playing seemed more attuned to elaborations than swing. A technically faultless narrative, the result appeared too polite to be expressively emotional.
Iranian-Canadian singer/pianist Goldnar Shahyar was both straightforward and emotional with her performance on KLAENG’s first night. Her big voice that encompassed ululations and whispers while projecting sincere lyrics that promoted peace and love, were ably backed by guitarist Mahan Mirarab, alto saxophonist Astrid Wiesinger, bassist Vinicius Ciccone Cajado and percussionist Andreas Dés. Yet coming from the singer-songwriter tradition, Shahyar and her songs seemed at variance with the festival’s emphasis on improvised music.
Similarly, local rapper Nepumuk and turntablist DJ Stelze, whose set wrapped up KLAENG’s second night, performed admirably and rhythmically in their own style, but also appeared divorced from the other performers’ music.
\American guitarist Bill Frisell, whose festival-ending set with bassist Morgan was designed to be KLAENG’s apogee, presented another conundrum. The guitarist, whose early music with Paul Motian and John Zorn defined his career as an innovator, appears to have shaved all the rough edges off his playing. His duets with the bassist that night easily attained a syncopated groove, but it was Morgan who added strong percussiveness to the standard and standards’ interpretations that filled most of the set. Studded with interpolations from country, Rock and pop tunes such as “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “What the World Needs Now” faultless musicianship didn’t really make up for projecting a certain bloodless professionalism. Although an audience favorite, it was evident that many of the European groups which preceded the final set created more meaningful, ground-breaking music than the American duo.
Still, it was the variety of those performances that made KLAENG the epitome of a small, well-run festival. Mixing many genres on the same stage gave an idea of improvised music’s breadth. If some results were less notable than others, it only gave more impetus to keep frequenting the annual program to see what will be featured next.
See Artists for more photos of individual musicians.