music unlimited

Clarinetist Ned Rothenberg and masked vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak

Music Unlimited
Nov. 8-9-10, 2019
Wels, Austria

By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor/Gallery O

Treading the fine line among genres– or perhaps jumping from one to another – the sounds presented at Music Unlimited (MU) 33 touched on pure improv, hard noise, semi-notated patterns plus electro-acoustic and near-Rock forays. Still, every performer’s musical emphasis was on originality and discovery. That’s why some sets initiated by MU’s three curators – German pianist Magda Mayas, American tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee and Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi – during this annual festival in this Austrian city of 60,000 near Linz, featured some already constituted bands. Others were the equivalent of musical blind dates, with unanticipated sonic interactions adding up to memorable discoveries.

Cellist Noid; alto saxophonist Frank Gratkowski (foreground) and electric bassist Mitsuru Nasuno; drummer Roger Turner

At 80, McPhee maintains an adroit improvisational sense, and each of his four MU appearances was unique. Opening night at Alter Schl8hof, the large and comfortable club which was MU headquarters, he and his European trio of British bassist John Edwards and German drummer Klaus Kugel provided an object lesson in committed Free Jazz. That excellence was maintained one night later when he was part of Portuguese tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado’s This is Our Language quartet with Americans Kent Kessler (bass) and Chris Corsano (drums). McPhee’s virtuosity was most cunningly displayed when the three curators improvised together at a modernist former church on the festival’s second afternoon, and on the final night at Alter Schl8hof, where he assembled a Special Ensemble consisting of Danish alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and Belgian electronics player Dennis Tyfus, plus violist Irene Kepl and cellist Noid from Vienna.

Balancing against a slowly unfolding drone mostly from double-stroking string manipulation that night, the two saxophonists vibrated harshly as they looped themes filled with irregular vibration while passing the lead from one to another. Often Rasmussen’s pitches descended to the tenor range, a tendency countered by McPhee’s soaring multiphonic reed obbligatos. As the string players ratcheted up glissandi with double-stopping or splintered runs, a climax was reached that matched Tyfus’ distorted wave-form gargles with a display of vocalized pressure from the alto saxophonist. This outburst was completed with a solo from McPhee that was both gritty and gospel-like. Meanwhile, his multiphonics were also put to good use in the trio with Uchihashi and Mayas, although he didn’t neglect detours into balladic expression. McPhee’s Jazz orientation was most obvious here, as Mayas’ strokes and stops on piano strings prepared with bells and other implements offered New Music-like comments on the trio’s work while Uchihashi’s human-voice-like textures from the daxophone and sudden guitar flanges accentuated his Jazz-Fusion orientation.

Saxophonists Rodrigo Amado (left) and Joe McPhee (foreground) and bassist Kent Kessler

Matched with Amado’s repetitive reed peeps, yelps and bites, McPhee asserted himself with a requisite number of altissimo runs in the This is Our Language setting. But there were hints in his output that themes from half-remembered classic songs lurked just below the surface. As the American and Portuguese saxophonists worked out an individualized take on the history of tough tenor duels, often in harmony, Corsano designed a template of ever-shifting percussion accents with rim shots and press rolls. An experienced accompanist, Kessler not only preserved the rhythm with thick strokes, but also propelled a secondary narrative with swift arco work, some of which displayed sophisticated patterning as he bowed between wooden sticks positioned horizontally among his bass strings.

As proficient in time-keeping and solo forays as Kessler, Edwards’ place in the trio with Kugel and McPhee emphasized both qualities. He held onto the walking beat with focused strums throughout, and in the penultimate sequence unleashed kalimba-like stops alongside stings and growls from the saxophonist. Kugel was as diffident as Corsano was upfront, concentrating on maintaining near-swing rhythms. With glossolalia and groans, multiphonics and moans, McPhee exposed several spectacular crescendos, sometimes urged on by col legno strokes from the bassist. But even in his most dissonant phrases the saxophonist suggested that themes from the Great American Songbook were also present.

Trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, bassist Raed Yassin and guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi playing a daxophone

Besides the triple curators’ set, Mayas led only one group during MU. She opened the festival at Alter Schl8hof with Filamental, a specially constituted ensemble that placed her piano-playing in the midst of two cellos, Mexican Aimée Theriot and Australian Anthea Caddy; two harps, Rhodri Davies from Wales and American Zeena Parkins, plus Welsh violinist Angharad Davies, German clarinetist Michael Thieke and French alto saxophonist Christine Abdelnour. An opaque and atmospheric piece, the Mayas creation built up from allied string-pushed buzzes and echoing split tones from the reeds. As the tension rose, the reedists’ irregular vibrations inflated as the string players scrubbed and sawed. While kinetic energy enlivened each player’s output, Parkins’ ferocious harp strategies were most obvious with bottleneck-guitar-like pulls and ringing twangs reflecting intensity. Finally, intermittent piano key stops and single-note wood and string cello smacks brought the piece to a satisfactory end.

Saxophonist Joe McPhee and bassist John Edwards; Harpist Zeena Parkins and harpist Rhodri Davies

Uchihashi’s contributions were more diffuse than those from the other two curators. The most accomplished forum for his guitar and daxophone skills was on the final night at the Alter Schl8hof when Altered States, his longtime trio with electric bassist Mitsuru Nasuno and drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki was joined by German reedist Frank Gratkowski. A revelation as an improviser was Yoshigaki, who with cymbal splashes and irregular pulsations doggedly maintained a Rock-like groove while simultaneously propelling the improvisation by emphasizing various parts of his kit. As Nasuno preserved the four-square beat, Gratkowski harmonized alto saxophone split tones or bass clarinet flutters with guitar riffs, which ranged from aggressive Rebel Rouser-like Rock to dissected free-form episodes, defining a set that was foot-tapping yet free-sounding. Uchihashi’s deployment of the daxophone which at points created Theremin-like electronic oscillations as well as jagged cannonading pulses, was more upfront the previous evening as part of the Mahanyawa Trio, when he added his strings to Wukir Suryadi’s electronics and the vocals of Rully Shabara. While the daxophone’s ratcheting tone slices meshed distinctively with Shabara’s mournful vocalizing that sometimes reached operatic proportions, there seemed more landscape sweep than cerebral scope in this performance. Shabara’s vocal transmogrifications clearly related to the variety of sound articulation expressed by other singers during MU.

Still, some instrumental meetings during the three-day festival fit with none of the other non-vocal interconnections. They were those of the all-Lebanese ‘A’ Trio which played mid-Saturday evening at the Alter Schl8hof; a duet between Rasmussen and Viennese turntablist Dieb13 that took place upstairs in the midtown Medienkulturhaus on Saturday afternoon; and a solo recital by New Zealand pianist Hermione Johnson at the Bildungshaus Schloss Puchbergestate Sunday afternoon.

Vocalist Rully Shabara, pianist Hermione Johnson and Andrea Parkins on electronics

The ‘A’ Trio, consisting of trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and bassist Raed Yassin, subverted any expectation of hearing Middle Eastern or conventional themes with powerfully cadenced sound explorations. They included Sehnaoui rubbing hands and sticks along his table-top guitar strings when he wasn’t percussively pummeling it with mallets; Yassin never touching his horizontally splayed instrument’s strings except to wedge sticks or sheets of paper among them, instead concentrating on smacking its wooden sides with sticks, ringing a small bell against the bass body or blowing a slide whistle. Meanwhile, Kerbaj sourced odd textures from a plastic tube linking the trumpet mouthpiece to its brass body, producing freak notes of varied bloated or airy pitches, eventually blowing across the mouthpiece for flute-like sounds. The trio result was an explosion of stop-time cacophony as exhilarating as it was original.

With their collection of items encompassing LPs, cassettes, a mixing board, a computer, a wind-up gramophone, a toy truck with an attached stylus, plastic water bottles, a melodica, plastic flutes and a child’s xylophone, the stage for the Dieb13/Rasmussen duo resembled a child’s playground, a perception that was heightened when the two entered the room from opposite sides, each tooting megaphones. From that point on, the saxophonist modified her pure air sound by inserting a water bottle into her horn’s bell, while from behind his turntable-and-mixer-stacked tabletop, Dieb13 produced a floating ostinato that was one part vinyl static and crackles, and one part electronic-generated white noise. As Rasmussen varied reed timbres with high-pitched split tones, adding spetrofluctuation, blowing across the reed or muting the horn’s bell against her knee, he countered with the wow and flutter of LPs pushed to their sonic limits or played backwards, sometimes adding brief pre-recorded scraps of operatic choruses, mood-music orchestration or drum rolls to break things up. Exposing assorted strategies during several delineated tunes, the saxophonist may have resonated toy metal bars with juvenile glee or detoured into a terse reed interlude, but her improvising was unmistakably in the Free Jazz firmament with exploding reed tattoos, dog-whistle-style squeaks and through-the-horn vocalization. So attuned to each other’s game were the two that Rasmussen was able to play a phrase and have it echoed by Dieb13’s equipment and vice versa. As the finale, the two marched off the stage tootling horns in a manner similar to how they entered.

Alto saxophonist Christine Abdelnour; Mette Rasmussen playing a megaphone inserted in her saxophone’s bell and pianist Magda Mayas,

Unlike these theatrics, pianist Johnson initially appeared as if she were going to produce a low-key, formalized recital. But she quickly hit her stride as string preparations transformed her initial bell-like resonance into two-handed swirls of slippery chords and multiple note patterns, emphasized with elbows-on-the-keyboard feints plus plucked and stopped internal string forays. Staccato narratives predominated as she galloped through sprays of speedy chording, climaxing with sprinkles of elevated notes presaging thunderous soundboard rebounds.

Upstairs in the Bildungshaus Schloss Puchberg a short time later, American Andrea Parkins, using accordion and electronics, and German vocalist Ute Wassermann stretched the limits of their respective instruments during their duo recital. Burbling, growling, tongue-clucking and yodeling, the vocal artist was able to create as many unusual textures as the wheezes, whooshes and echoes from Parkins’ electronic processing. Wordless scatting and gentling tones were present from Wassermann along with aviary-like screams and jabbering cries to confirm she was more than a noise specialist, while tremolo smears from Parkins’ accordion were sometimes as effectively abstract as the shakes and pulsations created by computer wave-forms. Coalescing tonal output, the two collapsed the sound meeting from accordion crescendos and calliope-style vocal ululations to a final dual hiss.

Friday night at the Alter Schl8hof, Dieb13 added electronic interface to improvisations from the veteran duo of Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak and American alto saxophonist, clarinetist and shakuhachi player Ned Rothenberg. Masking her face with a red stocking cap, Namtchylak’s vocal gymnastics were still clearly audible, and she reacted as much to the turntablist’s vinyl excursions and motorized oscillations as Rothenberg’s reeds. Swallowing as well as projecting her syllables, the singer’s Bedlam-like cries, basso growls, tongue twangs, high-pitched yelps and horror-movie-witch-like screeches were sporadically interrupted by touches of jazzy scat-singing and mumbling in unidentifiable languages. Besides expected-in-the-context multiphonic cries, Rothenberg at one point played a wispy exotic obbligato on shakuhachi and even touched on a blues progression during one alto solo. Dieb13’s backing in the main consisted of vinyl-sourced screams, crackles and drones. These coupled with a crescendo of reed overblowing and vocal yelps served as the finale.

Drummer Chris Corsano; vocalist Ami Yamasaki and saxophonist Rodrigo Amado

A younger Japanese vocalist, who seemed to be developing the same sort, if less eccentric, delivery as Namtchylak, was Ami Yamasaki, who performed an early Saturday evening set at the Alter Schl8hof with alto saxophonist Abdelnour and Austrian drummer Katharina Ernst. The saxophonist’s concise fills or tight, spittle-encrusted bites and high-pitched trills ingeniously complemented Yamasaki’s vocals which ranged from inviolate screams, dramatic voice gestures plus quirkily effective speaking in tongues and stutters. Too attached to bass drum pumps, Ernst’s playing was most effective when she stuck to rim-shot patterning. Not quite compatible, the three reached notable harmonization by the end when the drummer switched to brushes, the saxophonist honked colorfully and the vocalist concentrated on rhythmic puffs and peals.

Overall though the most memorable voice, electronics and instrumental combination was the first-ever meeting among American vocalist Shelley Hirsch and two British improvisers, drummer Roger Turner and Richard Scott playing electronics. This occurred during the festival’s penultimate set at the Alter Schl8hof. Able to create as many vocal noises, sounds and extensions as all the other singers featured during MU, veteran Hirsch added drama-ready hands, arched body movements and marionette-like jerks to snatches of outer-borough accented dialogue as she crowed and strutted through the performance. With Scott’s barrage of oscillated shakes and splutters creating a backing continuum, Turner produced a fluidly irregular beat that surged and stopped in tandem with, or in contrast to, the vocal play-acting. Smacking the sides of his drums as often as the tops, Turner added an unhurried bounce to the proceedings. As an added endorsement of the combination, guitarist Uchihashi joined the trio during the set’s final minutes, adding rhythmic flanges and octave jumps to Hirsch’s cries and Turner’s kinetic and connective drum-top taps.

Vocalist Shelley Hirsch improvises alongside Richard Scott’s electronics

This performance and others, whether pre-conceived or ad hoc, confirmed the wisdom of Music Unlimited’s distinctive musician-driven philosophy. Dynamic programs such as this will set standards for festivals in the years to come.