Jahre 25 — 25th Anniversary
Musik Kultur St. Johann in Tirol
Dec. 9 and 10, 2017
By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
One of Austria’s most forward-looking cultural series takes place every week in an Alpine valley market town half-way between Innsbruck and Salzburg. St. Johann in Tirol has only about 9,000 residents but for 25 years Musik Kultur St. Johann (MuKu) has hosted a variety of exceptional activities, including at least 20 concerts of improvised music each year as well as the annual Artacts Festival in March.
In early December, MuKu threw itself a two-day silver anniversary party in the Alte Gerberei, a converted tannery, a 20-minute walk from the main town square and the nearby busy ski hill. Showcased were groups featuring British bassist Barry Guy, whose influence extended serendipitously to a club in nearby Munich a few days later.
Jahre 25 devoted its first night to sets by The Trafala Trio, consisting of Guy and Swedes Mats Gustafsson on baritone saxophone and drummer Raymond Strid; Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández and Guy; and a final quartet configuration. The second evening, organized around the 60th birthday celebration of a long-time MuKu supporter, featured Guy in duo with violinist Maya Homburger; and Heavy Metal Rabbit: Guy with Austrian drummer Alfred Vogel and Swiss bass clarinetist Lucien Dubuis.
The trio sets presented the most contrast, with Guy’s double bass consistency bridging the ruggedness and refinement that characterized band members’ antithetical strategies. Pouring out gusts of glossolalia and split tones, Gustafsson personified the ecstatic limits of Free Music, which Strid guided with brief cymbal pings and gong echoes and Guy with ambidextrous strums and plucks, sometimes involving friction created by vibrating a wooden stick among his strings.
Emotionally expressive, the saxophonist’s tongue slaps and sour timbres didn’t mask an individualized swing sense, further emphasized at points with Guy’s walking bass line. At best, and at the climax, an emotive connection was established between melodic percussion and altissimo reed expositions through the accents radiating from Guy’s tough ostinato.
The roles reversed with Heavy Metal Rabbit the next night, as it was Vogel who was most aggressive, leaning into bass drum socks and applying ride cymbal pressure, but with enough clattering small gestures to preserve improvisatory fluidity. Moving from snarling snorts and cackling growls to near preserved-in-amber Bebop licks, Dubuis’ lambent textures ambled along a narrow line that combined fragility with feeling.
Whether probing lower sonic depths with sliding plucks or scratching pitches near the scroll, Guy’s strong smacks and slaps minimized gaps among the three. Finally, the trio reached a crescendo of cascading drum rolls, passionate reed exhalation and stop-time string pulls to cement effortless cooperation.
This same cooperation was evident the night previously when Fernández and Guy created a variant of chamber improvisation. Consisting of miniatures composed by the pianist or bassist that resembled standards, the interface was mellow, melodic and supple. Enough abstract asides and extended techniques were present to confirm that this was a lot more than calming ambience though. Among the peaks were those when Fernández’s inside piano string voicing was immediately mirrored by Guy’s double bass wizardry, whether it was with shrill string pulls or immediate drops into the bass clef. In sync, the two often used speedy buzzes, and muscular hunt-and-peck sections that invoked notated new music,
Notated music by Bach, Biber, Kurtág and Guy was in evidence the next evening during the Homburger-Guy duets. Although the emphasis was on Baroque sequences, at which the violinist excelled, enough time was allocated to performances more attuned to improvisation featuring the bassist. Among them was a variation on “Peace Piece”, where Guy spectacularly bowed with one hand and plucked strings with the other; “Five Fizzles for S.B.”, where his fingers almost blurred as they ranged over the instrument’s body, neck and strings; and a salute to Samuel Beckett, which included phrases verbalized as violently as strings were tweaked.
This was no mistaking improvisational smarts the night previously however when Fernández joined The Trafala Trio. Controlled chaos paced by Strid’s rumbles, ricochets and pops as well as tremolo piano patterning and spiccato double-bass string slaps, still left plenty of space for saxophone whinnies and sharp reed cawing. Operating as if it was a long-constituted ensemble, the four’s familiarity with one another allowed for even more freedom, with Guy creating unique textures by hitting the bass strings with a mallet and reverberating tones by placing a stick among them; Strid expertly linking his cymbal jiggles to Fernández’s rolling piano chords and inside piano string bounces; and Gustafsson outputting unbroken reed screams. The collective buzz was such that the subsequent encore was open enough for a climax that included relaxed inferences to standards and mainstream jazz.
Another group that operates with near-extra sensory perception is German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s trio, which played four nights later, about 160 kilometers away from St. Johann in Munich’s Jazzclub Unterfahrt. British tenor saxophonist Evan Parker and the pianist have maintained the band for 42 years, but as part of this tour, British drummer Paul Lytton was the unexpected percussion partner.
Like the British bassist, all three players are European Free Music avatars who frequently collaborate with Guy. During the two sets however, the trio was in a notable Jazz-like mood, with the pianist’s admiration for Thelonious Monk particularly evident. There was a Monkish cast to both sets, with quotes from some of the American pianist’s tunes and allusions to others peppering the performance.
Unusual for these players there was even round-robin soloing with showcases for each. Tickling and poking the keyboard, the pianist resolutely moved the performance forward, backed by swishing cymbals and press rolls from Lytton. Parker’s orientation too appeared more traditional than usual, carving a reed path from slashing Sonny Rollins-like blasts to mid-range Charlie Rouse-like piano deference. Lytton brought genuine passion to his solos, although his rhythmic parameters reflected Jazz conventions. By the second set however, von Schlippenbach’s chording become calmer and less Monk-like as he dug deeper into the piano’s lower parts and Parker’s lines became longer and more abstract. The veteran trio’s dignified professionalism made the sounds exciting and moving throughout, but the distance between it and some of the atonal conceptions from the Guy-affiliated bands days earlier was vast.
Comfortable and well-organized, Unterfahrt easily maintains its reputation as Munich’s top Jazz club. An unexpected booking like von Schlippenbach’s shows its adaptability. MuKu’s achievements are cast in bolder relief by comparison. For more than 25 years St. Johann, a town with far less than one-hundredth of Munich’s population, has regularly presented uncompromising players and is likely to do so for many more years.