Krakow’s Jazz Autumn

March 8, 2015

Krakow, Poland
November 19-22, 2014

By Ken Waxman

Slightly mangling a metaphor, the world premiere of The Blue Shroud, a major new composition by British bassist Barry Guy, performed by a specially constituted Blue Shroud Band (BSB), was a main course of the musical banquet presented during Krakow’s Jazz Autumn in November. The three nights preceding it, which showcased all 14 members of the BSB in smaller combinations, previewed the varied spices and condiments that went into concocting the final repast; while Guy’s evening of free-form improvisations with American multi-reedist Ken Vandermark – who wasn’t a band member – the following night, was the perfect digestif following the rich fare of The Blue Shroud.

An anti-war statement, The Blue Shroud score highlighted a cornucopia of sonic impulses that brought in Spanish, Baroque and Jazz inflections from players representing10 countries. Loosely interpreting images found in Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, which depicts the 1937 destruction of that Basque city when bombed by Spanish Fascist-directed German planes, Guy’s score also has contemporary resonance. Its title refers to a 2003 incident when a blue cloth was hung over a Guernica reproduction in the United Nations building before the Americans made their case for invading Iraq. Expressive and exquisite in sections, but neither strident nor sulphuric, The Blue Shroud makes its points via implications and contrasts. The only overtly political inferences came from the text by Irish poet Kerry Hardie, which was disclaimed and/or sung by Greek vocalist Savina Yannatou during the hour-long performance in Radio Krakow`s modernistic auditorium.

Yannatou, whose tensile vocalese encompassed wordless retches, yelps, growls and keening, conveyed emotions in this fashion, as significantly as did her lyrical singing. More crucially, Irish guitarist Ben Dwyer’s quasi-Spanish rhythmic rasgueado; American trumpeter Peter Evans mournful exposition; the gleaming snatches of H. I. F. Biber and J.S. Bach inserted into the performance by Swiss violinist Maya Homburger and French violist Fanny Paccoud; plus this-side-of-swing vamps from a reed section of Swede Per Texas Johansson (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Norwegian Torben Snekkestad (soprano and tenor saxophones) plus Germans, Michael Niesemann (alto saxophone and oboe) and Julius Gabriel (baritone and soprano saxophones) were as generic to the programs as the words.

Full-orchestra tremolos and judders, underscored by the clanking and slapping dual percussion emphasis from Spaniard Ramon Lopez and Swiss Lucas Niggli, plus Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández’s sprawling glissandi, lead to crescendos of unmatched power. Brutality of aviation destruction was expressed in raw, time-shifting cawing and split-tone exaggeration from the tenor saxophonist or honking contrasts between clarinet and baritone sax, eventually leading to Yannatou’s tender expression in sounds and words, of the destruction literally rained down on the helpless populace.

Overall though, The Blue Shroud is a musical essay of hope as well as hellfire and hypocrisy. This was made most obvious as the final quarter of the piece was shaped by a taunt, sinewy Guy solo leading to a series of stop-time motifs. As French tubaist Michel Godard burbled a concise continuum, evocative big band-style solos from Johansson’s clarinet, a smooth alto saxophone line from Niesemann, plus piano key-clipping lightened the mood. Multiphonic orchestral sequences and slap bass lines finally gave way to riffs reminiscent of the introduction, as the vocalist, backed by silky strings, disclaimed the joyful, yet guarded, summation of Hardie’s poem.

Preceding the premiere, three days were given over to orchestral rehearsals, while each evening was turned over to free improvisations in the brick-walled, 19th Century basement Alchemia Club. Every combination from solo to quintet was on show, with the most notable ensembles taking enough time to develop cohesive themes. For pure clamor, the Lopez/Niggli percussion duo was unbeatable. Far removed from standard noise-making, between Niggli’s collection of cymbal and bell coloration, sometimes sounded by mallets or cornhusks [!] as well as drum sticks for emphasis; and insinuating tabla-like pops from Lopez, the foot-tapping result was as melodic as it was percussive. Bravado was paramount however when the drummers were joined by Fernández and Evans for an edgy mix of Metal and Free Jazz. Although Niggli frequently leaped in the air when playing particularly exhilarating riffs, it was the trumpeter’s tongue gymnastics and mouthpiece osculation plus the pianist’ inside piano stabs and fist-pounding keyboard runs which trumped the percussionists’ percussiveness. Then again when Lopez, Evans and Fernández partnered Yannatou and Guy the subsequent improvisation resembled modern jazz. The trumpeter’s centred obbligatos complemented the vocalist’s Rebetika-tinged, blues-like phrasing so that the two sounded like different halves of the same voice. Throughout Fernández cascaded sympathetic chords and Lopez isolated the appropriate backbeat. Another night Niggli showed how his cymbal and implement shaking could easily subvert the contemporary neo-classicism of Godard’s basso exhaling and Paccoud’s squeaky string sequences.

Just as Homburger and others playing notated music wouldn’t be confused with conventional so-called classical recitals, Evans face-off with Snekkestad on soprano saxophone would never be mistaken for a Louis Armstrong/Sidney Bechet duet, notwithstanding the freak effects and wide vibratos in use. Instructively as well, Guy’s Day 2 duet with Snekkestad on tenor saxophone and Day 3 duet with Niesemann on alto saxophone not only confirmed his in-the-moment ingenuity, but also set up parameters for his later duet with Vandermark. Concluded lyrically, the tenor saxophone-bass meeting was mostly dedicated to the harsh tones generated by key percussion and Guy vibrating short sticks placed horizontally among his strings. Moving between temperate and tough, the alto sax/bass duo built up to a hypnotic climax involving Guy’s hammering the string col lengno with his bow plus two miniature mallets. Still his intensity nearly masked Niesemann’s split tones and almost motionless air dribbling.

Energized the night after The Blue Shroud performance, Guy easily balanced or bested any timbres from Vandermark’s reed collection. At points melding swing and free music, Guy’s chiming guitar-like plucks were so speedy that the motion was almost blurred as he met Vandermark’s chesty hippo-waddling baritone saxophone blasts. A rhythmic tenor sax/bass duo balanced on reed tongue slaps as dual mallets hit bass strings. Solo showcases were most telling though. Playing unaccompanied tenor saxophone, Vandermark’s multiphonics suggested cadence and commitment in equal measure. On his own, Guy’s finger and bow vibrations approximated the timbres of mandolin, koto and flat-top guitar at different times, without ever losing the personal free music impulses that define his playing.

It’s this well considered individuality which make Guy’s improvisations plus the breath of compositions such as The Blue Shroud so memorable.

–For MusicWorks #121 Spring 2015