Frolicking Mammals of Manageable Size Reunite Photos: Andrew Choate, George Staicu

Frolicking Mammals of Manageable Size Reunite

March 23, 2022

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Andrew Choate

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A year without the Konfrontationen in 2020 – plus an additional month of scientifico-politico unharnessing – meant that by the time the 2021 festival unfurled, twenty-five months had elapsed since the last. The faces of everyone who was able to make it told a two-fold story, flickering between a drape of delight – “We’re here!!!” – and a cloak of panic – “Can we survive the weekend??” I’m glad to report that delight triumphed, and the music exulted us further.
Photo: George Staicu
Photo: George Staicu
The festival opened with assured grace: Tobias Delius on tenor saxophone, Antonio Borghini on doublebass and Hamid Drake on drums and percussion. They were graceful and rowdy; my senses were not. My body was throbbing in agreement with the music and my head was nodding in one of the many rhythms on display, but I couldn’t pay attention the way I wanted, not immediately. After such a long time away from live music surrounded by people, my senses were overblown: so many sounds to hear, positions to sit in, directions to look, drinks to sip, heat to absorb, air to inhale, sounds to drink, air to look, absorption to absorb. And on.

Then I heard the deep Shepp in Delius’ playing and phased in. Ahhh. That’s right: the music, the answer, the marinade, the abstract truth actualized. Drake stomped down on the bassdrum pedal like a gauntlet; Delius opened his eyes cartoonishly wide and, with the saxophone at the edge of his mouth, side-squealed a full fizz of electron carbonation into the ambient atmosphere. There was no more question of not being in it or not being ready for it anymore – the music made that decision.

The trio was so in tune with each other that their improvisations felt like standards, like Monk and Nichols tunes were being invented in front of us. The downbeats that Drake emphasizes are so wildly unpredictable, yet so obvious after the fact. That’s propulsion my friend. Borghini’s bass isn’t just an anchor, either: he translated the melodies and rhythms firing into him from each side, balancing each savage grrrr with a peaceful purr.

During the break after the first band, all the troubles of the past years had dissipated into gratitude – to having not only the music back in our living ears, but people next to us adding depth to those echoes. If 4,000 people in the world are passionate about this music, and 400 of them show up in this same place every year to celebrate it, then the energy created is one big buttery strudel of biomass feedback.

Speaking of ardor, Luís Lopes’ electric guitar started off his duo with Fred Lonberg-Holm sounding like a broken organ; FLH responded with confusing radio static garble adjacent to his cello. The duo was like a bouquet of black and white flowers: honorable organics and dignified gestures but a little far from running water. FLH turned his back to the audience and drank white wine during a Lopes’ solo, after which he turned around, gestured to Lopes with both arms extended, announced “LUÍS LOPES!” ornately, and initiated smooth arco swarms sewn throughout the cello.
Gifts, grifts, and grits.

The first night ended with Elisabeth Harnik’s double trio: Didi Kern and Martin Brandlmayr on drums and percussion; Mikołaj Traszka and Mats Gustafsson on reeds; Harnik on piano. Real force and real momentum marked this set for me: I wanted to bathe in it. Unfortunately the delicacy of force was lost on the drunk group behind me, as their constant chatter overrode the ability to listen. I turned around, put up my hands and pleaded “Bitte!!,” to which a woman responded “Das ist nicht die Oper!!!” (This isn’t the opera.) My immediate thought was “No, it’s not the opera; it’s more actually more necessary to give this music respect.” While seething, my secondary thought was how hilariously ignorant she was, considering that the opera was actually a significantly rowdier place for hundreds of years, and that only recently has it become associated with quiet and decorum. In any case, her small coterie ruined the set for me. Chalk it up to another pandemic fallout: oblivious folks in attendance just looking for a night out, incapable of the awareness that 395 people around them are absolutely, attentively silent. When Gustafsson was in the middle of an intense, concentrated solo, his sudden explosion of a scream through the reed elicited shallow, imbecilic laughter from the revelers. When confronted with vitality, the weak and dull guffaw.
Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

Gemologists and Virologists vs. the Skin of the Earth

With no concerts at the Kleylehof this weekend, I decided to spend a long time lingering at the sound art exhibition on Saturday afternoon. The percussionist Elisabeth Flunger had built a ramp about twenty meters long and designed an obstacle course on it with a variety of cymbals, chains, tins, and license plates. At a little over a meter high, it was at the perfect ergonomic height for her to roll, fling, and shoot various balls and other mostly-round objects down the ramp. She began her performance with a single marble, tuning the audience into the sonic actualities and potentialities that her instrument/installation made possible. Then another marble, then a few more, then a handful, then a bucketful, back to a few.

What was most impressive about this performance – it was just beginning to get under way – was how Flunger floated so adeptly between casually unloading objects down her construction – letting the objects and installation speak for itself – and picking the right moments to pause, take a moment, and precisely time and aim a roll or a throw. Every kind of ball you can imagine got involved: in addition to marbles there were bouncy balls, pool balls, tennis balls, ping-pong balls, and golf balls – even chocolate kugeln tins careened down the course! Playful, ingenious, and a total sonic masterpiece in its own right.

I went back for a second listen the next day, and focused more on the sonics this time, since I was now familiar with the form. Noid joined in, playing cello along with the Flunger performance, and I felt like the addition detracted from the piece. For one thing, the isolation of a marble going for a long ride at the beginning was diminished by the extra layer of string hum. The structure that Flunger brought to life, however, felt even more precious and savvy. Sometimes she really throws a heavy ball down, trying to break up any accumulated pools that have been trapped by overturned obstacles. It’s the combination of rhythms and tones against a backdrop of embraced arbitrariness plus sudden bursts of willfulness that thoroughly invigorated both the kid and the critic in me.

Longtime cohorts Martin Blume (drums), Luc Houtkamp (reeds and electronics), and Steve Beresford (piano and electronics) set the evening alight back at the Jazzgalerie. The trio’s comfort level with each other was perfectly represented by Beresford’s unorthodox posture at the piano: sitting with one leg crossed over the other. It’s impossible to be that relaxed and make sloppy music. Rather, these three deftly displayed the taut technical savagery that has pushed free improv to ever-expand the edges of sonically charged interpersonal interaction, decade by decade. During a Blume-Beresford duo in which Beresford was unfurling kernel after oblong kernel of note clusters amid inside-piano strums, Houtkamp was intently watching what was happening, equally transfixed by his colleague’s prowess and decisions as those of us in our seats.

I melted into this trio like it was a good dinner with old friends – stimulated by the emergence of new considerations and soothed by the flow of pleasant banter. Their second improvisation described a much more languorous lifestyle: rubbed rubber on tom skins from Blume, slow white clarinet churns from Houtkamp, whispered string scratchings from Beresford. The piano transitioned to lush, damp chords to close it out. “Yeah, that’s the end,” we all thought, and someone said, and they had stopped. Clean. Definitive. Exemplary.

A variation of the trio INAWHIRL took the stage next. The drummer Lukas König took the place of dieb13, who couldn’t make it, and joined Georg Graewe on piano and Sara Kowal on harp. Their debut recording featured fourteen tracks, each one whittling a particular stick, but the concert was more of a drifting affair. It felt like alternating sips between coffee and curry: stimulating like a blast here, rich and complex there; dark and smoky here, lightly creamy there. Coffee and curry and back and forth.

Something about the way Graewe repeats a piano phrase and repeats a dense piano phrase and repeats a knot on a piano phrase and repeats a droned knot of a piano phrase and does it over and over to add texture on texture makes it suddenly form a cozy cozy blanket that is somehow perfectly shaped for the shape of each of my ears, individually. I wanted more non-traditional drumming from König though.

The most unusual instrumentation onstage for any of the weekend’s ensembles was certainly the one that ended Saturday night: Magda Mayas (piano), Susanna Gartmeyer (bass clarinet), Viola Falb (alto saxophone), Anthea Caddy (cello), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Antonio Borghini (doublebass), and Tony Buck (percussion). Looking at it on paper, I couldn’t imagine what it would sound like. Listening to it live, it was the most engaging set of the festival. Because you had to listen and listen harder: how was this working? Is that comet part of the constellation? Whose elbow is in my ear and from whence did this mirage of false symmetry exeunt upon emergence?

Despite a string-centric lineup, Falb centered my attention first with the softest, most inviting alto saxophone tone I have heard in years. The strings went drone-bowing in response, the piano entered like a cat with a candle that wants to be cuddled, percussion skins rubbed ancient backbones. Falb faded away somewhere in there, but returned later in simultaneity with Gartmeyer’s bass clarinet, their togetherness imposing an exquisite balance of decisiveness and delicacy.

Then things got weird: a free jazz saxophone solo, fire crackling Caddy cello, rustling leaves from the rhythm section, another cello throb, dowel-rod harmonics from the piano, bass clarinet burbles. Then like a flipped switch everyone went low and slow; it was like the lights got cut off and you had to act like a puddle to survive.

As one of the least cohesive instrumental combos ever convened, each minute-by-minute segment had something engaging about it; each layer of personality and instrument wrinkled a different fabric echo. The struggle was real, and it felt right to be so close to being in touch with it. Was she playing the cello like she was petting a cat, or was that more of a carrot-peeling? I was exhilarated by the whole set: the difficulty, the ingenuity, the conundrum-flaring, the lizard-warping, the lullaby burgeoning, the iere in the premiere.

I listened to this set next to my friend Magda Dudek, and we both didn’t want to stop clapping for it. I’m actually still clapping for it. Clap
Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

The F-Hole of My Favorite Fantasies

Sunday came suddenly too soon, as always evermore. Mounir Troudi was unable to travel, so balafonist Aly Keïta had to substitute for the singular vocalist of the trio Revolutionary Birds, joining Erwan Keravec on bagpipes and Wassim Halal on darbuka. If I was listening blind, I would have called their music dance music. Halal plays sequences on the darbuka that have the feel of loops, but played on hand drums: the patterns are exact and reinforced, but he messes with them like a DJ with a record or a sampler. Rhythms resequenced from within, with one drum and two hands.

I’ve been a strong fan of Keravec’s psychedelic bagpipe maelstrom for a while, but his work in this trio opened up another dimension. I heard a hint of electronics in the instrument – a raw electrical charge, like a current of flowing water. And as I listened to the overall bagpipe sound, the melodies that bubbled up from that current made my skin tingle and ripple, like my body was the oscilloscope on which the pattern of waves and goosebumps were etched out by the music. Like I said, dance music.

The two percussionists basically made the best jam a two-person drum circle can make, and Keravec added wildly screaming multi-harmonic bagpipes on top. If that doesn’t sound like ice cream, put the cone on top of your head and go to the corner. At the height of the rhythms intertwining, Keïta flashed a dazzling smile, seemingly exemplifying his bewilderment with the intensity of sound produced by Keravec plus the absolute merriment of celebrating such a sonic collision. Cue the goosebumps rolling in waves on the skin.

Eve Risser (piano) and Marcelo dos Reis (guitar) are from my generation of improvisors: post-free jazz, post-eai, post-dissidence. They make nice music unburdened by tropes of the prevailing zeitgeist, instead focusing on different projects to represent the different sides of music they see themselves in conversation with. This particular project focuses on each musician’s interest in the relationship of prepared and unprepared strings – metal in the case of the piano, nylon in the case of the guitar.

Dainty, plinky smallnesses pervaded the opening minutes, from which Risser transitioned to slow and simple gestures. She didn’t engage in a lot of busy activity, but her use of the pedals caused continuous layers of notes and chords to expand. I couldn’t see Reis from where I was sitting, but I could see the audience’s heads turned to devote 100% of their attention on his movements. I didn’t hear anything beyond vague chromatic rumbling, so I was surprised to see so much focus on him (I was told later that he engaged in a lot of elaborate choreography to attack and prepare the strings).

The set didn’t so much develop as change. When the wind shifted, their alacrity allowed them to embrace it. Soft got crusty, crusty got thick, thick got blue and green and dry. Overall, it was pleasant. And not just simply pleasant, but profoundly pleasant, with gurgles of depth supplied without the histrionics of rowdy shouts or precious whispers.

[ism] is Pat Thomas (keys), Joel Grip (double bass), and Antonin Gerbal (drums). They were the fifth trio of the festival, which makes sense considering that the festival is three days long and this was the 41st edition – 4+1, etc. – so, 5 x 3 = now, vintage. This trio can go anywhere, do anything, rollick this, swing that, groove groove groove explode and levitate. Everything about the set felt like the positives of where jazz can be, if we let jazz be jazz (rather than the embalmed antiquarian pastiche its American protectorate has barb-wired against international development.) Sorry, that’s the second squirrel I’ve seen run across the power lines carrying a gigantic orange today, and I think it deserves congratulations, not reprimands.

Pat Thomas is one of my favorite pianists, composers, and arrangers of ever, so I’m compelled to joy by his presence. Serenity in wildness followed all the crazy patterns these guys got into.

Something had to come last, and this year it was a percussion summit featuring Hamid Drake, Elisabeth Flunger, Els Vandeweyer, and Aly Keïta. Summit was right: these artists perch at the top of their abilities to connect to life through the use of their instruments. Summit was right: this was truly a meeting of different philosophies and backgrounds. For one, Flunger played “trash percussion”––random sheets and boxes and tubes of aluminium, plastic, or any other material she liked the sound of, all placed on a table––while Keïta played a traditional balafon. Drake opened up the performance in a duo with Keïta, singing in the most inviting and luxurious tones of spiritual yearning, connection, transcendence, and all-consuming openness.

The music took me over. Vandeweyer’s vibraphone and Keïta’s balafon twisted radically new rhythmic DNA strands like a garland of jubilant laurels within my skull. And just because Flunger’s materials were of the everyday variety didn’t mean she was a neophyte with nuance: her timing was every bit as dynamic as Drake’s. The set didn’t end so much as merge into the atmosphere, surrounded within and without by gratitude for its existence. Amid an impossible present, the only rightful answer seemed to be letting the music do the leading.
About the Author

Andrew Choate

Andrew Choate is the author of author of several books including "Stingray Clapping" and "Learning". He is the curator of The Unwrinkled Ear concert series in Los Angeles and "the world's foremost bollard photographer", according to Slate.

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