Festival Report

Sibiu Jazz and More
By Ken Waxman

Situated in the dead center of Romania, Sibiu is a fortified medieval city of winding streets, whose hub is the connected Grand (Piața Mare) and Lesser (Piața Mica) squares, where every building appears to be of historical importance. Populated by citizens of German, Transylvanian and Romanian background, it seems appropriate that the Jazz and More (JAM) Festival highlighted high-quality international improvisers annually.

Chicago drummer Tim Daisy was one player whose performance and demeanor reflected Sibiu’s cooperative history during JAM’s 10th edition October 3 to 5. Not only did he turn in a spectacular display of free jazz interaction with long-time partner tenor and alto saxophonist Dave Rempis at JAM’s main venue, the soft-seated Teatrul Gong, but later that same night played a sympathetic duet set with Bucharest-based pianist Mircea Tiberian at the basement Bohemian Flow club in Piața Mica, then participated in a jam session that went on to 5 a.m. With Rempis, an animated Daisy bounced up, down as he clanked and clicked every variety of cymbals, blocks, bells, chains and other paraphernalia. In contrast the reedist stood stock still, reeling out stuttering, slurring or slashing phrases in many registers and intensities which angled perfectly into the drummer’s narratives Adding rhythmic blues riffs and Africanized inflections to tonal deconstruction, the duo ensured that each improvisation flowed logically from thematic roots and swung hard in its own fashion. Feeling his way with Tiberian, who craftily extracted multi-hued rhythm plus Monk-like single-note emphasis from an electric piano, Daisy was initially deferential. Quickly through drum-top dusting gave way to resonating buzzes and echoing strokes. By the time Tiberian was mixing staccato smears with dramatic theme extensions, the drummer uncorked enough rocking clatter to echo off the club’s stained brick walls.

On the European side, JAM’s busiest musicians were members of the Polish-German Tone Hunting quartet. Besides creating an exemplary set of connective originals that mixed echoes of the original Ornette Coleman quartet with European microtonality and Eastern European ruggedness, each shone in another context. Acoustic bass guitarist Rafal Mazur resourcefully demonstrated that in the right hands, the horizontal instrument is as versatile as the double bass; as Mikrokolektyw, Kuba Suchar’s fluid drumming and trumpeter and cornetist Artur Majewski’s brassy smears created unique patterns through live processing; while alto saxophonist Anna Kaluza was part of the Haman Quintet, whose violinist Alison Blunt also soared during a mesmeric solo performance in the nearby Johanniskirche chapel.

Sonically colliding and breaking motifs apart as they played, the Tone Hunters initiated distinctive tones more than they hunted. Playing off each others’ strengths, sustained creativity was attained in duo or full quartet interaction. The next day Mikrokolektyw literally amplified that concept, as processing created multiple brass and percussion additions which pulsated alongside the drummer’s fluid percussion sequences and Majewski’s compelling vocalized passion. Attaining near-total communication, electronic backing beats provided enough dance club flavor to impress the non-cerebral. Two days earlier, Mazur creatively showcased lute-like sweetness or staccato twangs as he finger-picked; and was equally adept bowing the strings, bending and buzzing textures from its neck downwards. Finally spanking the guitar’s back and waving it closer to and further away from its amp, he used feedback to shake out novel stridency. Following Mikrokolektyw, the Haman Quintet specialized in perfectly realized small gestures. An isolated reductionist tone from Blunt, Kaluza, soprano saxophonist Manuel Miethe, pianist Niko Meinhold or bassist Horst Nonnenmacher was often invested with as much potency as a symphonic intermezzo. As Meinhold hammered the piano strings with mallets or plucked them, squirming, spiraling reed breaths plus tart double bass plucks warded off any hints of affectation. On its own terms, the performance was as convivial as it was rigorous.

If raucous respite was needed, then American bands concluded each night with demonstrations of showy sophistication. Trumpeter Peter Evans quintet with pianist Ron Stabinski, bassist Tom Blancarte, percussionist Jim Black and Sam Pluta’s live processing was almost overwhelming in its technical finesse. Gurgles and wiggles from Pluto’s equipment created an undercurrent of dark menace, while the others played at full throttle. As per usual though, most of the fireworks came from Evans incendiary playing, which like early Louis Armstrong often reached what in other circumstances would be a climax of supposedly impossible textures and then kept pushing them upwards. The night before, tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon achieved a parallel feat, yet with veterans, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Barry Altschul on hand, his performance was less frantic, better paced and more attuned to the jazz tradition. The defining moment came during the encore when Irabagon emoted “I’ll Never Smile Again”, effectively limning the melody without condensation, but with enough heartfelt passion to suggest Ben Webster. Earlier as Helias’ unbroken walking bass line solidified the time throughout, the drummer whipped out rhythmic variations on drum tops, cymbals and bells during a series of foot stompers. Meantime the saxophonist advanced through the set with, modal extensions or by shrinking passionate notes into atom-sized bites.

In stark contrast, the first night’s concluding set was by drummer Billy Martin’s four-piece Wicked Knee, which made living large an understatement. Propelled by the brass connection of Steven Bernstein (trumpet and slide trumpet); Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) and Marcus Rojas (tuba) the exuberant group seemed to hit the stage already revved-up and continued to figuratively shoot out energy sparks. Newsboy-cap sprouting Bernstein was chief cheerleader; mob-cap wearing Rojos the unstoppable rhythmic foil; and Fowlkes, who also sported a cap, the refined soloist, who made creating affecting plunger smears or pumping out notes at AK-47-like speed, appear effortless. Meanwhile bareheaded Martin was relaxed enough to limit his solos to short breaks. Seemingly inexhaustible the tubiast puffed out an elephant trumpeting-like ostinato throughout as the others touched on timbres ranging through Trad Jazz, Cop-show-like soundtracks, Crescent City Second Line swing and unabashedly cheery R&B in equal measures. Culmination arrived when the trumpeter and trombonist snaked through the audience while playing, causing a few ticket holders to gyrate. Still while Wicked Knee offered good-natured fun it never neglected the profundity that characterized well-performed music.

Outside of exceptional sounds there was little to link the boisterous hi-jinks of Wicked Knee with Blunt’s austere tonal exploration. But both reflect the every-changing apex of 21st Century improvised music. It’s these significant currents which JAM’s director Mircea Streit aims to reflect each year.

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2014