Festival Report

By Ken Waxman

Multi-media, theatricalism and electronics were the motifs that kept cropping up during the Météo Festival (August 25-29) in this Alsatian city known for its textile industry and unique German-French flair. There were also plenty of intense improvisations in its venues, confirming the continued strength of the 33-year-old festival.

Artistic mixing was most prominent during Météo’s opening concert in the Italianate 19th Century Théâtre de la Sinne as the French Surnatural Orchestra interacted with a screening of Italian director Dario D’Aregento’s 1975 slasher film Profondo Rosso. Unlike most music-with-cinema programs where live playing is subordinated to the visuals, this bloody over-the-top Hitchcock-Goddard-Fellini pastiche was frozen at various junctures for limber solos by a dancer, a speaker’s pseudo-pretentious film analysis, a scream from the stalls, cabaret style singing and a Second Line march through the audience. Still, no sonic moments stood out, and the exercise could be liked to someone decked out in full Carnaby Street fashion surmounting the outfit with a Viking helmet.

Another instance of visual theatre was Japanese sound artist Rie Nakajima’s objects-performance, which took place in the round on the floor of the Noumatrouff, a funky venue on the city’s outskirts otherwise used for seated concerts. Diminutive Nakajima wound up a series of tiny objects which whirred, peeped and scuttled when in full flight then stopped. Visually engaging, the result suggested both a magic show and the climax of The Glass Menagerie.

Musically as well as theatrically salient, was a set by Rebetika on the Noumatrouff stage; and a solo by Japanese reedist Akira Sakata within the jammed 12th Century Chapelle Saint-Jean. Consisting of Cypriot Yannis Kyriakides on electronics and Ex guitarist Andy Moor, Rebetika linked the crude, Punk-inflected crunch of Moor’s six strings with recorded snatches of Greek blues-like vocals. When properly syncronized the results were jubilantly effective, with the artificiality of the concept forgotten. Imagine a bouzouki player backing an impassioned singer in a ’30 Athens dive. There’s nothing dive-like about the Chapelle though, and Sakata took advantage of its stone wall-echoes to project his bracing alto saxophone vibrations, bucolic clarinet whispers and the reverberation of miniature bells and cymbals among the statues lining the church. Distinctively Sakata varied his Gene Ammons-like playing with guttural, clenched-throat vocalizing that resembled undersea creatures’ murmurs as much as Mongolian shamanism.

French pianist Eve Risser and electronics-manipulator Jean-Luc Guionnet, who performed in the auditorium of the brutalist La Filature, home of Mulhouse’s symphony, created a program so anti-theatrical it was actually theatrical. Playing in complete darkness, the computer’s languid pulsation and sudden quickenings met keyboard clanks and inner-string lacerations to birth a droning lullabye-like interface, characterized by few dynamic changes and made doubly disquieting by the darkness. In contrast, fully-lighted, German laptopist Marcus Schmickler, Italy’s Francisco Meirino on alalog synthesizer and France’s Jérôme Noetinger using tape deck and mixing board, combined for an hour-long excursion in continuous sound-melding at La Filature. Hypnotic enough to cause dozens of audience members to recreate the hippie era by stretching out on the floor, but vital enough to illuminate its thematic architecture.

Classically Jekyll and Hyde, Guionnet revealed a radically altered persona at the poster-festooned L’Entrepôt cabaret. Playing alto saxophone he joined guitarist Oliver Benoit for searing, acoustic music. Guionnet impressed by buzzing microtonal slurs and stutters creating near pipe-chanter timbres which buttressed Benoit’s string hand tapping, snaps and unexpected flanges. Throughout an ostinato of vigorous strums from Benoit kept the foundation firm, allowing both to construct atonal or decorative motifs. Meanwhile, Sakata’s unmatched reed command was further confirmed during a closing night Noumatrouff set, with Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and bassist Johan Berthling. Imbued with free-jazz vitality, the saxophonist squeezed every inch of emotional resonance from his horn as if it was a toothpaste tube, and like a deep-sea diver rarely paused for breath as he created climax after climax. Pacing this timbral deluge were the polyrhythms arising from the percussionist who also swung without drowning the others’ timbres. Bravely facing these figurative Goliaths, the bassist was an unbowed David, chording categorically to maintain momentum.

Taking an antithetical approach were two soprano saxophonists: Denmark’s Lotte Anker duetting with guitarist Fred Frith at Noumatrouff and France’s Michel Doneda with percussionist Lê Quan Ninh in Chapelle Saint-Louis. Vertically improvising in short breaths Anker’s quivers and squeezes were subtly muted; infrequently but firmly propelled with hyena-like bites. Resembling a C&W session player, tapping table-top guitar for rainbow-like summation of Anker’s liquid solos, Frith’s capricious tremolos came from implements ranging from an e-bow to a stiff metal comb. At the Chapelle, Ninh used fingers, stick and real stones to source every nuance of timbres from a single, oversized bass drum. Responding haltingly with unfolding intimate constructions, Doneda’s pauses and foreshortened breaths made every tone transparent and pliable. The intertwined results fused in such a way that time sense was displaced.

An identical percussion set up was used by Norwegian Ingar Zach during Dans Les Arbes' set at Noumatrouff in a similar instance of time suspension. Fellow Norwegians guitarist Ivar Grydeland and pianist Christian Wallumrød, French clarinetist Xavier Charles plus Zach are like a crew of mural painters, gradually outlining edges of the canvas, using strokes, strums, smacks and slurs to color one section to reach a climax; then damping the interface with cymbal stick scratches, guitar string bowing and side-blown reed cries, regrouping until another climax, constantly repeating the process

Combining mesmerizing strands of electro-acoustic improvisation and virtuosic skill at Noumatrouff was saxophonist Evan Parker’s Nonet featuring trumpeter Peter Evans, bassist Barry Guy, drummer Paul Lytton, pianist Sten Sandell and cellist Okkyung Lee; plus Richard Obermeyer, Sam Pluta and Richard Barrett on electronics. Parker’s expressive tone and circular breathing was modified in response to Evans’ piccolo and standard trumpet sparkles encompassing mouthpiece kisses and indolent air-expelling. Lee’s spiccato swipes contrasted with Guy’s rappelling cycle of strokes that upped excitement by ricocheting sticks among bass strings and splayed the bow from various angles. Paced by Lytton’s jerry-built percussion, electronics were like piquant seasoning rather than making up the whole meal, generating an assertive drone that underscored rather than challenged the soloists. Instructively Sandell, Lytton and Guy sometimes comped like a standard rhythm section; and if there was any question of the ensemble’s jazz roots it vanished when the pianist interjected a skipping near-ragtime caper in the midst of dissonant group acceleration. Evans wasn’t the only impressive trumpeter either. Marco Von Orelli playing with fellow Swiss, drummer Samuel Dühsler and bassist Kasper Von Grünigen opened the festival with an afternoon set at the Mulhouse tourist office. Mercurial but motivated, the three easily dealt with supposedly limited tones by dividing up the program as if they were actors playing multiple roles. Besides keeping up a solid rhythmic thrust, the bassist stepped forward for below-the-bridge swipes and guitar-like snaps, while the drummer animated his processes with clattering cymbals and wood-block smacks. Picking up on the trumpeter’s insouciant buzzes and flutter-tonguing, they twisted accompaniment into logical tune extensions. Biting or bucolic, the perfectly matched trio members’ set confirmed there are plenty of younger players who deserve exposure. And it’s this impulse as well as providing a showcase for mature stylists that allow festivals such as Météo exist and thrive.

—For The New York City Jazz Record October 2015