Festival Report

Artacts ‘17
By Ken Waxman

One of Austria’s ski resorts abutting the Alps, St. Johann in Tirol also attracts music fans during the annual artacts Festival. Attendees March 10-12 could be forgiven for being smug. While warm weather limited optimal ski conditions, music fans’ experience was elevated without using chair lifts. Case in point was the DEK trio, which opened the festival at the comfortable rustic Alte Gerberei performance space. While American tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark is wedded to jazz, Austrian drummer Didi Kern is involved with rock and Graz-based pianist Elisabeth Harnik at home in notated music, the resolution of these contradictions gave the performance its bite. Kern’s paddled beat lent veracity to Vandermark’s bar-walking sax honking, while Harnik’s pastoral patterning added emotion to abstract altissimo clarinet twists. Harnik’s attack could be brawny as well, extending her dynamic range by pounding darker phases from the lowest-pitched keys and plucking, rubbing and twanging inner piano strings. Although teaming with discordant touches, DEK’s sound never lost its sense of swing.

Different sorts of swing came from groups that ended that night’s performances with different definitions of jazz. Lotto: Poles, percussionist Paweł Szpura and guitarist Łukasz Rychlicki plus Australian bassist Mike Majkowski worked a groove equally influenced by minimalism and metal. Driven by the bassist’s repetative mordant pattern, the trio’s single selection began barely audible, worked up to a crescendo of buzzing guitar lines and drum crashes and dwindled to reductionism. Alternately foot-tapping and head-banging, the tune vibrated sharply in the middle as the tempo sped up to include Majkowski’s rhythmic finesse, bouncing and scraping his bow on his string set, and Szpura adding jagged notes sprinkles. Lotto’s antithesis was the Norwegian Cortex band of trumpeter Thomas Johansson, tenor saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ola Høyer and drummer Gard Nilssen. Freebop affiliates, Cortex’s set was divided among seven originals which showcased Alberts’s sharp but not biting reed extensions; cup-mute whinnying and strident obbligtos from Johansson; and Høyer’s bass strategies that varied from slap to slinky, often wedded to Nilssen’s clean beats. So in-step that they could vibrate similar inventive breaks a half-step apart, the front line was still loose enough to showcase snarky slurs from the saxophonist plus unsentimental ballad playing from the trumpet. Technically outstanding if somewhat bloodless, Cortex was artacts’ most conventional performance.

That couldn’t be said for British vocalist Phil, Minton who has been noisily sputtering vocal improvisations for decades. The following afternoon at the ornate St. Nikolaus-Kirche, Minton used body English, hand gestures and mouth motions to shepherd a 16-member choir of non-professions into a memorable instance of non-idiomatic singing. Despite the location, levity trumped liturgy; although there were a few instances in which a variation of Latin could have been vocalized, among repetative mouth clicks, pants, screams, yodels, quacks, throat-clearing and deliberate laughter. There were echoes of calypso, plainsong and gospel as the powerhouse performance moved to its own rhythm.

Saturday evening began with a solo recital by Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler. Gracefully gliding through changes in tempo, pitch and emphasis, her playing was embedded with romantic suggestions. Infrequently octave-leaping or vibrating pedals for additional strength, for variety she ricocheted plastic balls along the piano’s speaking lengthy or smacked internal strings with a soft mallet. At the finale the logic in her laid back approach became obvious as she segued into variations on “Solitude”. Two bands subsequently displayed contradictory interpretations of improvised music. Bauer Fehler, Roter Fehler was French alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet, Belgian bassist Matija Schellander and two Japanese players: Yan Jun on electronics and Seijiro Murajama, who produced an array of percussion noises with only one snare, one cymbal, one stick, one brush and small bells. Pauses were as frequent as faint pulsations from Jun’s software were continual. From his side Guionnet let loose with terse shrills or aviary whistles as Schellander sawed, slapped, buzzed and rubbed his instrument’s wood as often as his strings. Meantime Murajama produced enough rhythmic variety with snare paradiddles, bow strokes and rebounds on vertically held cymbals to make a full kit superfluous.

In contrast, Danish alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen’s quintet was galvanized by the dual kits of free jazz veterans, Sweden’s Raymond Strid and England’s Paul Lytton. While energetic improvisers, neither was a basher. Strid’s strategy varied from skin-top rubs to small pops on a toy xylophone; while Lytton broke up the time into units of forward motion using sticks on gongs and small cymbals as well as drums. A cross-generational effort, the younger saxophonist filled out the band with two bassists who were her near contemporaries: American Brandon Lopez and Swede Torbjörn Zetterberg. Rasmussen played intensely, combining ferocious Aylerian screams with sultry tongue slaps and circular breathing, frequently played a cappela. After the bassists’ broadened the rhythm with bowed thrusts, the saxophonist turned to vaudeville routine of saxophone prestidigitation from altissimo split tones to basso honks, inserting first a trumpet mute then a plastic drinking cup into her horn’s bell, creating unexpected textures. All along the rhythm section kept the excitement level high.

Matching wits the next afternoon with Viennese turntablist Dieb13 in an austere classroom-like space of the nearby Jugenzentrum, Rasmussen used a brighter tone which was parcelled into emotional reed smacks and short near-melodic bursts. This approach challenged Dieb13’s contributions that included unadulterated vinyl crackleing, scraped metal interludes and LP samples that included lyrical guitar lines, harmonized clarinets and electric bass thumps. The saxophonist’s dexterity was obvious as she used these found sounds to play against or as back-up to her solos. Timbres of another genre were emphasized during artacts final night at Alte Gerberei. Fronting an octet representing seven European countries Draksler confirmed that her aptitude extended to composition and arrangement. With the adaptations of folk tales from different countries sung and recited by Latvian mezzo Laura Polence and Icelandic soprano Björk Nielsdóttir, instrumental heft kept the versions expressive, adding sympathetic backing from Romanian violist George Dumitriu, Belgian bassist Lennart Heyndels, Dutch drummer Onno Govaert, Argentinean reedist Ada Rave and especially Dutch tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Ab Baars. Baars’ volcanic saxophone spetrofluctuation and biting clarinet peeps kept selections from becoming mere art songs, especially when the strings and voices harmonized too sweetly. Conducting one number from stage front hinted at Draksler’s ambitions. But she’s too far along creating a jazz-folk-notated music mixture to settle for mere artiness.

One pianist not seduced by froth is France’s Sophie Agnel, whose subsequent set, featuring Swiss turntablist Joke Lanz and American drummer Michael Vatcher. was easily artacts’ most robust. Spirited and nearly tireless, Vatcher output an all-encompassing beat that cemented the performance even as his rhythmic singularity came through via little instrument reverberations. If Dieb13 was a colorist than Lanz was a percussionist, scratching beats from the turntable itself as well as vinyl, using hand pressure plus sampled voice and music snippets to equal drum beats. Vigorously Agnel sourced staccato tones from the keyboard and threaded a cord among the piano strings for supplementary textures. Inside the instrument she utilized both its percussive and harp-like qualities, that when coupled with the others’ contributions, produced a rousing synthesis that was as orchestral as any swing band’s riffing.

Swing wasn’t in the plan of Will it Float which closed the festival in an elevated fashion. Credit accrued to Norwegian drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, who despite his youth, not only held his own with veteran British improvisers – bassist John Edwards, pianist Steve Beresford and guitarist John Russell – but intuited their concepts so completely that he could have been Zeppo Marx making an integral place for himself among his zanier brothers. Notwithstanding Beresford’s table filled with noise-making toys and junk that could be cranked, blown into, shaken or electronically animated, comedic inferences were secondary to the pleasure of watching expert players toss off improvisational challenges with seemingly effortless aplomb, while easily complementing or challenging one another. Russell’s continuous strummed patterns were idiosyncratically individualistic, yet never disrupted the group sound. The foundation on which the others’ playing was balanced, Edwards’ sonorous time keeping was spelled by sudden strokes or sweeps, hitting the strings and the bass’s wooden shell. When Beresford decisively turned to piano his keyboard stretches and slams were as swinging as they were strident, containing honky-tonk inflections plus Cecil Taylor-like kinetics. Suddenly though the set ended as subtly unexpected as it had begun, leaving behind astounding music echoes that couldn’t be precisely defined. This combination of mystery and technique pinpoints artacts’ yearly appeal.

—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2017