Agustí Fernández (Day 1)
By Colin Green
The pianist Agustí Fernández turned sixty last year, and in celebration Maciej Karlowski – journalist, jazz critic, curator, CD producer and chairman of the Sluchaj Foundation – invited him to perform over four days during the Ad Libitum (At Liberty) festival in Warsaw, choosing three of the formats himself with Fernández directing a group of musicians for the fourth performance, who were left to him. The concerts are on each of the four CDs that make up this set, more a book than a box.
In his liner notes, Fernández is almost apologetic for the diversity of material and suggests there’s a unifying thread which runs through the performances, though he’s reluctant to say exactly what it is. I don’t have a problem with diversity however, and this is one of the most varied collections I’ve come across. Versatility is a prerequisite for playing free jazz and it might be said that as in life, musical character is best considered in different settings, and is rarely reducible to just one thing. The festival celebrated Fernández’ multifaceted imagination and his ability to both blend with others and make his music distinctive. The funding for such events in Poland, and the commissioning of new works, is something one would like to see more often in other, more affluent countries. As with any lifetime retrospective, it can only represent the view at the time. As Fernández puts it: “This retrospective, as a summary or inventory of my work, makes sense now, not before or after”.
What emerges is a musical figure of outstanding ability and singular vision, a combination of both free jazz and aspects of contemporary composed music. He’s spent time with Cecil Taylor but also studied with the composer Iannis Xenakis in Paris, and cites Paul Bley and Evan Parker as major influences. According to Fernández, we have moved from a musical world with an exclusive focus on notes to one in which tones and sounds predominate: “The way we perceive sounds and music has changed…In every sound there is a note, and every note is a sound as well”. This duality can be heard throughout the works performed at the festival.
The title piece, ‘River, Tiger, Fire’ is a Conduction of the Ad Libitum Ensemble of ten musicians – Wacław Zimpel (alto clarinet, ukrainian trombita, khaen (laotian bamboo mouth organ), Ray Dickaty (soprano & tenor saxophones), Gerard Lebik (tenor saxophone), Artur Majewski (trumpet), Dominik Strycharski (soprano, alto & bass recorders / blockflutes), Patryk Zakrocki (violin), Marcin Olak (electric, acoustic guitars), Rafał Mazur (acoustic bass guitar), Ksawery Wójciński (double bass), Hubert Zemler (drums) – together with Fernández, who directs from the piano. The title is taken from the closing passage of Jorge Luis Borges’ philosophical essay A New Refutation of Time, which seeks to establish that time does not proceed in a linear fashion although typically, it’s more an exercise in the play of ideas (as Borges points out: “new” only makes sense by reference to linear time). Similarly, for Fernández the notion of non-linear time has provided the inspiration and a poetic model for the work. The difference between objective ‘clock time’ and how it’s perceived in music is something that has puzzled him: “The many facets that rhythm can adopt are all facets of the same phenomena: how do humans deal with time in music, and how, through understanding these different conceptions, do we get to a broader concept of time?”
Fernández has plenty of experience working in this medium, having played in the larger ensembles of Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Mats Gustafsson, but he has a different role here. Arguably, the central issue with free jazz orchestras or big bands is how to marry the spontaneity of improvisation with overall coherence on the larger scale. This is a problem with which many have grappled over the years, with differing degrees of success, and a variety of methods have been employed: standard notation, graphic scores, numbers on cards, signs, hand movements, or any combination of them. There’s also Conduction, developed by the late Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris which has become increasingly popular (Fernández played with Morris on his ‘Conduction # 113, Interflight’ back in 2000). It’s a technique using prearranged signs and gestures to modify material in real time, but I confess to being a bit hazy about the details and how much it differs from the other options. I suspect there’s an overlap.
Thankfully, it’s not necessary for the listener to be aware of how exactly Conduction works in the piece as it’s only a means to an end, but it’s clear that the basic material is drawn from a common pool of motifs and rhythms, explored over the course of the work and returning in different contexts, evoking non-linear time. The other distinguishing feature is the various kinds of music that are played, a spectrum of colours and contrasts. Not a mishmash of indigenous dishes stirred together on the same plate but an exercise in how different music and genres can be put together, highlighting both salient sounds and common traits. Fernández has given careful consideration to the components he deploys and the whole piece is executed with gusto by the ensemble, successfully combining the freshness of improvisation with a bigger picture, neither inhibiting the other.
Divided into eight parts there’s no real sense of progress during the course of the work: it’s more an accumulation of views from different perspectives. There is nevertheless, a definite feeling of birth in ‘I’ as the undifferentiated sound of wind instruments is transformed into chirruping parts, and closure in ‘VIII’ as the piece reaches a stirring conclusion.
Fernández uses the forces at his disposal with restraint. Often, a section will begin with a chamber-like passage of unusual combinations: a recorder with vocal overtones accompanied by a scratchy violin (‘II’); jazz guitar, piano, soprano sax and double bass studiously unwrapping a motif (‘III’); the cursive line of the bass clarinet with pizzicato violin and acoustic guitar (‘IV’); and electric guitar harmonics and chimes (‘VI’). Gradually, Fernández introduces new layers and textures – an incessant rhythm which builds to a raucous climax (‘III’) and in ‘IV’ the bass clarinet takes on a definite swinging groove. ‘V’ is more static, dominated by the exotic sounds produced by placing objects inside the piano, then by the sound of gongs and woodblocks.
There’s also wit, an easily overlooked feature of music. ‘VII’ starts with a hypnotic rhythmic figure on acoustic bass guitar that had previously appeared as a sort of mad march in ‘II’, and forms the basis of a rock rhythm for distorted guitar and tenor sax. The riff is broken off twice to allow feeble interjections from violin and then trumpet, completely out of place. The music builds further but then fades away and we’re transported to a completely different location: a dialogue for violin and double bass, later joined by a delicate combination of bamboo mouth organ, flute and trumpet. ‘VIII’ is a mixture of Cajun and middle-eastern music over which the tenor sax plays a rousing melody. Labels might make this sound contrived, but the merger is effortless, as can be heard in the clip below.
‘Thunder’ is a performance by the trio of Fernández, Frances Marie Uitti (cello) and Joel Ryan (live “electronics” – which I take to mean, sound processing). So far as I’m aware there’s been no previous meeting of the three, though Fernández and Ryan have performed together on a number of occasions in Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.
The live electronic manipulation of instruments has been around for as long as I can remember (like much else in improv, it originated with the European Avant-Garde) and the fascination is obvious – an opportunity to extend the sonic palette and add new dimensions or layers to acoustic instruments with the potential of feeding material back, to be responded to in real time. Sadly, the actual thing has often been disappointing, with performers overwhelmed by the possibilities and in some cases, underwhelmed with the results. Improvised music is of course, open to all sounds, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. It depends on the context. Developing a musical language and judging the strengths and weaknesses of any new medium requires discrimination and inevitably, trial and error. Going digital resulted in huge technical advances, but musically it compounded the problem: even more options more easily obtained.
I recognise the dangers of generalisation and my exposure to such ventures is limited, but in my view the difficulties in live processing are rooted in a failure to take account of the clear differences between acoustic instruments and electronic sounds, reflecting their quite different genealogies. As a rule of thumb, the fewer instruments the better. When they revert to a more traditional role, the number increases, or there’s too much processing going on, there’s a risk of the electronics amounting to nothing more than an ambient haze, flooding the acoustic space and producing a monochromatic sound – usually resembling a swarm of bees – which over a long span is not terribly interesting and bears no meaningful relation to the acoustic instruments. At worst, electronic processing squashes the dynamics and washes out the textures of the instruments, robbing them of their expressive potential and providing nothing equivalent in return.
The most fruitful instances of live processing have been those which don’t overcomplicate matters and focus on common ground and areas where there’s a connecting tissue from one medium to another, allowing both sides to retain their timbral identities but also facilitating areas of transition, merger and ambiguity, exploiting the natural and the synthetic. Not an easy balance to strike, but something that’s achieved in ‘Thunder’. Piano and cello are an established chamber grouping but this is not typical of the music they usually play, with electronics grafted on. They largely limit themselves to simple phrases, gestures and textures as raw material for processing, each side respecting the territory of the other.
Significantly, what we get is an audible realisation of time passing together with memories of what went before, the processing allowing phrases and textures to reappear in different guises. High trills take on life of their own once segregated from the piano; col legno bounces on the cello become skittering sounds swooping across the soundstage; and a short upward motion on the cello returns at intervals, each time more distant until only a vague outline remains: a dying recollection subjected to the relentless procession of time.
There are periods when piano and cello are left to develop material alone with only the lightest of electronic touches: faint echoes and harmonic refractions – a simple melody on the cello is accompanied by its shadow lower down, or it carries on a ghostly dialogue with its delayed self. In ‘II’ there’s a passage where vaporous trails of sound float over sustained chords on the cello, which is actually quite moving (not something I ever thought I’d say of this medium, which generally appeals more to the head than the heart).
On occasions, there are more processes going on than one can keep track of, but this produces a sense of exhilaration rather than confusion – like a hall of mirrors, full of copies and counterparts. And yes, there are tremolo textures where it’s impossible to determine who’s playing (or has played) what, that become a pulsating body of sound which feels as if one’s being carried along inside a thunderous storm.
‘Live in Warsaw’ is a performance given by the Aurora trio where Fernández is joined by Barry Guy (double bass) and Ramón López (drums). The trio – named after its first album – has been a working unit for over ten years and has produced four previous albums. It’s a vehicle for exploring material within the trio format in a way not generally heard elsewhere in their individual output and can be seen as a confluence of two streams: the piano trios of Bill Evans, generally regarded as having set the standard by which the format is judged, and a continuation of Barry Guy’s previous piano trio with Marilyn Crispell (who recommended Fernández as her replacement) and Paul Lytton, which often used tunes from Guy’s other works in new arrangements. There’s more, of course: melody predominates, and there are some memorable tunes here. ‘A Moment’s Liberty’ (surely a tribute to Evans’ ‘Re: Person I Knew’) is full of brooding melancholy, richly orchestrated by Fernández in the opening and closing solo sections. ‘David M’ is played as a haunting Moorish melody, then given the slow blues treatment with twists and turns typical of the trio.
Noted for his tapestry of mercurial shifts and slides, Guy is equally gifted when playing a more traditional role, supporting and picking out counter-melodies. Complimentary dialogues between him and Fernández abound, with López providing shifting layers of percussion.
But the trio can morph into other regions where texture and pure sound are the focus, as when ‘Bielefeld Breakout’ becomes the volcanic eruptions of ‘Zahori’ before coming to rest in ‘Aurora’, the transitional passage played with quasi-baroque ornamentations on piano. Guy’s ‘Come and Go’ consists of hammered clusters on piano and dense thickets of bass and percussion, with the fragmented runs of Crispell’s ‘Rounds’ integrated into the mix.
The contrasts continue: after a beautiful reading of ‘Can Ram’, the performance closes with the bombastic ‘Algarabia” (Hubbub/Uproar).
‘Mnemosyne’s Labyrinth’ (the Greek Goddess of memory) is a mesmerising recital given by Fernández alone. All but one of the numbers appeared on his earlier El Laberint de la Memòria (The Labyrinth of Memory) (Mbari Musica, 2011). It amounts to a suite of pieces “inspired by Spanish folk music, both real and imagined. Perhaps it is my personal recollection of the classical Spanish piano from my student days on the island of Mallorca.” The acoustic of the Witold Lutowlaski Polish Radio Concert Hall gives the piano a sympathetic bloom, absent from the earlier studio recording.
This is a lovingly crafted homage to music that helped nurture Fernández’ musical personality. Mostly, it proceeds at a reflective pace, a wistful and dreamy atmosphere suggestive of the sun-drenched days of youth (later in life, it never seems to shine in quite the same way). His control of rhythm, colour and texture is impeccable throughout, music that sounds completely idiomatic. Fernández invests these simple tunes with a dignity and grandeur reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s treatment of standards in his solo concerts, using the types of phrasing, voicings and musical development one hears in classical piano music, giving something very personal a universal resonance. As mentioned by Fernández, there is a rich body of such music written by Albéniz and Granados, much of it based on Spanish folk music and popular song. One can hear its imprint in his playing generally, not just in this recital, especially in some of the spicy flamenco rhythms and the way in which he colours chords. ‘La Niña de la Calle Ibiza’ – previously recorded with the Aurora Trio – is a romantic ballad, perhaps a girl from Fernández’ youth (later in life, their memory shines more brightly).
There are also forays into more complex material: ‘Flamarades’ sounds like a group of hovering fireflies and ‘L’esmolador’ consists of a dancing line interspersed with soft scrapings across the strings. ‘Evanescent’ is a delightful play of cross-rhythms over the full range of the piano, followed by a motorised figure which gradually becomes a cloud of pedalled resonance in the bass registers, engulfing all.
As in the Aurora Trio concert, Fernández is alive to new transformations and further idioms, never settling into one kind of music for too long. This might also mirror the recital’s title, a series of free associations flowing one into another, and that identifying the tricks played by the filter of memory – the difference between an accurate recollection and one that’s rose-tinted – can be something of a conundrum.
The full range of Fernández’ activities extends beyond the music performed on this collection, but it provides a valuable insight into the broad base now available to improvisers and the sheer variety of projects with which they can be involved (finances permitting) – possibly a reflection of our increasingly pluralistic world. After listening to these performances, I realised there was a unifying thread and “labyrinth” provides the clue. Nothing akin to Ariadne’s thread but the labyrinth itself, which defies clear linear progress and suggests an aesthetic embodied in the ‘fictions’ of Borges (one of whose English language collections is entitled Labyrinths) moving at will between different periods and styles, blurring the fictional and the real, confusing original with copy, and embracing the enigmatic: making the familiar, unfamiliar. In other words, it’s the very diversity of these works which constitutes the unifying thread.
The set is available on CD and as a download from Bandcamp.
The Aurora Trio back in 2007 with Fernández’ ‘Can Ram’, which features in their performance on this set: