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Friday, November 24, 2017

Ribbons of Euphoria, Music Unlimited 31 Festival, Wels, Austria, Nov. 10-12, 2017 (Part 1 of 2)

Mary Halvorson’s Sound of Love 

Mary Halvorson. Photo by Cristina Marx.
By Eyal Hareuveni

The 31st edition of the Austrian Unlimited Festival, curated by American guitarist Mary Halvorson, was titled Ribbons of Euphoria, a quote from the Jimi Hendrix song “Bold as Love”. But after fellow-guitarist Liberty Ellman began to play on the last night of the festival the first notes of Charles Mingus’ classic “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” I thought that this edition of the Unlimited festival may be have been called as easily as Mary Halvorson’s Sound of Love.

The program of the Unlimited festival is curated every two years by a guest musician. Two years ago it was local hero Christoph Kurzmann and four years ago cellist Okkyung Lee curated the program. This year it was the turn of another female musician, as Unlimited festival is one of leading festivals when it comes to featuring women musicians in leading roles.

Halvorson’s program represented beautifully her musical persona - bold and opinionated, modest and shy, generous and humane. When the festival ended with a standing ovation for one of Halvorson’s most forward-thinking groups, Illegal Crowns, she simply smiled and covered her head with a hoodie, clearly embarrassed by the love of the audience. Besides, she is one of the very few guitar heroes who needs not more than one guitar to express their full, rich vocabulary.

Halvorson’s program for Unlimited 31 focused on guitar-oriented groups, mainly groups of Halvorson’s close circle of collaborators and a surprising selection of local outfits. All of them presented a more composed and quite different aesthetic in comparison to the more eclectic and wilder spirit of recent editions of the Unlimited Festival. But this is the beauty and the strength of the festival. Its audience, with many happy returning guests, trusts the festival’s artistic director Wolfgang Wasserbauer and the curators choices.

Friday, First Night, November 10

The first night of the festival, Friday, opened with the first of three Halvorson’s outfits that played in the festival, drummer Toms Fujiwara’s Triple Double, featuring another drummer, Tom Rainey (who replaced Gerald Cleaver who played on the Triple Double album (Firehouse 12, 2017)), two guitarists - Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, and two trumpeters Ralph Alessi and Taylor Ho Bynum (who played the flugelhorn and the cornet). The Triple Double musicians have been working closely in many formats and groups in the recent years. Ho Bynum, Halvorson, Fujiwara and Rainey have been working with Anthony Braxton; Fujiwara and Halvorson work together in the collective Thumbscrew trio and the Illegal Crowns quartet, in cellist Tomeka Reid quartet, and in double bass player Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus and many of their own groups. The close rapport between the six musicians enabled all to form multiple and multi-layered combinations. Fujiwara and Rainey created a percolating rhythmic basis, sometimes referencing to the electric-funky groups of Miles Davis and on other times locked in such a powerful groove, almost as the one of the Grateful Dead’s Rhythm Devils - Mickey Hart and Bill Kerutzmann; Halvorson and Seabrook deepened and colored the rhythmic ideas - Halvorson in more subtle, brief manner and Seabrook with more condensed, eruptive solos, on top of this, Alessi and Ho Bynum soloed. Alessi playing more ‘inside’ the themes while Ho Bynum clearly enjoyed soloing with completely ‘outside’ sounds. The addictive rhythm did not stop for a minute and Triple Double showed how modern jazz can be witty, powerful, and most of all fun.

Pianist Kaja Draksler and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva
As it happens often in this festival the second performance offered a totally different experience. The extroverted tone of Fujiwara’s Triple Double was replaced by the intimate, cryptic duo of Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva. These classically-trained musicians have been playing together for about ten years and recently recorded the beautiful This Love (Clean Feed, 2015). Their set explored adventurous ideas when both Draksler and Santos kept investigating the sonic spectrum of their instruments, inside the piano and with assorted objects on its strings and without the trumpet mouthpiece, close to each other and throughout the stage space. Their intimate, conversational duos suggested provocative thoughts, fond memories, delicate and fragile sounds and profound, rich languages.

The first local group - the trio Schmieds Puls, featuring vocalist-songwriter-guitarist Mira Lu Kovacs, double bass player Walter Singer, and drummer Christian Grobauer - was the first of many surprising choices of Halvorson. The trio has released two albums and Lu Kovacs has collaborated with local jazz group Kompost 3. Schmieds Puls’ songs are somehow influenced by the music of Tom Waits, dealing with themes of lost feelings and troubled relationships, brightened by the touching, emotional delivery of Lu Kovacs and her personal playing on the acoustic guitar which she named ‘trixie’.

The first night was closed with the quartet of American double bass player Stephan Crump’s Rhombal, that released its debut album last year (Papillon Records, 2016). Rhombal is Crump, who collaborates with Halvorson in the Secret Keeper Duo, tenor sax player Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and drummer Richie Barshay (replacing Tyshawn Sorey who has played on the Rhombal Album). Rhombal convened to explore Crump’s body of work dedicated to his late brother Patrick and the performance in the festival was in the middle of their first European tour. This set was the most jazz-oriented one of the festival, structured along clear storylines and coherent development of the strong rhythmic themes by Eskelin and O’Farrill, both choosing a reserved, contemplative tone that fitted the emotional, mourning spirit of Crump’s compositions.