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Saturday, November 25, 2017

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

Mary Halvorson, curator of Unlimited 31
By Eyal Hareuveni

Saturday, Second Day, November 11

American viola player Jessica Pavone, who collaborates with Halvorson in an art-song duo, began the second day’s afternoon solo concerts at the ancient, church building of Minoriten, playing the viola with a set of effects. Pavone used wisely the huge and tall, resonating hall of Minoriten and experimented with with space and time. She transformed fleeting, lyrical folk-songs themes, into minimalist, repetitive drones, and then into rich textures full with overtones and sparse, alien sounds, as if she was performing a modern-day ritual in this hall that once was hosting sacred rituals. The following performance “Shabby Metal Radio Rap” by Wels-born Raumschiff Engelmayr (Spaceship Engelmayr) -  the guitarist of the local alt-rock trio Bulbul (in which drummer Didi Kern of Vandermark’s DEK trio plays), at Kornspeicher was a stand-up comedy. It meant more to the ones who fully understood the dialect of Upper Austria but had its share of funny moments.

The evening program began with the Swiss Trio Heinz Herbert, the only non-American or non-Austrian group in this edition of the Unlimited Festival - the brothers, guitarist Dominic Landolt and keyboards player Ramon Landolt and drummer  Mario Hänni. The Trio's recent, third album, The Willisau Concert (Intakt, 2017) was praised in this blog and the Trio's performance gave plenty of reasons to reaffirm these praises. Trio Heinz Herbert knows how to create infectious, hypnotic grooves that float freely between the sonic universes of free jazz, art rock, techno and noise, without losing the tension for a minute and with strong senses of form, adventure and humor.

Susan Alcorn
American pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn followed with a magical solo set. Alcorn played on Halvorson’s recent album, Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016) and her set was in a way an antithesis to the roaring performance of another pedal steel guitarist, Heather Leigh, who performed in last year’s edition of the festival with reeds titan Peter Brötzmann. Alcorn's subtle, poetic set connected seamlessly her abstraction of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s enigmatic “I Await the Resurrection of the Dead” to Argentinian nuveo-tango composer Ástor Piazzolla’s emotional homage to his dead father “Adiós Nonino” and to a beautiful song of fellow-Argentinian folk singer Mercedes Sosa with sparks of country gospel. Alcorn evocative stories between the pieces deepened the mysterious, almost spiritual atmosphere, of this untimely music.

The only performance that disappointed many, included me, was by the American quartet Seven Teares - vocalist, synth and harmonium player Amirtha Kidambi, vocalist-guitarist Charlie Looker, guitarist, portable organ player Robbie Lee, and drummer-percussionist Russell Greenberg. Seven Teares’ mediaeval-like Power Ballads, which is the title of the quartet's debut album from 2013, sounded way too dramatic and lacked the charm and humor of such songs, as performed by the wave of British folk-rock groups from the seventies or the more intricate, poetic versions of ECM’s The Downland Project (with double bass master Barry Guy, reeds player John Surman, and tenor vocalist John Potter).

But soon enough, the first-ever acoustic guitars duo of Mary Halvorson and Deerhoof’s John Dieterich compensated the audience. Halvorson has followed Deerhoof and Dieterich for many years and he has collaborated in recent years with jazz musicians as clarinet player Ben Goldberg, drummer Scott Amendola, and pianist Thollem McDonas. This set bridged between the rough, direct playing style of Dieterich and the more subtle, angular lines of Halvorson. There were times that it was clear that Halvorson’s language is far richer than Dieterich’s but she articulated with a remarkable generosity. She challenged Dieterich to explore and experiment her ideas, interacted with his hesitant thoughts with gentle attention and humor and turned this set into a joyful meeting, full of innocent adventures and dreams that came alive .

The second evening was concluded with an explosive set of local heroes, the trio Radian - bass player John Norman, guitarist and electronics player Martin Siewert and drummer and samples player Martin Brandlmayr. It was the only set in this festival that matched the level of massive energy and volume of previous editions of the Unlimited Festival. Radian played pieces from its recent, excellent On Dark Silent Off (Thril Jockey, 2016) where its music juxtaposes contrasting approaches. There are times that the trio sounded as tripping in psychedelic, abstract clouds and then, in an instant Radian transformed into a tight, wild beast erupting from a huge volcano, flowing with a noisy lava of manic rhythm, embraced by dense walls of nervous guitar, electronics, and bass sounds. Brandmayr injected drum machine like incessant grooves, Norman anchors it in a tight, distorted envelope, and Siewert swirled it all into alien stratospheres with concise symphonies of sinister riffs, waves of ecstatic feedback and suggestive, electronic noises. Radian operated as a super-coordinated unit even in its most noisiest, wildest moments, always close to a verge of a spectacular meltdown, but just in the last second changes course and builds the tension methodically, again and again, leaving the excited audience demanding more of this addictive stuff.

Sunday, Third, Last Day, November 12

Robbie Lee, who performed the night before with Seven Teares, proved that he is a much more interesting musician when he is on his own. He played on the first afternoon set in the ImPavillion Baroque flutes and no-cables electronics boxes. Lee and Halvorson are at work now on an album where Halvorson plays the banjo. Lee investigated wisely the timbres of the flutes in the acoustically-shaped building,  sketching delicate overtones and microtonal ideas coupled with the buzzing sounds electronics boxes, somehow sounding like twisted Indian ragas.

Following Lee, in another afternoon set, BAG - Christof Kurzmann on vocals and the ppooll software and Swedish alto sax player Anna Högberg, known from Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra and her groups Attack and Doglife, Both are half of BAGGER quartet but trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and turntables master Dieb13 could not make it. BAG offered a dreamy, intimate set that began in a melancholic note, when Kurzmann referred to the the recent Austrian election and the dark, stormy weather outside the MedienKulturHaus, but soon moved to an emotional  soundscape that featured an ironic interpretation of “Lazy Sunday Afternoon”. Kurzmann and Högberg connected so naturally and there were times that both sounded as one, extending and expanding each other ideas and sounds, in a kind of poetic talk of close, loving friends.

The evening concerts began with a free-improvised solo guitar set from Joe Morris, from whom Halvorson took private lessons from while she was a student at Wesleyan University. Morris demonstrated masterfully how a spontaneous improvisation can turn into a coherent composition. Morris has a unique sound of his own and throughout the improvisation he played with with distinct themes and developed complex rhythmic patterns, later shifted and then were reintroduced again, suggesting a fragile backbone of this one of its kind, uncompromising piece.

The next set changed the atmosphere completely. The local trio Gabbeh - Golnar Shahyar on vocals and berimbau, Mona Matbou Riahi on clarinets (she played in a duo with guitarist Golfam Khayam on ECM’s Narrante, 2016) and Manu Mayr on double bass (who plays on the local Kompost 3), is titled after the art of Persian carpets made by nomadic women. Gabbeh adopted the ancient tradition and weaved evocative and highly personal arrangements of Persian folk songs with strong, contemporary sensibility. Gabbeh performance was intensified by the captivating, theatrical-dramatic delivery of Shahyar and the imaginative, colorful playing of Matbou Riahi. Viola player Jessica Pavone joined Gabbeh for the encore and added to the hypnotic intensity of these enigmatic songs.

The Liberty Ellman Trio performed next - Ellman on electric guitar, Stephan Crump on the double bass and Kassa Overall on drums. This set offered iconic pieces that highlighted the brilliant, refined guitar work of Ellman. The Trio began with a majestic cover of Sonny Sharrock’s “Promises Kept” (from Ask The Ages, Axiom, 1991), moved to an emotional reading of Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” and concluded with an impressive interpretation of an Andrew Hill composition. Ellman played with no effects or pedals, building his potent solos meticulously and economically with not even one note that sounded redundant.

Unlimited 31 Festival was concluded with the third of Halvorson’s groups - Illegal Crowns - with French pianist Benoît Delbecq, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and flugelhorn and cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum. The quartet performance at the festival was the first in its European tour in which it recorded the follow-up to its self-title debut (Rogue Art, 2016). The title of this highly creative quartet, suggested by Halvorson, captures the essence of this collective quartet. An irreverent, thoughtful but always playful experiment with new sounds, dynamics and complex textures, borrowing ideas from jazz and contemporary music. Ho Bynum's new composition that offered variations on Duke Ellington and French composer Olivier Messiaen stressed the depth, imagination and the unique poetics of this excellent quartet. A great conclusion to another great edition of the Unlimited Festival.