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Friday, August 19, 2016

Three Day A L'arme!

Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Kristoffer Lo
By Martin Schray with a little help from Paul Acquaro

In 2012 Louis Rastig and Karina Mertin launched the first A L'arme! Festival in Berlin, presenting a program of contemporary jazz and improvised music, both radical and polarizing. Free jazz legends met with a younger generation, which has more of an inclination for pop and rock.  There were the old guard: Peter Brötzmann, Sven-Åke Johansson, Irène Schweizer, Han Bennink, and Uli Gumpert, and a younger generation: Mats Gustafsson, Neneh Cherry, Ken Vandermark, Peter Evans and Caspar Brötzmann. The program was praised by both press and audience, and further festivals followed in 2013 and 2015 (in 2014 there was only one concert, which doesn't really qualify as a festival).

This year the festival's tag-line was Inner Landscapes and Unknown Chambers, with an ambitious, diverse and challenging line-up of musicians. Most of the bands were from Europe and there was a focus on string instruments – cellos, harps, guitars and violins –  and the human voice. The program included only few free jazz top dogs like Brötzmann and Gustafsson. Artistic director Rastig’s strategy was to attract a younger, alternative rock audience with an affinity to art, theater, and electronic music, for example: the festival began at the Berghain, Berlin’s legendary techno club (notorious for its stringent bouncers). This year, it was standing room only throughout, familiar from rock festivals where the audience is wedged together.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend the first day at the Berghain, and missed Laniakea (with Massimo Pupillo on bass), Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld and Fire! feat. Oren Ambarchi. Talking to guests who had been there, all the three gigs were described as deafening, a feature of the techno-designed speaker system. As to the music, especially Fire! feat. Oren Ambarchi, it was "wild, energetic and loud" (Peter Gannushkin).

Thursday started with Mohammad, one of the projects eagerly awaited, since their albums Segondè Saleco, Lamne Gastama and Som Sakrifis received favourable reviews. Originally a trio, they were reduced to a duo (Ilios on contrabass and Nikos Veliotis on cello) and looked like a goth-metal band. Most striking of all was the physical presence of the bass, you could feel it vibrate through your whole body. The performance however, was surprisingly stale. There were hardly any changes in the compositions. Emotionally and musically, it was rather boring. About half of the people left the hall.

Luft: Mats Gustaffson and Erwan Keravec
Things could only get better, and Luft (German for “air“), Mats Gustafsson’s duo with Erwan Keravec on bagpipes, had an easier time. After a short passage finding out where the set should go, they were an excellent example of mutual listening and communication. Keravec delivered a spectrum from minimal music to saxophone-like sounds and Gustafsson showed that he is much more than a fire-breather. The third part on tenor was excellent, his circular breathing technique providing an interesting contrast with the bagpipes.

The day closed with Transfer, a project that The Ex’s Andy Moor and Anne-James Chaton have been working on for several years. Situated in an art rock context (including videos) it was musically coherent. But what sense does it make when at least 90 percent of the audience cannot understand Chaton’s spoken word performance (in French)? Subtitles would have been helpful here. Again, many left early.

Joe McPhee was announced to play on the Friday in a trio with Lasse Marhaug and Paal Nilssen-Love but the gig was canceled before the festival started. In any case, Friday was supposed to be the lucky day for the festival, however, the first band was not our cup of tea: The Great Hans Unstern Swindle, a darling of Germany’s alternative magazine Spex, which also supported the festival. The performance was reminiscent of arty farty New Wave, including some slightly pretentious lyrics (“when will burning up cars finally be regarded as street art“).  Maybe we're too petty bourgeois for this kind of music, or maybe it's just a bit old hat – we decided to leave after ten minutes. As with the day before, another false start.

This gig was followed by Seval, which is Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Fire! Orchestra’s Sofia Jernberg (vocals), David Stackenäs (acoustic guitar) Emil Strandberg (trumpet) and Patric Thorman (double bass). This was one of the positive surprises of the festival. Lonberg-Holm's compositions are in classic song format, often referring to jazz standards of the 1920s and 30s or modern pop. The songs are given a different spin with off the wall soloing and especially Jernberg's voice, bearing a distinctive timbre. An unusual set.

The day was completed by Trondheim Jazz Orchestra featuring Kristoffer Lo. The orchestra included some prominent names like Thomas Johansson (of Large Unit and All Included fame) and Mette Rasmussen. Again, the music didn’t have much to do with jazz, the compositions were more rock orientated, say Radiohead played by a big band. Nevertheless, the group was in good shape and the performance contained the outstanding moment of the festival: Mette Rasmussen’s enthusiastic alto solo in "Make Fame". The audience freaked out, and even her band members smiled approvingly.

The final day reputedly contained the most promising artists - Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh, Anna Högberg Attack! and Sabina Meyer/John Butcher/Matthias Bauer. It started with a solo performance by Berlin-based Israeli bassist Yair Elazar Glotman. He focused on bowing on an amplified double bass, and with the assistance of pedals, he created a series of layers and oscillations which resulted in a trance-like atmosphere. But it became a bit tedious after 15 minutes. Brötzmann followed, the duo with pedal steel guitarist, Heather Leigh - a pairing which has previously proved  reliable. It was an odd performance, however. There were beautiful moments, as when Brötzmann played romantic passages on tarogato, and the last section, with a splendid break on tenor (cut off out as he had to replace his reed). Leigh tended to deliver static phrases and textures, a choice that didn’t seem to fit with Brötzmann. When her playing sounded more like Sonny Sharrock, there seemed a better match. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen often. It was also striking that Brötzmann took a lot of breaks, leaving the field to Leigh. Usually, he steers the performance, but when he took a break he was coughing and seemed unwell. Worrying.

Anna Högberg Attack!
To conclude, there was Anna Högberg Attack! in a smaller hall and Meyer/Butcher/Bauer in the studio loft (limited to 100 people). It’s a concept the festival has established in previous years and it makes sense when the bands play two normal sets so that you can choose whether you want to see both or two sets by the same ensemble. Both groups played 25-minute-sets which cuts matters short just as you’re getting into it. As to the music, Högberg’s band played well, mainly pieces from their very good eponymous album. Högberg (on alto) and Lisa Ullèn (on piano) are excellent musicians.

Bauer, Butcher, and Meyer (l-r)
Mayer/Butcher/Bauer, on the other hand was an entirely new collaboration, and on the fifth-floor space with large floor to ceiling windows looking out over nighttime Berlin, the trio cast an unusually captivating spell.  Though not having performed before as a trio, the three musicians seemed to have quickly found common ground. Vocalist Sabina Meyer stuck to mainly wordless singing, mimicking the instruments at times and at others making the sort of haunting tones only the human voice can. Saxophonist John Butcher alternated between his dazzling command of multiphonics and more traditional playing. Bassist Matthias Bauer, brother to trombonists Conny and the late Johannes, provided a strong backbone as his partners circled and swooped about.

It was disappointing that these two acts, arguably the strongest of the festival, were presented simultaneously as a full set from each would have been deeply satisfying. Regardless, exhausted after three days of concerts, we decided to skip Fovea Hex, the final act of the festival.

In a nutshell, A’Larme! Festival Vol. IV left mixed feelings. Some performances were disappointing, a few were good, and sadly, none were outstanding. Louis Rastig succeeded in attracting a new clientele but he might put off traditional fans of improvised music, not only due to the selection of artists but also because the organizers decided to offer standing room only, which is tiring after a while. This led to a some disturbances during the sets and it was harder to concentrate on the music. Then again, Radialsystem V, the main spot, is a beautiful location. It would be great if there could be another festival next year (as always the organizers have to fight for cultural funding, without which such a festival would be impossible). But it would be nice if they‘d go back to line-ups like first two festivals. And seats. We’re not getting any younger.