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Saturday, August 4, 2018

A L'arme Festival VI, Day 3. Berlin. 8/3/2018

I had been looking forward to Friday's program, and buoyed by last night's concerts, I was ready. Maybe what had piqued my interests most was that the line-up featured a solid core of free jazz, topped off with a bit of video enhanced electronic post-rock. Again the heat was an issue, but unlike earlier in the week, when the night temperature in Berlin hit an all time high, the evening was cooling off a bit and a slightly smaller crowd helped to regulate the temperature in the main hall, though not in the smaller Saal, where we begin our dripping.

Martin Siewert and Katharina Ernst
The opening group was the collaboration between guitarist Martin Siewert and drummer Katharina Ernst. The Austrian duo began with a klang, a noisy clash of string and pounding of the drums - a perfect wake up call if the heat was making anyone drowsy. A brutal few minutes followed, until a painful shriek from the guitar flew forth, over the basic beat, and something changed. Leaning over his electronics, Siewert began manipulating the oscillations and with Ernst, began riding a wave. As it crested and came rolling to the shore, the mood changed again. Siewert began playing chords, moving around the fretboard at an even pace, while Ernst pulled back and let in some air. The calm melted away soon enough, as the guitarist began to apply more random fingerings and a new clatter arose from the drums. The tempo sped up and the crush of sound became support for some distinct distorted guitar lines that Siewert then began to process and re-mix on his synthesizer. Using dynamics well to shape the music, they brought their well-timed set to a close over some finger-picked guitar lines and fading percussion.

Michael Zerang and the Blue Lights
Following a short break, the audience shuffled into the main hall where Chicago's Michael Zerang and the Blue Lights took the stage. The line-up was Zerang on drums, looking sharp with a great hat reminiscent of Luigi from the Mario Brothers, the ever solid Kent Kessler on upright bass, and the powerful horns of David Rempis (alto sax), John Dikeman (tenor sax), and Josh Berman (cornet). It was a classic line up, and they delivered an extremely enjoyable set of songs that played off a flawless juxtaposition of composition and improvisation. The stylish tunes had a cinematic quality to them with arrangements sometimes like film scores, with hints of big band arrangements (done on a very small scale!) and Middle-Eastern and far Eastern melodic elements. The first song "Dancing for Cigarettes" featured a solo by Rempis, who kept it close to the song's feel, followed by a more irreverent solo by Dikeman. On the tune "The Third Pythia of Flin Flon (for Shirka)", which Zerang dedicated to the late trombonist Johannes Bauer, Berman had a chance to stand out, which he did with aplomb, delivering a vibrant solo over the deep and bright groove. Kessler's bass work was stoic and powerful, often keeping to simply effective lines that supported and moved the music, but in the intro to the tune "Punch Uncle", which Zerang dedicated to Peter Broetzmann, he played a bowed intro that captured well the fury and romance of the saxophonist. A roiling solo from Zerang helped to close the show, and the audience was enthralled.

Elizabeth Harnik, Matilda Rolfsson, and Joëlle Léandre
In contrast to the compositions of previous show, the trio of bassist Joëlle Léandre, percussionist Matilda Rolfsson, and pianist Elizabeth Harnik, played off deep intuition and tacit understandings. There was little spoken between the three, except for some last minute tuning for the bass (which in the sauna like atmosphere is a terrible challenge for a wooden instrument), before they opened up with a quiet exploration. Rolfsson has an unusual approach to her instrument, turning the bass-drum on its head, she treats it like a floor tom, using brushes and mallets to manifest a quiet and textural percussive sound. Harnik approached the piano half on the inside - striking and scraping at the strings, and half at the keyboard - playing well structured arpeggios and tight melodic themes.  Léandre's bass work was, as usual, superlative. Her approach is both demanding and melodic, but open to suggestion. It was through this give and take that the three musicians generated the quiet and expectant atmosphere. Breaking into pairs and then reforming as a trio, they played off the tensions in their close interactions, leaving much unsaid, which only served to make what was played all the more powerful. They closed the set with their most intense piece, replete with Harnik striking hard tonal clusters, Léandre bowing and vocalizing without words, and Rolfsson making a quiet howl onto the expanse of her bass drum.

Phillip Gropper's Philm
Sticking in the smaller Saal, the next group up was saxophonist Phillip Gropper's Philm. Gropper is a busy member on the Berlin scene - he's been a part of Christian Lillinger's Hyperactive Kid, and is active on the WhyPlayJazz label (on which a live album from Philm was recently released, "Live at Bimhuis"), and with Philm he explores a type of modern jazz that has its comparisons with the math-jazz of Tim Berne. The line up was Gropper on tenor sax, Elias Stemeseder on piano and syntheziser, Robert Landfermann on upright bass, and Oliver Steidle on drums. The set opened with an atonal blast, some definitive whacks at the drum, and electronics slowly ramping up the tension. Gropper's blasts of tones slotted in with the blips of synthesizer and taut beats, and act like small musical units that begin like a box of micro-legos dumped out onto a table, which ultimately fit together into a 3-D musical object. These bits all add up, and through it, they bring the music to climaxes and then introduce new timbres. Stemeseder's switch to the piano provided a relief from the rhythmic patterns at the right moments, and Landfermann's fluid approach to his five string bass helps bridge the pieces. Overall tight and methodical, the music never relaxed into long melodies or solos, rather, it was a tightening and loosening of sound, and changes in the pressure, that moved the music along. Unlike the jump-cuts of John Zorn, or the modular repetition of Nik Bartsch, or the snaking and overlapping patterns of Snakeoil, Philm is an ever shifting bricolage of tones and textures, forced together into unsettling but ultimately satisfying music. 

Radian & Billy Roisz/Dieb 13
The end of the evening was turned over to the post-rock sounds and ambient visuals of Radian & Billy Roisz/dieb13. The collective of Martin Brandlemayr (drums, electronics), Martin Siewert (guitars, electronics), John Norman (bass), Billy Roisz (bass, electronics), and dieb13 (turntables), were set up in the main hall, each at table with electronics and/or their instrument, playing in front of the movie screen showing impressionistic films, guiding the music. I slipped out into the moderately cooler air of the night as another successful night of the festival wound down.


Nick Metzger said...

Thanks for the great coverage Paul, safe travels!