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Monday, November 19, 2018

Unlimited 32 Festival, Wels, Austria, Nov. 9-11, 2018

By Eyal Hareuveni

This year’s program of the Austrian Unlimited festival offered a spectrum of the young, promising and challenging outfits in Austria, Europe and in the United States, with few heavyweights of free music kept for the last night. 22 challenging sets of creative music over three days, not one of these sets allow you to linger in any conventional comfort zone, but all attracted an appreciative audience of few hundred attentive listeners, most of them regulars and doing their pilgrimage to Wels annually. They say that you can’t choose your family but you certainly can choose your community and in Wels you can meet a strong community of like-minded of people who share with you - literally - more than musical tastes.

First Day

The evening sets of the festival began with distinctive piano outfits and the first night introduced one of the most promising piano trios, Punkt.Vrt.Plastik - Slovenian, Amsterdam-based pianist Kaja Draksler, Swedish, Berlin-based double bass player Petter Eldh and fellow-Berliner, German drummer Christian Lillinger, who has collaborated before with Eldh in the Amok Amor quartet. The title of this trio who has released just now its debut album (Intakt, 2018) refers to the Swedish word Punkt - point, but also associated with a statement, the Slovenian word Vrt - garden, or where a musical ideas are being cultivated, and Plastik that characterizes the plasticity of of this trio musical structures. And, indeed, the trio introduced a bold and challenging syntax to its complex pieces. Eldh and Lillinger would begin each piece with a muscular rhythmic pattern that often sounded as if it continues another pieces, closer to its last Punkt than to a conventional beginning, then let Draksler shape and color her own territory within these dense patterns, The trio pieces would terminate abruptly this kind of demanding interplay and begin again, further away, mid-piece of a complex structure and then strive for a simpler solution.

The Austrian quartet Kompost 3 - slide trumpeter Martin Eberle, keyboards player Benny Omerzell, electric bass player Manu Mayr and drummer Lukas König - has been working together since 2009, first in a shared apartment in Vienna’s 3rd district, and already released five albums (the most recent one, Abyss, JazzWerkstatt Records, 2018), one album of remixes and a single with local singer-songwriter Mira Lu Kovacs. Kompost 3 is known has an outfit that distances itself from any stylistic conventions and its performance offered its current incarnation as a jazz quartet that its rhythmic foundations are rooted in European techno and hip-hop and its harmonic horizons are aimed at abstract ambient skies, still, sounding as a far relative of jazz quartet as Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob when it comes to its refined tension building and its powerful groove.

The Chicagoan quartet of alto and tenor sax player Dave Rempis, double bass player Joshua Abrams, drummer Avreeayl Ra and pianist and ARP synthesizer player Jim Baker offered a completely different version strong, earthy pulses and imaginary flights. The first ever European performance of this quartet, that outgrew out of a trio of Rempis, Abrams and Ra (Aphelion, Aerophonic, 2014) and released its debut double album two years ago (Perihelion, Aerophonic, 2018), melted different yet sympathetic sonic universes. Ra, an alumni of the Sun Ra Arkestra, laid powerful polyrhythmic basis; The muscular playing of Abrams deepened these driving rhythms and on the other side Baker abstracted their infectious pulses into refined, minimalist textures on the piano and later to noisy soundscape on the vintage synthesizer. Rempis - in the middle, literally - navigated wisely this passionate, energetic flow, alternating between charging it with more power or steering it to more contemplative passages.

Peter Evans
This night ended with a wild and hyperactive performance of the New York trio Pulverize the Sound - trumpeter Peter Evans, electric bass player Tim Dahl and drummer Mike Pride. The trio just released now its sophomore album, simply titled Sequel (More and More, 2018), but its performance was far from simplicity. The trio justified its title and these three sonic terminators played as if possessed by manic power, equipped with ultrasonic speed, in a sacred mission to explore otherworldly timbres, but while keeping a delicate balance between three uncompromising generators of sounds that could have easily supply enough energy for all Upper Austria. Evans, in particular and with a remarkable circular breathing technique, created tsunamis of sounds with his mini, quarter-tone trumpet, as if legions of trumpeters backed him.

Jamie Branch
In between these sets, and in a smaller hall, New York-based trumpeter Jamie Branch and tenor sax player Anna Webber performed short solo sets. Branch offered a series of highly inventive noisy drones spiced with an eccentric sense of humor that made full use of the distinct amplification system and the hall acoustics. Weber experimented-improvised with extended breathing techniques, carefully shaping and morphing her attacks into coherent statements.

Second Day

The second day began with two afternoon sets. The first one presented a quartet of two like-minded duos, the Swiss one of electronics player Gaudenz Badrutt and accordion player Jonas Kocher, that has been working since 2009, together with the duo of German clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski, known from The International Nothing duo, and local hero Christof Kurzmann on ppooll software and vocals, both released a duo album in 2006 under the moniker Kommando Raumschiff Zitrone (First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Quincunx Sound Recordings) and continue to collaborate in the Magic I.D. quartet. This set centered around the quiet, minimalist gestures of Fagaschinski while Bardutt, Kocher and Kurzmann embraced the almost silent commotion with more subtle and transparent sounds, sketching together delicate and suggestive soundscapes. Later, actor Natascha Gangl and vocalist-electronics player Maja Osojnik and synthesizer-laptop player Matija Schellander performed a play in German “Wendy Pferd Tod Mexiko”, that left the non-German speakers enjoying mostly the parts that were sung by the expressive Osojnik.

The evening sets began with another piano trio, but, as usual, completely different from the previous night. French pianist Sophie Angel, Swiss, Berlin-based turntables player Joke Lanz and American, Amsterdam-based drummer Michael Vatcher played together for the first time in the summer of 2016 at the French Météo Festival but not much more since then. But this time lapse did not affected the tight and almost telepathic interplay of this trio. These three highly inventive improvisers - Agnel with her unique playing inside the piano, Lanz with his punkish sense of humor and the rebellious drumming of Vatcher - opted for a kind of fast, dadaist conversation. There was no attempt to sketch coherent narratives or establish rhythmic patterns. but to lure each other into eccentric, often ironic, kaleidoscopic labyrinths of weird, always subversive and most of the time friendly sounds.

The next set expanded even further this of suggestive interplay. The Viennese duo Cilantro of paetzold flute-cassettes-electronics player Angélica Castelló and electronics and electric bass player Billy Roisz, was expanded into a sextet titled Piñata with Norwegian double bass player-vocalist Guro S. Moe, American, Berlin-based trumpeter Liz Allbee, French Revox wizard and electronics player Jérôme Noetinger and fellow-Viennese drummer Katharina Ernst. Piñata music collided a strong physical dimension - the wild shouts of Allbee through the trumpet mouthpiece, the trumpet without a mouthpiece or the trumpet with a sax mouthpiece, the brutal intensity of Moe and more reserved but totally charismatic drumming of Ernst - and the more introverted yet powerfully emotionally whirlwinds of alien sounds that Castelló, Roisz and Noetinger created. Once you thought that you could hang on a stable sonic ground within the nervous gestures of Allbee, Moe and Ernst, then Castelló, Roisz and Noetinger would seduce you to their enigmatic and cryptic universes. One of the highlights of this festival.

Hannah Marshall (c) and violinist Alison Blunt (v)
Next we experienced the British school of free-improvisation with one of its finest outfits - the duo of veteran alto and soprano sax player Trevor Watts, the founder of the legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and pianist Veryan Weston together with younger cellist Hannah Marshall and violinist Alison Blunt, titled as Dialogues with Strings, after their first album, Live at Café OTO in London (Fundacja Słuchaj. 2017), that documented the quartet first ever performance. Their performance offered a similar kind of collaborative openness, mutual trust and organic dynamics, where these distinct improvisers constantly shaped, abstracted and colored each other ideas, making the whole bigger and stronger than only four musicians.

Jamie Branch’s Fly or Die
The night ended with a set of trumpeter Jamie Branch’s Fly or Die quartet - drummer Chad Taylor, cellist Lester St. Louis and double bass player Jason Ajemian, all originally from Chicago but reside now in New York. Branch opened with the powerful “A Prayer to America” that stressed her kind of punkish-hip-hop approach, focused on hypnotic layers of rhythm, backed by the always masterful Taylor and intensified by St. Louis and Ajemian. Taylor, St. Louis and Ajemian left Branch enough space to articulate her emotionally-driven song-like themes, often based on single-note, repetitive patterns. The restless Branch did fly constantly all over the stage, near and far from the microphones, offering her tough, uncompromising sound, but she won me and many others when she spread her wings far away from the stage, playing a touching ballad as an encore, deep within the enthusiastic audience, sounding like no other.

In between these long sets Jim Baker presented a solo set on his ARP Synthesizer, that sounded as inspired by the title of his solo album More Questions Than Answers (Delmark, 2005). He literally conversed with this vintage, wayward instrument’s plugs, cables and keys while attempting to decipher its otherworldly transmissions into a reasonable narrative. Swedish, classically-trained violinist Anna Lindal, member of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra, played an enchanting recital that moved naturally between exploring delicate bowing techniques, that produced meditative sounds, and improvising on folk themes, with sparks of engaging humor and captivating elegance.

Third Day

The third and last day of the festival began with the documentary film “Leaning into the Wind” about the Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy by director Thomas Riedelsheimer and with a soundtrack of Fred Frith. Later on the afternoon, at the picturesque Catholic seminar Bildungshaus Schloss Puchberg at the outskirts of Wels, two ad-hoc duos performed one after the other. The New York-based Canadian tenor sax player Anna Weber and Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder performed written compositions that highlighted the unique sax attack of Weber, sounding as inspired by the solo work of Anthony Braxton, and the rich language of Stemeseder, who abstracted and enriched any gesture of Weber, with reserved elegance and arresting imagination. Later local vocal artist Agnes Hvizdalek, based in Oslo, and contrabass clarinetist Susanna Gartmayer presented a much more experimental set. Their free-improvisation began with a shout but immediately settled into a clever and highly expressive conversation, comprised of fractured phonetics and extended breathing techniques.

Hamid Drake
The evening began with another set with a pianist, this time the first ever performance of local Ingrid Schmoliner with master drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake. Schmoliner is known as an experimental improviser and composer who expands the tonal language of contemporary avant-garde music with her striking wooden preparations inside the piano and she has developed a highly personal percussive language. This free-improvised set reached quickly to meditative, transcendental regions, with Drake sketching ritualistic pulses and spells, attentive to any idea of Schmoliner and gently encouraging her to dare more and explore together the infinite depths and colors of her hesitant pulses and his earthy polyrhythms.

The New York-based CP Unit - led by tenor sax player Chris Pitsiokos and with guitarist Sam Lisabeth, bass player Henry Fraser and drummer Jason Nazary, performed a set that was based on the quartet’s recent album, Silver Bullet in the Autumn of Your Years (Clean Feed, 2018). The music of the CP Unit sounded as it was shot from a loud canon, arranged in almost prog-rock, complex mathematical formulas but often glided to a reckless, madcap chaos. Pitsiokos himself crisscrossed this joyful interplay with sharp, powerful shouts and led this passionate unit from one fast collective improvisation to another twisted one.

Bay Area’s trumpeter Darren Johnson’s Reasons for Moving was formed in 2005 as a free-improvised unit with guitarist Fred Frith and tenor and sopranino sax player Larry Ochs of Rova Saxophone quartet. Reasons for moving released so far only one only one self-titled album (Not Two, 2007), with bass player Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith, and reconvened for a short European tour again this autumn that began in the Unlimited festival with French double bass player Sébastien Jeser and Swiss drummer Samuel Dühsler. This quintet offered nuanced, poetic textures that instantly morphed from intense, free-improvisations into rich and colorful narratives, charged again and again by the fiery blows of Johnson, the always inventive sonic palette of Frith, the wise interventions of Ochs and the orchestral ideas of Jeser and the thoughtful coloring and sheer energy of Dühsler. All Five improvisers sounded as if they were tapped to the same profound a source of ideas that kept propelling this exciting set to higher and higher skies.

Before the closing set, cellist Lester St. Louis and Argentinian trumpeter Leonel Kaplan performed short solo sets at the smaller hall. St. Louis improvisations explored the timbral range of the cello strings and its wooden body with extended bowing techniques with unique microphones setting. Kaplan explored a whole together different language, almost totally silent, made of quiet breaths and minimalist whispers into the trumpet mouthpiece and gentle touches of the trumpet buttons. Often he sounded as producing electronic white noises, but eventually succeeded to suggest an arresting intensity and remarkable emotional depth.

Fire! Orchestra
The Unlimited 32 Festival ended with a magnificent set of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra. Every performance of this big band is considered as a once of a lifetime experience but this performance of the fourth version of the Fire Orchestra, only 14 musicians, was the most emotional and moving one that I have experienced. The new composition “Arrival”, to the words of vocalist Mariam Wallentin, emphasized a different sound - acoustic and lyrical - and surprising instrumentation, focused on a strings quartet and clarinet section, with core members - vocalists Wallentin and sofia Jernberg, double bass and electric bass player John Berthling, drummer Andreas Werliin and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and Gustafsson himself on the baritone sax. Wallentin and Jernberg delivered this powerful piece with natural charisma and unique passion that only emphasized the powerful appeal of this one-of-a-kind Orchestra, even in its most reserved and modest mode. Wallentin led the Orchestra also in the encore, a surprising but sober cover of Chic’s “At Last I’m Free”, inspired by the cover of Robert Wyatt to this song.

The artistic director of the festival, Wolfgang Wasserbauer, notified the audience that next year, same place, Unlimuted 33 will be curated by German pianist Magda Mayas, Japanese guitarist and daxophone player Kazuhisa Uchihashi and legendary American reeds player Joe McPhee, titled “40.60.80”.


Nick Metzger said...

Wow, finally finished reading this mammoth! Great piece Eyal!