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Monday, August 2, 2021

Jazz em Agosto 2021 - Day 3

Today, I took a walk to one of Lisbon's botanical gardens -- there are actually a number of places that could serve as such, but this one is the Jardim Botânico de Lisboa, a part of the University of Lisbon -- perched on the hillside near the old, winding streets of Bario Alto. The entrance was unexpectedly free, and as I began descending into the gardens, I was immediately struck with the desperate feeling of wanting to go three places at once: the bridge over a small fern festooned ravine, the winding path up to a small sitting area, and barrel on straight ahead to see what was next. What a delightful problem to hang onto for a moment while letting all the others go for a moment.

Winding through the paths, communing with heavy fronds, climbing up stairs past palms, oogling old trees with multihued bark, and passing an early 20th century observatory, I finally ended up at the entrance to the University's National Museum of History. The museum is a whimsical mix of 21st century immersive pedagogically-arranged multimedia exhibits and classical 19th-century display cases with a human and an ape skeleton, and colorful long ago embalmed birds. There is also a pristinely preserved set of rooms from the 19th century, including a gorgeous lecture hall and lab classroom, complete with casts of medical oddities and all sorts of curious and somewhat concerning medical instruments. I don't have a tie in here to the music, this was just a very pleasant, unplanned discovery. If you're in town, take time to visit.


João Pedro Brandão

João Pedro Brandão's Trama no Navio. Photo by Vera Marmelo – Gulbenkian Música.

Porto, Portugal's João Pedro Brandão's Trama no Navio is the woodwindist joined by Ricardo Moreira on Piano and synthesizer, Hugo Carvalhais on bass, and Marcos Cavaleiro on drums. For this piece, motion video, projected behind the band as they played, was provided by Alexandra Corte-Real. The combination made for a sublime 45 minute multi-channel experience.

The impetus for this project came from a soundtrack commission that Brandão contributed to for a screening of the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein, more specifically the second part of the film, Drama on the Deck. Taking the emotion and poetic imagery from the film, Brandão refitted the music to this quartet of musicians, along with Corte-Real's evocative imagery. 

Leaving the auditorium, I was struck by the depth of the piece. While frantically taking notes in the dark during the concert, I had been searching for adjectives and mnemonics to remember the moments of the music by, and one that I jotted the most seemed to be the word emotional. However, it was now not entirely clear to me whose, or what, emotions I was thinking about. It was a cheap short cut trying to capture the mix of gentle, but insistent, melodies, the rich counterpoint between the four musicians, and the abstract, yet grounded, images in motion behind them. It also had something to do with Carvalhais' riveting bass solo about half-way though the piece that elicited audience applause (that's a no-no during a serious piece, right?). But I could not get away from the word, emotional. It was even in the opening two bar figure that jumped from the sax to the bass and then to the piano. The sensitivity of the players was an important aspect of the piece, felt in the changes in dynamics and changes in timbre as Brandão switch woodwinds, or Moreira added a little synthesizer to the mix.

Another pseudo-adjective I jotted down was ECMish. Honestly, that one is an even dicier proposition. I wanted to acknowledge the sensitivity and balance between the instruments - like when the band slowly built to an intense state, a storm on the screen, a storm on the stage. It was not forced, rather it billowed from within, centrifugal forces swirling from sax to piano to bass to drums, slowly drawing in the clouds and roiling the ocean waves. At the end, we were washed ashore, an ECMish and emotional journey.


Fire! Photo by Vera Marmelo – Gulbenkian Música.

"Good evening," exclaimed saxophonist Mats Gustaffson from the stage of the Gulbenkian's large concert hall. "We're going to play some Fire music, very predictable, but we're looking forward to it like hell!"

He then pulled out his flute and blew a few wispy lines. The lines grew stronger, laced with a folksy whimsy. Then, there were heaving breaths, emphatic pushes of air through the instrument, it was delicate and tough at the same time. A prelude for what was to come.

Now, the bass. A solid, simple few note figure rooted in a natural groove, the type that may make your shoulders twitch and head bop a bit. The lilting beat took on a slight world music feel. The trumpet soon added a new tonal dimension, playing long, flowing lines that danced around the flute work. As the trumpet took over, Gustaffson stepped back and switched to the baritone sax -- kind of the opposite to the flute in terms of, well, everything but the player -- and started physically rocking back and forth, something was brewing. 

Cue the percussion. Under the trumpet's Arabic scales and dedicated, looping bass line, the bass drum and high-hat grew aggressively prominent. Finally, the trombone entered with a simple comping figure, but soon linked up with the trumpet and suddenly there was a brass band on the stage riffing off a simple repetitive and high infectious musical figure.
If this is what Gustaffson referred to as 'predictable stuff,' then maybe I completely misunderstood him, as I had not yet heard Fire!'s latest, Defeat (Rune Grammofone, 2021), and was expecting something more, umm, gruff. The core group of Gustaffson, electric bassist Johan Berthling, and drummer Andreas Werlin, have done something new and exciting, in both adding the passionate trumpet playing of Goran Kajfeš and the expressive trombone work of Mats Äleklint, as well as embracing a more varied approach. It is not total defeat for the nosier aspects of the group, the music still contains fiery elements, noisy electronic passages, and the deep cry of Gustaffson's baritone sax, there is however the amplification of the already existing funkier moments, established by the minimalist looping bass figures and deep pocketed patterns from the drums. It sets a different foundation for Gustaffson to explore the sweeter - and sometimes more laser focused -- sounds of flute, and compliments the rich harmonies from the horns perfectly.

Perhaps what was most impressive was the contrast that the new approach provided. After a mounting groove helped segue from an electronics based section to a primal bari-sax scream, Gustaffson switched quickly to the flute and a sinuous melody rose from the snake charmer basket that the bass and drums had woven. The music was not rushed, each musician had time to develop a solo passage, the others dropping out. A stand out moment was Äleklint's trombone solo about two-thirds of the way through the set, where he was able to capture and focus the entire attention of the generous room on the soft, metallic bite of the horn's round sound.

From the playful moments, like when Äleklint and Kajfeš traded back and forth with Gustaffson's electronics, to the moving moments from the tightly interlocking bass and drums, to the infectious repeating figures, Fire!'s hypnotizing performance connected with the sold-out audience. In fact, there are often moments in improvised sets where a group, after wandering the sonic landscape for a bit, congeals around a solid rhythm and the audience happily goes along. With this expanded version of Fire!, it seems like Gustaffson has bottled it.

End of the first half ...

Due to some scheduling difficulties on my end, I am not able to stick around for the second half of the Jazz em Agosto festival which starts on Thursday, August 5th with the compositions of the Pedro Moreira Sax Ensemble. The next night, percussionist Gabriel Ferrandini brings his multi-dimensional solo work to the smaller stage, followed in the main hall by the fantastic James Brandon Lewis Quartet. The next evening begins with another richly layered solo drums and electronics performance by Katherine Ernst, followed by the rock-influenced, but jazz rooted, Lisbon band Anthropic Neglect. The final night features the abstract power-trio from drummer João Lobo, and a closing performance from the Italian sextet Roots Magic whose explorations have blended the roots of jazz with accessible contemporary arrangements. Many of the shows are actually already sold out. I'm sorry to be missing these performances, as I suspect they will be as diverse as this weekend that has just drawn to a close. 

In these unpredictable times where planning, usually done well in advance, has become a day-to-day feat, last minute cancellations due to pandemic uncertainties impacted the festival in different ways, which was highlighted in a brief conversation with Jazz em Agosto's musical director, Rui Neves. The festival was difficult to plan, explained Neves. It began with a European focus and was transformed when Norway's restrictions made it impossible for some previously scheduled musicians to travel, but American bands were actually able to perform. Neves explained "the pandemic restrictions obliged us to think in a different way." In the end, sharp ears and agile thinking (not to mention a lot of behind the scenes work) served Jazz em Agosto well. Neves, who is always listening and checking out musicians and groups, takes it in stride, adding "to me it's like making a movie, and I'm like a film director, trying to find the natural way of presenting each band." 


Tony Simon said...

Thanks, Paul! Living vicariously through your vivid descriptions of being physically present for some live music-making -- may there be ever more!