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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Jazz em Agosto 2022 (Part 1)

By Paul Acquaro

Saturday, July 30th

The evening was cooling down, nicely, from the mid-90s of the late afternoon, and a very light breeze kept the air moving. After two years of festivals in modified formats and scope, the return to the outdoor amphitheater in the Gulbenkian gardens in the middle of Lisbon felt good in many senses.

Before the show. Photo: Gulbenkian Música – Vera Marmelo

The audience filled in, settling most of the semi-circle, quietly and expectantly. From behind the tree ensconced stage, the five members of Irreversible Entanglements, the first act of Jazz em Agosto 2022, emerged. A drum roll and a quick blast from the trumpet broke the seal, the festival had begun with trumpeter Aquiles Navarro's short melodic calls ringing out over drummer Tcheser Holmes' undulating pulse. Saxophonist Keir Neuringer and vocalist Camae Ayewa (a/k/a Moor Mother) started getting creative with percussion instruments, and a thump from Luke Stewart's double bass brought everything together.

Irreversible Entanglements. Photo: Gulbenkian Música – Vera Marmelo

From just the opening moments, the charisma was palpable. The rhythmic pulse and vibrant interplay set the perfect conditions for Moor Mother to deliver her powerful opening call to action: "what are you going to do with all these riches, this history?" A potent and open ended enough question to give the listener pause, but even more powerful under the commanding delivery. It did not feel like she was asking an abstract audience, rather it was me, and the people sitting around me. As the need to answer swelled, the horns delivered a cascade of notes, giving me time to think. Their playing slipped in tightly with rollicking rhythms of the drum and bass, and the powerful band propelled Moor Mother's kinetic words as she sculpted the mood in the amphitheater.

Without the complex intertwining work of Holmes and Stewart, the effect would be different. Their propulsive energy is at the heart of the group, making the caustic tones and catchy melodies from the front line even more powerful. However, it was more than just powerful playing, as nuance and dynamics served an important role too. One of Neuringer's taut solos ended in a cluster of notes supported by his circular breathing, while Navarro worked more elongated tones over an swirl of electronic tones of his own making. Neuringer also switched to the synthesizer, adding additional textures to the band.

Interestingly, Moor Mother's approach has also changed over time. It seemed in earlier years that she was reading her poetry to the band's music. However, using tonight's performance as the only evidence, she seemed to have left the written texts and relied more on intuitively succinct and evocative phrases which she phrased, rephrased, and let effectively convey their own meanings.

Irreversible Entanglements brought their suite-like set to an end with Moor Mother asking "they talk about freedom, but do you know free love?" Hell if I knew, I was still mulling her first question. 

Completely unconnected, a small shooting star crossed the sky high above the stage during the set.

Sunday, July 31st, 3:30 p.m.

Another hot day in Lisbon, a city of rich culture and even richer topography. A mid-afternoon event was planned at the Jazz Messenger's record store across the city near the river front and there was plenty of time to walk. So I packed a bunch of water and set out over the hills, through the changing neighborhoods, down to the river front, and to the LX Factory in an old industrial area turned hipster hotspot (more from last year here).

Inside Jazz Messengers at the LX Factory. Photo by João Brilhante

In connection with the festival's theme, "Chicago, New York, Lisbon," International Anthem, the highly successful record label out of Chicago, many of whose artists were performing at the festival, was being showcased in a panel discussion. Expertly moderated by Portuguese music journalist Rui Miguel Abreu, International Anthem was represented by Dave Vettraino and Alejandro Ayala and the Finnish record label/magazine We Jazz by founder Matti Nives. The conversation, flowing and thoughtful, covered topics including International Anthem's rapid success, and why, in 2020, WeJazz would start up a print publication when the trend is to go online. The answers mostly came down to community. International Anthem had grown from the rich musical scene in Chicago from where it draws from its vast network of musicians and WeJazz's magazine from the international community around the music label.

Following the short discussion, the action moved to the record store to a DJ set by Ayala, which demonstrated just how well International Anthem has its finger on the pulse. Following the set, which skillfully wove hard hitting jazz with lighter groove oriented cuts, a young woman from Lisbon asked where else Ayala DJ'd. She was probably a bit disappointed to hear Chicago.

Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother, 6:30 p.m.

Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother. Photo: Gulbenkian Música – Vera Marmelo

Back at Gulbenkian, the first musical act of the day was flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother. In the smaller auditorium, the two musicians emerged from backstage, and took to their stations. Mitchell had an assortment of electronics as did Moor Mother who also had a set of percussion blocks on a stand. Mitchell then started off the performance by playing a reserved melody on flute, while Moor Mother added some shaker percussion. Next, in a sharp contrast to her approach with Irreversible Entanglements, Moor Mother whispered "we must remember..." and from there, the two enveloped the audience in a shroud of enlightened darkness. 

The shards of poetry evoked emotions of long suppressed consciousness, thankfulness, and in a more general sense, existence. The power of the poetry is inextricably linked with how nebulous but precise it can be, and this combination of music and text achieved just that effect. It was ancient and timeless, and brought to life through breath and technology.

"Do you feel safe," intoned Moor Mother, over the effected sounds of Mitchell's small hand percussion. The atmosphere had been getting thicker, Mitchell being ever more creative with the electronics, and Moor Mother adding new layers to the poetry. The building tension, though, never reached a breaking point, and the performance in an ellipses, leaving the audience wanting more. 

(The duo has a recording: 'Offering - Live at Le Guess Who')

Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra, 9:30 p.m.

Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra. Photo: Gulbenkian Música – Vera Marmelo

Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra is a behemoth. On stage were the 13 musicians credited below, which contains many well known names on the current creative music scene. In his hands though this beast can be both lumbering and graceful.

The musical beast awoke slowly with a gentle stirring melody and diffuse percussion, and then, after a pregnant pause, rumbled to life with a heavy groove. The group swung between deep and atonal to light and melodic, like one waking up and shedding the dreamworld for the real one. Ingebrigt Håker Flaten held down a steady line on the upright bass as the woodwinds added colors and the percussion helped quicken the pulse. Nicole Mitchell took the first solo break. Energetically, she pushed searingly into jazz-rock territory. This eventually lead into a captivating composed section, in which Mazurek left the conductor's spot and picked up his piccolo trumpet and engaged in a call-and-response with the entire band. Following this, there was a set of duo exchanges, first Mitchell and Håker Flaten, then trumpeters Jaimie Branch and Mazurek, who traded barbed melodic lines. The episodic suite next shifted its attention to spoken word from Damon Locks, who through heavy effects, delivered a thematic text festooned with celestial allusions and ending in stardust. As electronics overtook voice, Mazurek began playing in reaction to the words and his tones were captured, processed, and re-released back into the air.

As each movement ended, the next one would come in with some sort of hook, be it a generous anthemic melody, a rhythmic idea, or some combination thereof. There were many of these moments, and a particularly effective one was a rhythmically based section that gave French guitarist Julien Desprez a chance to play a skronking solo. An exchange between Locks' vocals and Angelica Sanchez's piano felt a bit dreamlike, to which Neuringer added some additional texture. The group soon settled into a CTI melt of melody and rhythm that had heads in audience swaying to its sweet, longing mellifluous sounds. Of course, it did not last that long, as Mazurek's more primal instincts came to bear and led to a cathartic scream, and Locks was also activated into dance, which eventually took him on a tour of the entire stage.

The orchestra played a long, varied set. There was a lot to enjoy, challenging moments to chew on and accessible moments to digest in. The end of the performance brought the audience quickly to their feet with applause, and after a pause, Locks and Mazurek returned to the stage for a spunky impromptu  exchange of electronics and trumpet for an encore.

The Exploding Star Orchestra:
  • Rob Mazurek - composer, piccolo trumpet, electronics, modular synthesizer
  • Damon Locks - texts, voice, electronics
  • Nicole Mitchell - flutes
  • Keir Neuringer - alto saxophone
  • Tomeka Reid - cello
  • Pasquale Mirra - vibraphone
  • Julien Desprez - electric guitar
  • Jaimie Branch - trumpet
  • Angelica Sanchez - piano
  • Ingebrigt Håker Flaten - double bass
  • Chad Taylor - drums, rercussion
  • Mikel Patrick Avery - drums, percussion
  • John Herndon - rhythms machine