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Thursday, July 6, 2023

Festival Causa Efeito - Lisbon, Portugal, June 28 - July 1, 2023 (Part 1)

By Guy Peters

Throughout 2023, Lisbon’s NOVA University celebrates its 50th birthday with a wide range of activities, from exhibitions, conferences and debates dealing with current topics (gender equality, the challenges of chatGPT, sustainability, etc.) to a jazz festival aligned with the university’s research for the future. Pro-rector Clara Rowland, head of the festivities’ Cultural Program, approached Pedro Costa (Clean Feed) to assemble a program - aimed at the general audience, as well as international critics and curators - that might offer some clues about where jazz is heading in 2023.

The result was a four day festival - Causa Efeito - with a strong focus on Portuguese jazz, presenting some of the forward-thinking practitioners of the local scene, as well as some foreign artists with ties to the label, several of whom presented a brand new album. Would the event live up the university’s culture of innovation?

Wednesday June 28th

To kick things off in a proper way, a roundtable discussion (‘Jazz - que presente?’) was organized to focus on three general topics: the current state of jazz (is it dead and if not, what does it mean?), the act of publishing music in the early 21st century, and the presence of women in jazz. While the first two subjects offered some interesting insights into the many ways jazz can be approached, as well as some regional differences (Pedro Costa and singer Beatriz Nunes offering a Portuguese perspective, music critic Stewart Smith adding his two cents about the Scottish/UK scene, yours truly about Belgium), is was the third topic that led to the liveliest discussion.

Nunes, who besides her artistic practice is also an academic researcher, was well-prepared and armed with statistics about female presence - or more accurately: absence - in the field of jazz (festivals in particular), and made a passionate call for change. While the need for and importance of change was obvious for all involved, the tempo at which it can be made, was another matter. In any case, the past few years have seen a much-needed acceleration in some areas and more awareness overall, and while change at the very fundamentals (society as a whole, music education,...) takes time, it shouldn’t stop anyone from actually doing something. And the festival? Seven out of thirteen concerts featured women. 

Sérgio Carolino. Photo by Nuno Martins.

Costa also tried to show that nowadays, jazz involves a broader range of instruments. Throughout the festival, less common instruments such as accordion, pedal steel guitar and feet (more about that later) would make an appearance, but the first one to make an impression was tubist Sérgio Carolino with his self-made lusophonein a beautiful room of an old college. Carolino is a major figure for his main instrument in Portugal, being the principal tuba player in the Porto Symphony Orchestra Casa da Música for over twenty years. He is also experienced as an improviser, appearing on Clean Feed since its earlier days, while in 2022 he released the solo album Below 0

The colossal lusophone ‘Lucifer’, designed by Carolino from different parts of old tuba models, and looking like a piece of futurist antique straight out of a China Miéville novel, has some relations in avant-garde jazz - think of Sam Rivers’ Tuba Trio with Joseph Daley or Peter Jacquemyn’s lower-brass celebration Fundament -, but perhaps also some connection to a guy like Colin Stetson, mainly because of the use of electronics/effects. Carolino started with a thunderous steamboat roar, to take you for a ride through an imaginative universe full of dolphin whistles and submarine sonar pulses. The effects occasionally sounded ambient-like, but suggested something far more iridescent.

While the first part of his program served as a fine taster, it was the longer second part that turned his brief 30 minute-performance into an excellent festival opener. In it, he moved from dense and urgent 70’s flick pumping (think: The Taking Of Pelham 123) with uncanny turntablist scratch sounds to something more minimalist, en route playing with trombone-like resonances and majestic calls announcing a new Battle of Helm’s Deep. While that all might sound grandiose-on-steroids, there was actually no macho posturing or miked-up braggadocio. On the contrary: Carolino slowed down, sang, slapped his gigantic bell, let his droney sounds dissolve until there was nothing but an eerie echo left. A consistent half hour that made a convincing case for the presence of the tuba in modern jazz.


Carlos Bica ‘Playing with Beethoven’. Photo by Nuno Martins.

The remainder of the concerts would be held in a modern auditorium that apparently is never used for concerts, but that despite its too large size became an excellent location for most of the festival concerts. The largest attended of them all was the one by Carlos Bica ‘Playing with Beethoven’ . The Portuguese bass player has been living in Berlin for years, but obviously has a large and loyal following in his home country. Understandably so, because the man’s stylistic range is as wide as his sound is impressive. While he first made a name for himself beside a variety of vocalists in the fields of fado and jazz (Maria João, Carlos Do Carmo, Camané, etc.), Bica was also one of the musicians that paved the way for the emergence of a new wave of Portuguese jazz that coincided with the founding of labels like Clean Feed and Creative Sources at the start of the millennium.

For his latest release, Bica surrounded himself with a stellar band, featuring saxophonist Daniel Erdmann, accordionist João Barradas and DJ Illvibe (Vincent von Schlippenbach, son of Alexander). Soon, it would become clear it was the kind of concert any festival would love to conclude its opening night with. It built on the enormous legacy of romantic composer Beethoven with imagination and intricacy, it was jazz with an unlikely combination of instruments, and it managed to combine adventurousness with accessibility. From the start, it avoided becoming a stodgy, overly serious affair, with transparent structures, a fine alternation of light-footed pieces and melancholy introspection, and moments of sheer beauty, spun from Erdmann’s juicy sound, Bica’s warm, wooden tone, Barradas’ subdued virtuosity and Illvibe’s role as the quartet’s wild card.

The music moved from the gracefully cinematic to the darkly propulsive, managed to groove without a drummer and to gently disintegrate with Illvibe as the ever-creative sound collagist. It jabbed with staccato movements and droned smoothly, merged serene chamber music with brief moments of Carl Stalling-lunacy. “Tiny Change” was a quirky reworking of Tom Waits’ “Small Change” and a bit later Barradas was given a solo spot for a magnificent work-out, “Für Nikolaus Johann van Beethoven”. The sweeping “Per Aspera Ad Astra” found the band at its closest to elegant classical music, while Illvibe’s solo piece was a colorful, layered masterstroke displaying an uncanny sense of timing and control. And if the tormented “Julie” was an unsparing punch in the gut, the closing “Lucky” was the ideal playful lullaby to send everybody into the Lisbon night. 


Thursday June 29th

Guitarist Luís Lopes has to be one of the most idiosyncratic proponents of Portuguese jazz, an undefinable phenomenon active in the wildest margins of improvised music (his feedback-drenched noise solos) or there where improvised music meets jazz, rock and the avant-garde. Few of his projects have that all-over-the-place quality of Abyss Mirrors, for which he raised a line-up that tickles the imagination. With Maria da Rocha (violin), Ernesto Rodrigues (viola), Helena Espvall (cello), Bruno Parrinha and Yedo Gibson (saxes), Felipe Zenicola (electric bass), Jari Marjamäki and Travassos (electronics), Flak and himself (guitars), he assembled a tentet that feels like a walking contradiction, a clash of sound worlds, genres, backgrounds, personalities and temperaments. 

Luís Lopes Abyss Mirrors. Photo by Nuno Martins.

Their concert became that hard-to-define thing where improvisation and alienating sounds are constantly fighting over dominance, but never stop filling your mind with impressions. My little notebook contained almost six pages of scribbled text, most of it adjectives and exclamation marks, as the concert became an exercise in density and dynamics, the half circle of musicians constantly shape-shifting, sometimes with conduction by Lopes, into alternately feverish, chaotic and baffling areas. One moment, they almost reminded you of Miles Davis’ darkest fusion excesses, with Zenicola’s slithering bass pulsing like a throbbing wound. The next, they dove headfirst into contemporary avant-garde, with Lopes’ barbed-wire guitar an ultra-sensual extension of himself.

It was weird and angular, Gibson danced his peyote-infused dance as only he can, with a humongous heart and an irregular beat, simultaneously displaying that dazzling command over extended techniques, almost threatening with violence, while the electronics pair maintained an incessant subsonic rumble and mind-bending freakery, and Parrinha suddenly crying out emotionally, recalling the late Pharoah Sanders. The string trio served as a counterpoint foil in this psychotic see-saw, this convoluted fanfare that at its fiercest moments created a demonic intensity, a throbbing rumble with machine gun ra-ta-tats and shamanic howls. It became a kind of tribal folk trance that made you wonder where the hell it was going and if it didn’t go on for too long.

The band was spurred on by this friction. And perhaps it should be like that. Putting all the pieces of the puzzle into their right places and finding well-rounded closure would mean the death of this collective. Their damaged beauty or, perhaps more accurately, the beauty of their damage, is exactly what sets them apart, what baffles you and makes you feel as uncomfortable as some of them clearly felt by the end of their performance. Unease was at the heart of this concert, but despite all its labyrinthine excess, its denseness, its refusal to compromise and choose a clear direction, it became a trueevent, almost something to be complicit in as a witness. You get up and the ground below your feet turns wobbly. That kind of sensation.


José Lencastre, Hernâni Faustino and Susan Alcorn. Photo by Nuno Martins.

On August 4 of 2022, Susan Alcorn, José Lencastre and Hernâni Faustino gathered at Lisbon’s Namouche studio for a recording session. They shared pastries, tuned up and “(...) started playing without a word about what we would do” (Alcorn). The result is the addictive daydream of Manifesto and the concert was perhaps even better. Thirty seconds into their performance and you were already lost in another world, in which everything is turned upside-down. It was not the sinister one of Abyss Mirrors, but a different kind of atmospheric, cinematic one, with Alcorn’s pedal steel guitar a kind of weeping, twangy counterpart to Faustino’s restless bass.

The intensely entangled bond between those two instruments became one of the most beautiful of the entire festival, the two instruments interacting frivolously, like two playing dogs running after each other, unexpectedly changed course, with hopping intervals and mirroring swirling lines, agile and beautiful at the same time, Alcorn and Faustino sharing spidery runs, while Lencastre was given free reign to explore the upper register and find suitable replies. It was music that often became glowing, Alcorn intensely massaging the strings with the bar in her left hand, conjuring derailed dreams one moment, and aggressively rubbing the next, even using the bar as a percussion stick. She even made the pedal steel guitar sound like a banjo at a certain moment, with dizzying arpeggios.

Faustino, meanwhile, was an inspired discussion partner, joining Alcorn every step of the way, with fluidity and depth to his playing. For years, he has been one of those anchors of the Lisbon scene, modest and always serving the music. He still does that, is that, but it seems that there is an expressive self-assurance to his playing nowadays that is truly impressive. The man has stepped forward and become an absolute master of the instrument, quick-thinking and equally strong with and without the bow. Of course, that also implies that Lencastre gets free reign with colleagues like these. On both alto and tenor he explored a wide range of possibilities, from furious sputtering accents to more meditative approaches, getting wings while his colleagues exchanged looks of understanding and pure joy.

It was a striking performance that peaked at the end, when Alcorn briefly nodded to her country & western roots with something that reminded you of Patsy Cline or Hank Williams and next explored the high register with Lencastre, with Faustino for a change in the role of solo commenter, before he joined her again to climb up and down some ladders. Closure after all. Simply gorgeous.