Friday, July 7, 2023

Festival Causa Efeito - Lisbon, Portugal, June 28 - July 1, 2023 (Part 2)

By Guy Peters 

Friday June 30th

João Barradas. Photo by Nuno Martins

Accordionist João Barradas has become one of the most impressive practitioners of the accordion, popping up in the widest variety of contexts, whether it’s classical, contemporary music or modern jazz. A decade ago, he already recorded an album with Sérgio Carolino, and after that he worked with a.o. Greg Osby, Belgium’s Fabrizio Cassol & Aka Moon, Swiss drummer Florian Arbenz, American trumpeter Peter Evans and recently also Carlos Bica. Check out the documentary CONTINUUM to learn more about this remarkable musician, whose command of the instrument, combined with a hunger for new experiences, turned him into one of the most lauded Portuguese musicians of his generation. He was actually supposed to play in duo with bass player Hugo Carvalhais, but at the last moment, this became a solo concert. 

Since it coincided with the release of Solo II - Live at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence , it was perhaps appropriate and an opportunity to show his skills as an improviser. Immediately, it became clear that Barradas wasn’t there to impress with lightning-fast virtuosity. You can find footage of him as a 12 year-old performing complex material at breakneck speed, but now he used chromatic and MIDI accordions to tell a much more personal story. The MIDI model enabled him to explore different sound registers, sometimes having more in common with a glockenspiel or pocket-sized carillon than an actual accordeon. What followed felt like a strikingly personal trip through the mental and musical space Barradas inhabits.

For each piece, he switched accordions (he brought three models), made use of various extended techniques and the possibilities of stereo sound. Both starkly repetitive/minimalist and lushly imagined, he betrayed an intensely personal relationship with his instrument(s). Whether it was dense and dark with a droning foundation or allowing more melody and color, you could never pinpoint him on any genre or influence. From classical masters to folk-infused strains to idiosyncratic artists like Pauline Oliveros, it’s somehow all there, and it makes you wonder how he would approach music by Clifton Chenier. Perhaps some other time. This set felt like a calling card, with the abstract meeting the concrete, showing you the unfamiliar (an accordion sounding like a Wurlitzer piano) or making the familiar (Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and Miles Davis’ “Solar”) entirely new. He’s that kind of guy and it makes you wonder what the hell he’ll be doing in, say, a decade or so.


The Selva. Photo by Nuno Martins

Over the course of four albums, The Selva - Ricardo Jacinto (cello, electronics), Gonçalo Almeida (bass, electronics) and Nuno Morão (drums, percussion) - has grown into a powerful unit that effortlessly navigates between styles and atmospheres. Camar​ã​o​-​Girafa , their fourth and most recent album, is perhaps the peak of their exceptional chemistry so far, a relentless and ominous trip to a netherworld where form and freedom are kept in a tight balance. The trio delivered a performance of that album’s material, in chronological sequence. The exceptional sound quality and atmospheric lights only strengthened the overall experience. 

One of the many striking things about the band is that the members, despite their individual qualities as musicians, rarely opt for obvious displays of technical superiority. Imagination, control and exploration in depth are obviously more of a concern than technique, and so their music develops at its own pace, with three sculptors of sound completely attuned to each other, letting acoustic and electronic elements, the pure and the manipulated coexist. So what you get are eerie vibes, with growling, distorted effects, conjuring a stark ritualism that at some point had more in common with the grandeur of Swans and the direction of a festival like Roadburn, than one for improvised music. But it works, because the elements of freedom and discovery remain at the trio’s core.

They moved through a monochromatic landscape with melancholy nooks and thunderous peaks, alternated with massive Neu!-like motorik grooves, Eastern vibes and demonic chamber music. The interplay was alternately free and tight as hell, the band occasionally turning into a slightly deranged percussion trio, with Jacinto laying down the cello strings up, and switching back to a total trance, with manic intensity and metronome drumming for bobbing audience heads. The concert was nothing less than a masterclass in tension and release, and by the time they returned to more restrained territory for their final part, you’d become totally wrapped up by their heavy-but-intricate merger of fearless sound exploration and sweeping chamber-rock.

Susana Santos Silva and Carlos Bica. Photo by Nuno Martins

Susana Santos Silva and Carlos Bica belong to different generations and perhaps also scenes. The past few years have witnessed Santos Silva expanding her range with a productivity to match, putting out albums with a.o. Fire! Orchestra, Fred Frith, Kaja Draksler, Child Of Illusion, as well as some solo music, totalling more than a dozen (!) releases in a year and a half. Those who have kept up with her, have probably also noticed that her music has only become bolder and more personal. Working with Anthony Braxton further confirmed the status of this exceptional trumpet player, who has become one of Portugal’s leading improvisers. Also during this duo with Bica, it took her just a few moments to impress with her sound and presence. She displayed her technique with aplomb, effortlessly switching from conventional to extended techniques and back, never losing sight of the flow of the music.

It also helped that the two musicians worked with a few compositions, or at least outlines used as a platform, that highlighted their personal strengths. Bica’s rootsy, transparent lines and impeccable sound never cease to impress and when he bows forward, intimately embracing the bass in that typical posture of his, you know you’re in for a lyrical, heartfelt treat, with often hymn-like elegance circling simple motifs. Bica didn’t shy away from muscularity - with the bow, he created some extraordinarily powerful moments - but never sounded like a loose cannon. Santos Silva reacted with control, invention and restraint, switching from dirty smears to unfettered beauty and back, occasionally even singing through the trumpet. And if you thought they were just following the muse, in a fingersnap they joined each other for a quick, explosive run. A beautiful concert that combined warmth and lyrical introspection with abstraction and fickleness.


MOVE. Photo by Nuno Martins

The final concert of the day took place at the festival’s outdoor bar. The ideal location for trio MOVE, who dedicated their performance to the late Peter Brötzmann and did it in the only proper way: full blast. Like many of Brötzmann’s groups, MOVE could have naysayers accuse them of brutish violence and non-stop aggression, but that would be a one-sided view. The band consists of musicians that are way too committed to acts of freedom and spontaneity. Gibson’s control over extended techniques is just off the charts and within this band, he gets and demands the opportunity to use all the fluttering, quacks and impossibly shrill sounds he’s capable of. But of course there is also the hectic dancing, the manic physicality of his approach that is the result of his inner music, but also the presence of his colleagues.

In no time, drummer João Valinho has turned into one of the most visible and dependable voices of the Lisbon scene, with a dexterity that is matched by quick-fire responses and explosiveness. Put a guy like Felipe Zenicola next to him and you’re off for a combustible ride. Zenicola is a master of free playing, but must have roots in feverish rock & roll as well. His crawling lines are occasionally immensely heavy, as if coming from some living beast, with a sound that even reminds you of the late, crushing Harvey Milk, and always filled with a throbbing, dark funk. He could have been a member of Talking Heads, if they’d been raised on occult exorcisms. So what you get are ominous grooves, often with a cramping, convulsive unpredictability.

Valinho is capable of dropping sudden bombs, just like Steve Noble, Paal Nilssen-Love and Han Bennink can, but just as well deviates from the well-known path with concise accelerations and detours, never missing the mark where the three meet for one of those joint explosions. On soprano, Gibson used a fat vibrato that even reminded you of Sidney Bechet (albeit on a death trip), and when he used both soprano and tenor, of course it made you think of Roland Kirk. In this context, it became something exciting, a frenzied and overpowering mass of sound and energy. BAM!

Saturday July 1st

Isabel Rato Quinteto. Photo by Nuno Martins

 During the roundtable discussion a few days earlier, mainly the negative side effects of codifying jazz were touched upon (it hinders progress, risks to become a conservative narrative for a conservative agenda, etc.), but if there’s one argument why you could turn it into a static thing, it’s jazz education. You can use it as a starting point, to explain, to make sure you’re all on the same page. The pedagogical concert by the Isabel Rato Quinteto aimed at an all ages audience and was a combination of performance and jazz history class. Singer/pianist Rato, vocalist João David Almeida, saxophone player João Capinha, bass player João Custódio and drummer Alexandre Alves did a good job of making an audience feel the joy, the challenges and unique character of jazz.

They did it in a chronological fashion, starting from its New Orleans roots with “Basin Street Blues”, talking about the blues and inviting the audience to sing along. An hour is of course too short to cover a century of evolution, so they mentioned some highlights from the first half century (Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, swing, Charlie Parker, bebop) to end up at free jazz and the civil rights movement, and finally making a brief jump to current Portuguese jazz. Stylistically, it diverged from the rest of the program, for obvious reasons, but it was a warm and entertaining concert that delivered what it was expected to: enthusiasm for (and some insight into) this endlessly fascinating genre.


One Small Step. Photo by Nuno Martins

It was a pity that not more people stuck around for the next concert, as it was another playful and creative addition to the program. One Small Step is the trio of bass player Roger Arntzen, Hardanger fiddle player/vocalist Vegar Vårdal and tap dancer (!) Janne Eraker. Now, the whole tap dancing thing may suggest a kind of old school, Cabaret-styled vibe, but it could hardly be further from the truth in this case. Combining spontaneously improvised music that is obviously rooted in Scandinavian folklore with imaginative dancing is perhaps not unique. But it is if the dancer you’re talking about is actually performing as a musician as well. You could already hear this on their 2022 album Gol Variations, but you need to see it take place in front of you to truly experience the band’s merger of music and tap dance.

All three musicians walked up barefoot, while Eraker started drawing circles with her foot on a little stage partly covered with sand. Vårdal used his fiddle in unconventional ways, while Arntzen applied clothespins to his strings and before you knew it, they were involved in a web of percussion that gradually gained more color, intensity and volume. If you closed your eyes, you were listening to a drummer with brushes. Perhaps even a guy like Han Bennink, because Eraker’s feet created the kind of swing, drive and sudden explosions the drummer is capable of. It was trance-like and exciting, the dancer kicking the floor while Vårdal joined her with uncanny throat sounds and dance moves and Arntzen laying down a nice groove.

Eraker amplified and modified her dancing in several ways, using a container of water, stepping on bubble wrap and switching to a pair of traditional tap dancing shoes for that old school sound. It was energetic, colorful, theatrical and a sight to behold. The best thing about it all, was that it also made sense in a musical way. You saw and heard three musicians performing, with the difference that one of them was also a dancer. An arresting performance, I’ve never really seen anything like it.


Oswald and Zeuthen. Photo by Nuno Martins

For many, it was also the first time they saw young Margaux Oswald . The pianist of French-Filipina origin was born in Switzerland, but currently resides in Copenhagen. She made her entrance on the international platform only a few years ago, but is destined to become a household name. After a solo album on Clean Feed (Dysphotic Zone, 2022), she recently released a duo album (Magnetite) with Danish veteran Jesper Zeuthen, who has been around since the late sixties, played with Don Cherry at a young age and later mainly with other Danish musicians such as Pierre Dørge, Jakob Bro and Carsten Dahl. Throughout his career, Zeuthen has been somewhat under-recorded (at least his own projects), so perhaps this new duo might attract some attention.

And what a remarkable duo it is. Oswald is a proponent of the don’t hold back anything -school, gifted with a dazzling technique and thriving on the tension created by covering the entire range of the ivory in front of her. There seems to be no middle ground, as each little, hushed detail is alternated by a thunderous reply, and each cluster in the piano’s middle range can be expected to be torn apart by growling thunder in the low register and/or escapes to the extreme right of the tuned drums. Zeuthen, on the other hand, is more of a minimalist, armed with a stark, unadorned sound that feels rigid and emotional at the same time. Even blindfolded, you would hear this is an experienced player for whom every note counts. If anything, hearing him was a revelation.

The combination of these two voices was something special. Oswald hammered away with undiminished intensity, acting as a kind of missing like between Keith Tippett and Charlemagne Palestine, with endless arpeggios, huge intervals and maximalist eruptions. It was a performance of huge contrasts, with two entirely different kinds of fierceness trying to find some common ground, Oswald letting the music rain down incessantly, like a great-granddaughter of Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor. And while it’s quite an event to witness a pianist with such a personality and preference for grandeur, there’s still the context to deal with. Put another musician of that temperament next to her and the music will be strangled in no time. With Zeuthen, the contrast in approach was quite fascinating, yet you couldn’t shed the impression that the performance could have used more oxygen and equilibrium.

Agnel, Edwards and Noble. Photo by Nuno Martins

 When something magical happens, you see it in people’s eyes. They always give it away, are aligned with their smiles, expression of surprise or bafflement. You could see it after the concert by Sophie Agnel , John Edwards and Steve Noble, the undisputed highlight of this festival. The trio released two albums on Clean Feed - Meteo in 2013, Aqisseq in 2018 - yet you can never be prepared for a concert like this. It felt like being dragged behind a truck, like being picked up by a tornado and put down again 40 minutes later on the other side of the venue. It felt like seeing true masters of the art at work, with boundless energy, inspiration and unstoppable collective dynamics. And putting it into words proves to be a daunting task, because wordless connection is at the heart of it.

It already started restless, with Noble mirroring Agnel’s angular approach with brushes that sounded as loud as other drummers’ regular sticks. Immediately, you could feel the gigantic thrust of this golden rhythm section, one of the few that could keep up with a force of nature like Peter Brötzmann. Probably also one of the few that can match Agnel every step of the way, and inspires her to display the full range of her capabilities. Agnel’s command of technique is impressive, but her restraint and toucher in the quieter parts are equally as impressive. However, while there were some moments of gentle introspection, the largest part of the concert felt like standing in a shooting booth at a fair.

Edwards is one of the most physical of bass players, armed with a huge sound he squeezes from the neck of that bass, while regularly turning it into a percussion instrument, and Noble always by his side with endless fills, sudden blasts, stubborn repetitions. It allowed Agnel to attack the piano with her forearm, dive into its belly to manipulate, play dizzying runs, dense clusters, squeeze in the occasional sly melody hinting at some cinematic universe. Wood was struck, metal resonated, it was music by and for callused hands. A glorious racket, a sound laboratory, a well of ideas executed with fervor, imagination and stunning agility. And perhaps the most unusual thing of it all was that Agnel retained that classy elegance throughout. It wasn’t brutish violence. It was improvised music played by true masters of the art on an exceptional day; it was the most classic of all jazz line-ups, the piano trio, getting an unforgettable makeover. 

Luis Vicente Trio + Malaby. Photo by Nuno Martins

It was probably a good thing that the Luís Vicente Trio and Tony Malaby played a bit later at a different location (the outdoors bar), so you could empty your head first. Not that the final band of the festival wasn’t interesting. The trio already played a bunch of well-received concerts on the back of its album Chanting in the Name of (2021), which was perhaps a bit of a breakthrough for the leader, who usually works within the context of completely free improvised music and moved a bit closer to the fire music tradition with a handful of compositions that allowed for maximum freedom. With bass player Gonçalo Almeida and drummer Pedro Melo Alves, he uses two of the most versatile musicians of the scene, two personalities that can push both him and his compositions to another level. For this collaboration with Malaby, Vicente didn’t stick with the album material, but wrote some new compositions instead.

The addition of a saxophonist (on soprano and tenor) and the use of some swirling unison lines immediately took you back to the Ornette Coleman quartet and other similar bands, even though these guys also took the music in their own, vital direction. Apparently, they had to deal with bad sound on stage and it obviously bothered them. Nevertheless, the quartet played a strong set. Almeida was ultra-active, with a combination of determination and aggression, Melo Alves danced all over the place, occasionally even with irrepressible swing. Vicente and Malaby traded ideas back and forth, involved in call & response games, easily switching to jubilant lines when needed. It was loose and energetic, the ideal finale for a jazz festival that showed the genre is still doing fine in the early 21st century. You just need to know where to look for it. 

See: Part 1 

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