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Monday, September 4, 2023

Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2023 - Part I

By Paul Acquaro

See Part II and Part III
The weather, I heard, was unusual for the alpine town of Saalfelden, apparently one could expect it to be raining at this point of the summer. At about 80 degrees and with blue bird skies, the only patch of rain encountered so far was on the night of arrival, exactly when the last concert let out. Now, it was early Saturday morning and I had joined a group gathered at the foot of a mountain just outside town. I was quite happy to have this atypically sunny day, after all, we were getting ready to embark on a hike up to a restaurant at 1400 meters with the musicians who would be performing at stops along the way. I realize though that I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's rewind a bit...

** Thursday **

Thursday afternoon, I tumbled out of the bus from Salzburg directly at the Kunsthaus Nexus, an arts center in the town of Saalfelden. The hour plus ride from the city had climbed from one inspiring view of the mountains to the next, and all the while, my excitement for the upcoming music had been building.

The purple and black folded program brochure that I picked up at the entrance of the Nexus, with its creepily creative transmogrification of bugs into musical instruments, unfolded into what could have been a bus timetable. Sixty musical acts on 13 different stages from 9 a.m. Thursday through 10 p.m. Sunday.

There were concerts throughout the town, in the concert halls, in the nearby woods, on a lake, and in the mountains. It was easy to get a sense of excitement and adventure simply looking the names the organizers had given the programming, like We Hike Jazz, concerts while hiking up the hills, or City Tracks, different venues tucked into the town including the city park, and even Mountain Tracks, restaurants and wooded areas outside the town proper. This was in addition to the main stage at the Congress Hall and the Shortcuts series at Nexus, as well as flashmobs, where a text message via the Jazzfestival app would alert the audience of a spontaneous concert in say a pedestrian passage or the market square. Taking in all of this, I was happy that there was a reserved spot for Saturday's We Hike Jazz excursion - I  simply did not see a space in the schedule to properly wander off into those wickedly tempting rocky peaks in every direction.
So first, a check in at the hotel and a quick refresh, and then to begin what was going to prove to be the real test of endurance: seeing as many concerts as possible over the next four days. Though not realistic, I couldn't help but want to hear and see it all. 

Lisa Ullén's Space Trio (Photo by Paul Acquaro)
After the 10-minute walk to the Ritzensee, a small, man-made lake in the midst of some rolling fields, I checked into the hotel and was soon back at the Nexus concert hall for the 'soft' opening of the festival with the Sweden based pianist Lisa Ullén, bassist Elsa Bergman and drummer Anna Lund. The group, "Space," began with a sparse melody from Ullén's piano, which Bergman picked up on, and leaning into her bass in the middle of the stage, opened up further. Lund provided a persistent pulse as the trio's music developed. The songs varied in intensity, each musician providing melodic or rhythmic impulses that stood alone, as well as complimented the others - whether it was gentle, precisely placed notes from the piano, a tambourine being used as a drumstick, or a firm nudge from the bass. The group released their debut album, Space, last year on Relative Pitch and a listen to the recording will give you a perfect impression of the expressiveness and intensity of their music tonight. 

Malstrom (photo by Michael Geißler)

A slight gap in the schedule allowed for a quick excursion out of the Nexus space and down the street to the Otto-Gruberhalle to hear the German trio Malstrom delivering fractured and reassembled avant-jazz tunes - pure collages of sound that featured saxophonist Florian Walter's sharp and atonal lines, guitarist Axel Zajac's versatile guitar work, and Jo Beyer's bursting drums. The first tune was a skronky delight -- high-energy and confusing -- but following its own twisted logic. The next one brought out their metal side, but laced it with nervous, off-kilter rhythm. As I started back to the music hall at Nexus for the final set of the evening, I heard elements of Discipline-era King Crimson gamelan -prog wafting from the stage.
Dōjō: Michiyo Yagi & Tamaya Honda with Eivind Aarset (Photo by Matthias Heschl)
Back at the Nexus, Dōjō, the team of artist-in-residence Michiyo Yagi and drummer Tamaya Honda were about to perform with the Norwegian sound-sculpting guitarist Eivind Aarset. It was a promising premise - Yagi plays the traditional Japanese zither - the koto - in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Her 17- and 21-stringed instruments resonate both acoustically and through an array of digital effects, giving her an impressive sonic range. Aarset, with his six-string electric guitar and table full of electronics and computer before him, too has access to a broad pallet of sounds, which he uses to create affecting atmospherics (for me, discovering his 1998 release Eletronic Noire rewired my understanding of electronics and 'jazz'). The music began with Yagi singing a simple folk-like melody over single notes from her koto. Aarset, behind his table of blinking dials, pedals and screens, began weaving a soft electronic quilt while Honda added gentle percussive details. Long atmospheric tones slid between the notes from the Yagi's koto and singing. The group then locked into a more persistent groove and reached the first of several instrumental peaks, which would be 'interrupted' by singing interludes, and then coalesce again to reach even more powerful instrumental heights. Their second tune began less structured with each player contributing fragments of sound. The long drone-based jam that followed ebbed and flowed with shifting patterns and hypnotic pulsations, a pattern that the trio followed for the rest of their plentiful set.

** Friday **

Saalfelden from above the Ritzensee (Photo by Paul Acquaro)

Friday morning began quite pleasantly. There was a little time to get in a spaziergang (a leisurely walk) around the Ritzensee and take in the valley from a different perspective. On one side of the lake, campers, many of whom make it a bit of a lifestyle, traveling during the summer between different music festivals, dotted the fields, along with a tempting (but a not open until lunchtime) mountain-side mini-golf course. The walk followed the fields and up to a path that crossed above the lake, offering panoramic views of the town and surrounding mountains. Below in the lake there would soon be swimmers and kids on stand-up paddle boards, and a little further in the distance, the festival stages were getting readied for a day of music.
Cosmic Brothers (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Back at Nexus, the group, Cosmic Brothers, kicked off the afternoon by entering from the side door, rattling percussion instruments and snaking through the seated audience to the stage. The band had first played together at drummer Alfred Vogel's Bezau Beats festival last year, though as I understand it, it was just a quick concert, maybe 15 minutes or so, but they had felt something. So, after a year of working out concepts on their own, their appearance in Saalfelden was their first proper concert together. The group, however, composed of Argentinian pianist Leo Genovese and bassist Demian Cabauld, Portugese saxophonist João Pedro Brandão and trumpeter Luis Vicente and Austrian percussionist Vogel, leaves little room for doubt that they would be able to create something special anytime they hit the stage. As the rattling percussion died down and the group gravitated to their respective instruments, a slow accretion of sound ensued, dominated by Brandão's flute and eclectic flourishes from Genovese. As Brandão switched to the saxophone, the group's sound grew stronger. They began digging in more intensely, igniting some fiery free jazz moments. The next tune found the group going deep into exploration mode as both Vincente and Cabauld took up wooden flutes. The set continued unpredictably and the musicians seemed to enjoy the cosmic aspect quite a bit. A nice start to the day's music.

Then, I was confronted with a difficult choice. In the workshop of a a nearby book and print maker was a concert by the Tesserae Trio, consisting of Tilo Weber on drums,  Elias Stemeseder on harpsichord and Petter Eldh on bass, and at Nexus, one by pianist Myra Melford and drummer Hamid Drake. After some tough deliberation, I decided to stick around for the wonderfully rewarding set from Melford and Drake.

Myra Melford and Hamid Drake (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Melford began the improvised set working the low end of the piano keyboard, shooting off quick lines with ornate endings. Drake, on the drum kit, gave back with appropriately measured percussive responses. Their approaches blended effortlessly, Melford sometimes darting inside the piano to add extra textures to her sonic palette and Drake putting aside his sticks and using his hands to provide muted accompaniment. At one point, Melford struck a repetitive figure in the lower register, while simultaneously dampening strings inside the piano, and in combination with the seemingly simple figure that Drake was tapping out, the duo achieved a hypnotic synergistic rhythmic effect. Melford's playing drew on classical voicings and motives as inspiration, providing a rich blanket of harmony and motion for Drake to embellish with his percussive charm. As the pair came to the end of the show, they engaged in a high energy interchange, elbows smacking the keys and mallets pounding the floor toms. The audience's applause was enthusiastically rewarded with an even more ferocious encore.

Henning Bolte (Photo by Paul Acquaro)
As Melford and Drakes closing notes rang out, I shuffled off as quickly as I could to the aforementioned book making workshop to catch the next event, a discussion between Magnet Festival co-founder Raimund Knösche and writer/artist Henning Bolte, who had been doing live drawings during the Tesserae Trio's set (I figured, though I didn't hear the set, I could at least experience the imagery). The workshop itself is a picture perfect jumble of art, printmaking tools and printed art work on display, all vibrating with a creative buzz. The publisher, Buchbinderei Fuchs, was also responsible for publishing Bolte's artwork in the collection DrawNotes, which presents the abstract lines and vibrant color of Bolte's drawings in a lovely CD size package. 

Dōjō with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (photo by Michael Geißler)

Following the visual arts reprieve, I headed over to the Otto-Gruberhalle to catch as much of Dōjō (Michiyo Yagi and Tamaya Honda) with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten as I could. Yagi and Honda employed a different approach as they engaged with the powerful bassist than they did with Eivind Aarset the previous evening. The three have performed together before, and Yagi and Håker Flaten have recordings together going back to 2006, so there was perhaps a bit of familiarity with how they could work as a trio. Regardless, the music was propulsive, with Håker Flaten generating a vibrant and supportive foundation for the other two to work with, veering from the light and airy to dense and metallic.

In the city park with the Dives (photo by Michael Geißler)

After the set, I cut across the town to catch a glimpse of what was happening at the free shows in the city park. It was crowded. Food vendors lined the periphery, selling waffles and beer, while a standing room crowd was gathered under and beyond the large tent and stage, kids ran around everywhere else. The group, the Dives, were playing some solid pop-rock, and everyone seemed quite happy to be there.

While the city park concerts seemed far removed from the improvisational music happening in the concert halls, they are in fact part of a larger vision for the Jazzfestival Saalfelden. In addition to showcasing the musicians, the festival's Artistic Director, Mario Steidl sees it as his responsibility to develop the audience. Thus, the larger program features pop and hip-hop acts performing in the city park and at other free stages, intended to draw crowds that would likely not have willingly ventured so close to a jazz festival. This was step one of Steidl's plan.

Step two, audiences, intrigued by what they hear at the outdoor concerts, and aware that they are part of a world-renowned jazz festival, will hopefully be tempted to try out one of the other shows during the week. Steidl wants to correct misconceptions of what people may think jazz is. Thus, the Otto-Gruberhalle, the former agriculture machinery workshop located on the main street through the town, with its industrial flair and stage featuring some more rock oriented, groups like Malstrom and Berlin's ROKC to present a chance for rock fans to engage with improvisation and more complex music.

Next steps then? Perhaps the Kunsthalle Nexus, in addition to its smaller, seated music hall, it also features a bar and restaurant area that spills out to the street and also features musical acts. Plus, the main stage, which is dedicated, of course, to the more well-known acts at the festival, also has room for acts like Brekky Boy, a group out of Australia that brings a bit of synthesizer and lounge to jazz. While it is hard to tell if any of the folks entering through the city festival concerts have yet made their way to any of the stages of the jazz festival, I could see that the concert halls were full, often at standing room only capacity, and not just with older folks, but many younger faces too. 

Lukas Koenig's Sound Hazard (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

This brings us to Friday night concerts, and the official opening of the festival as introduced by the announcers. The first set was by Austrian percussionist Lukas Koenig who had assembled an impressive group for "Sound Hazard," a piece commissioned by the festival. On stage were two bassists, Luke Stewart and Farida Amadou, contrabass clarinetist John Mc Cowen, renowned British pianist Pat Thomas, and in the middle, Koenig with an impressive set up of drums, marimba, electronics and gong. The music began with the ring of the gong and then the mounting tension of the introductory drum solo. Then, the impressively low tones of the contrabass clarinet appeared, as did a somewhat abrasive contrast between the upright bass and the sharp thwaks of the electric bass. Finally, the clear ringing of the piano could be heard, though it was a bit overshadowed by the volume of the others. However, when the focus turned to Thomas, his playing was exuberant as blocky chords with rhytmic zeal spewed from his instrument. A quick solo from Stewart followed, and then a passage of burbling electronics and Koenig's turn at the marimba. The piece had a natural flow and explored the unique tonalities of the instruments on the stage (even when McCowen played just the mouthpiece of his magnificent instrument).

Leo Genovese Trio (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Pianist Leo Genovese, whom we had seen earlier with the Cosmic Brothers, lead his trio next through an exciting set of original tunes. His enthusiasm was palpable from the start - "we're very happy to be here and the time is running, so here we go!" said Genovese animatedly before kicking off the first uptempo song. Bassist Demian Cabaud and drummer Jeff Williams provided a dominant energy, matching the pianist's vivacity. Fragmented chords, shifting percussive patterns and embracing bass lines lifted the music from the stage. One tune, a tango-like piece featuring long, serpentine solos, was a mid-set highlight. Genovese's switch to a wind instrument introduced a new tonal color, and upon his return to the keyboard, his playing picked up even more energy, it seemed like he would use up every note that his instrument had in it by the end of the set.

Something that is notable about the program is that while there are headliner acts, this year trumpeters Dave Douglas and Rob Mazurek, and Myra Melford and her group with drummer Allison Miller, there is also a focus on several developing artists. As festival curator Steidl later explained "you cannot just present the headliners of yesterday, you have to present the headliners of tomorrow." Thus, this year program featured younger artists like saxophonists  Högberg and Amba, bassist Kranzelbinder, and trumpeter Vicente presenting multiple concerts and projects. Additionally, there are the artists-in-residence, this year Michiyo Yagi, who we have already heard, and Andreas Schaerer, who performed next.

Andreas Schaerer, Tim Lefebvre, Kalle Kalima (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Vocalist Andreas Schaerer, guitarist Kalle Kalima and bassist Tim Lefebvre began their set on the main stage with a gentle folk like tune. Kalima's guitar playing fit it perfectly with his "Americana" phrasings and clear, reverberant tone, giving the song's easy melody and Schaerer's mid-range a good home. Mild dissonances crept up in the musical accompaniment in the interchange between Kalima and Lefebvre, adding the edge that kept the music from slipping away entirely. Their next piece began in a much spookier vein, as Schaerer sang in falsetto over a shifty background. The piece was at first reminiscent of Radiohead circa "OK Computer" and then went even further out into progressive rock territory with multiple, evolving sections of music, some zombi-esque vocalese and blipping Simon-like electronic sounds. Lyrical moments and harmonically rich chord melodies almost begged for a full band treatment of the music, but the trio on stage ably enveloped the large hall in a musical spell.

Anna Högberg's Attack (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Opening night ended with Swedish saxophonist Anna Högberg's Attack - a group that had been on a hiatus during the pandemic and making a welcome return this evening. Featuring music from their 2020 release Lena, the group was in fine form, with Högberg leading the animated sextett through a set of tunes with ear-worm worthy themes and brilliant improvisation. The set kicked off with the front line of Högberg and Elin Forkelid's tenor saxophones and Niklas Barnö's trumpet enaging in high octane free playing. Bassist Elsa Bergman and drummer Dennis Egberth quickly laid down a solid foundation, while pianist Lisa Ullén accentuated exactly the right moments to give the music a little extra gas. The initial attack channeled into an Ayler-esque melody and the atmosphere wound down quickly. Ullén then sprinkled some ethereal notes as the group re-grouped. A repetitive melody then from the saxes lead to a bass solo that Bergman delivered with abandon, leading finally to a Mingus-like theme. Mounting tensions ensured until it finally broke, leaving Högberg alone blowing bifurcated atonal blasts. Högberg, announcing the band excitedly said, "I wrote a speech but I forgot it. We're just really really happy to be here." The audience could feel it. As the ebullient playing continued, free improvisation mixed with compositional elements, buoyed by excitement and high level musicianship, the outcome was outstanding.

While the music actually continued back at Nexus, well aware that my highly anticipated morning would be coming soon enough, I walked out into evening and headed for the hotel.
Read Part II