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Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2023 - Part II

By Paul Acquaro

See Part I and Part III

We Hike Jazz - getting ready (Photo by Michael Geißler)

The 7:30 a.m. alarm was a bit brutal and it wasn't long after that I had joined the group gathered at the base of the mountain where trip organizer and bassist Lukas Kranzelbinder was giving a quick run down of what to expect: we'd be above the tree-line, in the open alpine fields the sun would be quite strong, bring water. We were hiking up the mountain, stopping for impromptu concerts by saxophonists Anna Högberg and Zoh Amba, percussionist Billy Martin and Kranzelbinder along the way, and then at the top, a final concert with a meal at the Steinalm - an picture perfect alpine restaurant nestled in the rolling fields between the looming rocky peaks at 1400 meters. The hike, Kranzelbinder added, would not be easy and there was the, um, issue of helping haul a drum-set up the mountain.

We Hike Jazz - the cave with Amba, Kranzelbinder, Martin and Högberg (Photo by Michael Geißler)
Carrying a drum stool up the trail was not something I had previously considered - I had my backpack with what I needed, water and an apple - but there wasn't exactly a throng of people volunteering either. Maybe I should have taken the snare or cymbal, but I figured it probably made more sense to carry a seat along, if one had to, rather than anything else. We began our ascent after a bit of cat herding and I couldn't wait, I was planning to be back in the town in the afternoon to catch ROKC, a new (to me) double guitar avant-jazz/rock group out of Berlin. So, I was eager to get the 'show on the road', so to speak.

ROKC (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

The timing was tight. I made it to the Otto-Gruberhalle and found a place in the standing room crowd just as the quartet took the stage. ROKC is drummer Oliver Steidle, guitarists Kalle Kalima and Ronny Graupe, and saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos and they took us through a set of original tunes - some snaky and complex, others fine plain rockers. The start was cacophonous, the double guitar line-up played a mix of chordal fragments and short arpeggiated runs while Steidl provided a rock-like energy. Pitsiokos stood out, delivering a sharp melody and then bouncing ideas back and forth with Graupe. A moment of guitar-heroics from Kalima sealed the deal: it was going to be an excellent set. The other tunes featured dense, shifting beats, knotty guitar lines and complex interactions between the four players. One song ended with a solo from Pitsiokos leaving the music simply in shreds, nonetheless, bobbing heads in the audience connected with the group's abstract grooves.

We Hike Jazz - second set with Kranzelbinder, Martin and Högberg (Photo by Paul Acquaro)

At this point, thrilled to have made it back to town in time for the excellent set, I was however feeling like a trip back to the hotel was in order. The hike had been somewhat strenuous, gravelly trails took switchbacks up the mountain through shady wooded spots as well as areas exposed by avalanches a few years prior. We made the first musical stop about 20 minutes into the climb at a large, but shallow, cave on the mountainside. The set, which was about 20 minutes or so, was at first dominated by Amba's forceful phrases, which the others responded to in different ways. The improvisation took a turn to a folk-like melody about half-way through and formed what may have been the template for the newly formed group's show happening on the main-stage later that night. The next stop was after another 20 minutes of hiking, at a lovely viewpoint at a bend in the trail just before it hit high rolling meadows. Here, we had a chance to hear Högberg and Kranzelbinder gel and watch Martin step out from his drum kit to play the rocks on the ground.  

Luís Vincente Trio featuring Tony Malaby (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

The next concert I made it to was the Luís Vincente Trio featuring Tony Malaby back in the main hall. Simply a great combination, the Portugese trumpeter's trio comprised of two long time collaborators, bassist Gonçalo Almeida and drummer Pedro Melo Alves, bring his classic free jazz compositions to life, and the versatile Malaby adds an extra sauce that makes it just irresistible. The set kicked off with Malaby playing a splintery melody over a grumble of sound from the band. Then, Vicente played a head that seemed to borrow (in the best sense) elements of Ornette Coleman's music. During his solo, he was joined by Almeida who interjected lines into the trumpeter's quick blasts and runs. Alves provided pointed reactions and then Malaby joined in, capably gathering the energy swirling on stage and funneling it through his horn. The next song started with a shared melody and a playful interchange between Malaby and Vicente. Eventually, Malaby's soprano sax reached a place where overtones reigned. The set was a wonderful, action packed free jazz concert -- the future of the music is in good hands.

Before the next group played, Hymns of Past and Future with the same crew from the mountain, I had a little time to let my thoughts wander back to the hike - which was something that I had really been looking forward to. I had a chance to express this at the first stop in the cave where I was briefly interviewed by a radio reporter. Thinking that I seemed like a typical Austrian, he asked me what I thought of jazz on the mountain. I suspect he was a bit disappointed when I answered in wonky German, "Ich denke, es ist toll! Wirklich mein Traum." I wonder if it made the cut. Anyway, after we had made it to the Steinalm restaurant and nestled into the outdoor seating, ordered a drink, and were served a traditional plate of mixed sausages and cheeses, the trio of Kranzelbinder, Martin and Högberg played again, a final short piece with the musicians standing and playing between the tables. I think some of us were a bit disappointed that the drum-set was tucked behind a table and Martin stuck to standing and playing the tambourine.

Hymns of Past and Future (Photo by Matthias Heschl)
On the stage now, however, Martin had the exact opposite set-up. Surrounded by percussion, his arsenal included a gong (which thank God, was not at the hike) and set of wooden drums, a full drum kit, and a pile of small percussion instruments to deploy. The set began with a sturdy honk from Amba that the rhythm section reacted to quickly as Högberg then took the reigns. Martin is a powerful driver behind the kit and with Kranzelbinder, they provided an extra shot of adrenaline to the saxophonist's leading lines. Then coming back into the picture, Amba joined with a sonic scream, obliterating any melodic statements still lingering and pushing the group into a state of pure energy. Soon they backed off and began an explorative phase. As the atmosphere changed, Martin picked up the shells, Kranzelbinder beat out a figure with a mallet on his bass strings and Amba added piercing tones mixed with legato notes which provided a nettle bed for Högberg's melodic ideas. For the final tune, Kranzlebinder switched to the Gimbri, an African bass like instrument, and in conjunction with Martin's hand percussion and slow melodic statements from the saxophonists, the set came searchingly to an end.

LUX Quartet (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

The group LUX, with pianist Myra Melford, drummer Allison Miller, saxophonist Dayna Stephens and bassist Scott Colley was a much different affair and the opening song came a whoosh of concentrated energy. The first song set the bar high, the group was a set of seasoned professionals creating vibrant and focused  modern jazz. Stephens' solo spots began with reserved melodies which then swirled and connected with Melford's lush chords and Colley's firm, expansive bass lines. Miller took some of the spot light as well, her drumming and solos tilting in the rock direction.

Rob Mazurek (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

The night was capped by trumpeter Rob Mazurek's cinematic and sometimes sentimental Father's Wing, a work dedicated to his father who passed away in 2016 and  released in 2022 on Rogue Arts, featuring most of the quartet on stage here. No matter the size of the group, be it his Exploding Star Orchestra or the tight Chicago Underground Duo, Mazurek always seems to present a big picture. Tonight, with the help of Fabrizio Puglisi on piano, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and regular percussion partner Chad Taylor on drums, Mazurek brought this extended suite, which at first conveys a sense of loss, but then through the course of an extended hour, is at times strident, fierce, ebullient and conciliatory - if to be read into, a bit like a father/son relationship. The quartet creates a rich tapestry of support for the trumpeter, a musical wonderland in which Mazurek plays a shamanic role. As the group moves through the sections, Mazurek is moving restlessly about the stage, delivering emotional trumpet solos, getting spiritual with shakers and Native-American like chants, and shaping the music. Sometimes he even steps to the side to let, say, the piano explode in an arc of thrilling sounds and colors.

Mazurek's bountiful set finished off the activities in the main hall already into the next morning and once again, I ambled back to the hotel for the night, head spinning from the copious amounts of music ingested. Tomorrow, there was still more to come.


Steve Reynolds said...

Wonderful write up. So cool to know you are seeing Billy, Zoh & Tony with the greats I have yet to see!