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Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2023 - Part III

By Paul Acquaro

See also Part I and Part II

Lorenz Widauer (t) & Yvonne Moriel (s) (Photo by Michael Geißler)

Sunday morning I woke to sounds of horns - the hills, it seems, were alive with the sound of music. Indeed, out on the Ritzensee, in a small row boat, saxophonist Yvonne Moriel and trumpeter Lorenz Widauer were welcoming the new day. Along the lake shore, in the rapidly warming morning air, listeners gathered, as well as a few people who were getting in their morning swim, while others were already sun bathing on the shore. A mix of classical and jazz pieces, was played slowly and their harmonies filled the valley morning.

Högberg, Sartorius, Håker Flaten (Photo by Michael Geißler)

The action then moved just up the walking path to a copse of evergreens on the far side of the lake. There, just an easy walk into the Kollingwald, saxophonist Anna Högberg had put together a group with percussionist Julian Sartorius and bassist Ingebrit Håker Flaten to improvise in the natural setting. The music, wonderful and free in the fresh mountain air, perhaps was also a bit too easy to get to - an impressive sized audience had filled the woods, many trampling through the undergrowth in search of yet undiscovered vantage points. My empathy for the ferns aside, I fully enjoyed the trio's improvised forestial soundtrack. Håcker Flaten's bowed bass lines and Högberg's melodies were met with shafts of sunlight through the trees as they directed their energies towards the first fierce, layered climatic moment. A second improvisation found the trio wandering off the stage, each one following their own path through the woods around the stage. Högberg blew a long, single note as Satorius played a tree. Håker Flaten was not in my sight line, but I assumed he was up to something natural as well. Then, there was a pluck of the bass and a slow tempo ballad emerged. The reverent melody was uplifting, and surrounded by the earth and trees, now that felt like a spiritual moment.

Ralph Mothwurf Orchestra (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Then somehow it was mid-afternoon and I was back in the Congress Hall for the final set of concerts of the festival as the Ralph Mothwurf Orchestra filled the stage with 18 musicians. Conducted by the namesake Austrian guitarist, the highly arranged pieces avoided big-band cliches and sounded both contemporary and timeless. The tunes, individually shaped by the timbres of the leading instruments, were enjoyably diverse. One song featured the vibraphone prominently, and as it mixed with the strings, they formed a glistening, tense surface. Another song was dedicated to the late Ronald Deppe, a composer of graphical scores and founder of Porgy and Bess, the famous jazz club in Vienna. The piece was dynamic and textural with divergent streams of motion. A nice way to ease into the afternoon, for sure.

Michiyo Yagi and Hamid Drake (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

Artist in residence, koto player Michiyo Yagi, performed her final set of the festival in the large hall in duo with the masterful percussionist Hamid Drake. We had already heard Yagi perform two very different sets with her group Dojo and guests, guitarist Eivind Aarset and bassist Ingebrit Håker Flaten respectively, and with Drake, she embarked on yet a third unique set of improvisations. Yogi began at the 21-string koto, with mallets in hand, beating out an abstract, uptempo array of notes. Drake, picking up on the energy, helped quickly co-create a churning and explosive musical upheaval. That Drake is a percussion orchestra of one is hardly news, but the absolutely fiery, effects enhanced wave of sound that Yagi can make on the ancient traditional stringed instrument is startling. Elements of this first epic reminded me of Nels Cline in noise rock mode. From the crush of sound, melodic snippets and themes wended their way though the dense, flaming underbrush. In an announcement, Drake remarked on the kindness and humanity that he was feeling at the festival and contrasted it with the general current discord and disharmony of humanity, saying we could use more of the former. Switching then to the hand drum, Yagi and he engaged in a fluent closing musical dialog.

Zoh Amba "Bahkti" (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

This weekend, saxophonist Zoh Amba had already played the main stage with a new group assembled by Kranzelbinder and was now presenting music from her well received 2022 recording Bhakti. Listening to the sets that she has played in over the weekend, it seems that the setting is an important aspect for her music. As previously noted, she often plays with an aggressive, full-bodied tone, delivering short, explosive statements. With a drummer like Chris Corsano, who seems to revel in such musical situations (like for example his extensive work with saxophonist Paul Flaherty) and a sensitive pianist like Micah Thomas, with his sharp musical reflexes, Amba was in excellent company. Aside from the gale force passages, some of the most illuminating moments came when the drums and piano reshuffled the musical space, giving Amba a chance to show a more nuanced side of her playing.

Dave Douglas New Quintet (Photo by Matthias Heschl)

The headliner of the night was American trumpeter Dave Douglas. His new quintet features a stand out selection of players: saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, bassist Nick Dunston, drummer Joey Baron, and pianist Marta Warelis. Douglas kicked off the first few notes before a ready to spar James Brandon Lewis (writing just 'Lewis' feels incorrect, but I'll try next) jumped in. As Baron began to solidify the tempo, the two front men played interweaving lines that finally connected in an animated melody. Lewis took the first solo over fierce rhythmic support from Baron and Duston. The forms of the tunes -- the melodies, the structures -- were not obvious, though the songs were obviously structured as Douglas provided real-time direction to the musicians as they soloed or new passages came into play. Thus, melodic and counter-melodic lines and grooves sometimes emerged from nowhere and their interlocking complexities were elegantly tight. While Lewis' and Douglas' solos built in layers, their lines quick and darting, Warelis opted for a more linear, minimalist approach. Both Dunston and Baron had solo features, the bassist starting out with some intense plucking and leading into a much more tender group passage, and Baron, well, is simply an unstoppable, but absolutely appropriate, force of nature. The players' contrasts made for a group tension that gave the music a see-sawing and gripping tension. The set featured quite a wide style of musical approaches, some in the jazz tradition, and some featuring an edgier side. A perfect encapsulation of the music heard today and throughout the festival path that I had taken.

City park (Photo by Michael Geißler)

As I has learned, there was a redesign of the festival around 2019. Festival artistic director Mario Steidl explained, he realized already a few years prior that the festival needed to change, it shouldn't be "a UFO that lands on the town once a year" but rather a vital part of the community. Thus, we see now both artistic development as well as audience development, through the artist in residence programs, the free and city park concerts, and the incorporation of local attractions - like the hikes and the restaurants in the hills - into the sprawling festival. Such a rich and varied program is a real treat to experience, as is seeing a young and vibrant crowd finding their way to jazz and improvised music. 
With an operating budget this year of 830,000 euros (and the hope to up it a bit next year), the festival, already a meeting point high up in the Alps for musicians, music professionals and an estimated 20,000 dedicated listeners, seems to have a finger on the pulse of music now and a solid vision for its future.


Sunday night's after party jam had packed the Nexus' bar and restaurant and the attendees flowed out over the outdoor deck and into the street alongside the venue. "Spiritual Unity" hosted by Kranzelbinder featured a host of musicians, including Billy Martin whose groove oriented drum work was heard in the first of many jams. Celebrating the success of the festival and obviously not quite willing to let it end, the music and the party extended long into the night.


Anonymous said...

What an exciting vision for this festival! So integrated into the community and such stellar musicians! I’d love to attend next year.