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Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Novara Jazz, 21st edition – June 2024, Novara, Italy

By David Cristol

Photos by Emanuele Meschini and Edward Roncarolo.

Located in the Piedmont region of Italy, west of Milano, the 21st edition of Novara Jazz, programmed by Corrado Beldì and Riccardo Cigolotti with input from Enrico Bettinello of the Novara-based WeStart organization, unfolded from May 31 to June 9. Its last leg had a wealth of acts in aesthetic unison with the Free Jazz Collective.

Gordon Grdina

The Broletto is a wide transverse courtyard in the middle of several historic buildings and museums, where the free (as in gratis) evening concerts take place. After a slice of 1940s big band jazz, we move to the place where Canada’s Gordon Grdina and Germany’s Christian Lillinger are getting ready. A last-minute change of venue saw the duo adapt their music, which is carried out on the doorstep of the “Space in the Place” art store on Corso Italia. The dense, tense and loud set is chockful of electronics, both artists equipped with abundant gear – which is rather new to them, we learn. I mostly knew the “gentle” side of Grdina, not so much his electric rock persona, pretty much to the fore here. The subtle, expressive and sometimes explosive drummer and his string agitating accomplice do not allow room for breaks or silence. Their glorious racket fills the otherwise quiet Ligurian streets, whose passers-by and inhabitants either flee in terror, close their windows and shutters, or come out on the balconies and postpone their errands to enjoy the show. The journey through the hurricane is propelled by the hyperactive Lillinger, who nonetheless finds time to comb his hair between millimetric strikes and other spaceship dashboard sounds. The wall of sound approach settles down as the guitarist unpacks the oud, which we do not hear for long as the saturated guitar, abundant drumming and bubbly synth blips quickly resume, in the late warm afternoon.

Alexander Hawkins

The Alexander Hawkins Dialect Quintet makes its worldwide premiere, prior to hitting the studio in Torino. The hubbub from the nearby restaurant terrace proves enough of a nuisance to impair the audience and musicians’ listening, and Hawkins wisely adapts his demeanor to the situation, often taking his hands off the keyboard to better pay attention to the handiwork of his younger colleagues. Technical constraint aside, the pianist can do no wrong and has rehearsed the band well, on a set of compositions bearing his stamp, encompassing rhythm and freedom, structure and adventurous directions, perched between jazz and modern music, with contours that are never obvious to begin with, and some discernible African influence early on. One such piece is 'Generous Souls' from his 2022 album “Break a Vase”, another is a dreamy tune reminiscent of Wayne Shorter. Camila Nebbia provides inspired solos on a great sounding tenor, with Francesca Remigi on drums and guitarist Giacomo Zanus also using electronics. Duet and trio associations make up the bulk of the set. Hawkins pays tribute to Gerry Hemingway, “one of the best composers for quintet” and to Myra Melford, both seated in the audience. 'Albert Ayler, his life was too short' stems from composer Leroy Jenkins and his Equal Interest trio with Melford and Joseph Jarman, and makes for a great finale. The long and winding piece is atmospheric at first, with a solo intro from Nebbia and scattered sounds from inside the piano, then rises to insurrection levels with buzzing electronics and layered noise from the guitar, Hawkins stirring the band to a fireworks display. On the following day at noon, Hawkins’ solid bassist Ferdinando Romano presents his “Invisible Painters” band at the Cortile Palazzo Tornielli. We’re into European jazz territory, alternating or maybe hesitating between contemplative pieces and rhythmic workouts. While there is no shortage of skills, the project needs to be better defined, the liberal and fashionable use of electronics not being necessarily the best way to go about it.

Joëlle Léandre

The following morning starts with a solo at Galleria Giannoni. Joëlle Léandre is presented with a Golden Key to the city. This award follows the French double bassist recognition at last year's Vision festival in New York. She gives a speech about learning, unlearning, discovering free jazz at the American Center in Paris, and talks about her lifelong quest to becoming herself. “Be you!”, she likes to encourage others. In his liner notes to the box set A Woman’s Work, Stuart Broomer writes: “Above all, the great improviser practices, we might assume, the habit of inspiration, (…) but also, one suspects, the ability to profit from boredom, distraction, even irritation.” Whatever mood she’s in, whatever the playing conditions are, Léandre knows no fear of the blank page and is able to tap into an endless well of instant inspiration, only needing a few seconds’ focus to delve into each successive piece. This also involves reliance on memory – maybe this is not said enough – in order to give each track a shape and flavor, an entity with a beginning, middle and end. Such is the art of the improviser and our bassist embodies it, making use of a keen sense of timing and connection to the audience, including laughter and derision. She is driven and her discourse ever relevant, helped by flawless technique to express her ideas. I wonder, aren’t Léandre’s solos really duets, with their inclusion of spontaneous vocals? Somewhere between opera singer and Native American sorcerer, Léandre whispers, whimpers and rumbles, accompanying a drone kept alive with the bow.


Myra Melford

The inner courtyard of Palazzo Bellini is where pianist Myra Melford shows up unaccompanied – a rare occasion. Once more I’m struck with the vigorous, fierce attack on the keys, the rhythmic impulse noticeable even in the more abstract moments. These are written compositions and each one feels like an adventure, a plunge in a waterfall, full of dangers and unexpected wonders. The writing is highly evolved yet deeply rooted in jazz and blues, with the early influence of Don Pullen and Henry Threadgill still felt. Other recurring sources of inspiration come from painting and literature. Melford plays her own music, not standards, although it is possible to hear some echoes of Gershwin in there too. The palette is as broad as it is precise in its intentions and implementation. And proof that formal innovation can be attained without electronics. Not a hint of mawkishness here, but a tumultuous lyricism instead. Some pieces are faster than the speed of light, all hammered eighth-notes and hefty clusters in the low register. Like timeless tableaux, Melford's tunes are so rich one would have to study them at length and from different perspectives to grasp all the nuances they withhold.

Pasquale Mirra

The Italian trio of piccolo trumpeter and flautist Gabriele Mitelli, vibraphonist Pasquale Mirra and drummer Cristiano Calcagnile (all three also on vocals) plays next. 'The Elephant' is spaced-out electro-jazz-rock, very much a satellite project to Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, which doesn’t come as a surprise since both Mirra and Mitelli are collaborators of the Chicago trumpeter and composer. An electronic motif serving as the basis for a track resembles that of Disco 3000 by Sun Ra, while other pieces lean on binary grooves, sometimes close to hip-hop. Ambient soundscapes lead to a showcase for the drummer, while Mitelli’s brief bursts rely on extended techniques and take precedence over jazz phrasing, when he doesn’t entirely put down his instruments to concentrate on sound effects.

Guus Janssen

Dutch pianist and improviser Guus Janssen treats us to an organ recital at the Church of San Giovanni Decollato, titled 'Le direzioni del vento (Directions of the wind).' Away with conventions: it’s playful, irreverent, funny, from classical music pastiches to recurring quotes of the Spiderman theme song from the late 70s TV show. The virtuoso jumps from unabashedly repetitive chords mocking – affectionately we surmise – caricatural rock and roll and psychedelic pop. The whole zany thing is presented with the utmost seriousness and rings beautifully in the chapel where ancient fresco reliefs remain. The organ manages to evoke bagpipes and a cow mooing at some point, before an official-sounding anthem is put to the test by incongruous inserts. The extraordinary solo set has everyone in fits before the mood gets darker with a song by an Italian composer as a paean to silence, and for the encore, a piece by a Dutch composer, inspired by the moon and to which the veteran scamp – who has a speaking voice not unlike that of Max von Sydow – adds an epic ending.

Rodrigo Amado

Another solo was also a highlight of this edition. Lisbon’s Rodrigo Amado's (tenor sax) set was planned to happen in the towering Basilica di San Gaudenzio but was relocated to Sala dell’Arengo. The musician was able to visit the space on the previous day and was not only reassured, but enthused by its acoustic properties. In 2022, Amado released Refraction solo. Busy with trios and quartets, he rarely performs alone and relishes the opportunity. He engages in open idiomatic improvisation, organized, melodic, textured, unhurried, the unfolding more linear than choppy. The first improvisation is a variation on Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Now Suite. When Amado tilts the horn's bell towards the seated folk, the sound hits like a gust of wind, a reminder that he’s a powerful player. Other points of departure for Amado’s flights of imagination are Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” and the spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead”. One of the most consistently stimulating saxophonists of this century, with a great knowledge about the history of the music and a vivid creativity to push it forward.

François Houle

'Faded Yellow', 'Dragon’s blood' , 'Green – Absynthe', 'Umber', 'Heliotrope' and 'Azure' are François Houle Quintet “The Secret Lives of Color” titles, actually improvisations with minimal directions such as the order of tutti, duos and trios. Joining the clarinet player from Canada are Myra MelfordGordon GrdinaJoëlle Léandre, and Gerry Hemingway on drums: not your everyday line-up! At the foot of the towering Duomo, the audience is invited to sit in the grass, while the group plays under the arches of the rectory, protected from a menacing rainstorm. After an introduction from the leader, a series of surges and lulls ensue. For most of the duration the music is, maybe surprisingly, subdued, to the point that one also hears the doves in the trees, birds fighting on the ancient tiled roofs, and the humming of disoriented bees' wings, whose dwelling place we are disturbing. Grdina shines on guitar then oud, and Houle extracts some mysterious flute sounds from the clarinet. Hemingway caresses the percussion rather than strikes it, and is also heard on harmonica, vocals and whistle, while Léandre and Melford are careful of serving the collective poetry. The musicians have history together, which explains why this quintet came to be, the telepathic connection of its members and the emotional state of the leader at the end of the set: Joëlle and Myra are two thirds of the Tiger trio, Gerry Hemingway played in groups with Joëlle and Myra separately, Canadians Houle and Grdina recorded several albums together, such as Ghost Lights in 2017 and Recoder in 2020 (with Gerry Hemingway and Mark Helias), while Houle and Léandre had a trio with Raymond Strid (issued on 9 Moments in 2007) and with Benoît Delbecq on 14, rue Paul Fort, on Leo Records in 2015. So that's a lot of threads, travels and experiences coming together today in Novara.

The Secret Lives of Color + festival organizers

Novara jazz is a welcoming and feelgood event, and the city a pleasure to wander in – with jazz from young musicians heard at every corner. While the festival doesn’t specialize in free music, many acts were firmly of the creative and improvised music ethos, with remarkable solo performances and rare groupings. It was great to hear some musicians in more than one project, and to see many of them stay the course to check their colleagues and friends’ work, in a variety of palazzos, courtyards, galleries and outdoor spots. Not to forget the wine tasting!


loris123 said...

Novara Jazz is one of the best jazz festival ever! Always great music in great locations, in a wonderful city. Come next year!

Julian Maynard-Smith said...

An informative review that whets the appetite for future Novara Jazz festivals.