July 18, 2016
1. Day One: Pulse Hit
Our era prefers immediacy. We reward firsts. We expect instant reactions. After the 36th Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, I wanted to sit on my memories and experiences and let them linger before writing anything. Almost a year later, as the 37th incarnation of the festival approaches, now is a good time to see how the music has lived within me for the many months following the festivities.
The festival is all about the people. The combination of the people playing music onstage and the people listening next to you and the people working all around to make it happen. Every time I go I convince a different assortment of close friends to come with me, and for the 2015 festival it was my girlfriend Chelsea and my fellow sandlapper Lauren.
The festival opened Thursday with the sound of meandering wind on grass tips, provided by Luc Ex Assemblé - the quartet of Ab Baars (tenor sax/ clarinet), Luc Ex (acoustic bass guitar), Hamid Drake (drums/ percussion) and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax). As a pre-existing band, they had song arrangements to choose from, and the second number was all rabbit-puckering funk: staccato horns + straight groove rhythm section. The juxtaposition of the two modes displayed in these two songs - minimal/pastoral and swinging/urban - reminded me of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and then every tune they played started gyrating with genres until it became clear that an emotional rendezvous with all the selves you think you are if the one that is thinking is not one becomes the reckoning of the day.
They went from angry and heaving to welcoming and loping to scattered and wild: improv within structures that wafted between rhythmic stapling and drifting bursts. Strumming an acoustic bass guitar adds a very different element into the sonic mix, and Luc worked that nuance with finesse: one single aggressive strum over the middle of the neck put an entire sequence of his actions in duo with Drake in context: the drums instantly fell like dominoes and the full band blasted off. Laubrock wooed some analog-synth style blips from her reed while Drake was using his fingers on the toms, then she took a sideways step closer to him and he picked up his sticks and smiled to a cymbal strike. The full band located a zone where reggae meets Jimmy Guiffre's trio and has a snarling punk attitude about it.
When there are a couple hundred people sitting quietly as the sun goes down behind the band and Drake makes a tap tap tap tap tap, it makes you say ooowoowoowoowoo thank you. Slow and sultry for the sake of the heat, Laubrock puckered out a good growl and Baars took his mouthpiece off, then a low bomb of a tone from Laubrock centered the quartet so Baars could flourish a finale.
The Italian free jazz quartet Mrafi led by Edoardo Maraffa (reeds) started with an instant barrage; my ears picked out the vibes played by Pasqale Mirra. The band rummaged around hard-blowing sax and rumbling rhythm section log-splitting into sudden spouts of synchronicity. I couldn't figure out what was compelling this music, in this time, especially when each player had such fine chops. When Antonio Borghini (doublebass) took a solo I had to catch my breath, the clarity and purpose of his tone was astonishing, but it got lost when wrapped around the frenetic lines of the band in full rumpus. Whenever they slowed down, they made room for invigorating moments: a sideways tenor tone, like a horizon glitch, pulled the rhythm section into swinging, happy play: overhead grapes falling in a naturally beautiful, pleasing tempo.
The last set of the night was a highlight of the festival (in a festival made of highlights). Beloved drummer/percussionist Hamid Drake played a duet with Austrian powerhouse pianist Sylvia Bruckner that brought tears to more than one set of eyes, and sweat to many palms. Not anxious sweat - galvanized sweat.
Classic Drake rim cracks, Bruckner wearing red and black, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, a-yaw-hee! Bruckner's decision-making so crisp, inviting and invigorating. I felt like I was being squeezed in the softest cloth a baby can squeeze.
The first pause after the opening salvo in an improvised duet is when things are figured out, and this twosome went from "connected" to "inextricable" in that instant. No longer diplomatically cajoling each other, they stuffed the rest of the set with the kind of expectations and trickery that makes this music transcendent. Equally comfortable inside the piano's strings, Bruckner fully plucked and muted complex clusters of notes that Drake colored in with melodic cymbal-work. The delicacy, the promises. Bruckner straightening and loosening her back over the keys in a display of the physicality necessary to coax the right sounds at the right moments. Drake listened to her solo so intently, eyes closed, that he didn't even notice her prompt to join back in, so she paused, then stopped completely. He simply needed to listen, and couldn't stop listening to her.
They started their next one with big clopping hoofs down low but quickly re-balanced into the mid-register and foraged their way into the subtlest version of "Epistrophy" I've heard, each taking turns with the melody and using the bones of the rhythm to prop up the most haunting and amusing portrait of why and how jazz lives.
It was hard to sleep after that, but Friday promised nine sets, so it was time to flex the eyelids.
“The festival is all about the people. The combination of the people playing music onstage and the people listening next to you and the people working all around to make it happen.”