Transatlantic triumphs light up Ljublijana fest

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If the much maligned technocrats of the Brexit-bashed EU wanted to have a coherent Union in Europe then this adventurously programmed festival would be music to their ears, jazz being the universal language rather than the common market. Although set in the charming Slovenian capital the event is under the joint artistic direction of Bogdan Benigar, for the home side, so to speak, and Pedro Costa, head of the Portuguese label Clean Feed. There is thus strong representation of many of the artists who have recorded for said imprint, which means a blend of the ‘Old World’ – France’s Eve Risser; Norway’s Gard Nilssen; Germany’s Gunter ‘Baby’ Sommer; Slovenia’s Kaja Draksler (pictured below) and ‘the New’ – the powerhouse American drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake.

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Arguably the highpoint of the four days of concerts at the highly impressive Cankarjev Dom Culture and Congress Centre is the transatlantic meeting of Drake, his fellow American, the multi-reed virtuoso Ned Rothenberg and pianist Draksler. Theirs is a trio of advanced interplay and imagination, with myriad rhythmic and sonic twists and turns from one of the players being picked up by the others, while the collective push forward, particularly when Drake and Draksler roll their basslines into a single flywheel, is quite outstanding. The latter’s range of timbres far exceeds generic ‘prepared piano’ expectations and the gravelly crunch of her middle-register chords electrifies the sound palette without the hiss and buzz of an amplifier or distortion pedal. The sense of explosion created by the players, their underlying momentum loosely African, grips the audience before they loosen into more reflective passages in which the vapour trail of Rothenberg’s shakuhachi flute drifts sensually around the room. It is a performance marked by an individuality that unites rather than unties.

Of no less potency is the piano duet of Draksler and Risser, which makes much capital of both chemistry and contrast between the two artists. Entwined rhythms; pinball exchanges of chords; eerie sounds by way of string manipulation: the performance is sweepingly orchestral and starkly intimate. Which could also be said of Pedro Lopes’ strikingly original display of turntablism, in which two decks are supplemented by an array of percussion, effects and samples to produce a sound collage that is simultaneously raw and refined, a pulsating mosaic that signals electronica rather than being shackled by its conventions. A last minute replacement for the group Velkro, Lopes is an engaging embodiment of the way the improvisatory spirit in jazz, particularly the drummers who inspired him (such as Drake), can be transposed to ‘the wrong instrument’.

Subversion on a much larger scale comes by way of the spellbinding union of France’s 18-piece Surnatural Orchestra and Cirque Inextremiste, a group of three circus performers who blend acrobatics and, most importantly humour, to dazzling effect. The players enter the stage rocking back and forth on gas canisters before mounting planks of wood that are then used to spin around like helicopter rotor blades before being hoisted, with the aid of audience members, to support a tight rope for the balletic grace of Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga. The hijinks spectacle is in a state of tantalising perpetual motion, the key theme being balance, as much visually as sonically. Funky, rocky, gypsyish and, at times, unsettling, the music is a nod to the mutual attraction of big tops and big bands, as exemplified by anybody from Hermeto Pascoal to Loose Tubes.

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Talking of stage-filling ensembles, Paal Nilssen-Love’s 12-piece Large Unit is nothing if not volcanic in power, but amid all of the fiery outpourings of the brass there is an inconsistency in the compositions, with too many of the arrangements lacking the nuance to really make the most of the considerable resources. More enjoyable is the string of smaller groups of differing configurations. Two drummer-led quartets, sporting names with laudable values, are superb: Equality, helmed by America’s Nasheet Waits and Acoustic Unity, by Norway’s Gard NIlssenhave a wide span of references, from Andrew Hill to Ornette, and, crucially, draw coherent lines through the many vocabularies used by those icons, notably the blues, whose essentially human ‘cry’ is loud and clear amid the sophisticated speech of soloists such as alto saxophonist Darius Jones (from Waits’ group).

Another enjoyable session comes from Swedish alto saxophonist Anna Högberg’s sextet Attack. Its three-reed frontline is as lyrical as it is incendiary, reminding us that the likes of Mingus and Kirk were invaluable for the way they transitioned from ‘folk form’ to ‘freeform’ with tireless dynamism. By contrast the static nature of Hiromi’s gig, with too little variety in her power trio, maddeningly short-circuited by a mix that buries bassist Anthony Jackson, is a major disappointment. A local hero, the agile Slovenian guitarist Samo Salomon, is a fitting antidote, eliciting a rainbow of sounds from fine players (Italian bass clarinettist Achille Succi, German drummer Christian Lillinger and English saxophonist Julian Argüelles among others). As for Salomon, he is something of a unique proposition these days: a bandleader who doesn’t really solo, but sets great store by the wiry beauty of his chords, the poetry of his themes and the sensitivity of his scores. He is a captain who is a total team player. Maybe both Brussels and Westminster should lend an ear.

      Kevin Le Gendre

      Photos by Domen Pal