Monday, 19 October 2009

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble @ Queens Hall, Edinburgh...

It may have taken a few days to get this posted, but then it has also taken a few days for the effects of the gig to sink in and fully hit home. Just as Tord seems to consider and deliberately execute every stroke of the piano keys, a pause for reflection probably wasn't a bad idea really, although in truth there's little I could have done to write up the gig any earlier having only just arrived home after a few days of much needed holiday in Edinburgh. What I suppose I'm trying to say is this: Friday night was deeply impressive, and I don't often leave a concert hall feeling so completely satisfied. In order to set in in context and get some perspective takes a decent amount of time, so rather than stringing together a list of superlatives and pressing 'publish', I've taken some time to reflect.

Although I've enjoyed his trio of trio discs for ECM and enthusiastically greeted Restored, Returned when I first heard it last week, it should be noted that I didn't go along as a committed fan ready to enthusiastically lap up anything he offered. Despite having had other opportunities to hear him play, this was the first time I'd actually committed to going out to hear him live. I went into the gig looking for some confirmation of his talents, needing to be fully won over. The '70s is really my favourite decade for Manfred Eicher's iconic ECM label, and the Esbjörn Svensson effect - a superficial reinvention of the piano trio to a point where they're proliferating at a rate which makes them too hard to properly evaluate - has also made me harder to impress when it comes to this old established format.

It turned out that in much the same way as with Marcin Wasilewski earlier this year, first hand experience was enough to make the breakthrough. There's really nothing like seeing a good live performance to help understand what makes a musician tick. Last Friday I feel as though I may have got close to understanding where lies the bottom of Gustavsen's estimable depths, and as a result I now feel more comfortable to embrace him as an outstanding talent.

The opening night of a 10 date UK tour and the first time that this particular quartet had played together in concert, Gustavsen seemed to sense that something special was in the air. Everything about the leader was hushed and respectful, and his quiet introductions of the musicians - Tore Brunborg, Mats Eilertsen and Jarle Vespestad - spoke volumes about how pleased he was to be there with them. Integral to the performance was the sound engineer, brought on the tour as the Ensemble's 'fifth member', and rather like seeing true high definition television for the first time, you wish that standards could always be as high and are surely in for a disappointment next time you go back to a standard presentation. In some branches of jazz such clinical precision may not be necessary, but for Gustavsen's subtle gestural music it is imperative.

Unlike the latest CD, where the fifth ensemble member is vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen, last Friday's music was purely instrumental. Gustavsen has worked with vocalists - notably Silje Nergaard - in the past, but for this tour the band were cut back to a four piece. From several short lullabies to feature pieces such as 'The Child Within' and 'The Swirl', the new album was the group's main focus, and the same low key and thoughtful modes of expression predominated. 'The Gaze' stood out among the newer pieces, though everything that the quartet did was in truth perfectly executed. Only on the Spanish-tinged modal piece 'Where We Went' did the group seem to let go, a strictly relative relative observation in as much as the ensemble's letting simply consisted of digging in to a deep modal groove. Normally I'd be looking for dirty blemishes, grit and grease as a sign of authenticity, but Gustavsen establishes a convincing exception. He has no need for any of that in his music, and you only need to see him writhe at the piano stool to know that he's lost in the process, as deeply involved in the act of making music where everything counts as any expressionistic avant-gardist.

If there was anything about the music that was disappointing then it was Brunborg, only because he relied so heavily on Garbarek for his voice and direction. Rather like hearing a Coltrane disciple with no twists of individuality, the effect is slightly uncomfortable when you strongly believe (as I do) that jazz should be about individual expression. For a Norwegian to lean so heavily on an influence is of course no worse than the hundreds of Coltrane disciples around the world who bring nothing new to the table, and as far as this particular project is concerned it must be said that Brunborg's approach was perfectly fitting and appropriate.

The long-haired almost bear-like bassist Mats Eilertsen oozed cool concentration, his rich woody tone and guitar-like virtuosity recalling the heyday of Palle Danielsson. Vespestad seemed to be in a constant state of slow motion or suspended animation. A heavily miked drum kit meant that the smallest gesture resonated around the walls of this beautiful old hall, and given the group's almost holy asceticism - they even closed the set with an 'evening prayer' - the former church made a fitting arena for such a deeply moving and in some ways ritualistic performance.

This trip had started out as another hardly required excuse to have a weekend away in Edinburgh. What we witnessed at The Queens Hall on Friday was something very special, and after the sonic-slugging that characterised much of 'On The Outside' last week it was impressive proof that intensity and passion can be just as powerfully realised in quieter ways. Anybody can play loudly and with a lack of discipline, but to distil so much emotion into such a potent brew is something that you don't encounter every day. To say that 'less is more' misses the point because the same quiet approach that Gustavsen shares with Cor Fuhler and latter day Crispell is not actually 'less'. Welcome to my quiet revolution...

Fred Grand

Monday, 12 October 2009

On The Outside Festival: Day Three...Marilyn Crispell, Rob Brown, Günter 'Baby' Sommer et al...

The final day of the festival proved to be the busiest, but the most rewarding of the three. The quality of the music remained high, the atmosphere among the musicians light and friendly, the audiences attentive and enthusiastic, and I'd even go as far as to say that I started to warm to Alan Tomlinson's idiosyncratic trombonery by the close of play. His duet with 'Baby' Sommer in the last set was in all honesty one of the festival's highlights - a theatrical display full of absurdist humour and ironies. Rasping trombone and marching band beats, it could almost have been an offshoot of the Zentrall Quartett.

Starting for us at 11AM, the pace of the day didn't really let up until midnight. We'd arranged to take Marilyn to see the coast - just like me she's a great fan of the sea, and Tynemouth was the destination. Louise postponed her shopping mission to come along and enjoy the morning, and to me this was really what 'artist liaison' should be about. OK, with such a large scale festival staffed by overworked and under appreciated volunteers it may be an unrealistic ambition, but showing visiting musicians something other than hotel rooms and concert halls is an enriching and rewarding thing. We walked for a couple of hours, including a trip along the pier in high winds, and Marilyn enjoyed it so much that on her recommendation Rudi Mahall and his partner took off on the Metro later that afternoon to see it for themselves.

It was back to the festival for 2PM, and highlights of the afternoon set included Marilyn's group with Chevillon and Taylor, and the established duo of Rob Brown and Daniel Levin. As the musicians worked their way through the matinee, a fiendish plot was being unhatched by Raymond MacDonald to divide the evening session up into twelve short groupings selected by the musicians. I say 'fiendish' because I was the person charged with having to round up the groupings and get them on stage one after the other. In the end it was a breeze, the musicians by and large needing no prompts to get up and play.

Following a breathtaking solo by Marilyn and an equally engaging duet with MacDonald, the artists' selections commenced. Turnover was rapid, and the audience had a chance to hear everybody at least once. Rob Brown did a nice duet with Günter and Marilyn, Bruno & Chad drew the biggest applause with a highly rhythmic workout, and I've already mentioned the pleasant surprise of Alan and Günther.

Crowds were consistently good throughout the festival, but with such an outstanding line-up it's disappointing that more didn't travel from Scotland or the South. Perhaps marketing needs to sharpen up and the web presence increase if there's a next time, because although crowds for this kind of music will never reach blockbuster levels there's still room to grow.

The biggest threat to the continuance of this festival is the need to secure ongoing funding. As the crowds dispersed just before 11PM, many will have been wondering if they'll get the chance to do it all again next year. Paul chooses to remain optimistic, and I don't blame him. If nothing can be done then he should be proud of the festivals that he did pull off against so many odds, but you can bet he'll be doing his damnedest to see that we're all back next year.

Our last act of the 2009 festival was to drop Günter back at the hotel and wish him a safe journey home. I never imagined I'd ever see him up close in the UK, and to get the opportunity to see and hear him play in so many contexts was unforgettable. A niche music this might be, but it has a place. Let's hope that one of those places is still Tyneside in 2010. As Herr Sommer remarked when we shook hands in front of the hotel, 'It's up to you!'. Words to live by, and if there's anything I can do to help, I will.

Fred Grand

Sunday, 11 October 2009

On The Outside Festival: Day Two...

Just a short write up of yesterday, before today gets underway. The festival really seemed to take off on Saturday, with some consistently high quality sets. The artists are settling in and getting to know each other, and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Günter got his bag back and lit up the stage three times yesterday with his uniquely theatrical performing style, and the arrival of Bruno Chevillon (late due to a missed flight) added yet another dimension.

After the smooth running of the opening night it started to feel a bit chaotic behind the scenes, but amazingly things appeared normal at the front of the house, everything running just about on time and to the schedule. Perhaps traumatised after shock exposure to the affectionately re-named 'trombone loon' (aka Alan Tomlinson) on Friday night, Louise opted to go shopping in the afternoon. My first challenge came when Rob Brown couldn't be found before his 4PM slot, and after searching the building high and low several times I had to think on my feet, asking young Scottish tenor/baritone saxophonist Graeme Wilson if he'd mind filling in. Keen as mustard he took to the stage, only for Brown (delayed by a late-running Metro) to appear as they finished their first piece. The result? A dramatic entrance and a real bonus in the form of a quartet with a two horn front-line that for me turned out to be the day's highlight.

Günter was the next person to go Missing In Action, although it later turned out that he'd been behind the curtains on the stage all the time. He's already a big favourite with the crowds, and I'm pleased to finally get my chance to see him live after many years of admiration. Marilyn only played once, but found more space in today's ensemble, the Ducret/Chevillon combo was as tight as I'd imagined, and Fuhhler continued to impress with his work inside the piano. The young Dutchman closed the evening in a group consisting of his piano, two cellos and two bases. Another of the day's best groupings, their chamber-ish 'new music' recalled the New York avant-garde of the 50s and was just the kind of contrasting change of pace and direction that the evening needed.

Our work ended in dropping Bruno off at his hotel. No wrong turns down any one-way systems this time, just the cattle-market of Central Newcastle on Saturday night to negotiate. Bruno was the second ECM recording artist to hop into my car in as many days, making this a very acceptable way to close out another tiring but successful day. For Sunday morning we've arranged to take Marilyn sight-seeing, and then the music begins again at 2PM. I'm looking forward to her solo set in the evening, and also to artist programmed segment of the festival. Hopefully I'll find the time to blog all of that tomorrow...if not Monday.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

On The Outside Festival: Opening Night...

Louise and I are pressed willingly into action all weekend at what may be the last 'On The Outside' festival, unless future funding can be secured. With another fine international roster of avant jazz and improvised music people, if this has to be the last of the line then the high quality roster of artists assembled promises a fitting closure to the series. Of course I hope that financial backing can be found (even RBS would be welcome, if they're still frittering money away on events sponsorships), as there's nothing quite like it in the UK, and i'd be hard pressed to name another festival anywhere that adopts the same fecund approach to group improvisation.

We've got the same behind-the-scenes role as last time - loosely termed 'artist liaison' - only this time the job has been made a lot easier by the introduction of outside caterers. Last year's Indian/Chinese/Italian takeaway menu co-ordination was quite a challenge, and if I remember rightly it even delayed the start of the festival on the first night! Other than picking up Marilyn Crispell from her hotel (and spiking the ire of several drivers and pedestrians as I made a hash of going the wrong way into a one way system - it was dark and confusing), there hasn't been too much to do so far. Things have gone like clockwork, though Günter Sommer, whose luggage is still in Amsterdam, may disagree.

Musicians have pretty much rounded themselves up on time and been ready to play without needing any encouragement. This has even left some time to listen to the music, a mixed blessing in many ways as I'm not as receptive to free improvisation as I once was. The opening night was a good chance to scope out some of the musicians, and the combinations of personalities by and large worked well. Opening with Scots saxophonist Raymond MacDonald alongside percussionist Chad Taylor and cellist Daniel Levin, a promising start was made. Levin's dark timbres and Taylor's light touch gave MacDonald lots of space to blow, and his Lacy-esque soprano in one particular calm passage was great to hear.

This ostensibly structureless music generally finds its own recurring structure, however. Calm-swell-crescendo-repeat just about sums it up, but that's not to minimise the surprise element, as musicians unlearn their instruments and use 'extended techniques'. The next group, with the twin guitar attack of Marc Ducret and Chris Sharkey, had plenty of that to offer. Rarely sounding guitar-like, Cor Fuhler's shimmering piano which underpinned the axe men's antics was for me the most interesting feature. Ducret is a nice guy with a winning smile though, and it was good to have a chat with him about his new base in Copenhagen, and the many new projects he is involved with there. His old brother in arms Bruno Chevillon arrives on Saturday, and I'm looking forward to hearing the two together at some point.

Next up was a solo intro by trombonist Alan Tomlinson, later joined by Rudi Mahall and local bassist Andy Champion. We missed most of their offerings because of the excursion to the hotel to collect Marilyn, although Tomlinson's eccentric 'bubble and squeak' may have been hard going had we stayed. Crispell was much as I imagined her, and although I've heard her play several times and know a good few of her recordings, she's the undoubted 'star' of the event. It was good to get a bit of time to chat and make her feel welcome. With minimal fuss and turnaround she was soon on stage with Rob Brown, Marcio Mattos and Chad Taylor (standing in for the equipment-less Sommer). I find Brown a bit shrill, although I'm a big admirer of the string of discs he's made with William Parker's formidable quartet. Marilyn's more minimal aesthetic didn't really have the space to find voice, although she did add interesting colour and direction to the music on several occasions. Hearing her in a quieter setting later during the weekend should bring out the best in her, and I can't wait.

The last time I saw Chad Taylor was almost a decade ago when he performed at a no-fi gig by the Chicago Underground Duo that I co-promoted. That night the musicians slept on the floor in my flat, and it shows how far things have come (and what a great fund-rasing job Paul Bream has done) that now they are provided with good quality accommodation in central Newcastle. With afternoon and evening sessions on Saturday and Sunday to come, I'll hopefully get a chance to blog a few more impressions, although I've got a feeling that today is where it starts to get a lot busier...

Fred Grand