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...