FESTIVAL REPORT: Festival Jazz em Agosto 2015 in Lisbon

The stage set for JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

Festival Jazz em Agosto 2015
(Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, July 31st – August 9th 2015. Report and all photos by Henning Bolte )

Jazz em Agosto (JemA) is one of those jazz festivals which, to its credit, pursues a clearly recognizable and consistent artistic line. The programme is composed of musicians/groups who have made an important and acknowledged contribution to the development of the music; or of musicians/groups advancing to new, unknown territories; or those are redefining, recombining and reinventing former creations and routines, with the addition of some creatively promising newcomers who bring new conceptions. The formula also means that some musicians return to the festival annually, but with different configurations each time.

The programming is based on astute observation of artistic developments across various scenes through the year. Special projects are set up, and it is rare to see musicians/groups from the circus of musicians/groups which does the rounds of the bigger summer festivals. As a consequence of this approach, the festival has developed a track record for unique appearances over the years. In recognition of this, it earned the European Jazz Network award for innovative programming in 2014.

The format of the festival has always rung the changes, but, compared to previous years, this year JemA presented an obviously trimmed down, easily surveyable edition. There was one concert per night during the festival's eight days.

JemA as an event of the unique, world-famous Gulbenkian Foundation has created its own faithful, open-minded, mixed age audience the festival not only can rely on but also allows challenging choices in the programming. A remarkable gender balance also characterized the Lisbon audience. Within this framework obviously a balanced sequence has to be worked out every year.

All of the concerts took place open-air in the marvellous, well-equipped amphitheatre situated in the unique park of the Gulbenkian Foundation nearby Praça Espanha.

All groups were mixed-generation affairs and mainly European configurations (Scandinavia, Portugal/Austria, Portugal/UK, Germany, France) plus two groups from the United States, one from Texas, the other one from New York. Five of the groups were large ensembles plus three small groups: LOK3, Red Trio+John Butcher and Wadada Leo Smith Great Lake quartet . There was the “old thing” in a new perspective (Michael Mantler’s Jazz Composer’s Update and Swedish Azz), there was the new thing as Fire! Orchestra, The Young Mothers and, by definition, Orchestre National de Jazz and there were hybrids as Swedish Azz, Lok3 and The Young Mothers. The two quartets, Red+John Butcher and Wadada Leo Smith 4, finally formed an entity of their own.

Fire! Orchestra and Michael Mantler w/Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos

Fire! Orchestra. JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

What the Fire! Orchestra is doing now was yet to be invented and designed when young Austrian musician Michael Mantler (1942) went to New York in the sixties. At the age of 24 he made plans there to compose for an orchestra of free(d) avant-garde jazz musicians as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, Larry Coryell, Roswell Rudd and Gato Barbieri. In 1968 the work was ready to be performed and recorded. Now, more than four decades later, Mantler has reworked it and it has been performed three times: two years ago at Vienna's well-known club Porgy & Bess with The Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band conducted by Christoph Cech, then with the same line-up at Moers Festival in Germany two months ago and now with the well-known Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos from Porto, one of the strongest large jazz ensembles of Portugal. Does it mean that it has now become a repertoire piece with a sacrosanct score like in classical music?

Not quite, because Mantler adapted it to other than the original musicians and instruments. He designed the reworked version for the Swedish guitarist Barne Roupé and for some well-known Austrian fellow musicians as Wolfgang Puschnig, Harry Sokal and young piano wizard David Helbock as soloists and the 16-piece-orchestra Nouvelle Cuisine. Apparently a jazz-opus is in need of this because of a different definition of “the voice of an individual musician”.

Realizing that Mantler’s work was ground-breaking and the beginning of a complete new, independent post-Ellingtonian orchestral manoeuvre, its wild and cheerful, almost innocent flow, its carefree absorption and handling of heterogeneous influences is still sensible in the new recording of the piece on ECM. These influences have been exploited thoroughly in the next decades in different kinds of music especially film music, such that these sounds and colours have become more commonplace for many listeners. But nonetheless it stands out as an important work of recent jazz history that demands to be confronted and contrasted with music young(er) musicians now create in a similar format. That’s why it would have made sense to start with the Mantler orchestra and then have the confronting/contrasting Fire! Orchestra as follow-up.

The starting point however was the sensational and still much in demand 19-piece-version of the Fire! Orchestra. It has a busy tour-schedule for the summer festivals of this year (amongst others Peitz, Ljubljana, Copenhagen, Molde, Saalfelden, S’ Anna Aresi). Fire! Orchestra started as an 28-piece extension of the trio Fire! of reed man Mats Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin. The mega orchestra made a start in 2012, skyrocketed in the next two years and released two albums, Exit and Enter, on Rune Grammofon. The line-up had two excellent vocalists, Sofia Jernberg and Mariam Wallentin, as well as three ‘heavy’ female musicians, saxophonists Lotte Anker and Mette Rasmussen from Denmark and French hornist Hild Sofie Tafjord from Norway. The vocalists played a crucial role in relating the music to the audience and navigating through the sea of sounds. They were the lead dogs of the race sled.

The contrast with the Mantler-Orchestra couldn't have been starker and sharper. Fire! Orchestra is high volume and massive outward energy, shrieking burst-outs, dense playing, sonic caroms and accumulating sound piles all carried by hard-hitting rock riffs. Fire! Orchestra demands attention and gets it – from both presenters and the audience.

The sheer force of the powerful noise of so many (good) musicians’ joint action was sensational and impressive as such in the beginning. It had a sympathetic note to see all the great musicians united on the bandstand. There was a good drive first but in the longer run the orchestra lost its reach. Good moments alternated with ‘dead’ moments additionally impeded by a poor sound and flat lightning operated by the ensemble’s own technicians. It became too much exhibition of strength of will and had too little tension and magic. Bathing in a crazy big sound caused by so many extraordinary musicians may be thrilling for some people but artistically it does not suffice. Does it musically make sense to attach so many more dogs to the sled? It seems not - but fortunately there are more musical options with a pool like this. The potential of the orchestra has yet to prove, to unfold and take shape convincingly.

Under Cech as conductor the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos from Porto together with the three Austrian soloists brilliantly performed Mantler’s richly coloured work, which gave it the status of a definitely hardened version with some solo-slots for the Austrian musicians. It felt like a kind of finalizing. The work wins of precision and at the same time looses the original creational tension and also the creational tension that could have manifested in case you would have given the original score to some young musicians. Both are legitimate choices. For the audience this rendition surely was a great pleasure for the lovers of modern Big Band music and maybe a slightly disappointing experience for impro-aficionados. While Mantler strived to restructure and reconcile, Gustafsson strived to evade and blow up routinized forms and its sophistication and substitute it by the raw and rough power of sheer loud instrumental sound, a clear contrast and confrontation.

It seems high tide for (a diversity of) large ensembles (< 4) at the moment, which is also a clear contrast the initial situation of Mantler and his fellow musician’s enterprise. What is different too: presently Large Jazz Ensembles seem to be booming. All differ from classical Big Band jazz as well as from old school Free-jazz-orchestra’s. They all have their very own approach within a broad range of possibilities (Paal Nilsen-Love Lareg Unit, Carate Urio Orchestra, Andromeda Mega Express, Splitterorchester, the reunion of The Loose Tubes, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Jakob Bro Tentet, Flat Earth Society to name just a few).

Swedish Azz

Per-Åke Holmlander (Swedish Azz) at JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

That Mats Gustafsson can operate in a quite different mode was proven by the performance of his group Swedish Azz with Per–Åke Holmlander on tuba and especially cimbasso, Kjell Nordeson on vibraphone, Erik Carlsson on drums and Dieb 13, electronics and turntables. The group whose name is a conflation of ‘ace’, ‘ass’ and ‘jazz’ delivered a musical masterpiece of dialectical collage art celebrating legendary Swedish jazz pioneers from the 50s and 60s as baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, bassist Georg Riedel and pianists/composers Jan Johansson and Lars Werner.

Aided by Gustafsson’s background narratives about Pippi Longstockings tunes and other matters fuelling the audience’s imagination flashes of the original tunes/sounds played live or sophisticatedly infused by Dieb 13 on his turntables. Together with brief truncated comments, free excursions and noise dusts all were intriguingly collaged, and enlivened by the vital, strong and beautiful playing of all musicians, especially Nordeson on vibraphone and Holmlander on cimbasso, an instrument with a special sound projection in the range of contrabass trombone and tuba. The awesome soloing, neatly embedded in the overall structure, made it a still richer affair. Erik Carlsson delivered one of the most remarkable drum solos I have experienced for a very long while. The performance was both a prudently filtered and convincingly projected tribute to the old tunes and musicians and a fairly stretched transformation of the “old stuff”.

Red Trio+John Butcher and Lok3

JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

Midweek the festival was continued with two small groups, the Lisbon Red Trio with reedman John Butcher as guest and the Berlin Lok3 threesome of Alexander von Schlippenbach, Aki Takase and Vinent von Schlippenbach aka DJ Illvibe.

Red Trio, an open-form-improvisation configuration from Lisbon, is a proven group that has beaten its own characteristic track through the field of free improvisation during more than a half decade now. It has made its first appearance at Jazz em Agosto during the festival’s 2010 edition. This time the trio played with British reedman extraordinaire John Butcher with whom they recorded the album Empire (NoBusiness Records, 2011).

The performance of this Anglo-Lusophile unit became a shadowy flickering and thundering affair, "uma passagem através de um corredor místico do universo", a passage through a mystic corridor of the universe. Rodrigo Pinheiro dug bells from the piano belly, John Butcher conjured prairie yells and cavern echoes with his soprano saxophone, Hernani Faustino canalized the seething lava streams and Gabriel Ferrandini swept the passage by the highly energetic whirling flow of his drumming. Butcher played totally in service of the trio’s approach what revealed some special, even unfamiliar sonic sides of him, which worked out beautifully in a duo with bassist Faustino. Pinheiro alternating between the keys and plucking inside the piano provided texture and brightened up the music in subtle ways whereas Ferrandini reached a impressively high level in his striking combination of energy, precision and flow. The group indisputably put down a strong marker.

Alexander von Schlippenbach, Aki Takase and Vincent Schlippenbach aka DJ Illvibe

Alexander von Schlippenbach, Aki Takase and Vincent Schlippenbach. JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

Instead of the regular music documentary film this edition presented two important historical cinematographic works, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent movie “Berlin, Symphonie einer Grosstadt” (Berlin, Urban Symphony) and Viking Eggeling 1921 silent movie “Symphonie Diagonale” (Diagonal Symphony) accompanied by live music of two piano vedettes, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Aki Takase in collaboration with electronics by Schlippenbach’s son Vincent aka DJ Illvibe.

Ruttmann’s movie is a dazzling composition of vast empty urban streets, busy business at central urban areas, constant movement, a circus of beginning advertising, newspapers, fashion, cafés, mechanics, steel, metal, asphalt, transportation, sports, wheel work, night life, all scenes with a characteristic sound, a sound that changed the world forever.

Schlippenbach and Takase delivered dotted abstract sounds mingled with truncated or camouflaged popular tunes that were interspersed with Illvibe’s great feinting electronic manoeuvres. This created an undertow highlighting the cadence of Ruttman’s montage and cinematographic flow. It intensified the amazement and pleasure still caused by Ruttmann’s opus. Takese’s special talent to raft through popular tunes of the film’s era fell into place here. Schlippenbach also entwined the music with that kind of elements. Caused by un petit malheur digital he had to postpone his part partly to the encore. The finale of Ruttmann’s opus was cut off by accident and substituted by a restart of Eggeling’s work. The confusion was solved by an encore that presented especially Schlippenbach’s music for the finale but then without motion pictures, which gave it a special twist.

The Young Mothers

The Young Mothers. JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

The Young Mothers is a relatively young group from Austin, Texas, launched by Austin’s well-known Viking, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. It comprises Jason Jackson (saxophone), Stefan Gonzales (vibraphone/drums), Jawwaad Taylor (trumpet and vocals), Jonathan Horne (guitar) and Frank Rosaly on drums.

The group has a lot of this special Texan spirit that allows bridging and merging naturally a great variety of contemporary musical styles and genres without loosing centre. It could be sensed from the first moment of its intense and joyful performance, a vital criss-cross, loose and edgy, motley and clear. It was a stunning example of energetic, lustful, gripping and coherent way of making music. The Norwegian-Chicagoan-Texan coupling was a revelation and it worked impressing.

The musicians all knew what they were doing and were fully into it - without forgetting the rest of the world. They were rushing headlong, joining the chasing like ferocious huskies. The pace was fast and furious. Everything was what it was, no hollow emphasis, no frills, and no high-strung manoeuvres. The music flew from the interior, and, it was flying high finally. All was in the service of the whole but each musician could shine thanks to unfettered engagement of the group. None of the musicians sought a high profile solistic role. It was just the combination of equals that made it so enjoyable. Also it was not the artful  - rather the whole thing was full of art. Sharply cut metal flew around the audience’s ears, Hip Hop blew in its face, and folk and rock fell down on its feet. Lots of wonderful passes were served, picked up, acted upon, and put away. Jawwaad, the trumpeter and rapper: "When we started I had my concerns regarding the meshing of Jazz and Hip Hop. But it’s gone. With this troupe it works for my feeling, excellent.” It was a clear high point of the festival. The encore was an even stronger affair and a contender of the hottest real encore of 2015.

Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith. JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

With the illustrious appearance of his 9-piece-ensemble Organic during the 2011-edition in mind Wadada Leo Smith’s appearance at this year’s edition with The Great Lake Suites featuring Henry Threadgill attracted the highest expectations. In the line-up too were bassist John Lindberg, his longstanding musical partner, and Marcus Gilmore subbing for Jack DeJohnette, the drummer from the original recording of the suite (2014, TUM Records). Hence the concert was eagerly awaited and despite a peppered ticket price the concert was sold out. Two “big names” and a highly talented young-and-upcoming drummer who had recorded with pianist Vijay Ijer, Mark Turner and David Virelles on ECM records and also with Steve Coleman, Gilad Hekselman, Gonzalo Rubalcaba amongst others. It sounded highly promising - maybe a bit too much promising.

It became a deep disappointment, causing considerable consternation.  Threadgill in particular was not “on line”, he struggled with his role, was looking disoriented and missed his entries. But also Gilmore was not really “in the music” either, and he struggled too. It was a problem apparently not sufficiently discerned/solved in advance. Smith, Lindberg and Gilmore tried to make the best out of it but failed. The performance did not really come off the ground and provided the encore of a new function. For the encore the quartet was demanded to deliver what it owed to the audience and happily it met the demand – as a small kind compensation - in a fulfilling way.


Theo Ceccaldi of ONJ. JemA 2015
Photo credit Henning Bolte. All Rights Reserved

Jazz from France has always been well presented at JemA. Considering that Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) is one of the most important talent-pools of highly promising musicians of the young French generation, it makes sense to invite and present the current incarnation of that orchestra.

ONJ is a longstanding French institution, an ensemble with a strictly limited working term of four years, changing leadership - and, for every working period - new members as well. The current installation, under the leadership of guitarist Olivier Benoit, is a bit atypical because it also includes a couple of well-established names among its ten members - including bassist Bruno Chevillon, drummer Eric Echampard and the pianists Sophie Agnel and Paul Brousseau - alongside highly impressive and promising talents such as saxophonists Alexandra Grimal and Hugues Mayot, violinist Theo Ceccaldi, trombonist Fidel Fourneyron, clarinettist Jean Dousteyssier and trumpeter Fabrice Martinez.

ONJ, as an instrument of its periodic leader, has always been a special tool for creating, producing and performing "big" works, big not only in the sense of orchestration and extended line-up, but also in terms of concept, references and projections. Benoit has been a member of ONJ himself during the Paolo Damiani tenure from 2001, and is also experienced with leading large ensembles having worked as conductor of Circum Grande Orchestra as well as La Peuvre and Feldspath.

Whereas Wadada Leo Smith took big geographic forces determining and shaping civilizational environments as a starting point and inspiration for his music, Olivier Benoit approaches ‘Europe’ by a musical exploration of various metropolitan spaces.

The first album of the present Benoit-led installation of ONJ was titled Europe Paris, a work of five extended parts totalling more than 90 minutes. In Lisbon ONJ presented a new second part Europe Berlin (a third part, related to Rome, is underway). The architectural character and the sound dynamics of Berlin are obviously different from Paris. Reflecting the urban space of Berlin, its construction, its history and mental states, Benoit opened up related perspectives in sound and form thereby drawing on musical currents “inhabiting” the German metropolis: minimalist music, free jazz, progressive rock and electronic music. Pieces of the Berlin-opus which where presented in Lisbon are “L’effacement des traces”, “Metonymie”, “Persistance de l’oubli”, “Revolution”, “Réécriture”.

The orchestra opened with “L’effacement des traces”, a superb haunting introduction with an impressive trombone-solo by Fourneyron. The second piece, “Metonymie”, had a delicate violin part by Theo Ceccaldi and a strong and colourful solo by Alexandra Grimal on tenor, fantastically underpinned by Echampard’s drum-work. A core piece was “Revolution” based on a incisive minimalistic piano pattern delivered by Sophie Agnel with a blazing trumpet-feature by Fabrice Martinez and a thundering drum-solo by Echampard, a piece of impressive dynamics and threatening moments. Echampard fulfilled a greatly executed pivotal role throughout. The well-deserved encore was built around a solo of keyboarder Paul Brousseau who coaxed an amazing sound world out of his fender Rhodes to infuse into the orchestral textures.

Benoit is a craftsman who has brought ONJ to a high level of contemporary orchestral jazz that also succeeded in reflecting the tumultuous characteristics of the respective urban spaces in stirring ways. The orchestra has clearly grown with the new program and rendered a highly dynamic, rounded finale of the festival.


The total of eight events of the festival can be distilled/extracted/rationalized into three thematic clusters:

- geographical/urban spaces
-  old music recycled,
- 'free' (open improvisation).

1) GEOGRAPHICAL/URBAN SPACE: two concerts were inspired by/related to Berlin (in different eras) by Orchestre National de Jazz and Lok3, one concert was inspired by/related to the geographical area of the Great Lakes in the North of the US/south of Canada.

2) OLD MUSIC: five concerts approached and treated "old" music in special ways: Michael Mantler's Jazz Composer's Update, Swedish Azz, Lok3, The Young Mothers and in a way also FIRE! Orchestra

3) FREE/OPEN IMPROVISATION: in the realms of "free" operated The Red Trio+John Butcher and to a certain extent Fire! Orchestra too.

Mantler and Fire! Orchestra were in a way antipodes or extremes on a continuum. The programme was more than just an illustrious collection of well-known acts of profiled musicians. It had some underlying logic at work that created a special consistency and cohesion.

The music went along the past and aimed at expansion to new territories with the Young Mothers as a centrepiece. It connected to other disciplines as cinema and related to urban spaces, their history, spirit and vibe. It all could unfold neatly and these strands could illuminate each other, which is a merit of this festival and a line definitely worth pursuing for the future.

A fuller selection of Henning Bolte's Lisbon photos can be found at Manafonistas.de

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