FESTIVAL REPORT: 2017 Jazztopad, Poland (Part Two)

Tomeka Reid
Photo credit: Slawek Przerwa

2017 Jazztopad Festival
(Wroclaw, Poland. 23 and 24 November. Report by Martin Longley)

Martin Longley continues his festival coverage, with the Tomeka Reid Quartet, and a first-time duo meeting from pianists Benoit Delbecq and Kris Davis…

It soon became clear that the Jazztopad festival enjoys skating along the barricades between organised composition and freedom improvisations, relishing the tensions between the two camps. On Thursday night, Chicagoan cellist Tomeka Reid united the approaches in the Red Hall, favouring tunes that frequently boasted a driving, nay swingin’, momentum, full of rootsy hooks and unison scurries, but nearly every one of these would be loaded with several strategically unshackled solos, where dynamics were subject to surprising alterations, before gracefully alighting back on the governing theme. Most of the solo swapping and galvanised melody parts came from the front-line of Reid and guitarist Mary Halvorson, the pair sharing a visible rapport in their conversations. These two are very different in their set-ups, with the cellist leader keeping it acoustic and ‘pure’, whilst the axe-woman is amplified, effects-loaded and prone to articulate pitch-shifts of the wavering mirage kind, sensitively controlled via a pair of wah-wah pedals. Meanwhile, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tomas Fujiwara had their own Chicago-New York dialogue operating, divided between structural bounce and individual abstraction, depending upon the section of the song.

Halvorson played the slurred and bendy blues, even using the occasional bottleneck, Reid replying with pizzicato time-slipping, then a New Orleans lilt developed, leading towards a cello-and-drums free-form introduction to the next number. All of the quartet members are interested in the percussive qualities of their instruments, with even Fujiwara searching out some less expected skin-tones. During a bass/drums improvisation, there’s an exciting moment where Fujiwara begins to unscrew the bolts that are holding the toms to his bass drum. Nearly all of the compositions were Reid originals, some well established, and a few being so new that they are not yet titled. The exception was her encore choice of sadly-departed violinist Billy Bang’s Billy’s Bounce, its bright and distinctive theme well-suited to the aura already shaped by Reid’s own numbers.

An hour before this spirited set, the veteran composer, saxophonist and flautist Charles Lloyd had been in conversation, upstairs in a foyer side-room. When asked about his soon-coming festival commission premiere, Lloyd was reticent to elaborate on its process and intention, not particularly due to caginess, but more perhaps because he wants the music to speak for itself. Lloyd’s ruminations were often rambling, or perhaps multi-avenued would be a more accurate term. Anyway, he usually arrived at the intended point, after taking multiple diversions. It was a jazz interview, of course! On the brink of being 80, Lloyd remains spiritual, natural, discerning, and a good spinner of amusing anecdotes.

Benoit Delbecq and Kris Davis
Photo credit: Slawek Przerwa

On Friday, also in the Red Hall, Kris Davis and Benoit Delbecq faced each across spooned grand pianos, both humans and instrument interiors well-prepared. These two had also been publicly interviewed an hour earlier, enlightening, interesting, humorous and each stressing the importance of spontaneity and sonic open-mindedness. They explained the unknown  ratios of compositions, and their improvisatory innards, revealing that in these works there is a significant degree of in-the-moment malleability.

Keeping things Chicagoan, one of the set’s best numbers was The Loop, one of Delbecq’s pieces, inspired by the occasion when he got lost within that city’s central circular hub, which shoots the rider out in spider-web directions. This dense excursion involved the heaviest piano preparations, Davis being liberal in her use of gaffa tape strips, resulting in some quite extreme ping-pong ball and woodblock insistence. Other pieces operated more along small parts of the pianos that hadn’t been prepared, but still shocking with sudden discoveries of an upturned gong patch, or a rattly branch shake (Delbecq enjoys collecting wood from around the world, somehow getting it all through customs). The twosome had a sharp way of communicating, holding up fingers or hands to prompt the introduction of a different section, a burst of coordinated action. Their digits (and minds) flashed together, dancing from frilly-cuffed romantic gesture to low-down rodent-scurrying escape.

There was an opening solo set by Theodosii Spassov, a Bulgarian kaval player. This is an end-blown flute that’s primarily associated with mountain shepherds, but he’s bringing it into the jazz and improvisation world. The set was unfortunately marred by his choice of heightened distortion, sounding artificial in seeking a raw-edged sound. His occasional vocal and handclapping additions weren’t so successful either, and at around 45 minutes, Spassov played a touch too long as an introductory act.

In similar fashion to a few of the players on the Tuesday and Wednesday, Spassov came across much more impressively during the jam session, not connected to his electronic gear, playing straight into a microphone, and leading the host Sundogs trio into a Balkan partying episode, where free-form reeds went to a wild wedding party. All of the Reid band members also joined the trio core at the jam session, saving their contributions for the late-hour climactic stages, with both Reid and Halvorson appearing at different stages, centrally placed in exciting improvisational surroundings. At Jazztopad, the jam sessions are closely linked to the main festival programme, and here exists a subjective universe where the Friday night partying crowd are quite happy to hear some hardcore improvising as part of their post-witching hour carouse.

LINK: Martin Longley's first report from 2017 Jazztopad

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