Jazz Em Agosto
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal
Shortly before the opening concert of the 2016 Jazz Em Agosto, festival director Rui Neves was standing on the beautiful grounds of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation smoking a hand-rolled before the crowd was let in. He laughed at the suggestion that he was opening this year’s edition of the annual festival with a disco band. “You have to switch it up,” he explained with the devilish grin he wears more often than not.
Shifting gears before it begins is a perfect way to describe Lisbon’s most prestigious festival of improvised music. The bands it presents are almost always polished, and the festival’s notion of jazz has been pulled and stretched almost to the point of snapping since its founding in 1984. On opening night of the 2016 edition, Marc Ribot’s longstanding Young Philadelphians are about to take the outdoor stage just a few metres from where Neves was standing. Ribot recently refocused the group as a serrated tribute to 1970s Philly soul, adding strings and kicking out such jams as “Love Rollercoaster” and “Fly Robin Fly” filtered through a downtown aesthetic (call it the skronk of Philadelphia?). But as on the group’s recent album, Ribot intended to pay tribute to some of America’s greatest pop music while undermining it. They played the hell out of the songs, and if they had someone other than the leader handling the vocals they could have had the audience dancing in the aisles.
The Young Philadelphians set wasn’t the best thing to happen during the ten day festival, but it was among the most memorable, alongside another dubiously ‘jazz’ project, the Berlin based punk/rock-in-opposition group Z-Country Paradise. Convened by saxophonist Frank Gratkowski, the quintet improvised a set of songs using text by Rimbaud for their criminally overlooked self-titled debut. Live, the music solidified into a loud rumble behind singer Jelena Kuljic (somehow both intense and blasé). Gratkowski himself looked like a hired hand alongside his group’s younger players (including the talented Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima) but his playing was on target within the monochrome grooves.
This ever malleable festival’s schedule was fuller than usual, with Ribot and Gratkowski also playing solo sets within the foundation’s museums. The programme also featured screenings and presentations, including a pair of Sharpen Your Needles listening sessions with Evan Parker and David Toop.
But most of the action was in the outdoor amphitheatre. New York City was represented by the ridiculously tight Pulverize The Sound (Peter Evans, Mike Pride and Tim Dahl), the heavy prog of Ava Mendoza’s Unnatural Ways (which also included Dahl) and Snakeoil, a typically elongated and sinewy Tim Berne band.
If Jazz Em Agosto 2016 didn’t altogether adhere to jazz, it presented some fine examples of the form. Eve Risser is better known for her prepared piano improvisations but this time she had the ten musicians of The White Desert Orchestra playing her compositions. The music was bright and airy, not her most unusual work but quite satisfying nevertheless. And the Portuguese group Tetterapadequ played a wonderfully subdued set of low impact free improvisation. Saxophonist Daniele Martini displayed a wealth of technique without upstaging the rhythm section, which included drummer João Lobo, whose folkish experiments on the album Oba Loba on Shhpuma alongside Norberto Lobo are worth hearing.
The festival closed with a performance from another Lisbon citizen, albeit a recent transplant. Having just relocated to the Portuguese capital, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love invited his 15 piece Large Unit to meet him there. The line-up included Portuguese (by way of Brazil) representation in the form of percussionist Célio de Carvalho. The grooves moved fluidly from jazzy with a Mingus-esque bravado to free to a bit of Afrobeat, with an array of distinctive horn soloists (including a stalwart tuba) and just enough noise generated by electronics and guitar, occasionally in quick cross fades and sudden, cued changes. On the Gulbenkian Foundation stage, even a purported jazz big band must switch it up.
The Wire – October 2016