Monday, October 01, 2007

Free Music Festival XXXIV - 21-23/09/2007@deSingel, Antwerpen

The Free Music Festival has gained in comfort since its move a few years ago from some back-alley theatre in the center of Antwerpen to the prestigious DeSingel on the city's southern fringe, but, as you'd expect, it just isn't the same. Despite the well-conceived flow of concerts, I'll take a transversal view here. Three themes emerged from this 34th edition: crazy Dutch bands, august first-generation EFI pianists and otherworldly vocalists.

Saadet Türköz is a Turkish singer born of Turkmenistani parents. Her singing was completely astounding, but its reception suffered from a culture gap that Martin Schutz's acoustic and electric 'cellos could not quite bridge. It was like watching a foreign film, but without the subtitles: hard work, even at its most thrilling. Moments of fevered glossolallia that sounded like parallel universe Louis Armstrong scat-singing had me laughing in delight and sheer disbelief at what I was hearing. Other passages employed a more Asian, austerely dramatic kind of oratory style that were particularly difficult to relate to. If Sainkho Namchylak's were to be defined as non-idiomatic, Türköz was most definitely idiomatic.

Compared to Türköz, Sainkho Namchylak's singing could be considered non-idiomatic, as she wandered from Die Zauberflöte to "Crazy Frog" and many less identifiable points in between and beyond. She performed with drummer Eric Thielemans's A Snare Is A Bell project, which can consist of just him, but in this perfomance was a quartet. For roughly half the set, Thielemans played nothing but a steady snare drum roll, while Jozef Dumoulin did even less on piano. That left Namchylak and Peter Jacquemyn with lots of work to do, but lots of space to do it in. The bassist's bowing found a lot of common ground with her, an affinity perhaps explained by the former's Kowald-ian penchant for throat-singing. Even as Thielemans and Dumoulin progressively loosened the initial constraints, overall the piece didn't seem to amount to much, as if the initial premise had handicapped their efforts rather than focused them.

What is the natural sound of the trumpet? After Peter Evans's concert, that was a difficult question to answer. Like Türköz and Namchylak, Peter put the naturalness of any sound in doubt. Sometimes even simple gestures sufficed to deconstruct sounds usually taken for granted: when he inserted his Harmon mute's stem, I couldn't help but wonder why so few trumpeters do. Just because Miles Davis only used the buzzy stemless sound, doesn't mean everyone else has to. Watching Peter simultaneously circular breathe, blow grainy texture and clear notes simultaneously, it can be hard to get beyond the sheer technique of it all, not that I felt much need to, anyway: the sheer thrill of witnessing the creation of trumpet sounds never heard before was enough. To hear him play in more overtly "musical" contexts, check out Sparks, Mostly Other People Do The Killing ("Andover" is the tune I recommend), Carnival Skin, the May entry in Reuben Radding's 12 in2007 series or his own hard-hitting quartet's debut album, soon to be released on Firehouse 12.

Following tradition, Fred Van Hove opened the festival, this time in a first encounter with Jim Black and Peter. Three generations of improvisers, clearly with different concerns. Black is perhaps best known for punkish, off-kilter grooves, but here he reveled in quieter sounds: I've never seen anyone look so happy to shake a tiny bell. While never bad, this set suffered from the bane of many a first-time meeting: in only a few instances wasthe whole more than three individuals each doing their thing. As Van Hove rubbed his piano's strings for a sort of slide guitar effect and Evans trilled on piccolo trumpet, I imagined the mating calls of Venusian tropical birds. Later on, Black allowed himself to build up a head of steam, Evans sank back a little and a collective groove coalesced. Those moments were fabulous, but all too rare. Some in the crowd may have been more underwhelmed than me, as, for a while, loud snoring was heard.

Alexander Von Schlippenbach's solo sets opened the second and third days with interpretations of his Twelve Tone Tales repertoire. The first one featured a Monk's Casino-style medley of concise Monk readings. Von Schlippenbach concentrated on rapidly and radically reconfiguring the melodies, without ever letting them drift out of sight. The Monk section was surrounded by more overtly twelve-tone-inspired works, which served to highlight the ways in which the two weren't all that distant, despite the totally different cultural, rhythmic and melodic contexts. The second set was a breath-taking tour de force into which the pianist held nothing back. By often keeping a strong bass function in the left hand, he somehow managed to distantly evoke ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie in an abstract but very physical way.

The two-piano duet of Benoît Delbecq and Fabian Fiorini was a beautifully serene oasis in a mostly boisterous festival. The two tones and styles were complementary: Fabian Fiorini had a full sound and effusive spirit, while Benoît Delbecq was more impressionistic, his touch slightly veiled, his notes coming as if through a mist. They clashed as easily as they collaborated, oblique beoppish lines were splashed atop free rumbling, Delbecq's sophisticated prepared piano percussion laid foundations for playful divagations, for a set that was wide-ranging yet unostentatious. Whereas Von Schlippenbach had folded serialism into jazz, these two had a greater sensuality: rich, solemn chord progressions mutated into simpler, more soulful motifs. But when the set ended with "Misterioso," they showed that even thirty years on, Monk continued to be a springboard for avant-garde jazz.

Misha Mengelberg embodies comedy: his hat, his walk, the way he slumps over the piano and plays with one hand, even his ballooning stomach are all funny without even trying. The ICP Orchestra put ironic, muddy swing/circus music alongside thorny contemporary string music, made use of improvisation, composition and conduction (cellist Tristan Honsinger's turn in front of the band was a riotous highlight that involved imitating a rabbit), let rip some earnestly burning horn solos and roved the stage to produce antiphonal effects (especially effective when coming from backstage and making a great case for the superiority of unamplified music), or combined three clarinets in unison at full blast to create ear-bending overtones. And they did all this effortlessly, as they should, after having been at it for 40 years.

Two other, slightly younger, Dutch Dadaïst ensembles followed. Luc Houtkamp's POW Ensemble, featuring guest Joseph Bowie, had at least three things no other band in the festival had: a tap-dancer, a woman who wasn't a singer and a lo-fi conception of electronic machines as "contraptions" rather than "sleekly-designed lifestyle enhancements" (even though there was an Apple laptop on stage). The ramshackle ensemble started with dry ping-pong-balls-on-vibrating-horizontal-bass-drum randomness, but then rollicked through improv-distorted new wave/Tom Waits blends and electronicised Fats Waller. The people left happy.

Michiel Braam's Nopera consists of a rhythm section, a string quartet and three singers. Like a next-gen ICP or Willem Breuker, hilarity and incongruity stripped away the trappings of seriousness, but left the foundations of well-written and -performed music. There was self-deprecating opera in some of the singing and most of the acting, but also bouts of gospel diva belting, tango merged into soul jazz, astringent pointillism crushed into ragtime. South African saxophonist Sean Bergin was used mostly as a singer, but also took a few excellent solos on curved soprano.

Spring Heel Jack closed out the festival, fell outside of my three themes and was the only concert I didn't see in full. After a few times through cycles of silence/white noise/silence I had had enough: the improvising trio of clarinetist Alex Ward, pianist Pat Thomas and drummer Paul Lytton were essentially doing what they might have done had the Spring Heel Jack guys not been there. Which might as well have been the case, as they seemed to hardly do anything at all. It was pretty disappointing, so I left after half an hour.