AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agosto Festival Review – Part I

By Irwin Block (
Photo credits: Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – To appreciate live music, it would be hard to beat the garden-like setting here for the 34th annual Jazz em Agosto festival, in the 19-acre Gulbenkian Park in the Portuguese capital.

The 14 concerts over 10 days are held in the Gulbenkian Foundation’s cluster of cultural facilities, including a museum with ancient artifacts, a Rubens, a Rembrandt and impressionists Degas and Manet, and a modern art centre. Ten of them take place in the outdoor amphitheatre, the prime showcase for American and European ensembles and individual players, all carving out new acoustic and innovative territory in the avant jazz and associated genres of free and improvised music. With a garden behind the stage, the setting is a welcoming and open environment for free expression. When the musicians emerge from an underground green room behind the stage against a background of trees and shrubs and pick up their instruments, there is a warm and immediate connection.

28.07.17_Selebeyone©Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar01Anticipation was palpable opening night July 28 as some 700 fans from a broad demographic range gathered in the 950-seat amphitheatre for American Steve Lehman’s jazz-rap fusion septet called Sélébéyone. The word is taken from the West African Wolof dialect and it suggests intersection, reflecting the group’s personnel – USA, Senegal, France – and experimental outlook: Two rappers share MC duties, the New York based HPrizm. also known as High Priest of the Anti-pop Consortium, and Dakar’s Gaston Bandimic.

Their words and music bring underground hip-hop into Lehman’s avant-jazz framework and group compositions. They include France’s Maciek Lassere (soprano sax, composition, electronica), Carlos Homs (keyboards), Chris Tordini (electric bass), and drummer Damion Reid. They focused on their CD Sélébéyone (PI Recordings), highly praised for its multi-layered offering of sound textures and rhythms.

28.07.17_Selebeyone©Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar02The music has a spiritual outlook, and while the odd word like ‘revolution’ and ‘occupation’ are layered into the lyrics, they are more a call to self-awareness and awakening than to fight the power. We may not understand the Wolof – translations and full lyrics are offered online) – but we get the message. Bandimic’s staccato delivery and appealing lyricism contrast with HPrizsm’s American-urban sophistication. Lehman anchored much of it with his inventive outpouring on alto sax delivered with clarity, force, and focus.

He appeared somewhat surprised by standing ovations and recalled he had been here 17 years ago when he was 21 with his early mentor, saxophonist Anthony Braxton. As it turns out, Lehman, guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum, are among Braxton’s most productive and innovative students. “Thank you for your enthusiasm,” Lehman told the crowd, “I’ll tell my mother!” He returned Saturday afternoon to play solo, sitting behind a desk with laptop and electronica and effects pedals at his feet, playing amplified alto over sometimes spacey soundscapes with reverb, and displaying his powerful command of the horn even as he called up a cornucopia of sounds from various devices. The end result was an extended series of tone poems.

Lehman impressed with repeated motifs, using circular breathing, and came across as a one-man chamber ensemble. The music went from long tones to Middle Eastern sounding phrases, and exchanges with computer samples, all delivered in his almost-sweet tone.

29.07.17_DavidTorn_Sun_of_Goldfinger©Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar02The trio created seven years ago by guitarist David Torn has what he describes as the “nonsense title” Son of Goldfinger, and it offered a no-nonsense display of creative ingenuity Saturday night. Torn controls his extensive effects package from a box that he crafted – he’s been mechanically oriented since childhood – and is as much at home using its possibilities as in playing electric guitar, alongside the noted alto saxophonist Tim Berne and Ches Smith (drums, electronica). After all these years together, it is obvious this

After all these years together, it is obvious this collaboration has paid off in superior communication and interchange among the musicians, resulting in pieces that were engaging, fun to follow, never obscure or deceptive, and full of joyful moments. An ECM recording is in the works.

29.07.17_DavidTorn_Sun_of_Goldfinger©Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar01From the get go, it was hard to tell if the music was programmed or improvised, so varied and extended were the various excursions, melodically, rhythmically, and texturally. Torn later said the music was totally improvised. He impressed with a variety of rock-flavoured offerings on guitar, covering various streams, and ending with a heavy metal flourish; Smith was constantly exploring, using sticks, then mallets, then his hands on the snare and tom, then playing subtly with brushes, then power drumming, and adding rhythmic elements with his own electronica.

But standing at centre stage, it was Berne’s sustained and powerful attack and inventive melodies in various modes that made it all jell, and after 70 minutes, the audience demanded and got a 13-minute encore.

An estimated 500 were in attendance, for that gig, but because the foundation finances the festival and controls the venues, there are no worries about ticket sales. Says artistic director Rui Neves, “Our only concern is the quality of the music.”

Sunday’s concerts featured French musicians, and the performance results were mixed. Guitarist Julien Desprez’s Acapulco Redux fused musical concert and performance art. On an indoor stage with electric guitar, a dozen or so effects pedals and bar of lights on the floor, he first triggered a drone sound. Suddenly there is total darkness, noise, sampled sounds, and in that context the guitarist played a cluster of notes in repeated progressions.

With more light, he then walked around the stage in stylized positions, flashing the light bar on and off to accompany or contrast with the music, and used the guitar for melody and percussion, slamming it at one point with his right fist as he danced with it, then strummed furiously at the top of the fretboard. Some children in the audience chuckled, yet that seemed to fit the experimental nature of this venture, which received rapturous applause. I congratulated Desprez for his initiative, cautioning him that I was not an expert in what he does. “Neither am I,” he responded, with a smile.

30.07.17_Coax Orchestra©Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar01It was less fun to hear the Paris-based Coax Orchestra, an eight-person ensemble, including guitarist Deprez, and its ostensibly post-modern take on the music. They opened with a fanfare, but suddenly it ends, and then the group moved on to showcase other musical genres, getting into groove but never taking it anywhere, playing what they called “elevator music” – if this was a joke, I did not get it – and a bossa sound.

30.07.17_Coax Orchestra©Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar03Most impressive of the various segments was guitarist Deprez and the sonically inviting and innovative duo he played electric harpist Rafaëlle Rinaudo, the first female performer among the five opening shows. We hope to see more from this potential team.

There are nine concerts to come, ending with trumpeter Dave Douglas and his High Risk quartet August 6.