By Irwin Block (email@example.com)
Photo credits: Gulbenkian Música_Petra Cvelbar
LISBON – The final five Jazz em Agosto festival concerts had a sprinkling of improv by European-born musicians, but what most captivated audiences here was the energy, risk taking, creative interplay, and reimagining the music displayed by American bands. The biggest crowd of this ten-day festival, some 800, lined up early for seats in the outdoor amphitheatre here in the Gulbenkian cultural complex, set in a 19-acre urban park, to hear trumpeter Dave Douglas and his High Risk project, which embodies some of these qualities.
It’s the same Dave Douglas we have come to know over the years, with his bright tone and lyrical inventiveness, but in this formation he plays with and over electronic soundscapes and a heavy groove. There was a blast-from- the-past feeling, however, to the first three numbers with their funky groove that recalled the 1980s. As one friend suggested, High Risk was a misnomer. But there was something new because of the atmospherics mainly provided by Rafiq Bhatia, 29, playing a Fender Telecaster and controlling a range of electronica. It was his first gig with the group, and he entered the fray somewhat cautiously, integrating lush and variously textured electronica into the ensemble sound. Also key to the groove were regular group members, the virtuosic drummer Ian Chong, 28, and electric bassist Jonathan Maron, 59, co-founder of New York’s Groove Collective.
The music became more interesting on the fourth number, a ballad, when we were moved by Douglas’s gorgeous development of the theme, with Bhatia and Maron weaving soundscapes into the mix. Douglas followed with a not-totally successful effort to sound more avant by whistling into his horn, but soon returned to crafting melodious lines with that Miles-Davis sound. Douglas then launched into the only overt political note at this festival, almost apologizing for the election of President Donald J. Trump. “We didn’t vote for him!” he said, adding, “we’re doing our best to end this horrible moment in world history” and he hoped “something energetic, fresh, and different” will emerge.
After a funky piece that had audience members bopping in time with the groove, Douglas called for world unity and peace, warning “we’re living in quite a dark moment.” His final piece was a beautiful and emotional dirge-like tribute he wrote following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer outside Ferguson, Missouri in August, 2014.
On Friday, Franco-German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, now based in New York, gave what amounted to a 33-minute improv workshop, where he developed the sonic possibilities of his amplified upright with prepared objects: an aluminum lamp shade inserted between the strings and fingerboard that had its own vibrations, pieces of aluminum and clips attached to each string and an aluminum saucer with the bottom cut out to alter the sound. He placed three small boxes with revolving motorized rotors on the instrument’s bridge to deflect the pitch. He even used an electric toothbrush to alter the sound! He offered some full-note acoustic lyricism, but mostly dissonant and exploratory work, variously intense and fun.
Niggenkemper later joined the Fictive Five, led by tenor-saxophonist and composer Larry Ochs, a pillar of the San Francisco Bay area avant scene, with fellow bassist Ken Filiano, the great Nate Wooley on trumpet, and Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based Harris Eisenstadt on drums. Working from charts, Ochs got things going with a scene-setting declarative solo, then Wooley responded to the call. It became an avant dialogue of the horns, with the bassists maintaining a constant and solid floor.
They followed up with a “two-bass” hit, featuring pizzicato and arco playing, as Ochs directed from stage left, switching to sopranino sax. Most engaging was the way the horn players played off and with each other, with some lovely melodies emerging from the exchange. At one point Wooley was pumped, playing with heart and soul and fire, and Filiano could be heard shouting encouragement.
Ochs outline his kinetic approach to composition, saying, “I’m imagining I’m making a movie with a director I admire, so just sit back.” He then introduced a new piece called The Other Stream and it featured trumpeter Wooley making his horn scream, sputter, and even talk as Ochs joined in on sopranino. It ended much as it began – lovely melodies in an avant setting, with inspired and motivated musicians carrying the music forward with instant and appropriate creations. The crowd loved it, among the most artful and original of the festival.
The Saturday afternoon show featured the Portuguese duo of tenor saxophonist Pedro Sousa and Pedro Lopes with his electronica. Again it had a workshop, with a lot of drone-like soundscapes, as Sousa used the sax to both extract sounds and blow conventionally, repeating phrases and displaying his circular breathing mastery.
Human Feel is both title and mantra of the quartet that performed Saturday night. Now in its 30th year, it brings together saxophonists Chris Speed and Andrew D’Angelo, electric guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Jim Black, drummer extraordinaire and the group’s sparkplug. The horns kicked off the proceedings playing in unison and complementing each other harmonically, the guitarist playing a rhythmic role, with Black then shifting the pulse with a polyrhythmic sequence, and the guitarist later playing off and around the main theme.
They played ballads and up-tempo pieces, Black often shifting rhythmic patterns and Rosenwinkel, starting with the third piece, using electronica to create cloud-like textures and spacey waves, and following up with chord progressions, until Black changed the pace and power-drummed a sequence. For the rest of the concert, from my vantage point, D’Angelo was cooking with high-octane gas on alto, maintaining a clear, warm tone, with a confident and consistent attack – a concert highlight.
Speaking for the group, tenor player Speed expressed thanks for the group playing “in a beautiful city, a beautiful country with a beautiful language and beautiful people.”