AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agosto – Part I

By Irwin Block (irblock@hotmail.com)
Photo credit: Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – Resistance and the drive to identify political oppression is the theme of this year’s 36th Jazz em Agosto festival. It began Aug. 1 and continues until Aug. 11.

That spirit was at the heart of the 45-minute, hard-hitting avant-rock performance by ABACAXI, the French trio led by electric guitarist Julie Desprez, which kicked off the second half of this eight-day festival Thursday night. This is a tight and well-oiled music machine with Jean François Riffaud (electric bass) and the powerful and expressive drumming of German national Max Andrzejewski. Alternating light and darkness and heavy and loud with silent pauses, Desprez punctuated the first piece, called 1984, with a variety of sounds from his guitar and special effects, grating, rattles, and sirens, ending in calming long tones. The second piece featured some dazzling drum riffs including one segment when Andrzejewski stood behind his cymbals tapping out dramatic patterns. The third piece continued in a similar vein, dark but not morbid, angry but not desperate, conflictual but not without hints of harmony, ending in a wall of sound fading to silence.

French violinist Théo Ceccaldi and his sextet called Freaks later offered a more accessible program that was bright and lively, a mix that has been described as punk jazz because it combines punk-rock energy with avant improv and wild excursions that soar above the pulse. Ceccaldi loves to play melody in rapid-fire bursts reminiscent of French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, albeit with a more adventuresome outlook. Wearing black leotards and a white print shirt, Ceccaldi is the group’s energetic mainspring. The music was fun, upbeat, and the solos by a kilt-wearing Mathieu Metzger on alto sax and Quentin Biardeau on tenor sax were electrifying, with lots of dissonant elements that fit the overall musical scheme. The audience at the outdoor amphitheater – for the most part transfixed – demanded and received a double encore.

The drum-percussion duo of Joey Baron and Robyn Schulkowsky was the opposite of a traditional drummer’s battle. Instead, they performed a lovers’ dance. They began tapping out rhythms with their hands in call-and-response exchanges, playful conversations, and tonal games. Baron might be tapping out patterns on his snare drum, while Schulkowsky contrasted with the sounds from her set of gongs. Their playful conversation explored sonic subtleties and microtones. Baron depended mainly on brushes and his hands rather than sticks, and silences were part of the soundscape. An exception was an Afro Cuban-style exercise in counter-rhythms that was applauded vigorously. Commenting on the festival theme, Schulkowsky told the audience that “resistance is every day, personal and private, and we must,” then offered a tribute to anti-segregation activist Rosa Parks, a gentle and loving exchange featuring clicks, bells, and ending with slow, long tones, delivered tenderly.

The most thrilling concert of the first two nights was delivered by drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his Triple Double formation, featuring drummer Gerald Cleaver, electric guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum. The interplay among those with similar instruments gave this concert a special flavor and intensity. It was compelling, artful, and possibly the most memorable in my experience as a jazz writer. I was blown away. Intriguing melodies, high-energy delivery, original solos that fit well into the overall development added up to a never-ending display of joyful creativity. Seabrook was on fire, playing standing up, punctuating the music with his sculpting attack and tonal explosions. Halvorson, with her guitar over her knee, was less audible in the mix although we did hear some colorful, melodic explorations from her. Bynum too was on fire, playing a leadership role in the band and injecting exploratory bursts into the mix while Alessi was more lyrical. A lengthy drum duet that was all about harmony and complicity was among the show’s highlights. The encore featured each musician playing a few bars in series.