AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agosto – Part II

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

LISBON – The duo of harpist Zeena Parkins and drummer Brian Chase at the Jazz em Agusto Festival Saturday was a three-part performance, a mainly acoustic hour of sonic explorations. Chase began his segment with a covered snare drum on his lap. He held a single drumstick in his right hand and tapped out rhythms with his bare left hand, uncovering microtones. He then upped the intensity slightly, using two sticks, tapping wood on wood and drum surface, then with one mallet explored pitches on his cymbal, ending with a gong. It had a workshop feel but attentive listeners appreciated the nuances. Zeena Parkins took the stage to perform on a full-sized acoustic harp, playing with sounds and textures, bending notes, scratching and striking the strings with a mallet, alternating with two-handed lyrical sweeps, and rubbing the strings with a violin bow. The final duet was an intricate call-and-response as the musicians extended each other’s ideas.

The big draw Saturday night was trumpeter-composer Ambrose Akinmusire and his Origami Harvest project. The outdoor auditorium was close to sold out for this jazz hip-hop mix that spoke to the festival theme of resistance. This was not agit-prop – the music and lyrics were developed by Akinmusire to reflect the experience of being American in these times – especially for blacks. Rapper Kokayi’s range and majestic voice resonated with the depth and scope of that experience. It is a genre-busting ensemble with drummer Justin Brown, pianist Sam Harris, and the Mivos string quartet injecting a contemporary classical dream-like quality to the ensemble sound. The focus was on Kokayi, whose first raps rang out with positive keywords. Then the music and the word images turned darker and more urgent. The searing beauty of Akinmusire’s horn and pianist Harris’ two-fisted dissonance dovetailed with Kokayi’s word pictures – “Cut down, get down! … No, no, no, no, no … he said, she said … ID ID ID ID ID, gotta get him.” The concert was reaching a climax when the rain intensified and audience members began to leave, seeking shelter under nearby trees as others gathered on the stage to hear Kokayi call out the names of young and innocent victims – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant. He ended with a blast at the U.S. president, calling him “racist, homophobe, xenophobe.” The audience surrounding the musicians on stage in these closing moments was moving and memorable.

Sunday’s early show featured ERIS 136199, referring to the recently discovered “dwarf planet.” This improvising trio featured electric guitarists Han-earl Park and Nick Didkovsky and tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora. Their first piece, lasting 40 minutes, consisted of the guitarists experimenting with sound using techniques such as loosening and tightening the strings and striking the fretboard as saxophonist Sikora entered at the right harmonic moment to inject lyrical passages. The second piece was more free-wheeling but some audience members were not ready for this level of improvised music and walked out.

The final concert featured guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl project, a sextet that played her music and songs, performed by vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. The idea is that the vocalist is a musician on equal footing with the ensemble. Though it was well-received by the audience who asked for an encore, the melodies and harmonies seemed repetitive. Kidambi sang with assurance and tonal clarity, often in tandem with saxophonist Maria Grand, who sang harmony. Kidambi has a powerful presence and displayed agility and an inventive spirit in her improv. But all the songs had a similar mournful feel. The saving grace were solos by trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and Halvorson whose guitar work was phenomenal. Unfortunately, with the exception of two pieces, she was overpowered by the band.

The format for this year’s festival was two, four-day segments that began Aug 1. Of the eight concerts Aug. 8-11, top marks go to drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his Triple Double formation and Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest.