Monday, August 5, 2013

Jazzaldia 2013: days 2-5

(This is a digest of the more detailed account of the 48º Heineken Jazzaldia, the annual summer jazz festival in Donostia/San Sebastián, Spain, which can be found in Spanish, here. You can read about day 1 in English here.)

As vilified as it may be, the European summer jazz festival circuit must surely come as a blessing for many, musicians and fans alike. Besides the opportunities to work for the former, and to enjoy quality live music for the latter, it's a good chance to meet up with old friends who become part of the landscape for a few days a year.

One of those chance meetings: John Zorn and Lee Konitz
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
For those of you who have never been to San Sebastián (in Spanish, its name in Basque is Donostia), this used to be a summer resort for royalty and power, and it still keeps some of its old-lady flair. Besides the sea, its beaches and the music offered at the end of July, the town and its surroundings (easily reachable thanks to the Mugi travel card) boast a food-and-drink offer that is simply astonishing. Besides its 16 Michelin stars shared by 9 restaurants, the standard is normally very high, even in popular events as the Cider Day, in Azpeitia on July 25, or a regular tour of the bars in the town's Parte Vieja (old part), as shown in the picture. More on the attractions of the town can be found here.

Patatas bravas (hot, as in spicy, potatoes) at Café San Telmo (by the Museum)
Chuletón (large T-bone steak) at Bar Néstor (C/Pescadería)
G&T at Gintonería (Gros)
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
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~  D A Y   2  ~

On to the music. The second day of the festival started with VIJAY IYER'S TRIO and the clean and nuanced acoustics of old Victoria Eugenia theater.

Vijay Iyer Trio
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
A New Yorker, son to Tamil Indian parents, Iyer's music, even in the worn-down piano trio format, encompasses a wider North-American landscape, from Thelonious Monk to Steve Reich, through Herbie Nichols and Henry Threadgill (their “Wildflower” and “Little Pocket Size Demons”, respectively, were in the programme), the frantic virtuosity of bebop, Bill Frisell's Mid-Western vastness, the quiet dignity of Spirituals, the rhythms from New York... All this is mixed with incredible precision, from how the ingredients are combined, to the careful way he twists and stretches his fingers putting the idea before his own physical comfort. This exactness was enhanced by Tyshawn Sorey percussion work, but, and this the achievement, none of the end result sounded contrived at all.

*

Later at Plaza de la Trinidad, "la Trini", the double bill looked promising: STEVE SWALLOW'S QUINTET with CARLA BLEY, plus Jorge Pardo with a big band.

Swallow is in a class of his own. His sound with the electric bass is flat, his picking is unorthodox. However, he's one of those musicians for whom the instrument is just a medium, in this case for an unparalleled musical taste and lyricism. This lyricism permeates the rest of the band, with Chris Cheek on tenor sax, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Jorge Rossy. The distinction is clear between those three younger musicians, somewhat bolder than their older and more sober counterparts. The music was firmly rooted in the classics, with plenty of blues and a fast encore on rhythm changes.

*

Jorge Pardo
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
Wiser aficionados have known for a long time that any chance to see JORGE PARDO should never be wasted. On Thursday he played backed by a big band from music school Taller de Musics of Barcelona, conducted by David Pastor, with Marc Miralta on marimba, plus Flamenco guitars, percussion, hand-clapping... A bit over the top, especially on account of the result. Pardo, in the opposite corner to the orchestra, was never overpowered. He's taken for an instrumentalist, but he's closer to a cantaor who delivers through curved soprano, alto flute, tenor sax, or whatever he blows on. He's a consistently imaginative and personal soloist, quite unique, especially with the flute. The surprise came from Josemi Carmona—present in Dave Holland's flamenco CD Hands—who's putting some serious work with his guitar, from which he extracts the liquid sound associated to his father, the great Pepe Habichuela.

*

The cloister of the old convent of San Telmo, now a Museum, was the perfect frame, rain and all, for AURORA, the trio of Agustí Fernández on piano, Barry Guy on double bass and Ramón López on drum set and tabla.

Barry Guy en San Telmo (© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
These three musicians are well-known members of the European free-improv community, which might scare some. That would be a terrible mistake, because Aurora's music is very approachable, melodic, and even “nice”. There are a few passages that stray from musical formality, yes, but the gist of it is the exploration of tenderness. In the hands of such virtuosi, the intensity they put in the search of pure beauty, can truly break the listener's heart. Fernández, Guy, and López remain extreme musicians: extreme perfectionists, and extreme improvisors, but whereas other sides of their work may be devoted to abstract sounds and even violence, here they delve in sensitivity, with the added Mediterranean flavour brought by Agustí.

After a long day, under light rain, and with bare feet on wet grass, this was a highlight of the festival.


~   D A Y   3  ~

After a sunny morning and afternoon, rain came back for the evening. No matter, la Trini was packed for DAVE DOUGLAS QUINTET, with Jon Irabagon on tenor, Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston on drums.

Dave Douglas Quintet (© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
What this quintet does may sound just like another go the well-mined fields of hard bop in the 21st century. With those classic-sounding heads by the horns, what makes this all work is the band's honesty: that rich, wooden sound Oh has on bass, the momentum she and Royston are able to generate, the leader's attitude (who repeated quotes from “I'm Beginnin' to See the Light” and “52nd St. Theme”), and the very special Jon Irabagon, a musician who's not afraid of his own imagination, even when it takes him to quote the Pink Panther theme. His solos are the ideal dynamite to extract beauty and surprise from this age old genre.

Pharoah Sanders (© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
The double bill was completed by the PHAROAH SANDERS QUARTET. Launched into post-1960 jazz notoriety in the best way possible, under John Coltrane's wing, Sanders's set was almost entirely devoted to him, starting with with half-an-hour of "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes". These were followed by “Giant Steps” and “Naima”, and his own "hit", “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, in very long readings where his rhythm section, Dan Tepfer (piano), Oli Hayhurst (bass), and Gene Calderazzo (drums) were given free rein. None of them wasted their chances, and Tepfer—a last-minute sub for William Henderson—did a fine job with the untouchable harmonies of  “Giant Steps” and the altissimo part of the piano.

*

Although these things happen at festivals, Tepfer may be the only pianist to have performed with Pharoah Sanders and LEE KONITZ on the same day.

Lee Konitz with George Schuller's trio
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
Going back to the choice of repertory, by now everybody knows that in a Konitz gig there is half a dozen tunes that we're always going to hear. He's being doing it since the giants of jazz roamed the Earth and he's not going to give it up at 85, especially if he manages to keep it interesting. As restrictive as this method may seem, those pre-established sets of chords are the only restriction.

Konitz was backed by drummer George Schuller's trio, with Tepfer, and Jeremy Stratton (bass), a perfect fit for the master, attentive to all his movements, and giving him lots of space. There were no surprises in the song list, and Konitz was especially poignant in the intro and outro of “'Round Midnight”. Against all odds, the enthusiastic audience got two encores, Chuck Wayne's “Solar” and an a capella “Alone Together” with the audience humming the root note.


~   D A Y   4  ~

John Zorn at the soundcheck
(© Lolo Vasco/Heineken Jazzaldia)
Saturday was JOHN ZORN day, the main event on this year's Jazzaldia. As part of his 60th-birthday tour of Europe, he brought a Masada Marathon, twelve groups in 20-minute slots with non-breaks of three minutes at most. A post-modern, 21st century JATP of sorts.

Zorn is a natural leader. Those who've seen him work behind doors are amazed at his expediency, clarity and perfectionism. There's no room for please, sorry or thanks. If moving his 40-plus musicians entails shouting “Hotel! ¡Bus! NOW!”, he will do it. And nobody would bat an eyelid, even if the shouted at include stars such as Uri Caine, Marc Ribot or Dave Douglas. Everybody seems to know that there's no other way to make such a monster work. 

The logistics went as smooth as they possibly could. Musically, because of the rapid succession of music and bands, it was, at once, a bit too dense, and too easy to make comparisons between bands. Of these, all-female vocal quartet Mycale, David Krakauer's band, and Secret Chiefs 3 were somewhat below par.

Marc Ribot and John Zorn at a rehearsal
(© Lolo Vasco/Heineken Jazzaldia)
Musically, there was a balance between the jewish—or Mediterranean, rather—, and the Zornian, with some spicing to boot, like the more “classical” sounds by the strings and the pianists (especially the duet Courvoisier/Feldman and Uri Caine's solo piano set, in spite of the sound of the piano), or the Brazilian rhythms of Cyro Baptista. Those Mediterranean flavours did soak everything there was to hear, and it's unlikely that we'll miss anything remotely similar to the frigian mode and certain kinds of meters in the coming months.

As for the Zornian side of things, at the end of the day, in spite of all the different bands and musicians involved, this is his project. Thus, the music comprised all of the above plus the variety of New York's musical landscapes (be it funk, rock, or blues), ornettian improvisation, music for cinema (those minor blues we now identify with Tarantino) and vintage Warner Bros. cartoons, sudden stops and starts with him as the conductor, and general sonic obscenities, like the electronic non-musical sounds provided by Ikue Mori.

Every single musician from the all-star cast gave their all, but Jamie Saft on organ and the unstoppable Joey Baron, were truly exceptional. Even so, the king of the night, Zorn knows this, everybody knows this, was Marc Ribot. He's in extraordinary form, with a perfect tone and a personal take on the blues —he hardly played anything else on the night—which should become a classic.


~   D A Y   5  ~

Things that turn up in boxes
As in any other jazz festival, at Jazzaldia it is physically impossible to attend all concerts. This writer is especially sorry to have missed the duet of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger at San Telmo, over the background of Sert's overwhelming canvases, and Diana Krall's at Kursaal. Of the latter, those who attended concur on Krall's not having a good day at the piano and having to rely on the guest star to carry the weight of the show. That would be—surprise, surprise—Marc Ribot.

The hot Sunday morning got started at Hotel de Londres, by the beach, host of the record fair that takes place during Jazzaldia. After the compulsory exchange of euros for some rock, acoustic and electric blues, vintage country and gospel, a couple of Martial Solal LPs and the oddity on the left, it was time for the local food delicacies and on to the music.

Youn Sun Nah Quartet with Ulf Wakenius on guitar
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
At Plaza de la Trinidad, it was first the turn of South-Korean singer YOUN SUN NAH and her companion of late, guitarist Ulf Wakenius. She mainly sang tunes from their latest record, Lento (ACT), like the encore, country classic "Ghost Riders in the Sky" del bis. Nah has an incredible range, and her recordings verge on the contemplative, for which La Trini is not best suited. She seemed to ignore this, and she pulled all her stops. The contrast between the precise arrangements and her improvisations was especially enticing.

Hiromi
(© Lolo Vasco/Heineken Jazzaldia)
Another woman from the Far East headed the night. Nah is a vocal virtuoso, but, in a trio set, HIROMI, at 34, is simply scary. A pianist friend present at the concert commented that her posture and the way she attacks the keyboard, especially forte and above, is strictly classical. In any case, she's immaculate at any speed. However, a great typist doesn't necessarily make a great writer, and with so many resources at her reach, it become quite clear that the medium is brighter than the message. She plays a lot of piano, but it's interesting that she doesn't seem to be so interested in the harmonic side of the instrument, which has given so much to such different pianists as Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, or Monk. In any case, she's not the first musician who relies on technique and the truth that this is a kind of musician that tends to have a faithful audience. 


***

Jazzaldia's director, Cifu and San Sebastián's mayor
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
This is all there was to report for me from the 48th edition of Jazzaldia. Besides the music, though, there were other events. Before his set at Kursaal, Lee Konitz was given his Donostiako Jazzaldia Award, a lifetime achievement award granted annually by the festival since 1994. That's all very well and well-deserved, but this year the Award was shared with Juan Claudio Cifuentes, a/k/a "CIFU", who's been commenting on and promoting jazz for over 40 years in nationwide radio and TV (this, for a glorious 8-year period) and other media. On Saturday morning there was a small event followed by a press conference, attended by colleagues from all national media, where Cifu didn't mince any words regarding the situation of live music, music education, and culture in general in Spain.

Raúl Mao about to take a picture of Clark Terry,
Jazzaldia, 1999
(© Fernando Ortiz de Urbina)
Earlier in the week, on Thursday, day 2, right before Jorge Pardo's set at La Trini, we had a few minutes to remember the late RAÚL MAO, director and founder of Cuadernos de Jazz, the longest running jazz magazine in Spain, twenty years in print, now an online-only publication. Sadly, he left us too soon, last February, after a long illness which may have taken him, but not his spirit. Until the end, he was listening to music and pouring those acid comments that made us, his writers, wish that he wrote more, instead of just being the editor. He fought tooth and nail to keep the magazine afloat, no small feat in Spain.

***

As you can see in the programme of the festival, there was much more than I have reported, like the sizeable amount of free gigs, by household names like Elvis Costello, Belle & Sebastian, or Jamie Cullum. Yes, on the beach, for free. There have been more jazz gigs, jazz for kids, events combining food and music... and there's the area, the sea, the mountains, the greenery... perhaps it's time to start planning for next year?

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