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REVIEW: Konfrontationen, Day 1 - 35th Festival for Free & Improvised Music @ Nickelsdorf, Austria - Andrew Choate {EXCLUSIVE}

By Andrew Choate on Sep 10, 2014 06:52 PM EDT

DAY 1: Thursday, July 17, 2014

People are the best thing about life. I don't know why it took me so long to learn; it's probably because I'm an only child from a small family and have always valued my independence, and a certain kind of solitude. But I realized that people, just simply interacting with people--sharing silliness and profundity and deep sorrow and ecstatic elation--are what truly make living not just tolerable, but redemptive and satisfying, soul-widening. I had that revelation driving back from the Kleylehof on the afternoon of the second day of the festival this year.

My love for this place and the music and the people that come here amplifies every year, and no matter how much I look forward to it or anticipate it, I can never approximate just how heightened my awareness is when I am here. I started coming for the music--it is still the best lineup for any music festival anywhere in the world--but I keep coming back because there is something that happens in this place with these people that makes the music and every other aspect of life gleam with powerful potency.

The opening set of the festival was a Viennese trio consisting of Dieb13 on turntables, Susanna Gartmeyer on bass clarinet and Katharina Ernst on drums. They started with a big burst of raw beats, bass clarinet warbles and record static: perfectly fitting. I've been a fan of Gartmeyer and Dieb13 for a long time, so I was intrigued by how Ernst would navigate their very different sound palettes. She took an ideal route, playing a variety of seemingly infinite tribal punk drumrolls: grooves that were meditative and yet still confrontational, wings with spikes. Within her spirals, she had a precious offhand touch for hitting just the right casual downbeat, both encouraging and testing her collaborators to find something to play in those moments that took advantage of that incredible space. Her outfit also made her look like a badass: her dress had full-length black lace sleeves that gently thrummed in the air as she beared down with great insistence on a small blue plastic clacker while pounding the bass drum.

Gartmeyer's range on bass clarinet is so extensive that no matter where the music goes, she can make that path shine. I really appreciated a moment when she played a soft birdlike series of notes, then repeated the cluster multiple times as Dieb13 started shaking the tables the turntables were on, literally rocking them, making them wobble and get seasick as if under attack from predatory birds. He escaped with speed by playing what sounded like a throng of motors revving. Gartmeyer added raindroppy froghopping using the articulation of the bass-clarinet's pads like wet lilypad kerplops; Dieb13 shifted into a tuned buzz and Ernst played cymbal strums like wind patterns suddenly made percussively existant. I was sitting, like most folks, in a linked series of chairs, so as people in my row started rocking back and forth as they grooved to the music, my body soaked up their pleasure from the backside.

My sinews were doing great. Maven lapsteel guitarist and vocalist Mike Cooper led his brilliant Truth In The Abstract Blues ensemble for the next set. If you've never connected free jazz and the blues (and you find Loren Mazzacane Connors rather boring), this is your alarm clock. Featuring Geoff Hawkins on tenor saxophone, Roberto Bellatalla on doublebass and Fabrizio Spera on drums and percussion, I just couldn't believe this quartet was able to bring the concept of the abstract blues so viscerally to life, and with such an outrageous amount of imagination and versatility. Almost simply by ruminating over the title of the classic Oliver Nelson album "The Blues and the Abstract Truth"*, these guys have created an entirely new genre, albeit one that sounds like it has existed in the very fibers and corpuscles of jazz, improv and blues from the very beginning. Like unearthing something we all sensed was there all along, it was just that nobody had discovered it yet.

They basically played standards like "That's Alright Mama," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Judgment Day" with a combination of backwards guitar, moaned vocals, a saxophone that squealed hunks of dripping blues, and a rhythm section that was as tight as any classic prog rock band but felt as loose as a stoned marsupial. Bellatalla's bass playing in particular was one of the biggest revelations of the festival for me: his giant heavy bowed tones and the way he coaxed the darkest melodies using nothing but mid-range bowed harmonics absolutely floored me, every move extraordinary. He and Spera obviously have a long history because the drums clunked out a combination of funk and sprawl that made every movement feel both appropriate and transcendent, like tapping into the magic of the most common elements. The slower the arrival of the downbeat, the longer the setup, the sweeter the reward: that's romance.

This band is Mike Cooper's brainchild, and the singularity of his vision, playing and personality infuse their sound. He uses electronics, samples, pedals and traditional playing techniques in a combination that is so unique and yet so accessible that it makes the (supposed) modern problem of unifying all the disparate elements of oneself moot. When this set was over, I felt like I had just found an abandoned jug of whiskey from the 1920s, wriggled its fat dusty cork out, took a giant whiff of all that time with all its heady scents and then tilted the bottle back for a slow, deep slug.

[*The band's name actually stems equally from Jimmy Giuffre's quote "One foot in the abstract, one foot in the blues", which is personally apropos for me, since the first jazz concert I ever saw was the Jimmy Giuffre 3, in 1993, and I've been running towards that sense ever since.]

When I saw the schedule for this year's festival, I made no effort to look up any of the bands I didn't know, figuring it'd be better to just wait and listen. Angles 9 is a nine person mostly-Swedish band including Croatian trumpeter Goran Kajfeš, Norwegian baritone and sopranino saxophonist Eirik Hegdal, Martin Küchen on alto saxophone, Magnus Broo on trumpet, Mats Äleklint on trombone, Johan Berthling on doublebass, Alexander Zethson on piano, Mattias Ståhl on vibraphones and Andreas Werliin on drums. As far as I was concerned, I figured I knew all these musicians anyway from various projects, so it was probably going to be some very good large-ish ensemble improv. And with Küchen at the helm, whose extremely textural saxophone improvisations have beguiled and entranced me for over a decade, I genuinely expected more of that constantly shifting textural/ guttural/ liminal/ sonoluminescent weirdness, but now with more people. So imagine my surprise when Ståhl's introductory vibraphone solo gave way to a full-on blast of hip-swinging Balkan boogie.

Instantly, my jaw dropped, my eyes opened wide like I had just seen the moon split open and give birth to a grape, and my head started swinging back and forth in total pleasure. I'm surprised my body was able to contain the amount of joy that this music pushed inside me. I'm still absorbing it in fact, and I hope it's leaking out of me in the ways I interact with both strangers and friends.

These tunes were so skillfully arranged and full of so much belief in the high levels of what music can accomplish that these nine musicians sounded like 99 angels. I saw a stone and grass alley curving around a bunch of old bamboo fences and doors, none of which had a handle or a lock, but each of which could be gently touched to open onto another agricultural paradise: the music gave me dream images while I was wide awake.

The bright frolicking of bike-pedaling pulses from the wind and rhythm instruments combined with Alexander Zethson's piano chomping at the dark. Stahl's mallets sailed over the vibes like a feathered arrow with just the right antibiotic floating directly into your most recent wound. A heavily funkified ragtime waltz with a dressing of folk melodies--perfect for undressing--drifted into a semi-frightening exorcism of dank forest-floor flora and fauna: breadcrumbs or not, no one was getting out of here the same way they came in.

A top festival moment: Äleklint took a trombone solo, under which Hegdal (on bari) and Küchen (on alto) began to play a looping series of sharply curling melodies, precisely in-sync with each other. After several cycles, Küchen's alto broke off into a punctuated trill of whispers and bites. The sudden density of rhythm and melody stemming from just three wind instruments was astonishing, and I was totally overcome.

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TagsREVIEW, EXCLUSIVE, Andrew Choate, Konfrontationen, Nickelsdorf