Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Mats Gustafsson, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2008

On this, my third summer in Austria, I finally made it to Nickelsdorf for the Konfrontationen festival of free jazz and improvised music. This is a very special event — an intimate, three-day open-air festival that takes place in a restaurant/jazz club in an unassuming Austrian village close to the border with Hungary. What makes it even more remarkable is the calibre of the artists the festival attracts. Any event that can count Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, AMM and Peter Brötzmann among its past guests has to have something special going for it.

There was, however, some doubt as to whether this year’s festival would be able to go ahead, due in large part to owner Hans Falb’s financial difficulties. The main problem seems to have been that the Austrian performance rights organisation sued Falb for a large amount of unpaid performance royalties. There was a lot of talk on Friday about “resistance”, as though the very fact that the festival was taking place this year at all was an act of defiance against the authorities. Well, sadly taxes and duties are a fact of life, and if it is true that the festival’s precarious financial situation is the result of non-payment thereof, Falb can in reality have few grounds for complaint.

In any case, last Friday’s opening night of the festival was extremely enjoyable. Blessed by a warm summer’s evening, the covered courtyard attracted a large and enthusiastic audience — far larger than I had expected, and certainly way in excess of the numbers that would turn out for an event of comparable stature in England. My wallet took a hammering at the excellent record stalls; these guys seemed to have more free jazz and improv CDs for sale than I had ever seen in one place before.

It was a long evening, with four groups all performing full-length sets and extended pauses between the acts, but for once this unhurried approach to scheduling didn’t bother me; it contributed to the overall atmosphere of relaxed informality. Having said that, the first act, all-female Norwegian improv quartet Spunk, entirely failed to hold my interest with a rather aimless set. Things soon looked up, though, with an engrossing performance by the trio of Joëlle Léandre on double bass and voice, Elisabeth Harnik on piano and Erik M on the turntables. I could have done without Léandre’s extended vocal techniques, but other than that the set was gripping, with Harnik’s gorgeously loose and freewheeling piano threading around Erik M’s static-heavy turntable interventions. The third group of the evening, the eight-strong Roscoe Mitchell band, made a glorious racket and on any other night would have made worthy headliners.

It will hardly come as a surprise that my main reason for attending Konfrontationen this year was to see Peter Brötzmann, this time in Sonore, his all-reeds trio with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson. I caught this trio at the Blue Tomato last November, and it’s safe to say they haven’t gone rockabilly or anything in the meantime. With no rhythm section to anchor it down, the music veered off in all sorts of wild and utterly unexpected directions. Gustafsson’s low-end blats provided a fine foil for Vandermark’s pulsating lines and Brötzmann’s firestorm blowing. Towards the end all three men were playing tenor saxes simultaneously, a beautifully symmetrical model of alliance and understanding.

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