Konfrontationen Festival Day 4, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2010

On the fourth and final day of the festival, I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Evan Parker and Sten Sandell‘s duo concert in the church around the corner from the main festival venue, the Jazzgalerie. There was, of course, standing room only – not, I would imagine, a situation in which the church finds itself most Sundays. The music sounded, well, heavenly, with Parker’s achingly beautiful sax lines arcing gracefully above the imposing swell of the organ.

Opting to skip the following solo performance by Joe McPhee (also in the church), I went instead for a walk along the back road behind the Jazzgalerie, where a number of sound installations had been placed in and around an old farmers’ shed. I was rather taken with Kathrin Stumreich’s Faden #2, which consisted of a bicycle with a long spool of thread and a contact microphone attached. As the bike was ridden, the thread played out – creating a visual record of the journey to go along with the noise produced by the microphone.  And no, I didn’t have a go on it. Even better was Klaus Filip’s Photophon, which required the visitor to don a pair of headphones and walk among an array of lights dangling at head height from the ceiling of the shed. As each light swung in the air it transmitted sounds to the headphones, sounds which varied according to the position of the visitor and the extent of the swinging.

All good fun, of course, but the festival really got down to business later in the day when Peter Brötzmann took the stage to play in his semi-regular quartet line-up with Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Massimo Pupillo (of Zu) on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I had only seen Brötzmann play with this unit once before, but that occasion last year was certainly the best Brötzmann show I’ve ever seen. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those heights, it was only because the Jazzgalerie’s courtyard in daylight couldn’t rival the brutalist architecture of the Fluc Wanne as an appropriate setting for the monstrous slabs of sound proposed by this quartet.

Since the demise of Last Exit, this group – which officially goes by the name Hairy Bones, although I can scarcely bring myself to use this ridiculous moniker – has surely been Brötzmann’s hardest and most far-out configuration. On Sunday night the saxophonist was consistently matched for sonic extremity by Kondo, who subjected his trumpet to all manner of wild treatments and distortions. The resulting tornado of sound was anchored down by the phenomenal power of the rhythm section. Pupillo’s bass was dark and thunderous, while Nilssen-Love astonished as much as ever with the furious inventiveness of his drumming. Sitting with his head at an angle as if listening intently through the storm to learn where the music would go next, the Norwegian extended his claim to be the world’s finest Improv drummer.

Things got taken down a notch or two, as they needed to, with the quintet featuring Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Joëlle Léandre on double bass, Tony Hymas on piano and Hugh Ragin on trumpet. This was a comparatively restrained, even polite conversation, with the liquid fluency of the saxes layered amongst Hymas’ elegant pianistics and Léandre’s darting arco and pizzicato work. Parker seemed to have overestimated the warmth of the summer’s evening and showed up in a T-shirt; with the chill necessitating a blanket draped around his shoulders, he seemed reluctant to make too many dramatic statements. Except for a sustained passage of circular breathing, Mitchell too was somewhat reserved. None of which is intended to detract in any way from the exquisite pace and movement of this music, which embraced silence as a sixth and vital element.

And so to the finale of this most enjoyable festival – a barnstorming performance by Austro-Deutsch-Australian aggregation Heaven And. Despite the presence of a bassist and not one but two drummers, Heaven And remains very much a vehicle for the incendiary playing of Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert, who switched between a regular electric guitar and some kind of tabletop deal with insouciant ease. If the group’s name holds out the promise of something vast and transcendent just around the corner, it’s a promise that was fulfilled by this hugely convincing performance, which meshed Crimsonesque vectors of sound with the fiery interplay of drummers Tony Buck and Steve Heather. It didn’t sound a whole lot like jazz, that’s for sure, but by this stage in the game it hardly mattered. Bravely and confidently lighting out for the territory where noise, rock and Improv meet, Heaven And brought Konfrontationen 2010 to an irresistible and staggering conclusion.

(Review of day 2 here.)

Konfrontationen Festival Day 2, Nickelsdorf, 16 July 2010

Konfrontationen is a festival of free jazz and improvised music held every summer in Nickelsdorf, a small village in the Austrian province of Burgenland close to the border with Hungary. To hold any kind of Improv festival in such surroundings must be counted an achievement; to hold one that year after year attracts the world’s biggest names in free jazz bar none brings the endeavour closer to one of heroism. The festival’s organizer, Hans Falb, has weathered the storms of bankruptcy and seen his commitment to the festival vindicated not only by the quality of the artists who come to play there but by audiences numbering in the hundreds – a uniquely European, perhaps even uniquely Austrian phenomenon.

This year Falb curated the festival (which stretched over four days for the first time, another indication of its rude state of health) jointly with Swedish sax maestro Mats Gustafsson, fresh from his wedding in Nickelsdorf a few weeks earlier. Their joint pulling power ensured that the festival line-up read like a virtual who’s who of improvised music. I was only able to make two of the four evenings, but these alone provided a surfeit of riches, beginning on the Friday with the trio of Agusti Fernandez, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paul Lovens. This group proved a bracingly effective curtain-raiser, with Fernandez’ glacial Schlippenbachian piano cascading around Håker Flaten’s flaying bass runs and Lovens’ ever forceful percussion. Flowing effortlessly from hypnotically quiet passages to full-on kit-driven assaults, the trio were never less than engrossing.

Much the same could be said of Swedish Azz, Gustafsson’s homage to Swedish jazz of the 1950s and 1960s. This unit seem to have hardened up their act somewhat since the last time I saw them in Vienna, with Gustafsson and Dieter Kovacic in particular ramping up the electronic and noise elements of the group’s sound. Those still labouring under the misapprehension that Improv is po-faced and humourless could have done worse than to lend an ear to the last piece, introduced by Gustafsson as “an old Christmas song” and which saw the vestiges of the song in question being laid to waste by the two men’s scouring blasts of noise. More entertainingly still, Per-Åke Holmlander’s calm four-note tuba motif proved itself equal to this tempest and was more or less the only thing left standing by the song’s end.

Without doubt the highlight of the evening, though, was a devastating set by an extended line-up of The Thing, with the standard trio of Gustafsson, Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love augmented for the occasion by Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Terrie Hessels (of The Ex) and Johannes Bauer. It was truly awe-inspiring to watch this septet take the stage at 2.00am and play as if their lives depended upon it to a large audience that stayed rapt on their every note.

Given the size and line-up of the ensemble, it came as no surprise that The Thing XL (as they were billed) approached the ecstatic fervour of the sadly absent Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet. The German, arguably the godfather of this whole scene, was to have his chance to shine two nights later; in the meantime, his gifted protêgés and collaborators made their own presence felt with their hugely exuberant big band sound. Live as on record (check out 2009’s Bag It! for the definitive Thing studio document), The Thing consistently astonish with the euphoria of their swing and their groove. You want to see gorgeous Swedish girls dancing the night away at a free jazz gig? You’ve got it, courtesy of The Thing and Konfrontationen 2010.

(Review of day 4 here.)

Suzanne Vega, Vienna Konzerthaus, 1 July 2010

More than any other artist, Suzanne Vega provided the soundtrack to my student years. Seeing her at the Konzerthaus brought back a flood of memories of my time at Sussex University between 1986 and 1989, memories which readers of this blog will no doubt find excessively detailed and trivial. Well, tough; I’m writing this for myself, not for you.

I first saw Suzanne (this is a first-name terms kind of piece) on Whistle Test in 1985, performing her signature song “Marlene on the Wall”. This appearance came at a time in my life when I was done with my teenage years of Gary Numan fandom and had also gone through every Pink Floyd album in quick succession. I needed someone new to be a fan of, and decided that Suzanne Vega would fit the bill, since she was clearly talented and intelligent as well as heartstoppingly beautiful. I knew nothing of folk music or the tradition that Suzanne came from, but that hardly mattered. The day after that TV appearance, I went into Salisbury and found both the “Marlene on the Wall” single and the Suzanne Vega LP for sale. As a mark of the significance I attached to this new relationship, I bought the LP.

I played that album constantly, enchanted by Suzanne’s cool and lovely voice, the quicksilver stab and glide of her acoustic guitar, the emotional precision of her lyrics and the air of calm, tender modernity she radiated. I also read numerous interviews with her in which she spoke of her musical influences, including someone I had never heard of called Leonard Cohen. It was only as a result of Suzanne namechecking Cohen that I began to investigate the music of the latter, who was to become another important figure to me as the 1980s wore on.

I was too much of a neophyte to attend Suzanne’s first British concert at the London School of Economics that month, but by the time of her next visit the following spring I had lost all such reservations. So I travelled up to London to see Suzanne play at the Piccadilly Theatre, being so in thral to my new object of devotion that I wrote down the setlist as the concert progressed, something that (thankfully) I’ve never done since. And my obsessiveness went further. With several others, I hung around outside the stage door afterwards hoping for an autograph; what they didn’t do, which I did, was to attach myself to the tail end of a small group of people who were being ushered into the theatre, clearly in some kind of official capacity. Thus I found myself at Suzanne’s backstage party, where I must have remained for all of two minutes before being thrown out.

A few months later I was at Sussex and Suzanne’s music helped me adjust to living away from home for the first time. I travelled up to London two days in a row, first to see the Cocteau Twins at the Town & Country Club (finding myself sitting next to Billy Bragg on the tube on the way there) then to see Suzanne at the Royal Albert Hall the next day. From a small West End theatre to the grandeur of the Albert Hall in barely six months; clearly I was not the only one with whom this music was striking a chord.

I bought Suzanne’s second album Solitude Standing at HMV in Churchill Square on the day of its release, and was gutted to discover when I got back to my hall of residence that my copy jumped like a trouper. CDs were in their infancy back then, and I can’t remember if this album was one of the few available in the new medium. Not owning a CD player myself, it was vinyl for me in any case. When I finally got hold of a playable copy, I found that the album contained several older songs with which I was already familiar from live performances – “Gypsy”, “Calypso”, “Tom’s Diner” – and a number of new songs that revealed a previously unhinted at depth and maturity to Suzanne’s songwriting, such as “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” and “Wooden Horse (Kaspar Hauser’s Song)”. The latter especially was a revelation, its skeletal percussion and dramatically intoned refrain of “and what was wood became alive” inspiring me to seek out and marvel at Werner Herzog’s film on the same subject. As for “Calypso” and “Gypsy”, these were some of the most rapturous stories in song I had ever heard. “Gypsy” in particular affected me deeply and, with its gentle melody and tenderly enveloping lyric, remains my favourite of all her songs. Like the first album, Solitude Standing rarely left my turntable – indeed I would often finish side 2 and simply turn over to side 1 again.

I saw several more Suzanne Vega concerts at that time, including a bizarre solo show at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre at which the support act was not a musician, but a magician. I had left it too late to get a ticket for this gig, but was determined not to let the fact that it was sold out prevent me from seeing it. So I travelled up to London ticketless and, for the first time in my life, made use of the dubious services of a ticket tout. I paid £30 for a £9 ticket, and decided that it was a price well worth paying.

There were also two gigs in my home town of Brighton. Both were unfortunately at the atmosphere-free Centre, but were memorable for a number of reasons. I managed to persuade seven or eight of my fellow students to come along with me for the first (their reactions are unrecorded). A day or two later I went to check my post and, much to my surprise, found a postcard waiting for me. “Dear Richard,” it went, “thanks for listening. Suzanne Vega.” I wasn’t quite sure why Suzanne Vega was writing to me, or how she had got my address, but as you might imagine I was rather taken by that postcard, which I immediately knew to be genuine. The answer, when it came, was rather prosaic. My American friend Jordan F., who was one of those who had come to the concert, had passed a note backstage for the attention of Suzanne, saying how much her music meant to me and how it would be wonderful if she could send me something. And, rather thrillingly, she did. Jordan, if you’re out there reading this somewhere – thank you.

I can still remember the date of the second of those Brighton concerts – 20 December 1987. I was determined to secure the best possible tickets, and took a (not exactly rare) break from studying to go down to the box office (remember those?) at the Brighton Centre on the morning they went on sale. I borrowed my flatmate Ali L’s bicycle to ride down to the seafront from our Lewes Road bolthole, and was dismayed to discover when I got there that the lock had somehow fallen off the bike during the journey. Well, that would never do. I knew I would have to leave the bike unattended at some point during the ticket-buying process, whereupon it would no doubt be spirited away by some thief. The shops weren’t yet open, so I couldn’t buy a replacement lock. So, for the first and only time in my life, I enlisted the help of the boys in blue. I accosted a passing copper, explained my predicament to him and sought his advice. He said: “So you’re wanting to leave it in this vicinity, are you?” That use of “vicinity” has cracked me up ever since; do policemen really speak in the same language as they use to give evidence in court? Evidently so. Anyway, the cop suggested I take the bike round the corner where there was a manned car park open – perhaps I could leave it under the watchful eye of the attendant. And I did indeed entrust the bike to the care of this bloke, who gave a strangely touching response to my question of whether he would be there for the next couple of hours – “well, I’ve been here for the last twenty years, so…”  In any event, I did end up being first in the queue for tickets, and duly secured front row seats despite the best efforts of a smartarse Brighton Centre employee who managed to get to the box office before I did. And the bike, since you ask, was fine.

I was back home in Salisbury for Christmas at the time of the gig, so had to travel along the coast to Brighton especially for it. For some unfathomable reason I had not taken the keys to my flat home with me, but had left them with the elderly couple upstairs for safe keeping. How I would gain access to the flat in the event that they were away was something that evidently did not occur to me, but fortunately they were at home. The gig itself not only took place shortly before Christmas, but was also the very last one of an epic European tour, leading to some side-splitting festive frolics between Suzanne and the band onstage. As for me, I nabbed a huge poster of the gig from the venue afterwards and attached it to the picture rail in my bedroom with drawing pins, since we were strictly forbidden from sticking posters up in the flat.

I think the main part of the story ends there, really. It would be another three years before Days of Open Hand came out; by that time I had left Sussex and was embarking on other musical experiences, ones in which the music of Suzanne and others like her featured less and less. I liked the album well enough, especially the limpid grace of “Tired of Sleeping” and the epic drift of “Pilgrimage”, but there was also a listless, even moping quality to some of it. Clearly Suzanne too realized that there was a need for a change of direction, since for her next effort, 99.9F°, she brought in an outside producer (who ended up marrying her, the bastard) whose use of industrial-lite rhythmic textures entirely failed to convince me. Subsequent albums, I’m sorry to say, passed me by completely.

Nevertheless, it was a no-brainer to see Suzanne at the Konzerthaus, and I even got front row seats as I had done that time in Brighton. The concert was greatly enjoyable, no doubt largely because only a handful of songs from those later albums were played. I do wish there had been a full band, though, instead of just bass (the same bass player as at every other Suzanne concert I’ve ever seen) and guitar (a bloke who seemed ludicrously unconcerned about his absurd ageing-punk hair and attire). A song like “Left of Center”, for example, suffered from being played with just bass and vocals, losing the tumbling, propulsive energy of the studio version with Joe Jackson on piano.

Between songs Suzanne was hugely entertaining, liberally throwing out anecdotes and launching into an audience-participation riff to find out what kind of person Vienna was (the not entirely inaccurate answer that came her way being “a grumpy old man”). For all her sparkling onstage persona, though, there’s a seriousness and a directness to her art that absolutely never falters, such is the clear-minded fluency with which she sings.

And best of all, Suzanne answered my silent hopes by playing “Gypsy”, a song that captivates me today as much as it did when I was a confused and lonely teenager a quarter of a century ago.