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.)

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