In July 2010 I saw the Scandinavian free jazz trio The Thing play at the Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria. Konfrontationen is a relatively unknown but historically rather important festival. Every year since 1980 it has brought some of the world’s biggest names in jazz and improvised music – Anthony Braxton, AMM, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann and many others – to play in the courtyard of the Jazzgalerie, a café-restaurant in this small village close to the border with Hungary.
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 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.)
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.