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.)

Evan Parker/Alex von Schlippenbach/Paul Lovens, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 3 December 2008

Evan Parker was the first free jazz/improv saxophonist I ever heard, and the one who made me fall in love with this kind of music. Before I had heard Ayler, Braxton or Brötzmann, Parker was the one who showed me that the saxophone could be a source of great passion and intensity. Live, his serpentine solos and jaw-dropping circular breathing technique burned themselves into me in a way that very few rock performers had ever done.

It’s been a long time since I saw Parker live – there was a stimulating collaborative show with Zoviet France, a phenomenal trio gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, and a concert in Brighton with Spring Heel Jack – so it was great for me to see him for the first time in Vienna, this time as part of his long-standing trio with pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens. Their improvisational instincts honed by many years of playing together, the trio proceeded to play two long and engrossing sets. Schlippenbach was an agile and eloquent pianist, Lovens an enthralling presence on the drums. Parker was the star for me, but at the end of the day this concert, like all the best group-based improvisation, was an extended conversation between these three gifted musicians.

Ether column, December 2006

Undoubtedly the highlight of this month’s concerts is a rare visit to Vienna by the British saxophonist Evan Parker, playing at Porgy & Bess as part of the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio. Parker is a saxophonist like no other. Along with figures like Peter Brötzmann and the late Derek Bailey, he is one of the leading lights of European free improvisation – a movement that began in the mid-60s, taking the language of free jazz (as heard in the work of musicians such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman), divesting it of its rhythmic origins and extending it into the realm of pure abstraction. No two concerts of free improv are ever alike – the performers are guided by the dynamics between them on the night, rarely lapsing into the easy formularity of melody, rhythm and harmony. The results can be challenging to the untrained ear, but can also be truly spectacular. Nowhere is this more so than in the playing of Parker, whose soloing on tenor and soprano sax is possessed of a unique, serpentine beauty. Parker is a virtuoso exponent of circular breathing, a fiendishly difficult technique that enables him to play long, continuous solos without ever pausing for breath. He issues torrents of dense, fluttering notes that hang in the air like a challenge. Happy in many different contexts, from stripped-down solo to large-scale electro-acoustic ensemble, Parker’s trio with Alex von Schlippenbach (piano) and Paul Lovens (drums) is one of his most enduring musical associations.

Later this month, Slovenian industrialists Laibach invade the inhospitable surroundings of Planet Music for your average evening of eastern European totalitarianism. As founding members of the Neue Slowenische Kunst art collective, Laibach have been making a nuisance of themselves since the early 80s with their stirring blend of neoclassical and martial music. Like other groups associated with the NSK, Laibach like to privilege the collective over the individual, issuing statements and manifestos and framing their concerts as quasi-political rallies.

Laibach’s use of uniforms and totalitarian aesthetics, allied to the Wagnerian overtones of the music, have led to frequent accusations of political extremism – charges that the band dismiss, pointing to the humorous impulse at work in their militaristic interpretations of cheesy pop songs such as “One Vision” and “The Final Countdown”. Laibach adopt the trappings and symbols of state power, exaggerating them to the point of parody and thereby offering satirical comment on them. While certainly open to misinterpretation, the ambivalence of their methods can be read as an invitation for listeners to examine their own beliefs and prejudices. Their new album, Volk, is a collection of songs inspired by national anthems, further embedding Laibach’s bold interrogation of the iconography of nationalism. And you can dance to it as well. Political music was never this much fun.