Okka Fest Brews Milwaukee Free Jazz
Milwaukee is known for beer, not jazz, but through the dedication of Adrienne Pierluissi and Bruno Johnson, founder of the Okkadisk label, their two bars, Sugar Maple and the Palm Tavern, have been the home of uncompromising music—and outstanding beer. With the support of the Milwaukee Free Jazz Society, they have also been able to present the fourth edition of Okka Fest, which ran June 8–10.
Veteran multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love were particularly busy that weekend and they fittingly started the festivities with a memorable duo performance. Their set was devoid of any competition; just two men striving to make great music. McPhee, who stuck to the alto sax throughout, delivered some heart wrenching freedom cries. His flights were often emotionally charged, imbued with a lifetime of experiences. The duo concluded with a piece that had a unique industrial, almost mechanical quality.
If saxophonist Dave Rempis does not have the background that fuels McPhee’s playing, he compensated with his youthful abandon as vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz shaved off the mellow edge of his instrument to give some extra punch to the Wheelhouse trio. Bass player Nate McBride refereed their punishing contest by having a grounding role and provided threads, pulsations and hums as Rempis roared and Adasiewicz punctuated his hyperactive runs with deeply reverberating, bell-like sounds.
Reed player Ken Vandermark’s only scheduled appearance was an afternoon set at the Palm Tavern the following day. Joined by fellow former Bostonian McBride and longtime cohort Tim Daisy on drums, Vandermark displayed many facets of his talent. He adopted post-Coltrane or funky modes on the tenor, went pastoral on the clarinet and swung hard on the baritone. McBride and Daisy formed a formidable driving machine that made Vandermark’s work seem effortless.
Back at Sugar Maple, Nilssen-Love and McPhee were reunited at the onset of the second evening. This time, Adasiewicz was in tow. McPhee who switched to pocket trumpet and tenor opened each of the three improvisations with a different approach to his trumpet playing: ethereal phrases, rapid fire lines, or extended techniques. However, the trio always ended up revisiting the same textures and moods even though McPhee’s reflective tenor and Adasiewicz’s sharp accents enhanced the performance.
Next, the Rempis Percussion Quartet delivered a solid set albeit a tad too predictable. Sandwiched between the two drummers, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten stole the show; he brought out all the muscularity of his playing to survive the challenging environment. The two pieces performed that night alternated explosive blasts and searching explorations but in different sequences. Drummer Tim Daisy added some spice with some complex rhythmic figures and otherworldly sounds.
A solo performance by McPhee ushered the last day of festivities. His opening alto solo was jaw-dropping. With its intricate architecture and impressive use of multiphonics, it felt as if he was playing several tracks concurrently as he added a beat to textures or vocalises. He continued with a lullaby that reached a poignant apex before inviting Vandermark for a couple of tenor duos. They started with a lovely pas de deux, including a few unexpected and gruff sidesteps, and concluded with a Latin-tinged serenade.
The trio The Thing concluded the three-day event. Clad in their Ruby’s BBQ T-shirts, the trio balanced their rock-infused and powerful salvos with detailed and clever exchanges. Flaten delivered some tongue-in-cheek humor as he responded to saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s screeches with some hilarious, high-pitch arco work. At some point, the Scandinavians were joined by McPhee and displayed some more craftsmanship by adroitly stitching a patchwork of tunes by South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza, hip-hop artist MF Doom and hard-rock mainstay Black Sabbath. Who knows what would have happened had Ozzy been in the room?