Jazz em Agosto Upholds Legacy in Portugal
The story behind this festival, and the legacy it continues to uphold, is one for the ages. The foundation that began what is now the 30th annual Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon, Portugal, was established in 1956 to carry out the will of Portugal-based Armenian business magnate and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian (1869–1955).
The foundation’s grounds, where this year’s festival played out (Aug. 2–11), house art museums and a science institute. It was a rustic outdoors spread, fit for royalty, featuring graceful gardens and major real estate that formerly was the city’s zoo. A semi-circular stone amphitheater, in the midst of a lush symphony of trees and water, held 1,000 padded, open-air seats. Inspired by the setting, Artistic Director Rui Neves said the music had been programmed as if it were one long movie. This year, the festival presented only one show per night in the amphitheater, each concert leading into the next with a logical musical thread that kept the crowds coming.
Neves said he selected groups and individuals for the festival based on the criteria of having a connection to musicians who were “personally introduced into Portugal,” and who had new projects in 2013. Each performer was also meant to reflect a time in jazz “when boundaries were fading and audacity was becoming more conspicuous,” Neves explained.
John Zorn opened the first three nights of festival, and Pharoah Sanders closed it. (DownBeat also reviewed each of those artists’ concerts: see Zorn review and Sanders review.) The Portuguese troupe Drumming GP Plays Max Roach M’Boom (five drummers, plus four guests) offered percussive fire that was vibrant and propulsive, honoring Roach’s performance here in 1995. Continuing its zigzag of styles, the festival presented the Scandinavian trio Elephant9 featuring guitarist Reine Fiske the following night. Ståle Storløkken’s Hammond B3 was the counterweight to Fiske’s ethereal musings, which were striking displays of funky, modal Goth rock, atmospheric in a post-Rypdal-like abstraction.
The festival’s strongest set came courtesy of The Thing XXL, Mats Gustafsson’s volcanic trio with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, with the addition of four more musicians. Gustafsson started on tenor with just the trio, tearing through a big bang of free-jazz smartly encased in a restless melody. As the four remaining players—Peter Evans on trumpet, trombonist Mats Äleklint, electric guitarist Terrie Ex and Jim Baker on piano and electronics—emerged, it became apparent that the program would likely specialize in the unexpected. The set list included compositions by Albert Ayler and Don Cherry and, in a perfect example of artistic retrofitting, John Coltrane’s “India.” In place of Elvin Jones’ propulsive drumming and Coltrane’s atmospherically swinging soprano was a stretched-out cadence of the theme, abstracted but recognizable, with moments of quiet. The addition of Baker’s creeping electronics helped usher in the song’s dark, mesmerizing theme, while Nilssen-Love’s robo-drumming pyrotechnics served as the engine to it all. A memorable sight: Down in front of the stage, a little boy emerged, dancing slightly to and fro.
Evans returned the following night with his own octet, with an emphasis on compositions experienced as one long improvisation. Long lines were Evans’ calling card, with rough guitar from Brandon Seabrook, who doubled on electronics as well as banjo. (Seabrook collaborated with Evans and the other members of Mostly Other People Do The Killing on the group’s latest album, Red Hot.) From stage left, Evans served a double purpose: trumpeter and director, through relatively obtuse expressions, of the other instruments (piano, another trumpet, tuba, bass, euphonium, trombone, voice, drums and percussion).
Saxophonist Anthony Braxton returned to Lisbon with his young Falling River Quartet. Guitarist Mary Halvorson, reed player Ingrid Laubrock, horn player Taylor Ho Bynum and drummer Ches Smith traversed Braxton’s simple yet simultaneously labyrinthine scores (with more pictures than notes on the paper). The music was familiarly chamber-esque, often floating and melodic. Halvorson’s own quintet followed the next night, with more melodic heft, fluid and propulsive with ensemble passages that had a narrative feel. The best moment: Halvorson’s hemorrhaging, edgy solo opposite Smith on the encore, “Hemorrhaging Smiles,” a tune that combined order with room for expression.
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