Saalfelden Festival Gets Back to its Roots for 40th Anniversary

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Abacaxi, a guitar trio that includes Julien Desprez in its ranks, performs at the venue Nexus on Aug. 22 during Austria’s Jazzfestival Saalfelden.

(Photo: Michael Geißler)

Jazzfestival Saalfelden celebrated its milestone 40th anniversary Aug. 22 with a prefestival night at The Ranch, a small outdoor venue near Salzburg, Austria. The venue fell out of use in the early ’80s, giving the opening gesture this year a special nostalgic and metaphorical aura.

Longstanding Artistic Director Mario Steidl explained that “we wanted to go back to where it all started, and to showcase both young artists and veterans who were there in the beginning.”

Historical echoes rippled throughout the four-day event. For years, the festival took place in a large tent just outside this small city—a gateway to the Austrian Alps. After running aground fiscally in 2004, the festival was reimagined later that same year in a more intimate downtown setting, conducive to venturesome programming under Steidl’s direction. This year, the festival’s special anniversary energized ambitions: some 70 shows contrasted the typical 40, and new smaller satellite sites were added to the Congress Hall and Nexus mainstages.

For a festival so robust and popular, Saalfelden offers surprisingly challenging programing, tending its reputation as standard bearer among the world’s avant-garde fests. Full, appreciative audiences showed up for the thorny, improv-oriented mainstage sets by T(r)opic—led by cornetist Rob Mazurek—and later, a feisty quartet with reedist Ken Vandermark, trumpeter Nate Wooley, pianist Sylvia Courvoisier and drummer Tom Rainey.

Crowds flocked to the free shows in a former courthouse, the delightfully retro Buchbinderei Fuchs, and a small park stage, where children happily swung nearby on a swing set. Moving in different configurations among various pop-up venues, the malleable troupe of rotating improvisers included drummer Lukas König—a hyper-flexible festival Artist-in-Residence—along with electronicist-conceptualist Maja Osojnik, saxist/guitarist Briggan Krauss, drummer Jim Black and vocalist Audrey Chen.

A poll conducted by the fest three years ago, Steidl said, indicated that a primary festivalgoer’s goal was “to explore new music they have not heard before. And through the years, the audience, of course, knows and maybe was kind of conditioned to what they will get in Saalfelden—that we are quite into improvised-based and experimental music.”

Scored music also had its place on the Congress Hall mainstage, especially from the Austrian music contingent. Opening Friday’s gala concert, bassist Manu Mayr premiered the Saalfelden area-themed commission “Das Steinerne Meer,” a texturally radiant, post-minimalist duet with bass clarinetist Susanna Gartmayer. And on Sunday afternoon, trombonist Christian Muthspiel led the premiere of his Orjazztra Vienna, a tight, refreshingly inventive variation on the big band tradition, drawing inspiration from both Carla Bley and the Vienna Art Orchestra, in which Muthspiel played.

Muthspiel called his new multigenre, multigenerational band “a lifelong dream coming true. For many years, I was imagining my own jazz orchestra playing my music under my direction, consisting of musicians with special skills.“

After a decade in the Vienna orchestra, he said, “I missed the sound and energy of a large band. I was conducting many symphony orchestra concerts since then. But the jazz orchestra sound always attracted me like a magnet.”

Muthspiel prefers the phrase “jazz orchestra” to “big band,” explaining “there are quite a few big band clichés I want to avoid, and there is a very rich world of hundreds of years of orchestra tradition I am aware of.”

Even so, the new band is “is definitely a jazz project in my opinion, not a crossover or ‘third stream’ ensemble. ... I see it as a great opportunity to unite the various different sides of my work in this project. And the good start encourages me to go on as forcefully as possible.”

Two of the festival’s stand-out sets artfully balanced control and blissful abandon. Late on Thursday night at the Nexus stage, the remarkable new power trio Abacaxi—“pineapple” in Portuguese—summoned an exhilarating fresh sound, geared around maverick guitarist Julien Desprez. Elements of abstraction, snarly noise and prog mixed with the guitarist’s gymnastic, dance-like maneuvers on an array of floor pedals, including stage lighting controls. Premiering at last year’s JazzFest Berlin and a highlight at May’s FIMAV festival in Quebec, Abacaxi is one of the more exciting, genre-blurring and multisensory new ensembles around.

The Anna Webber Septet is another markedly unique act, and its intricately structures and visceral power seized the festival’s final day at the Congress Hall stage. A sharp ensemble—which included pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith—negotiated reedist Weber’s bracing compositions, works that echoed Henry Threadgill, ruffian minimalism and her own cool flavor-fest of new music qualities.

Contrasting Saalfelden’s edgier elements, a wash of folk-colored lyricism arrived on Sunday, at the Congress with Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli’s luminous Avant Folk. But the key word—and qualifier—of an “avant” aesthetic made it feel at home in the friendly wilds of Saalfelden. DB




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October 2019
Poncho Sanchez
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