Austria’s Jazzfestival Saalfelden Back to Full Strength

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Drummer Gard Nilssen, this year’s artist-in-residence, performs at Jazzfestival Saalfelden with his trio Acoustic Unity.

(Photo: Matthias Heschl )

The organizers of the 42nd edition of Jazzfestival Saalfelden hoped to return to the event’s previous glories after being forced to downsize over the last two years due to the ongoing pandemic. Of course, COVID continues to exert its presence around the globe, but not only did the four-day event (Aug. 18–21) suffer no major cancellations due to the virus, but it set a record by selling more tickets than at any previous iteration of the acclaimed gathering deep within the gorgeous Alps. While rain forced some of the event’s beloved performances deep within nature to move indoors, otherwise the program ran quite smoothly and the close proximity of the various venues made it easy getting from one stage to another.

Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen was an artist-in-residence this year, and his three projects revealed both continuity and variety, with overlapping artistic concerns and disparate approaches in each performance. Acoustic Unity, the drummer’s agile trio with saxophonist Andre Roligheten and bassist Petter Eldh, played a relaxed Saturday afternoon set at Kunsthall Nexus, an intimate theater space where much of the weekend’s activity occurred. The group featured music from its terrific new ECM album Elastic Wave, stretching out the limber, tuneful themes written by each member of the band, whether Eldh’s measured “Altaret,” which playfully refers to an altar of vinyl and a stereo in the drummer’s rehearsal space, or the drummer’s wonderfully stuttering “Boogie,” a hard-swinging gem with a chugging bridge with the bassist unleashing a highly effective syncopated double time figure. “Spending Time With Ludvig,” named for Nilssen’s young son, deftly blurred the line between playful naivete and melodic ebullience. Some of the saxophonist’s horns didn’t arrive in time for the gig, so Roligheten wasn’t able to deploy his post-Roland Kirk double-sax abilities, which I was lucky enough to observe at a gig by the group earlier in the summer, but the trio made up for it by inviting the Danish saxophonist Signe Emmeluth and Norwegian trumpeter Thomas Johansson onstage for a spirited rendition of “Bötteknott/Elastic Circle,” an indelible medley of Nilssen originals that hearkens back to the celebratory air of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.

The previous evening, Nilssen performed with his oldest project, Bushman’s Revenge, an electric trio built around the meticulously shaped line and tonal warmth of guitarist Even Helte Hermansen. Years ago the trio — rounded out by electric bassist Rune Nergaard — trafficked in hard-hitting fusion with a metallic edge, but in recent years the music has been toned down, allowing the guitarist’s lyric imagination to earn a well-deserved focus. The rhythmic section toggled between weightless swing and reserved, atmospheric churn, both of which supported Hermansen’s beautifully proportioned improvisations, whether adding subtle propulsion or clouds of sound that cut gently against his post-Frisell tone. Nilssen’s final set came on Sunday afternoon with his Supersonic Orchestra, a sonic juggernaut featuring some of Scandinavia’s best players. The group delivers a visual spectacle centering around three bassists (Eldh, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Ole Morten Vågan) and three drummers (Nilssen, Hans Hulbækmo, and Håkon Mjåset Johansen) as well as an armada of reeds and brass. The band, which will soon debut a new book of music, essayed the compositions from its explosive, soulful 2020 album If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours, embracing the power and range of its excellent lineup. Nilssen effectively channeled the rhythm section into shifting duos, preventing the music from ever becoming overwrought. The various soloists each brought distinctive voices into the fold, whether the crafty harmonic smears and sideways alto sax phrasing of Maciej Obara or the biting lines of fellow alto player Mette Rasmussen, placed against thick slabs of brass. In fact, as pithy and infectious as the tunes are, the real treat of the set was observing how Roligheten conducted the band from within, setting up an endless string of contrasting timbres, shifting densities and terse patterns to drive various soloists, conducting the band with a sharp improvisational mindset. Although other performances followed, the Supersonic Orchestra provided the real exclamation mark of the whole fest.

Another Scandinavian big band — the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra — provided a different set of thrills. The group was joined by pianist Jason Moran on a set of his compositions arranged for the group by bassist Vågan, which tended to rip apart the tunes in fascinating ways. The arranger didn’t make easy choices, opening the program with a version of “Ringing My Phone,” a piece built around a transcription of the voice patterns of a woman speaking Turkish. The TJO performance brilliantly splintered the piece in a contrapuntal web of hiccuping rhythms and cross-cutting melody, and the entire set transformed Moran’s tunes with endlessly shifting accents and break-out instrumental sections. A day earlier the pianist delivered an astonishing solo set that felt like a spontaneous exposition, but ultimately revealed an incredible focus. Moran combined original tunes with pieces by Jaki Byard, James Reese Europe, Duke Ellington and Bud Powell, gliding between bebop, stride and a masterful pitch-bending lower-register experiment from his Music Of Joan Jonas project.

There were other terrific sets by Emmeluth’s quartet Amoeba, a folk-tinged set by a quintet led by cellist Vincent Courtois and a pleasantly theatrical performance by drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus, which offered a gentler side of his boisterous personality. Isaiah Collier’s Chosen Few hit listeners with a gale force energy for the first chunk of its epic set, but the lack of space and relentless drive proved exhausting in the end. By Sunday night it seemed assured that Saalfelden was back to full strength. DB



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