Bold Visions, Uninhibited Sounds Dominate Jazz em Agosto


Jim Black, drummer of Human Feel, performs Aug. 5 during Jazz em Agosto in Portugal.

(Photo: Petra Cvelbar)

Rui Neves, the artistic director of Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto (Jazz In August), describes his preferred musical sphere as one of “transformational contamination.” Well, at least this severe-sounding process could be witnessed within the lush surroundings of the Gulbenkian Museum’s gardens, basking in Portugal’s warm summer weather. Funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, this was Jazz em Agosto’s 34th edition, held for 10 days between July 28 and Aug. 6.

There is only a single 9:30 p.m. performance on most of the evenings, set in a large amphitheater, but on the weekends, there are also free admission concerts at 6:30 p.m. inside the museum. The reason for this comparatively late start is to avoid the often extreme heat of the early evening. The concerts, beginning when the sun sets, also benefit from subtle stage illumination.

Neves has an interest in jazz extremes, the areas that impinge on the outer realms of rock, electronica, free improvisation and modern composition. His programming is equally concerned with artists from Europe and the U.S., with an expected tilt toward Portuguese performers.

During the festival’s final four days, the energy reached a peak with a set by Starlite Motel (Aug. 3). This is a Norwegian-American quartet, featuring New York’s Jamie Saft on Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes piano and lap-steel guitar. Of the three Norwegians, one of them is an honorary American already, as Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten (electric bass) has lately been residing in Austin, Texas. The remaining pair are Kristoffer Alberts (saxophones) and Gard Nilssen (drums), both also being members of Cortex.

The amphitheater stage is spacious and minimalist, with a small but powerful sound system, complete with a well-rounded bass presence. In the background, tall rushes rustle, colored by stage lights, and a stairway leads down into the underground dressing rooms, from which the artists emerge, taking the long walk to center-stage. There’s a large canopy above, but there was little chance of rain. Overhead, right on the flight path to the airport (closer to the city center than most), jets follow the same gradient, coming in to land on a regular basis. It’s all part of the evocative ambiance.

Starlite Motel launched straight into a full-on barrage, with weighty basslines and mewling alto, producing a groove that suggests heavy-shouldered swaying. Saft’s beard has grown so long that it’s tethered beneath his chin by a small metal clasp. Håker-Flaten hits his strings with a drumstick, as if he’s dissatisfied with mere fingers, but it’s not all raging cacophony. As the Starliters enter an atmospheric stretch, Alberts switched to a lighter, softer tenor tone.

It didn’t take long for the quartet to resume its early intensity, with a clipped abstraction that reached a great, juddering spasm, held in place on the linear plane. A flowing funk feel developed, like a harder, tougher Weather Report, Alberts reining in while the other three maintained the pulse. He brought back his tenor, and as the groove softened into a cosmic slop, Nilssen switched to brushes. A twinkling tenor and Rhodes duo led to Saft picking up his lap steel as a climactic funk lockdown emerged. Nilssen and Håker-Flaten clicked into one of the finest extended grooves heard this year, a perfect environment for heated solos, courtesy of Saft and Alberts.

Saxophonist Larry Ochs flew in from San Francisco to give the European premiere of his Fictive Five (Aug. 4). The band features a mostly New Yorker lineup of Nate Wooley (trumpet), Harris Eisenstadt (drums), with the twin bass “orchestra” of Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper (the latter a Franco-German who has lived in New York for several years). This bass team switched roles at an alarming rate, swapping between bowing, strumming, attaching objects and creating real-time loops. Ochs opened on sopranino, as Niggenkemper clanged a large, resonant metal bowl that he’d inserted between his strings. Wooley emitted a deep, muted growl, maintained via circular breathing, making a fanfare together with Ochs, who had switched to tenor.

There’s an old-school free-jazz sound at this music’s core, but the graphic score (held in place against the wind, by magnet bolts) prompted a fixed pattern to the freedom spurts. Ochs says that he had landscapes in his mind’s eye while playing these pieces, seeing his bandmates as visual realizers. By the end of their set, the Fictive Five reached a thrilling crescendo, calling up Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra as stylistic sympathizers.

Human Feel is quite a nostalgic outfit, even though its members still project a youthful aura. They formed this combo as students back in 1987, and are still sounding adventurous with this reunion. Jim Black (drums), Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Andrew D’Angelo and Chris Speed (saxophones) all had roles to play, but within those responsibilities, they were free to be wild.

Black enjoyed the sound of metal on his kit, frequently constructing clacking patterns that featured items laid around his skins. Rosenwinkel played the role of bassist and keyboardist, rarely delivering anything that could be deemed a solo, more concerned with stacking thick chordal textures. Rather, it was D’Angelo and Speed who chased out front. Their cascading collage of phrases intensified as the set progressed. Black and Rosenwinkel spread electronic effects, and this roseate bloom soon transformed into a white light, slamming and squealing, as D’Angelo in particular released himself from any constraints, reeling off complicated ascending lines on alto saxophone.

Dave Douglas, bandleader and conceptual organizer of High Risk, seems to have turned this innovative electro-acoustic ensemble into a completely different band when compared to its original line-up. Gone are electronicist Shigeto and drummer Mark Guiliana. Bassist Jonathan Maron remains, but trumpeter Douglas has now invited guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang to join the band. Despite the continuing use of electronics, High Risk has now become guitar oriented, making for a more conventional sound, and belying its name.

The electronic aspects have now been reduced to a mild palette feature rather than a core element, aside from the somewhat overdone electro-clashes on Chang’s pads. Douglas himself remains virtually separate from his bandmates, continuing to play crisp, spiraling parts, not really interacting much with their tepid funk antics. The original High Risk delivered a bold new fusion, but this new incarnation has taken a backward step. DB

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