Jazz em Agosto Fest Programming Bucks Circuit-Based Trends


The European trio ​Ghosted played a hypnotic set on Aug. 3 at Portugal’s Jazz em Agosto.

(Photo: Vera Marmelo)

There’s a predictable homogeneity to many of the jazz festivals that take place over the course of the hot European summer, with the same names routinely appearing over and over again. Of course, touring groups inevitably play multiple festivals during any given stint, but too often festival curators hesitate to draw outside of well-entrenched lines, only taking chances if someone else does so first.

Thanks to generous funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the annual Jazz em Agosto (Jazz in August) festival in Lisbon, Portugal, has the financial independence to buck that circuit-based system — while also keeping ticket prices insanely low, none topping 12 euros — programming 11 evenings of music that often capture a vivid snapshot of what’s happening in international jazz and improvised music each year, with a marked emphasis on experimentation. While the lineup regularly features high-profile names whose talents and innovations are commensurate with their reputations, the festival also provides a spotlight to many lesser-known artists. The 2023 edition of the festival, which ran July 27–Aug. 6 on two stages within Gulbenkian’s art museum, was no exception.

The festival doesn’t subscribe to thematic programming, instead casting a broad aesthetic net, but there are always fascinating threads that emerge, connecting specific ideas, practices and traditions that might not seem apparent on first glance. Ghosted, the trio of Berlin-based Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi with the Swedish rhythm section of drummer Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin (who forged their imperturbable bond working with Mats Gustafsson in Fire! and Fire! Orchestra) played a hypnotic set on Aug. 3 where cyclical grooves built around soulful ostinato patterns on bass and subtly transforming drum parts provided a canvas for the guitarist’s texture-rich explorations, a kind of sound-and-rhythm exercise that borrows as much from the British post-punk band This Heat as it does from West African traditional music, without sounding much like either. While Ambarchi used sound like paint, first in pointillistic splatters, followed by viscous blobs that shape-shifted like a lava lamp, Werllin held a steady pulse while deftly altering his tools, using various hand-held devices, like maracas, as alternative drumsticks.

There was something in that music’s churning energy that reminded of the stellar set by Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society performance a few days earlier, when British soprano saxophone master Evan Parker joined the group. The first time he had performed with the Chicago quartet was in 2019 for a performance at London’s Café Oto, a concert memorialized on the 2020 album Descension (Out Of Our Constrictions). Their belated second meeting proved worth the wait. The set-long piece wended through countless, microtonal modulations that kept opening up the performance to new perspectives and nuances. Abrams and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery did an astonishing job at marshaling through those changes, building energy and intensity with painstaking patience that made each shift hit hard. While bass clarinetist Jason Stein brilliantly filled out the compositional landscape when he wasn’t taking one of two transcendent solos during the evening, while Lisa Alvarado churned out idiosyncratic lines on harmonium that added a strange liquid feeling the music, as if replacing the lockstep minimalism of early Philip Glass music with something more seductively slippery. The group put Parker at the center of this mesmerizing experience, giving the reedist’s singular snake-charmer circular breathing a powerful context — even at age 79, he delivered a performance for the ages, concluding each epic run of uninterrupted sound with a melodic flourish that tapped into his life-long admiration for John Coltrane’s music. Neither Ghosted nor NIS plays jazz in the most traditional sense, but their music couldn’t exist without it, and more importantly, they’re both pushing the tradition forward, a practice that resides at its very core.

Marta Warelis, a Polish pianist based in Amsterdam, delivered a staggering solo concert on Aug. 5 rooted in her mastery of prepared piano. She’s able to conjure as many moods and timbres by mucking around inside of the instrument as most keyboardists can produce using the entire device. But as innovative and texturally diverse as her extended techniques are, she’s equally gifted when she attacks the keys in a more conventional fashion, whether breaking into a stretch of jagged stride taken at breakneck speed or a sudden flash of pure lyricism, voiced with as much tenderness as the more extroverted moments were marked by ferocity.

Amaryllis, the excellent sextet led by guitarist Mary Halvorson, has, indeed, been a staple on festival stages over the last year or so, but the band is following its own path. The ensemble played only one tune from its superb 2022 debut album, instead previewing music that the combo recorded earlier this year. In fact, the group even included a brand-new piece that it had rehearsed for the first time during soundcheck. Halvorson’s abilities as a composer and arranger keep advancing in leaps and bounds, and her knack for orchestrating her nimble group with vibist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston, trombonist Jacob Garchik, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Tomas Fujiwara allows the heavily contrapuntal to seem almost symphonic, packing zig-zagging lines within compact vehicles for improvisation. As strong as the band’s debut album remains, it feels like the band is only scratching the surface of what it can accomplish.

Pianist Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Ensemble, with new drummer Lesley Mok settling in nicely, also delivered an impressive set. The group’s opening piece was little more than a timeline for interactive improvisation, but other tunes revealed how the leader’s thorny compositional style deftly supports shifting, spontaneous gambits, including one of her own solos that braided Bach-like flourishes with the boogie-woogie influence of her early mentor, Chicago great Erwin Helfer. There were plenty of other highlights, including a raucously joyful closing set by Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra, including a stellar tenor saxophone solo by Per “Texas” Johansson that flirted with the Sonny Rollins standard “St. Thomas,” with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Nilssen tickling a bit of calypso, underlining the fluidity of jazz at its best, much like Jazz em Agosto does year after year. DB

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