Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell Quintet                                         Luciano Rossetti©2007

Quick: Name the artistic director of a jazz festival, any jazz festival. If you’ve actually uttered one, you’re in a very small minority that is one degree of separation from the artistic director of a jazz festival, max. Since festivals have a substantial role in shaping whatever we think is going on at any given moment, the people who program them hold considerable power. Or do they? They are accountable to executive directors and, usually, a board of directors; they’re tethered by ever-tightening budgets; and they have to make make-or-break programming decisions in a short time frame six months to a year out. It’s a skill set that few last long enough to fully develop.

Occasionally, active artists have the opportunity to program festivals. Since such occasions are one-offs or a term of just two or three years, artists in these positions tend to swing for the fences. Uri Caine did so in spectacular, if not scandalous fashion with the 2003 Venice Biennale. The marathon improvisation by Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis and, particularly, a midnight set by DJ Olive that required a couple of hundred concertgoers to stay on the island until the ferries resumed service at dawn, were outrages to the establishment, which only boosted Caine’s street – or in this case, canal – cred.

The pianist then changed venue in 2006, beginning a three-year stint as artistic director of Bergamo Jazz, one of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious jazz festivals. Programming a three-day, nine-set festival is arguably a trickier artistic direction proposition than a large festival with dozens or hundreds of slots to fill. Each artist or ensemble looms larger in determining the artistic success of the festival. Like many festivals in its league, Bergamo Jazz seeks concerts that are exclusiva nazionale; not only is it a selling point to an Italian audience and media that enjoys a lot of concert and festival choices throughout the year, but it is an enticement for RAI to come on board for national radio broadcasts. A walk is not as good as a hit; every set has to connect with a well-qualified audience.

Caine’s picks for the 2007 edition in March included some usual suspects, musicians who are or have been in Caine’s dead composer projects, like DJ Olive and violinist Mark Feldman, and Biennale lightning rods like Mitchell and guitarist Gary Lucas, who performed his soundtrack to “Golem,” the classic German silent film. And, there was a couple of ringers: Branford Marsalis’ Quartet, whose surprisingly engaging set balanced the type of pensive, well-crafted compositions favored by European musicians and the type of barnstorming still largely practiced by Americans; and Italy’s favorite jazz son, trumpeter Paolo Frescu, who performed with pianist/accordionist Antonello Salis and bassist Furio Di Castri. Still, by any metric, the line-up was strong.

Sex Mob                                                            Luciano Rossetti©2007

Caine created dynamic sequences with the 6pm concerts and the 9pm double-bills at the historic Teatro Donizetti. Performing in a Spartan gallery at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna & Contemporanea, DJ Olive’s surround-sound mix of folkloric recordings, Powerbook-generated samples, and the odd, distressed sound bite – he managed to make George W. Bush sound like Daffy Duck on Quaaludes – set a baseline of audacity and creativity that was met by, respectively, the trio of Frescu, Salis and Di Castri (the trumpeter jumped off stage late in the set and took a stroll down the center aisle of the orchestra section, a testament to his tone and to Teatro Donizett’s impressive acoustics), and Mitchell’s quintet with trumpeter Corey Wilkes, bassists Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead (the latter also played cello), and drummer Tani Tabbal. Mitchell shuttled between sly, swinging tunes like “The Alternate Line” and episodic pieces that spanned sparse, softly intoned passages and full-bore blowing. As would be the case each night, the ensembles had free reign over the duration of their performance, a prerogative Mitchell fully used to perform extended works that a tighter schedule would preclude. This resulted in a concert that provided a solid précis of Mitchell’s innovations as a composer and as an improviser.

Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s early concert the next day was mainly comprised of their razor sharp takes on John Zorn’s latest Masada book. The too few Courvoisier pieces sprinkled into the set seemed to have greater expressive latitude, allowing them to both exploit the smallest detail that could be scoured from the material, and get out the broad brushes. Regardless of the material, however, both Feldman and Courvoisier sustained a rigorous attack that, by the set’s end, was the music’s defining quality. Something of the same was evident in the rapport among the members of drummer Daphnis Prieto’s Absolute Quintet. In a set largely drawn from the group’s eponymous Zoho debut, violinist Christian Howes, cellist Dana Leong and keyboardist Jason Linder kept the Cuban rhythms and the layered, Threadgill-tinged motives crisp and well-defined, allowing saxophonist Yosvany Terry to soar and the leader to lay down amped-up polyrhythmic beats, liberally peppered with pyrotechnic flourishes and fills. Not to be outdone, Jeff “Tain” Watts came out and all but stole Marsalis’ set from the leader, eliciting uproarious approval from the crowd.

A delicious thread of cognitive dissonance ran through the final day’s concerts. Though “Golem” tells a proto-Frankenstein tale set in a medieval Jewish ghetto, Lucas’ electronics-laced soundscapes and post-Fahey dirges and rambles were a perfect fit. Despite the riotous fun of much of their set, some of Sex Mob’s best moments were their most abstract, particularly when trombonist Gianluca Petrella hooked up with slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein for an extended exchange, which alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson then brought to a boil. The most profound disconnect, however, was offered by bassist William Parker’s Quartet with trumpeter Lewis Barnes, alto saxophonist Rob Brown and drummer Hamid Drake. There was nothing elegiac about their set of tributes to, among others, Leroy Jenkins and Malachi Favors Maghostut. Instead, there was a life-affirming radiance to Parker’s deceptively simple melodies and enticing grooves. With the possible exception of Mitchell’s quintet, Parker best exploited the lack of time constraints; even though each piece ran fifteen minutes or more, the inventiveness of Barnes and Brown (perhaps the most underheralded front line in jazz today) and the invigorating rhythms of Parker and Drake kept the music in sharp focus and the audience in rapt attention.

It will be interesting to how Caine curates the ’08 edition of Bergamo Jazz, presumably his last. The pat question – How does he top this year’s fest? – does not speak to his endeavors in this arena. It’s not about personal vision, but the clarity of seeing the moment in jazz and the relationships between the music’s constituencies. Despite how closely he became identified with the 2003 Biennale and now with Bergamo Jazz, Caine says he is merely reflecting the times, not shaping them.

Radio-I-Ching - Last Kind Words

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