Jazz Jantar has been running in the northern Polish port of Gdańsk for the last two decades, and is housed in Klub Zak, an arts centre that has roots stretching back 60 years. ‘Jantar’ refers to amber, for which this coast is renowned. The main part of the festival spans 11 days, with two sets each evening. This year, there was a notably strong line in UK and US acts, though with fewer indigenous Polish artists included than in 2017.
Irreversible Entanglements had appeared a week earlier at Jazzfest Berlin, but this Gdańsk set was superior, generating a crackling energy in this more intimate setting. Hardcore free-jazz simultaneity took over the muted trumpet and chattering alto saxophone of Aquiles Navarro (pictured above) and Keir Neuringer, while Camae Ayewa was dancing more than usual, visibly preparing for her first verbal release. As bass and drums coalesced (Lewis Stewart/Tcheser Holmes), Neuringer brought out his percussion collection of shakers and bells, while Navarro turned his horn into a low-note echo wind tunnel. When Ayewa began to intone, the bustle turned to sparseness. When a swarming climax arrived, the players were making a formidable free racket, with such peaks frequently cutting to just bass and drums, before a new patch of verbal and instrumental intensity grew anew.
On some nights, the pairing of bands offered similarly inclined artists, but on others, the matching could be completely contrasting. Both strategies were usually successful, for different reasons. Following the Entanglements, trumpeter Josef Leimberg and his Astral Progression Ensemble altered the orientation to Los Angeles spiritual funk-jazz, cutting off the spikes and breathing out the mist. Spacey, with flute and Rhodes, tarry low strings, alto saxophone and bass clarinet solos, a retro cosmic approach was refracted through a modern Californian prism, a very sparse mystical meandering section being surprisingly successful. The reed specialist Tracy Wannomae was a real revelation, contributing multiple monstrous-release solos, pleading up into the rafters, followed by Leimberg himself drawing out emotive smears. The leader rationed his actual trumpet parts, and appeared to be equally interested in percussion embellishments.
The double-bill of alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos and guitarist Mary Halvorson (pictured above) held closer ties, representing the hyperactive, idea-loaded NYC scene. CP Unit boasted a compact assault from alto, guitar, bass and drums, somewhat softened since their Moers Festival performance last May. Pitsiokos is a deep Zorn disciple, but the emphasis has lurched from porcupine riff-twitching to sinuous James Blood Ulmer roaming, the tunes stretched out more, as a stealthier alto ribboning suggested that Pitsiokos is now looking past Zorn to Ornette, or maybe even James Chance and John Lurie. There’s now more space, and more nervy no wave funk. There was also a compulsive alto solo that appeared to recreate North African reed flute multiplicity via a footpedal.
The Mary Halvorson Octet continued to refine their new Away With You material, following a Jazzfest Berlin gig, with the leader immersed in the chiming co-existence of her slide playing with that of Susan Alcorn’s pedal-steel guitar. Tomas Fujiwara gave a stadium-sized drum solo, but ended up slashing cymbals, limiting the hiss with his fingers straight afterwards. Then trombonist Jacob Garchik drastically curtailed his phrases for a stutter attack. A few even newer numbers came at the end, one called ‘Fortune Teller’ (not the 1962 Benny Spellman soul classic, penned by Allen Toussaint), with Alcorn using a wine glass, Halvorson weebling in sympathy, setting up a dampened treble figure that was soon echoed by the horns of Garchik, Jon Irabagon, Ingrid Laubrock and Dave Ballou. Free chatter became a slugging groove, then it was the turn of tenor and trombone, inhabiting a creepily sparse terrain. The encore was another new piece, ‘Rolling Heads’, based around Halvorson’s looping, with this further-along-the-tour set cementing an increased strength, confidence and, therefore, looseness, to the repertoire.
An illustration of Jantar’s various commitments is the presence, two nights later, of the Aaron Diehl Trio, bringing mainline NYC jazz club fare to provide a sharp contrast. Diehl is a slick pianist, but he’s a master of gaining dynamic interest through hopping from smooth flow to open breakdowns, particularly those spotlighting his extroverted drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Diehl made selections from Dick Hyman’s études, dedicated to piano greats from down the decades (Tatum, Brubeck, Evans), as well as interpreting the Philip Glass études that he’s been performing for their composer in recent years. When Hutchinson and bassist Paul Sikivie joined in, the Glass splintered into the jazz universe, expanded and explored. This set was a masterclass in how to keep mainline jazz consistently on the move, arresting our attention with wily moves and individualist solos.
– Martin Longley
– Photos by PawełWyszomirski (Irreversible Entanglements); Jan Rusek (Mary Halvorson)