JazzArt Katowice

If many contemporary jazz festivals opt for maximum numbers, gigs-wise, then this well curated event in Katowice, an elegant city in the Silesian region of Poland, keeps the figures under control. Over its four-day term, there are no more than five concerts every 24 hours, which means that timetable clashes and the general audience fatigue that can afflict bigger events are not to be feared. JazzArt breathes. The use of venues such as bookshops and museums, as well as concert halls, such as the large scale Miasta Ogrodow, adds to the overall negotiability within the excitement generated by a programme of national and international artists.

The performance that sums this up more than any other is Erik Friedlander’s imaginative project Block Ice & Propane. Known for his work with John Zorn and Fred Hersch, and solo albums such as 1998’s Topaz, Friedlander appears solo in a calm yet stimulating context. He tells the story of his family’s road trips across America during his childhood that were captured by a series of captivating black-and-white portraits by his father Lee, a professional photographer who packed wife and children into a camper van for the epic journeys. The result is a charming, often candid evocation of a memorable ritual that is vividly brought to life by the images, and Friedlander’s jaunty storytelling and articulate composing. His melodies move from languorous whole notes to agitated eighth-note flurries that capture the intimacy and tension of life at close quarters on the freeways.

Though contending with recurrent tuning issues Friedlander gives a good narrative arc to the set that concludes with a reprise of Eric Dolphy’s ‘Serene’. On the previous evening he was heard as part of the Franco-American quartet Reverso, an interesting band that largely fulfils its mission statement of blending jazz and classical music. Trombonist Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Woeste prove to be good soloists in a programme of understated harmonies and hard rhythmic edges that also highlights Friedlander’s comping skills in the company of a small group that often punches above its weight.

Spanish double-bassist Giulia Valle, a mainstay of the Barcelona scene for over two decades, more or less accomplishes the same with a trio comprising younger players, pianist Tom Amat and drummer Adri Claremunt, who also feature in her septet. A writer who is able to combine a populist touch with artistic finesse, Valle has a firm grip on the music of the Americas in the widest sense, from jazz to tango to calypso, and the danceable themes are enhanced by her own potent improvisations and smart exchanges with Amat, who also creates ghostly effects on a keyboard. Sadly, Claremunt’s drumming is crash-bang-loud on occasion, drowning out the finer points of the arrangements, which, in the exposed setting of a trio, is problematic, to say the least.

Austria’s Zsamm, on the other hand, is more than happy to bring the noise. Maija Osojnik’s active volcano of electronics and vocals and Patrick Wurzwallner’s equally seismic drums are a culture shock for seated punters who are nonetheless mostly responsive. Punkish, brutish and banshee-like in resonance they have a touch of The Creatures about them, though there is much more improvisation in their aesthetic. As for Norwegian singer Marja Mortensson she has a bracing, at times tempestuous energy that is deeply rooted in the Sami tradition of ‘joik’, a kind of praise song to a person, place or animal. The singer’s nasal timbre is striking, especially as it cast against the soft folds of Daniel Herskedal’s tuba and bass trumpet. The music often has a quality of poignant lament that finds favour with an audience for whom the language barrier is no obstacle at all. Without an avalanche of gigs for listeners to contend with maybe concentration levels are that much higher.

Kevin Le Gendre

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