Headliners Huff-N-Puff As Tomeka Reid Shines At Jazztopad

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 Tomeka-Reid-Jazztopad

This 14th edition of the nine-day Jazztopad festival in Wroclaw, Poland meets the high standards set by its predecessors and invites healthy debate on key issues in arts programming. Above all, the question of how a touring international artist adapts to an unfamiliar environment is thrown into sharp relief by the hotly anticipated climax of the event.

As soon as the deafening roar that greets Herbie Hancock's band dies down the decibel count appears to go, metaphorically speaking, right through the roof of the Narodowe Forum Muzyki, a multi-purpose venue whose main auditorium has a capacity of 1,800 and a stage big enough to host a symphony orchestra and choir. Right from the get-go a grating drone robs electric bassist James Genus of any of the phrasal ingenuity for which he is renowned, and his use of a five-string version of the instrument gives cause to curse rather than praise the addition of the bulging B.

Adding to the woe is drummer Trevor Lawrence's insistence on a breeze-block snare sound that threatens to shatter the separation panels between him, Hancock and alto saxophonist-keyboardist Terrace Martin. The harder they play the less is heard, or rather heard in detail. All of which also brings the role of the personnel manning the mixing desk into the discussion. Herbie's travelling engineer may well know all of the finer points of Herbie's music, but not the specific audio anatomy of the NFM. The maelstrom of electronics, added to the unremitting attack of the drums, would possibly work better in a standing, if not open-air venue, but Herbie has sufficient charisma to transcend the mismatch. He makes a point of stating that Martin has produced Kendrick Lamar, and the implication that his presence will update the master for the WhatsApp generation is by no means inappropriate. Whether it comes off tonight is another matter, as the vocoder heavy neo-fusion is undercooked at times, and the set wavers between peaks of energy without ever building a sustained burst of excitement. That said, Herbie's pop culture status should not be denied just because he is a jazz icon, and the showtime manoeuvres are not crass. To hear the chromatic squelch of 'Chameleon' offstage and then see Herbie walk on with that keytar at his waist as hundreds of people rise in crazed communion is to realise that this is an artist who has changed music and deeply affected people in the process.

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Profound emotion of another kind was the order of the day when Charles Lloyd (above) premiered his extended new suite, 'Red Rivers, Black Skies', in the same hall. This is an intensely poignant work that investigates the Native American presence in America, just as Donald Trump was throwing around Pochahontas slurs to add to his already lengthy charge sheet. Lloyd, who is of Native American as well as African-American heritage, is joined by his quartet, the Lutoslawski string quartet and the NFM choir to play music set to a projection of stunning images of the indigenous people in question in an engrossing performance. On the downside most of the vocal arrangements are bland, with little interaction between the singers and players. The strings could also have made a more telling contribution, but the quartet, anchored by drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Harish Raghavan is superb. And guitarist Bill Frisell and lapsteel guitarist Greg Leisz deliciously entwine rich countermelodies to create an excellent canvas for Lloyd's majestic flights on flute and tenor, which still bear the sensuality, as well as the water flow rhythm, of 'his man' Lester Young.

If these two headliners are notable then the spotlight on a new generation of artists is also strong, as the festival has always provided a platform for them. Opening proceedings was alto-saxophonist Maciej Obara, recently signed to ECM, whose development has been indexed by several previous appearances at Jazztopad, though I missed him as I was only in Wroclaw for the second half of the event. However, a couple of promising young Polish players are drummer Radek Wosko and alto-saxophonist Maciej Kadziela. Both appear as part of a Scandinavian Day that sees their respective groups collaborate with musicians from that part of the world, and the results are mostly good. Wosko's band, Atlantic Quartet, treads a fine line between understatement and momentum, with guitarist Brian Massaka drawing on Metheny/Frisell pastoral sensibilities to enhance the character of the largely mid-tempo compositions that have judicious light and shade. Kadziela has a formidable, if not fierce, technique that makes him stand out right from the downbeat, and his use of high harmonics, hard rhythmic trills and soaring lines impresses. Although the group proves itself able to move skillfully from chord-based swing to tonally free settings at a moment's notice there is a distinct imbalance in the performance. The leader's presence is often overbearing, to the extent that, when he lays out, the trio, marshalled by the excellent pianist Artur Tuznik, really starts to fly. Once Kadziela improves his listening and pacing, and interacts more with his accompanists, he could have the makings of a significant band on both the Polish and possibly the European scene.

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Throughout the festival's jam sessions at the Mleczarnia restaurant, a short walk from the NFM, there are some other highly talented local players to be seen, chief among them the trio comprising clarinettist Mateusz Rybicki, double-bassist Zibigniew Kozera, and Berlin-based Australian drummer Samuel Hall. To a certain extent they are the lifeblood of the festival insofar as they both lead the after-hours activities, as well as the intimate living room concerts that take place in people's homes on the closing weekend. These informal gigs also feature visiting musicians who performed at the NFM, and it is fascinating to see how they react to the new setting. Bulgarian kaval player Theodosil Spassov, whose solo concert was largely underwhelming, thrives in the company of others while pianists Kris Davis and Benoit Delbecq (above), who played a fabulous duet that demonstrated that prepared piano really is a fine art as opposed to a display of novel sounds, also excel. Indeed, a loose theme that runs through these afternoon and late-night performances is how easily the line between acoustic and electric sound blurs, or rather how the treatment of an instrument with anything from card to plastic to stone to water – poured into the tubing of the horn by Australian trumpeter Peter Knight – can produce sounds that buzz with digital-age energy despite the absence of any laptops or iPhones. Knight's ingenuity makes for a thrilling moment by way of his breath control, rhythmic precision and split-second timing, which create the sound of rolling train wheels or a slow revving car engine.

A more direct bridge is built between the 'plugged in' and the unplugged by cellist Tomeka Reid's quartet (pictured top), a surefire highlight of the whole festival. This is a small group of quite compelling character that draws on a wide range of vocabulary, all the while retaining a vivid personal identity. Reid's strong classical training is in evidence but her desire for structural flexibility by way of trading melodic and rhythmic roles between herself and bassist Jason Roebke, as well as freeing up drummer Tomas Fujiwara, grips the audience. But it is the balance between some of the wilder, shrill bursts of 'country fiddler' backwater blues and the glistening otherworldly tones produced by guitarist Mary Halvorson's artful manipulation of pedals that makes the songs crackle with an engrossing ancient future fire, proper Chicago style.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Sławek Przerwa