Shabaka Shakes Sons Loose At Saalfelden

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Though Jazzfestival Saalfelden might not nestle between the likes of Montreux or North Sea in terms of high profile, it's now up to its 39th edition, and has a significant reputation for adventurous programming. Its spiritual siblings are fellow uncompromising festivals such as Moers and Vilnius. Saalfelden is set amid the Austrian Alps, in what is effectively a holiday resort. Fortunately, most of this four-day festival was housed in various indoor venues, as the weather conditions involved a heavy three-day downpour, with flooded villages and snowy summer peaks. The misty vistas were almost as evocative as Sunday's eventual sunny revelation.

The free outdoor shows were held under a large street-square marquee, rain waterfalling around its edges, as beer and sausages comforted the crowds. Mokoomba (Zimbabwe) and La Chiva Gantiva (Belgium) were fine choices for the opening night's Afro-psychedelic-latin double-bill. Artistic director Mario Steidl selected a high-powered programme of acts from Austria, the USA, and the rest of Europe, beginning with Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim's smouldering Ecstasy for the Thursday late set in Nexus. This is a small arts theatre alternative to the nearby Main Stage at Congress Saalfelden.

On these latter boards, NYC guitarist Marc Ribot Euro-premiered his Songs Of Resistance repertoire, flanked by Jay Rodriguez (reeds/flute), Nick Dunston (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums). The leader's crackling, semi-acoustic solos cut through, but an entire set of Ribot protest-vocals was not so enticing, as he's neither a conventionally tuneful singer, or an arresting talk-tone narrator. A particular highlight was the climatic exchange of guitar solos with Rodriguez, escalating via his soprano saxophone intensity.

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Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double involved twinned drums, guitars and trumpet/cornet, with Brandon Seabrook (pictured above, extreme fragmentation, unlikely shapes), Ralph Alessi and Gerald Cleaver joining the leader's accustomed team with Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum (extroverted dazzle, seated with dancing legs). A Haden and Ornette miasma-feeling sometimes grew.

Communicative Munich-based singer Jelena Kuljic fronted Kuu!, her agile lines weaving between the spiky guitars of Kalle Kalima and Frank Möbus, while drummer Christian Lillinger revealed his more linear groove-keeping side. Another striking guitar act was the Schnellertollermeier trio, making strings and drums sound like a single breathless robo-entity, with suggestions of Dawn Of Midi or The Necks, but arriving from a precision math-rock direction. The Swissmen cut and clipped with a determined momentum.

Elliott Sharp maintained the guitar focus, in duo with Austrian drummer Lukas König, both of them using pedals and electronics to explode their vocabularies. Rapport was attained, with no lack of swift idea-stamping. Sharp's later set with a quartet that included French singer and harpist Hélene Breschand was lacking on the vocal front. The wafty Breschand rarely opted for silence, and Sharp is not the greatest singer, though his bluesey numbers were still the best on offer. If we wanted an Austrian Billy Jenkins, who better than Christian Kühn and his Kuhn Fu combo. Manic in terms of guitaring, puppet-dancing and mention-the-war humour, he roughed up the festival with a bucketload of zany humour, in the guise of avant speed-jazz.

Chicagoan flautist Nicole Mitchell presented Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, with an unusual palette of shakuhachi, taiko drum, cajon, theremin, cello (Tomeka Reid doubling on banjo) and acid electric guitar. The first section savoured an introverted south-east Asian aura, but the second jarringly shifted into an avant-gospel showcase for frothing singer Avery Young. There appeared to be little connection.

Jaimie Branch (a Chicagoan trumpeter in NYC) led a subdued set from her Fly Or Die, struggling to discover energy during an early-day showing. Lester St Louis chose an unpleasantly buzzing cello sound, impersonating a tuba, while Chad Taylor introduced a sprightly drum-skip, but when sparseness returned, all was strangely lifeless.

Late at night in the Nexus bar, London Afrobeat combo Kokoroko gave a spirited close to the Friday and Saturday, blessed by their three female singers on the frontline, who also injected hardcore jazz horn soloing and riffing into the stream. Or should that be the other way around, horners as vocalists? Our man in Saalfelden, Shabaka Hutchings, fronted the Austro-German party-complexity ensemble Shake Stew, though he became part of the fabric rather than dominating as a big-name guest. Many of his Kemetian toons were negotiated, and this was a superbly suitable combo for interpretation, with bullish electronics, friction baritone and twinned basses, acoustic plus electric. Hutchings was freed up to stretch out loosely in his solos, rather than needing to monitor the rhythmic-thrust side too closely.

Martin Longley
– Photos by Matthias Heschl/Jazzfestival Saalfelden