Mehldau Marvels At Jazztopad

 2018 11 23 Brad Melhdau lo res 3

The entire spectrum can dazzle at Jazztopad, a Polish festival in the south-western city of Wrocław,which has just reached its 15th edition. Gigs happen on all levels, from the new and impressive main concert hall of the National Forum of Music, down to the heavy late-night jam sessions in the brick basement of Mleczarnia, a café that’s just along the street. We could find pianist Brad Mehldau in both locations.

He gave the premiere of his 'Piano Concerto', with the NFM Philharmonic, but opened with an unexpected solo set, which began by merging Bach into Radiohead, proceeding through an older school of standards which included the wise selection of Frank Loesser’s ‘Inchworm’, in homage to Danny Kaye. The grand concerto revealed Mehldau as a semi-traditionalist, unlike, let’s say, Uri Caine. Mehldau’s work favoured a romantic, lyrical sweep, definitely rural as opposed to urban. Prominent harp and tubular bells eased the transition towards the second section’s almost suburban pointillism, with the composer making responses, commenting on the massed string phrases, sometimes alone, other times with the entire ranks.

There are two cities where ‘jam session’ means ‘free improvisation’, Vilnius and Wrocław. No standards are allowed here, apart from an odd trad number at 4am, under duress of shots. The sessions were run by the inspired core trio of Mateusz Rybicki (clarinets), Zbigniew Kozera (bass) and Samuel Hall (drums), and following his big gig, Mehldau lurked around in the shadows before taking his place at the small-and-quaint Yamaha Clavinova keyboard. This was a first, hearing him in abstract free-jazz mode, and was just one of the multitude of compelling jam sets witnessed during your scribe’s six nights of sleep deprivation.

The French quartet Novembre played a dedicated set in the basement, mixing Jimmy Lyons wired alto (courtesy of Antonin-Tri Hoang) with complicated jazz funk and mood minimalism. Later, they piled into the jam, getting even more extreme. Hamid Drake also joined an expanded line-up to deliver what amounted to a Moroccan Gnaoua-style improvisation, magnetised around double-drum ritual rhythms. Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and keyboardist Alexander Hawkins also turned up for some after hours wildness.

Earlier on that final evening, Hawkins had played an odd couple duo set with Esperanza Spalding, in the main hall, gratifyingly allowing her repertoire to take on an increased free-form character. This was where we realised how malleable Spalding’s phrasing between voice and bass can be, full of pauses and spaces, strategic surprises. She played solo, dipping into the Brazilian songbook (besides her own), then Hawkins offered some dense post-ragtime runs, and Spalding’s substance-filled words were revealed, with their open ambiguity, so listeners can choose meanings. Sadly, she seemed to be at odds with her audience at first, seeming to genuinely realise how much warmth they were beaming towards her, as the set progressed. Then, Spalding cut out the hectoring, negative banter.

Meanwhile, the jam sessions were overtaken by Melbournians, who made a significant nightly contribution. This was because the Australian Art Orchestra had played in full, operating the lower Red Hall space, with their narrative/conceptual extended works. Words were intoned, usually as text-poems, with slow steps made by the players, densities gradually increasing, coated with thick electronic tones, several members using effects devices. Fanfare horns and boom drums made them sound like a thicker Necks, or a Liberation Music Orchestra with Reichian pulses, or a stately Nyman preen, climaxing with drum solo thunder, garrulous trombone interjections and a megaphone vocal crackle.

The AAO’s percussionist Simon Barker played in duo with Drake, the following night, delivering another festival highlight, as the former’s Korean log-lashing meshed well with the latter’s frame drum sensitivity. Primacy altered alarmingly, as the pair exchanged endurance intensities, journeying from faint ear-pricking to bleeding ritual racket. Cowbells, clacks, gong groans, rim-rattles, and Drake delicately flicking dust from his skins

The final weekend featured the exceptional Concerts In Living Rooms, with three gigs on both afternoons, scattered around city-wide apartments. There were vibrant player permutations from Poland, Australia, and Italy, with the American ElSaffar being involved in two of the most magical improvisations. Over the course of these afternoons, the auras bled from serene meditation to violent clashing, then back again to reflective explorations of near-silence. Then, the last jam session ran until 5am..!

Martin Longley
– Photo by Łukasz Rajchert

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