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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

Following the announcement of the Arts Council England funding award for the Jazz South development programme, Turner Sims Southampton have commissioned the first ever audit of jazz across the region that stretches from Kent to Cornwall to Oxfordshire. Jazzwise, a partner in the initiative, wants to ensure that everyone active in the region's scene pitches in – and is offering a free year's subscription to the magazine – and a coveted Jazzwise T-shirt – to be awarded in a prize draw among all those who fill in the online survey, which is a key part of the audit.

Designed to establish an accurate and comprehensive picture of every aspect of the jazz scene in the region, the survey will collect information about musicians, promoters, venues, festivals, youth orchestras, education projects, labels – in fact anyone and anything connected with the music. Jazz South's programme promises to present new opportunities including touring, commissions, masterclasses, residencies and networking events. Through the audit, Turner Sims wants to ensure that they know who's doing what and where, to identify a comprehensive range of contacts and engage as many people as possible with Jazz South. After a competitive tender process (noted in previous Jazzwise news) Turner Sims has awarded the audit contract to music consultancy Arts & Parts, led by Europe Jazz Network Board member Martel Ollerenshaw.

For more information about the Jazz South audit and to find out how to enter the Jazzwise prize draw, simply go to www.jazzsouth.org.uk

Randy-Weston-Roger-Thomas

Like several prominent African-American jazz artists, pianist Randy Weston, who has died at the age of 92, had Caribbean heritage. Born and raised in New York to a Panamanian-Jamaica father and mother from Virginia, Weston chose to make Africa the foundation of his cultural and musical identity in a glorious career that spanned seven decades. The historical magnitude of Weston's life is summarised by the fact that he is one of the few people to have had conversations with Duke Ellington in the inter-war period and Jason Moran in the millennium, and just a week prior to his passing, Moran, when in London to rehearse for his forthcoming James Reese Europe project, waxed lyrical about both Weston's work and his socio-political stance.

Inspired by Africa as a source of ancestry, creativity and modernism Weston spent much time in Nigeria and in the late 1960s relocated to Morocco, where he ran a club. Weston was a giant of a man whose knees would jut conspicuously above the keyboard anytime he sat down to play, but he cut a very graceful figure. As a pianist Weston came from the wellspring of Ellington, Monk and Tatum, but went on to swim in his own stream of ideas when he explicitly brought both the pulse and sound of African drumming into his performances. The sharp percussive drive Weston drew from the keyboard was enhanced by the input of conga and djembe players on many of his recordings such as the stupendous early 1970s sets African Cookbook, Blue Moses and Tanjah. Yet, he was also capable of tremendous understatement too. His interpretation of Guy Warren's 'Mystery Of Love' is a magical piece of music, as much for the ambience Weston creates through the use of deeply resonant ascending chords that linger over a modal vamp as it is for the delicate improvisation, which is mindful of the poised, contemplative nature of the piece.

Weston's gifts as a composer in his own right are epitomised by the evergreen 'Hi-Fly', a samba-inflected number that has sunshine bursting from its melody, while his most ambitious orchestral work remains the seminal 1961 album, Uhuru Afrika. Bolstered by arrangements from trombonist Melba Liston, the suite was a bold statement on behalf of African liberation movements in the twilight of colonialism, and featured poetry by Langston Hughes as well as narration by Tuntemeke Sanga, a Tanzanian activist who lobbied the United Nations. The record, feted by the American jazz press, was banned in South Africa for its pro-black sentiment.

Weston's ongoing interest in large ensembles led to 2017's African Nubian Suite, but he was also a brilliant partner for saxophonists. He recorded The Healers with David Murray in 1987 and was last seen at the London Jazz Festival in 2014 with Billy Harper. Weston's solo set Blues To Africa is a touchstone for many pianists, while his great generosity and spirituality won the hearts and minds of many the world over.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Roger Thomas

Pianist Robert Mitchell releases a new five-track EP, Epiphany, on 21 September followed by a European and UK tour. The pianist's Epiphany 3 band of drummer Saleem Raman and bassist Tom Mason (above) will feature on the live dates, with acclaimed French saxophonist Julien Lourau joining the group for the album's launch at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London on 26 September.

Further trio-only dates are: The Stables, Wavendon (18 Sept); The Lescar, Sheffield (19 Sept); The Courtyard, Derby (21 Sept); Herts Jazz Fest, Letchworth Garden City (6 Oct); Arts Centre, Bridport (13 Oct); Parr Studios, Liverpool (16 Oct); Soundcellar, Bournemouth (18 Oct); Arts Centre, Ashburton (19 Oct); and Karamel, London (24 Nov).

Mike Flynn

Photo by Przemek Nowak

For more info visit www.robertmitchellmusic.com

 

When Oslo Jazz Festival was founded, back in 1986, it stood against the creeping modernisation of Norway's jazz scene. Early programmes were heavy on dixieland and bebop. In the festival's offices, the inaugural poster hangs beside a photo of Cab Calloway in white tie, grinning a Cheshire Cat grin, following an appearance in 1987. Nowadays the programme is considerably more open. Straightahead stars still feature – the festival's charter demands it – and this year's bill included Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch. But Sons of Kemet were also in town, along with numerous bands from Norway's trollish experimental scene.

On the final weekend, most of the gigs took place in Sentralen, an old bank recently transformed into a centre for arts and culture. It's an amazing venue – a mix of edgy and grand – all marble staircases and chandeliers, steel gantries and exposed brick. Portraits of purse-lipped bank managers hang in the bar. One of the performance spaces is the old vault – still guarded by the original metal blast doors, with bolts as thick as your arm. On Friday night guitarist Hedvig Mollestad (pictured top) made them shake. Standing alone in the middle of a dendritic sprawl of effects pedals she explored brutishness and beauty. Angular riffs, degraded by tremolo, crashed against the walls like chunks of masonry, tender jazz ballads drifted amongst doppler-warped growls and finger-picked blues lines brought echoes of rust belt Americana. The heaviest moments were like two punk bands soundchecking at once.

Jo-Berger

Solo sets were a theme of this year's programme. Armed with double-bass and looper, Arild Andersen opened his with an impressionist take on Ornette Coleman's 'Lonely Woman' – all brittle pizzicato and sonorous bowed fragments that bled ink into the room. A late-night duo set from bassist Jo Berger Myhre and Icelandic drummer and electroncist Ólafur Björn Ólafsson (above) was equally atmospheric. Ólafsson played thumping grooves, drones and jangly electronic loops as Berger Myhre added plaintive quarter-tone sweeps and ground his bow into the strings – producing sounds like the creaking, sub-bass groan of an icebreaker.

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro explored a tranquil soundworld over at the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, a charming old cinema home to one of the city's main jazz clubs, but now tragically hidden behind the rashy bulk of a supersized TGI Friday's. There was a lovely looseness to the music, drawn from Bro's latest album, Returnings. It felt like everyone was wandering off on their own, expanding the soundscape in different directions. Palle Mikkelborg added vapor trails of trumpet and flugelhorn. Bro played woozy, Scandi-blues guitar lines and Jon Christensen gently flailed at his cymbals. Thomas Morgan's abstract bass solos were a highlight. I love the subtle tension he creates by hesitating over notes and the delicate way he plucks the strings.

The most open performance of all was a rolling, four-hour jam session run by local improv night Jazz In Khartoum. A theatrical duo called Agbalagba Daada (a Nigerian phrase that translates as "old wise men") came on first. Their set was like a wonderfully weird dream – nothing made sense, but you accepted it all the same and soaked up the sounds: the vocal shouts and the overblown trumpet lines that had the duo in fits of giggles, the rattles, the clacking stones segued with kisses and mouth pops, the primal drum beats, gusts of wooden flute and buzzing jaw harp grooves. It was richly expressive and above all fun, without a whiff of the self-serious pretension that sometimes accompanies free improvisation. There was a particularly brilliant moment when they tried to win back a crying child in the audience with a birdcall whistle.

I made several more discoveries in the Sentralen's atrium bar, where free Nordic Showcases were running throughout the weekend. There were a few visitors, including prodigious Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie and his trio – who segued virtuosic modal burners into expressive ballads and plundered Scotland's folk tradition for silvery reels. And then there was the dubiously-named General Post Office (above) – a young quartet formed at Bergen's Grieg Academy, whose mix of savage free improvisation and rough-as-guts blues sounded like Peter Brötzmann, Cecil Taylor and Howlin' Wolf. Sax player Aksel Øvreås Røed shredded notes and maniac pianist Isach Skeidsvoll all but demolished his upright piano. With the boards removed, you could see the hammers flailing. It was a brilliant mix of in and out – wild and abrasive, yet steeped in blues tradition. I'm not sure what the reactionary authors of Oslo Jazz Festival's charter would have made it, but I was grinning a Cheshire Cat grin of my own.

Thomas Rees 

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