Saalfelden Jazz Festival

Saalfelden (Photo © Mike Destino)

Saalfelden (Photo © Mike Destino)

Various venues, Saalfelden, Austria
25 to 28-08-2016 

The Saalfelden Jazz Festival takes place in the small town of Saalfelden in Austria in a marvellous setting surrounded by the craggy mountains of the Austrian Alps. It can justifiably claim to be one of the most important jazz festivals in Europe and this year’s was a particularly strong edition.

The festival used to take place in a huge marquee outside the town on the lower slopes of the mountains where it had established itself as a major festival focussing largely on the more creative end of the jazz spectrum in New York, the so-called Downtown Scene. Then 13 years ago as a result of some financial difficulties the festival moved into the town and slimmed down somewhat. But gradually it has re-established itself as one of the key international jazz festivals and, revisiting the festival after a long gap, I was struck by the way it has integrated into the town and seemingly now attracts many local residents as well as international visitors.

Lukas Kranzelbinder (Photo © Mike Destino)

Lukas Kranzelbinder (Photo © Mike Destino)

I was also impressed by the way the programme has broadened to take in some of the most interesting bands from different European scenes, but without losing touch with the New York scene. So for example, the opening concert in the main venue presented a new work composed by Austrian bass player  and composer Lukas Kranzelbinder for Shake Stew, an Austrian German septet, but there were also performances by New York bands such as Marty Ehrlich’s Sextet and Human Feel, a quartet with Chris Speed, Andrew D’Angelo, Jim Black and Kurt Rosenwinkel. There were also a number of bands bringing together musicians from the USA and Europe; Jim Black, for example, as well as playing with Human Feel, led his own quartet with saxophonist Oskar Gudjohsson from Iceland, Elias Stemeseder  from Austria on keyboards and Chris Tordini from the US on electric bass and guitar.

I took away four strong impressions from the festival:

  1. Jazz festivals work particularly well in beautiful rural settings where the surroundings are as attractive as the music.
  2. The focus in  the music was on the balance between composition/structure and improvisation, and the interaction between the two. There was very little of the “tune plus a string of solos ending in the reprise of the tune” approach and only one totally improvised set.
  3. Many of the bands made use of electronics and keyboards, and it was interesting to note that the acoustic piano was used in only four of the 30 concerts.
  4. Saalfelden has built up a strong following for the more contemporary end of the jazz spectrum, so that bands that in UK might be considered quite “out there” play to audiences of around 800 to 900.

There are three main venues, the Main Stage with a capacity of around 900, the Nexus venue with a capacity of about 250 and then an open air City Stage with a capacity of around 1000. Half the concerts take place on the Main Stage and, while it is impressive that the audiences there were always near capacity and enthusiastic, I felt, however, that some of the bands would have benefitted from playing in the more intimate space at the 250 capacity Nexus venue, which staged only six of the concerts.

The main programme on the Main Stage was launched with the commission for Lukas Kranzelbinder written for the Shake Stew septet. Lukas has written (and recorded) a series of pieces that celebrate the history and the standing of the festival in a style that took into account the more general nature of the audience at such an opening event. The pieces were thus quite accessible and joyous, but given an interesting contemporary twist and energy by the textures produced by a slightly unusual line up that included two drummers and two bass players, one doubling on electric bass.

Human Feel (Photo © Mike Destino)

Human Feel (Photo © Mike Destino)

Drummer Jim Black seems to be a fixture at the festival; this year he played with the cooperative band Human Feel from New York, a band that has been going since the 1990s with gaps, and with Malamute, the US/European quartet mentioned above. Both bands were impressive, but I particularly liked Malamute. Apparently, the Malamute is an Alaskan dog that is usually gentle and respectful, but can be very fierce. This description fits the music of the quartet extremely well as saxophonist Oskar Gudjonsson usually develops fairly gentle lines in his solos, but this contrasts with the ferocity of the drumming and the surprises that Elias Stemeseder creates on the keyboards and the drive of Chris Tordini on guitar.

The Tim Berne Marc Ducret alto saxophone guitar duo was another band that had come together for the festival after a long gap. This was a really sensitive concert based on tunes from both players with Tim Berne’s stimulatingly involved writing impressing as always.

Tomeka Reid (Photo © Mike Destino)

Tomeka Reid (Photo © Mike Destino)

Of the other bands at the festival, I enjoyed the beautiful melodic film-inspired music of Vincent Coutois’ Mediums, with Vincent on cello and two tenor saxophonists, Daniel Erdmann and Robin Fincker. This instrumentation works well with the tenor saxophone seeming to be the woodwind equivalent of the cello. Interesting that there should be a second jazz cellist at the festival: Tomeka Reid, a young player from Chicago led a quartet with a fellow Chicagoan Jason Roebke on double bass and two New Yorkers: Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. I loved the set, bought the CD, but did feel that the music might have been more comfortable in a smaller, more intimate setting.

Two bands led by French saxophonists showed the strength of the French scene: Emile Parisien’s quintet featured Emile’s excellent writing and the fine soloing of veterans Joachim Kuhn on piano and Michel Portal on soprano sax and clarinet. Thomas de Pourquery’s Supersonic played their very enjoyable, slightly manic tribute to the music of Sun Ra.

Krokofant, a saxophone, guitar and drums trio from Norway, played a forceful set that combined the high energy of rock with contemporary jazz.  They’re coming to Birmingham in October and are definitely worth checking out. Susana Santos Silva, a fine young trumpeter from Portugal, played with a quintet the one totally improvised set of the festival, producing some very interesting interactions with saxophonist Lotte Anker  and pianist Sten Sandell. I did, however, feel that the music, although of a very high standard, might have worked better in the intimate space of the smaller Nexus venue. By contrast, I thought the volume and intensity of Paal Nilssen Love’s Large Unit might have been more suitable for the Main Stage rather than the Nexus at which the 12-piece band played. The band combines full on improv with written passages, either for the whole ensemble or sections of it, often backing a particular soloist. With two drummers and two double basses, one doubling on electric bass, the band packs a powerful punch.

Marty Ehrlich fronted a strong New York line up with Jack Walrath on trumpet, Ray Anderson on trombone, James Weidman on piano, Brad Jones on double bass and Ben Perowsky on drums. This was the set that was closest to the traditional format of head plus solos, but the excellence of the soloing took the music beyond the conventional.

In Namby Pamby Boy, an alto saxophone, keys and drums trio from Austria with Fabian Rucker, Philipp Nykrin and Andreas Lettner, the distinction between structure and freedom was nicely blurred. The trio also has a lot of variety in its music moving from a jazzy math-rock to funk-based material. Similarly, the interaction between manic vocalist Andreas Schaerer and crazy drummer Lucas Niggli was great fun; they apeared in a quartet with guitarist Kalle Kalima and accordion player Luciano Biondini.

Any festival needs to have its surprises and an interesting one was provided by Chiri, a trio with trumpeter Scott Tinkler and drummer Simon Barker, both from Australia, performing with Bae il Dong, a Korean singer who declaimed Korean love songs and ballads. His voice is huge, if rather intimidating, and this combined with the really unusual nature of the interaction with the two instrumentalists made this a very distinctive set.

The festival was rounded off in great style by Steve Bernstein’s Hot 9 playing with the New Orleans blues pianist and singer Henry Butler. The band plays a repertoire from early jazz and blues with great respect and integrity, but also manages to bring it to life through the excellence of the players and the high energy of Steve Berstein’s playing on the trumpet and tenor horn and his conducting. There was a problem with the stage curtains which failed to open properly at the beginning of the set and I remain uncertain as to whether this was a part of the act or a mistake on the part of the theatre. Certainly this was a very entertaining and fun set.

In conclusion, this was a wonderful festival with a good mix of European and American bands.  Sadly, there were no British bands in the programme; we’ll have to do something about that!

Categories: Live review

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