The Jazz Jantar festival has now reached its 22nd edition, and is housed at Klub Żak in the Polish city of Gdańsk. This is a cultural center whose roots stretch back to 1955, though the present building was completed in 1991. Jantar is the Old Polish word for amber, a mineral that’s been central to this port city since the end of the 16th Century. The Gdańsk jantar crafting tradition remains strong, having recovered from the complete destruction of all workshops during the two world wars. Jazz Jantar embraces relatively mainline manifestations of the music, but also welcomes its extremities, whether freely improvised, adventurously funky, electronically tranced or even involving disgorged noise-drone. Perhaps this is similar to the line taken by amber-shaping itself, from an ancient tinkering craftmanship to a renewed tradition in its second life
One of Jantar’s prime attractions is its predilection for having completely contrasting artists, often inhabiting the same bill. Each evening of the festival’s 10-day core featured two sets, perhaps complementary in style, but just as frequently divergent. As the audience here is deeply fixated on jazz of varying types, they can savor the sensory shunt, as with the opening night mixture of New Yorkers, beginning with GRID and moving into bassist Linda May Han Oh’s quintet, which was augmented by a Polish string quartet.
GRID unites Matt Nelson (tenor saxophone), Tim Dahl (bass) and Nick Podgurski (drums), who displayed an intense devotion to steadily incremental ghost ambient development, during a 40 minute séance. Working in near darkness, Nelson sat on his amplifier, hunched down to operate a pedal spread, blowing a phrase meant for sampling, then sculpting it via wah-wah sensitivity. Once Dahl became aroused, his bass made the loudest tensile attack, mostly up in the trebly heights, especially when using bottleneck. His free bass rush operated not much further behind his mind-inventions, fingers scampering ceaselessly, as Nelson shoveled droves of golden sludge. Podgurski gloried in the venue’s sub-bass capacity, his measured thunder sensitively limned, the set being expansively loud, but without any unintentional distortion to bruise audience ears.
There were a good number of pianists present at Jantar, either as leaders or co-leaders. The festival poster and program booklet featured a suitably key-centric illustration. Myra Melford gave a rare solo recital, her piece “Park Mechanics” (from Life Carries Me this Way, Firehouse 12 Records, 2013) tunefully evocative, illustrating her sometime “place music” approach, where vivid images are actively chased. A rolling-elbow swagger developed, pawing for a dark-drama space. Native American song was suggested, possibly deliberately, and then a third, bouncy, vigorous section concluded with atonal choppiness. Left alone, Melford was free to spin sonic anecdotes in a jumping-trains style.
The Kirke Karja Quartet represented Estonia, and this pianist has been appearing every year at recent Jazzkaar festivals in Tallinn. She’s become one of the country’s most exciting exports, and now seems to be grabbing more gigs around Europe as word of her abilities spreads. This set was a slight return to Karja’s band from a couple of years back, with Kalle Pilli (guitar), Raimond Mägi (bass) and Karl-Juhan Laanesaar (drums), resulting in a jazz language in conversation with prog/metal structures. Karja pitted her active keys against a slumbering trio formation, making deep doom ringings with her hand under the lid, as Pilli slung guitar sleet over the mordant piano parts. This turned out to be a Stockhausen tune, re-born. “You could almost say that it’s beautiful,” Karja says of her “Off The Ground,” with its dignified clusters, pert rippling, needle guitar and softly swishing green lighting. Partnered chiming of piano and guitar opened “Long Term,” with mallets on the drums building towards a more scabrous growth, Pilli frosting out a solo, Karja rumbling crescendos. As a result of a gig at a kiddie birthday party, they played their reading of “Stairway To Heaven,” sounding nothing like the original, then concluded with the twitchy “Orwell,” which is hopefully inspired by his 1984 all coming true in 2019.
The following day’s double bill was an example of the complementary linkage, though each set held a different mood of improvisation. Daniel Carter (alto saxophone), Matthew Shipp (piano), and William Parker (bass) represented their Seraphic Light album (AUM Fidelity, 2018). We’re so accustomed to observing Carter play on home ground in New York, slogging his multiple horns onto the subway system, that it was both shocking and strangely exciting to see him bearing just one instrument. This provided Carter with an unusual focus, and an airline-enforced concentration on a specific range.
This trio maintained an almost constant motion, but Carter eventually cut out, thoughtfully standing to the stage-side, while Shipp and Parker capered and entwined. There were slow, measured, sustained notes, space left all around, as Shipp intoned emphatic chords, Carter asked sour questions and the pianist broke, sliced and chopped the horn gristle, pulling tapeworm spillage, Parker scampering, blurred and grumbling. The roots of jazz were discernible, as a foundation for investigation, particularly when Parker couldn’t stop walking his bass. He bowed, Shipp hammered, Carter still explored tune-avenues, the three streaming together, making personal diversions and divergences. Parker scraped his nails hard down the strings, whilst still bowing, Shipp cascading powerfully as the pair entered a duo stretch.
Even though Carter, Shipp, and Parker played a fine set, they were eclipsed by the following duo of Satoko Fujii (piano) and Joe Fonda (bass). It’s an intangible aura, but this pair’s interaction was imbued by a magical resonance that was immediately apparent. There was the sense that they were making a special effort to upturn stones not previously disturbed for many a moon, rooting out genuinely surprising sounds, sequences and relationships, and visibly marveling at their own results, as if other beings had somehow planted them onstage.
Fujii’s runs were full of trills, flayed notes, and compressed particles. Fonda made tight, hard fingerings, coaxing out the percussive potential of his strings. His right hand was often as high up on the strings as his left, with an equality of fingers. Fujii was inside the piano, tingling strings directly, floods of low hum hovering, until ended by a suddenly flattened palm. Then she threaded a wire through the strings, matching Fonda’s high squeal bowing to make a joint pact with the high frequencies. Fonda had the look of a gleeful disruptor, Fujii flicked fast across multiple keys, with a light action that sensitively dealt out their spread of cards. Even the encore was surprising, as Fonda vocalized a not very imaginative song, but invested it with captivating warmth. Then Fujii called a halt with a subhuman (or perhaps hyper-human) extended scream.
The most exciting Polish revelation was stripling alto saxophonist Kuba Więcek and his trio, from down in Rybnik, almost on the border with the Czech Republic. Opening with soft fingerings and tubular probing, blues streaks were introduced, then Łukasz Żyta’s thunder drums tipped in and Michał Barański’s bass pulse entered, growing into a marching, lurching theme. Więcek converted to klezmer trounce. The next number brought a blend of bowed Glassian bass repeats, shimmering glockenspiel (from Żyta) and the leader’s keening horn, though soon this developed into a mechanical steampunk sway of robo-crankiness, with metal percussion, and the leader’s electro-sample-capturings. Więcek is already extremely organized in his magpie approach, focused into a personal style, and delivering lengthy verbal introductions to each number, sounding amusing and ironic, judging by the audience response.
The most individualist booking of Jantar was the Cairo guitarist and composer Maurice Louca, an inspired selection indeed, as your scribe hasn’t sighted his Elephantine large ensemble at any other festival. Louca is known for his co-founding of the bands Alif and Dwarves Of East Agouza, but the Elephantine project finds him operating with a horn-loaded combo. He provided a satisfying climax to the entire festival, with two drummers, bass, tuba, baritone saxophone, two reed specialists, and a vibraphone. Here is another of the growing battalion of bands who are only satisfied with at least four low-end instruments.
The six tracks on Louca’s 2019 Northern Spy album, also Elephantine, behave like a suite, and a similar process took over during this set, as moods built, merged, or were overthrown. Short solos were peppered across the progressing grooves, patterns emerging, as Mattias Ståhl’s vibraphone spilled across a deathly Lynch-lounge stretch. Often, the large spread was perversely underused, but this studied sparseness had the effect of maximizing the periodic flowerings of the full atomic bloom, the greatest release being around half way through the set, and pretty much remaining at that level until the conclusion, shooting off repeated false endings, followed by a tempestuous encore. Elephantine provided a fitting blast of intelligent bombast, to close another excellent edition of Jantar.