Umbrella Music Festival 2013 Day 1
06 Nov 2013
Visit the Impossibilities, Each One Individually: Umbrella Music Festival Day 1
Underneath the Tiffany stained glass dome of the Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, this year’s Umbrella Music Festival began with Michael Zerang on one snare drum and assorted percussion, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, and Axel Dörner on trumpet and electronics. Dörner makes heavy use of the variety of breath tones as they flow through his brass tubing, resulting in a windy static. We usually think of static as something in the way, interfering with transmission, but this static is made of our most primordial source of life on land, breath. Zerang squeaked out a styrofoam pulse using the skin of his drum in response: manufactured product, heavenly tone. Lonberg-Holm was more ‘classical’ in this set than I’ve heard him in a while, meaning that he didn’t augment the cello with foreign objects or make sounds using the body of the instrument or display the kind of carnivalesque hyperactivity that results in microcosmic focus on novelty of sound. He didn’t need to. He used repetition of line to invest in the strength of his tone, somehow simultaneously complementing his companions and taking center stage with his straightforward yet commanding bowing. Fast and rhythmic tongue flutters from Dörner sounded like gunfire under an overcoat, fearsome, yet once again spawned from the source of life, breath. Dörner’s playing just makes you think breath breath breath breath breath breathe. And then he makes a sound like an alarm both rising and falling and you remember that this is jazz, and it is good to be alive.
I heard tiny peppered bird wings float by my ear and stiff bicycle spoke thrums pickled by melody. Rattling seeds, the ones in my scrotum when I walk up a set of stairs behind a girl in tights, my head perfectly level with her swaying ass, rattling, coming to life, pre-boil spume.
Lithuanian alto saxophonist Dovydas Stalmokas joined Josh Berman (cornet), Tim Daisy (drums) and Kent Kessler (doublebass) for a first-time meeting in the next set. Compliments to the Lithuanian consulate for supporting Stalmokas, as this was his first gig in the US, and his musical range and decision-making deeply impressed me. They started with a loud burst, everyone either red-faced or red-fingered and I immediately heard a Lake Drūkšiai-steeped Firebird era Prince Lasha/Sonny Simmons in Stalmokas. Daisy excelled in a jazz and rock propulsion that cradled the front line but also pushed them ever so-slightly: not off the cliff, but closer, just to see. At one point Kessler starting weaving a funky little riff; Daisy responded by holding the funk in one hand by edging it along, but also by adding accents Stalmokas more rough-hewn lines, not wanting to strand him. That was dexterity and good sense, as he didn’t let the funk get away, but he didn’t let it dominate, and the group collectively figured out how to embellish the beat with flourishes that made use of the already rich tone palettes on display.
I had never heard so much Hamid Drake in Daisy’s playing, but he seems to have completely absorbed the use of the roll-to-tiny-pause-to-bassdrum-standout-thump. Kessler was a little hard to hear beyond a thick power rumble, but when things got quiet, he caressed the bass like it was Eve’s original thigh, his face right at the f hole. Stalmokas stuffed a spring drum into the bell of his sax, looking like a fuse waiting to get lit, sounding like a kazoo through a lawnmower. Later, he bent over and put the bell of his sax against his thigh, began circular breathing, and emitted a long, crackle box-y rotating hum. And then stood up and immediately played a crisp Ornette-y line. Fine decision-making, like I said. If Josh Berman sold fine jewels, I’d be a regular customer even though I have no interest in such things: he’s got a tone and onstage demeanor I instinctually trust. His sharp cornet runs frequently ended on miniature slurs of notes, the slurs like small questions that he dutifully approached and re-approached on each successive intake and expiration of breath. The quartet’s set ended, appropriately enough, with a bass solo by Kessler that was all whiskey-barrel hot tub love.
One great thing about hearing the Polish trio Shofar (Mikolaj Trzaska on alto sax and bass clarinet, Rafael Roginski on guitar, Macio Moretti on drums) was that we got to be treated to a regularly working band. While they explicitly embrace Jewish musical traditions, that actually is so large as to mean music from Turkey, Tunisia, Romania – anywhere Jews travelled. Their first piece I heard as a ceremonial celebratory feast introduction hello very nice to meet you this is what I am all about hello I am alive!! Trzaska told me later that it was a kind of nigun, but a non-linguistic version combining tradition, emotion, and intellect into song. I was wowed; bodies were rocking in their seats, even the cute girls. I heard the second tune as another celebration, but this one more raucous, the kind of thing you’d play with an entire village marching in the streets behind you after vanquishing an enemy or overcoming a long-term adversity. Hard-charging Balkan klezmer jazz on a rampage. Their third piece, with Trzaska now on bass clarinet, was more moody, music for a long trek across the desert. Roginski’s guitar throughout the night reminded me of an Extrapolation/Devotion-era John McLaughlinized Gábor Szabó. Trzaska sounds like a Brotzmann-y Jew, soloing wildly over steady vamps and wrenching out penetrating ballads, all with fought-for élan.
They played music to tauten your flesh, the kind you want to hear at any important party, what you’d hear in your head while successfully escaping any formidable circumstance. Music of various places, places I’ve never been and that they might not have either. Music is an ancient train.
The final set of the night featured Eric Boeren (trumpet), Michael Moore (alto sax), Wilbert de Joode (doublebass) and the inimitable Han Bennink on snare and hi-hat. While an almost identical instrumentation to the second set quartet, this band played a more traditional homage to Ornette Coleman, starting off with his “Little Symphony.” Bennink did a lot of singing and grunting in this set, especially early on, as he and de Joode maintained their rhythm section rapport with back-and-forth caveman grunts of approval, Bennink sounding like the guy at the front table of an old jazz club, well-lubricated and exuding “yeah!”s at each properly jazzy moment. I’ve been personally reacquainting myself with Michael Moore’s music more and more over the last ten years, so I was thrilled to get a chance to hear him again in person. Every note he plays is quality; each one might sound austere if it wasn’t imbued with so much physical nuance.
After the Coleman tune, they played an original by Boeren very much in the same vein. Bennink, always theatrical, seemed to go from playing the enfant terrible to the unpredictable grandpa instantly, skipping adulthood altogether. Thirty minutes into the set, he seemed like he was done, so he stopped playing and crossed his arms. His bandmates seemed to be just as fascinated and curious by what he was doing––or not doing––as the audience, as Bennink then threw his sticks down, waited, then pushed the percussion to the floor, crossed his arms and waited again, then eventually dragged them back, only to go and sit on the ground and play the stage with brush and stick. From the floor, he shook his brushes at the snare like he was reprimanding it. His unpredictability in this set wasn’t his typical unpredictability and I couldn’t tell if it was age, alcohol, or mood that was diminishing his typically voracious vitality.
The tone of this band’s music is so full of smiles that the tension between the music and Bennink’s disposition was an odd counterpoint. I could see Boeren and Moore actively trying to suss everything out, but I also saw the difficulty of goodbye represented: all the halting, the trying to let go but still hanging on. Beginning to learn to say goodbye to someone you love, understanding that it will have to happen; the back and forth between the pleasure and delight of friendship and love and the harshness and sorrow of inevitable disappearance.
Bennink cut his hand a little bit and some of the blood got on his pants; he poured water on it and tried to rub the stain out. It’s all part of the song.