Festival de Jazz et Musiques Nouvelles

(Mulhouse, 21-22 August 1998)

Impending fatherhood caused me to miss the first two full days of this Festival, the highlights of which-I'm told-were Iva Bittova's solo violin recital and the Daunik Lazro/Michel Doneda/Lê Quan Ninh/Paul Rogers quartet, both the day before I arrived. Much as I regret missing these, I can't help wondering if I wouldn't have gone completely out of my mind in Mulhouse for four whole days.

Unless museums of industrial history are your thing, this distinctly provincial French city (close enough to Germany for street names to be marked in both languages and beers to be served with those cute little paper skirts round the base of the glass) has just enough to interest the average visitor for about one and a half hours. The local FNAC record shop, reportedly stocking Festival-related albums at 20% markdown prices, contains only one surprise, a handful of copies of "The Instant Composers Pool 30 Years" book/CD featuring Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink (already out of print and out of stock in Amsterdam.. if you're looking for a copy try Mulhouse), so at 6 o'clock I wend my way to the Entrepot, a curious true-to-its-name warehouse space three times as long as it is wide, where most of the Festival's major concerts are to take place. German Gebhardt Ullmann's tentet Ta Lam Zehn is well-received, despite the (at times) difficult nature of their music. As an all-reed band, with the exception of bearded affable Hans Hassler on accordeon, comparisons could be drawn with the World Saxophone Quartet, the Breuker Kollektief or De Vohlharding (though these two latter benefit from the hard edge of a rhythm section); like Willem Breuker, Ullmann has a soft spot for Kurt Weill, though his densely orchestrated arrangements are closer to Louis Andriessen's Volharding scores than to Breuker's amiable slapstick. Despite impressive soloing and the thrill of four bass clarinets, the timbral density of the ensemble quickly becomes as heavy as the egg-sausage-cheese sandwich I end up having to eat, in the absence of anything else.

Quite to what extent Guy Klucevsek's accordeon work constitutes improvised music is perhaps open to debate, but the ovation he receives for his solo set at 8.30pm proves beyond all doubt that this part of the world is still accordeon country. No sops to Parisian musette though-in a varied set that includes Madagascan and Peruvian folk music, a homage to Astor Piazzolla, and no less than five Burt Bacharach covers, Klucevsek's mastery of the instrument captivates the audience, and he only escapes after three encores, including compositions by Elliott Sharp and the "Disinformation Polka" by Fred Frith-lest we forget he's New York Downtown's resident accordeon guru.

Festival organiser Paul Kanitzer chose to programme three Dutch groups this year, the first of which is Available Jelly, loosely co-ordinated and arranged for by the self-effacing (and under-estimated) American ex-pat Michael Moore on alto sax and clarinet. An Amsterdam All Star Band, this, with Toby Delius on tenor sax, Eric Boeren on trumpet, Wolter Wierbos on trombone (best plunger mute work I've heard for a long time), Ernst Glerum on bass and another American, Michael Vatcher on percussion. "Drums" doesn't do him justice-on the strength of this set alone, Vatcher has to be one of the most visually intriguing and constantly listening percussionists around.

His playing with Roof, the short-lived quartet fronted by the late Tom Cora (to whose memory the Festival here is dedicated) was already exemplary-with Available Jelly he can swing like mad, insert various assorted (home-made?) instruments with precision and delicacy, and, when necessary, thrash the hell out of everything, showing just why Zorn teamed him up with Joey Baron on the "Spy Vs. Spy" Ornette-goes-hardcore album of 1988. Moore's arrangements for the band manage to be subtle and raw at the same time; their decision to play without mics rams home the roots connection, while also respecting the intrinsically intimate nature of the Entrepot's acoustic. For sure, they could be a little more out to lunch, though it's worth pointing out that Dutch free improvisers are just as at home covering Ellington, Monk and (yet again) Burt Bacharach as they are blowing their instruments to pieces. The legacy of Misha Mengelberg's Instant Composers Pool, perhaps (no coincidence that Wierbos, Moore and Glerum are in the ICP line-up for tomorrow's concert)? Or maybe the philosophy, no doubt shared by Kanitzer in his programming, that its probably better to wean the public gently onto the hard stuff..

Tonight's second Dutch treat, rounding off the evening at midnight, is the legendary Amsterdam punk band The Ex, memorably described by Kevin Whitehead in "New Dutch Swing" as "pissing all over a wall of sound". The Ex were formed in 1979 by guitarist Terrie and vocalist GW Sok (bassist Luc, drummer Katrin and second guitarist Andy joining up a few years later), making them, along with their New York friends Sonic Youth, one of the longest-lasting-without selling out-punk groups in the business. Unlike the Sonics though, The Ex have remained stubbornly anarcho-independent, preferring to promote their impressive discography themselves with total disregard-if not contempt-for the record business (though their two albums with Tom Cora and 1995's "Mudbird Shivers" were distributed through RecRec, and a new album on Touch and Go produced by Steve Albini, who cites "Gonna Rob the Spermbank" as an all-time fav, is due out in October). In terms of sound, this is the best-mixed Ex gig I've seen: the visceral intensity of Sok's acerbic lyrics and his funky if endearing English accent are clearly audible, for once. As ever, the insane spastic cavorting of the three guitarists, backed by the powerhouse drumming of Katrin (who looks far too small and far too nice to make such a racket) win over the punters, who refuse to let them leave without four encores.. Nostalgia on the part of the audience, average age about 30 (hey, I'm an old punk too..)? Where are the local young punks tonight, if there are any at all in this clean but dull place? Tucked up in bed I imagine dreaming of kugelhopfs and tartes flambées..

Next morning the sun's shining, so it's off for coffee and croissants before the sanctity of the Chapelle St. Jean, for a midday solo cello recital by Ernst Reijsiger. Another Dutchman. On second thoughts, maybe "sanctity" isn't quite the word-ten minutes to go before the gig and it's standing room only here, and not much of that either. Vive les concerts gratuits! Reijseger doesn't disappoint; in barely an hour he amazes and amuses, incorporating extended cello techniques such as simultaneous singing and whistling, scraping its spike across the stage, using it as a giant drum, and (Ernst speciality) laying it across his lap and playing it as a guitar. Not content with sitting still, he moves around, gripping the cello between chin and shoulder, engaging in imaginary dialogue with the statues adorning the walls of the chapel, before finally leaving the stage, making his way through the crowd (all the while executing fiendishly difficult arpeggios) and outside the chapel altogether, where he parks the cello in a bush, covers its pegs with an empty egg box and makes it to the free Gewurztraminer before anyone else.

4pm presents a difficult choice between Han Bennink at the FNAC and a shuttle bus into the boondocks to catch another charismatic solo percussionist, Lê Quan Ninh, at the Maison de la Céramique. Though curious to see what Bennink might find to play in a record shop (I once saw him destroy a potted plant), I opt for Ninh. The second floor of the Maison de la Céramique proves to be an unconventional performing space, the audience invited to sprawl on the grey carpet between sculptures by Jacques Duchholtz while Ninh attacks a small horizontally-mounted bass drum with two cymbals, Tibetan bowls, tin foil, what look like chick peas, and assorted sticks and switches. Children in the audience start by jamming fingers in ears but gradually feel sufficiently emboldened to crawl dangerously close to this sweating Oriental madman to pick up little balls of tin foil and chick peas that have bounced off the drum during the fury of his assault. Ninh tells me later that the children distracted him a lot, to which I retort he could have played them as instruments.. the mild-mannered Vietnamese (that is unless you put him in front of percussion or a computer keyboard-he's one of the most polemical anarchists around) merely smiles. After such a thrilling half hour, he should be pretty pleased with himself, if not with the younger members of his audience.

The rain has set in again by the time we return to the Entrepot (contrary to the protestations of a local publican-"it never rains in Alsace"-at whose establishment I seek refuge when the inevitable ham and cheese sandwich has become soggy enough to eat with a spoon..). First up at 6pm are Pauls Dunmall (reeds) and Rogers (bass), Dunmall as liquid as ever-now that Manfred Eicher has rediscovered the likes of Evan Parker, may we hope for an ECM album for Paul?-almost a shame he doesn't do circular breathing, such is the flow of ideas. As for Rogers, England's loss is France's gain-agility, lightness of touch and passion combined in a bassist are qualities rare enough, but his masterly use of the bow, generating clouds of harmonics so sonorous that the entire bass starts resonating like a glass harmonica, is absolutely riveting. (Jamming a cymbal between the strings and bowing both simultaneously works less well to my mind.) The rapturous-again-reception shows that the festival-goers are warming to improv, and ready for the evening's attractions.

After the lunatic energy of Ninh, I find Peter Hollinger's solo set "Koffersuite" disappointing. Then again, being at the back of the hall and unable to see the instruments spread around him on his mat, all I have to go off is what my ears tell me. Which is after all what counts. From where I am it sounds like kitchen funk, Billy Cobham licks executed with precision on bits of metal, plastic or whatever. Evidently seeing what he's doing is part of the deal (the mini-instruments bring to mind Brian Ferneyhough's solo percussion piece "Bone Orchard"), but the only time I get to see him is when he stands up to light a cigarette and swig from a beer bottle, watching the audience watching him. Yeah, Peter, cool, man.. but if I'm going to pay to watch someone pretending to be cool, John Lurie does it better. And I'll quite happily smoke cigarettes in front of anyone if you pay me to. I retreat to the bar; this guy's beginning to piss me off.

I suppose if I came here at all it was to see the ICP Orchestra, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink in full swing (the last time I saw them together was when that potted plant got massacred). Tonight it's not just ICP, but ICP meets The Ex. Great, in principle.. my favourite big band and my favourite punk band all in one ear. In practice, it's a mess, though judging from the reaction of the punters I'm the only one to think so-barely two numbers in, as soon as The Ex troop onstage (and their dodgem-car space is severely limited), Misha's oddball Monkisms and accompanimental touches of finesse are quickly crushed under that aforementioned piss-stained wall of sound. Those ICP members who have played with The Ex before on the "Instant" album (Ab Baars on sax, Wolter Wierbos and the indefatigable Bennink) fare better, though the results are like the album, intriguing but lightweight. There are several highspots-Ernst Reijseger's kickass duet with Katrin Ex, Thomas Heberger's trumpet work on Misha's "Romantic Leap of Hares", second cellist Tristan Honsinger's offstage wailing on the same (he's on fine form all evening)-but all in all, the jazz and punk worlds only interact successfully either in total sonic apocalypse or s(t)olid 4/4 vamping, which at times sounds curiously like the pre-Greenaway Michael Nyman Band. As for Misha, cut off, left of stage, hunched over his grand piano.. well, despite the fact nobody can hear his odd flourishes, he seems to be enjoying himself (though he makes no attempt to stifle a couple of spectacular yawns). He and Bennink have the last laugh, shutting up the encore-hungry crowd with a two-man a cappella vocal version of Misha's "Geneurie".

And so on to the coup de grâce, the final act of Mulhouse 98, the appropriately-entitled "Die Like A Dog", an All Star killer quartet consisting of Peter Brötzmann on reeds, Toshinori Kondo on trumpet and electronics, Hamid Drake on drums and what should have been William Parker but turns out to be Kent Kessler on bass..

If you still doubt that different national styles can exist in improv, tonight will set you straight: after the serious intricacy of the English Pauls, and the Dutch cocktail of tradition and madness, here is the titanic Teutonic force of Brötzmann. Put bluntly, Brötzmann doesn't fuck around. That he bears more than a passing resemblance to Bismarck is probably not fortuitous: from the first gut-wrenching bellow, we know he means business. "Die Like A Dog" is his homage to Albert Ayler-the two met briefly in 1965 (Ayler did his military service in Heidelberg), and one can only regret Ayler chose not to live long enough to play with the German. Even so, Brötzmann's epochal 1968 "Machine Gun" has always seemed to me some way away from Ayler's late Impulse albums (I don't share Brötzmann's description of these latter as being some kind of sellout). The searing intensity of "Machine Gun", still burning after thirty years, marked the arrival of a distinctly European free music, as opposed to American free jazz. The polemical differences persist to this day, but what "Die Like A Dog" makes plain is that they're petty and academic: call it free, call it jazz, call it what the hell you want.. this is amazing music. The American rhythm section burns-sorry Parker can't make the gig, but Kessler could even blow him away tonight. That he plays regularly with Hamid Drake, notably behind Ken Vandermark, shows; and Drake on the strength of this set alone is a major force to be reckoned with. As for Kondo, his use of electronics-basically wah and reverb, and not too much of either, thankfully-brings to mind early 70s Miles, especially when Drake sets up a wicked groove, Al Foster, Tony Williams and Mtume rolled into one. Fascinating to hear Brötz blasting out over that! The horn battles, Kondo blowing his (pocket?) trumpet into the stratosphere, playing Donald to Brötz's Albert, are epic affairs. Brötzmann could take on The Ex and win; two thirty-five minute pieces are all it takes to smash the audience to pieces. No encores of course (inconceivable under the circumstances). And barely a hint of a smile on Brötz's face when it's all over. Serious business, playing with the healing force of the universe.