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Live Report: Jazz Jantar in Gdansk
Stewart Smith , December 12th, 2017 17:23

Jazz is live and kicking on the Baltic coast. Stewart Smith reports from Gdansk's admirably diverse Jazz Jantar festival, taking in Peter Brötzmann, Theo Croker, Steve Lehman's Selébeyone and Pimpono Ensemble.

Theo Croker

Founded in the 1970s and reactivated in the 2000s, Jazz Jantar puts on Poland-focussed events in the spring and summer, but their autumn festival, held over a fortnight and featuring a smartly curated line-up of homegrown and international acts, is the motherlode. Based at Club Zak, an arts centre in the city’s Wrzeszcz district, Jantar is a fixture of the autumn jazz festival circuit, but it eschews big-name headliners for an egalitarian selection of cult favourites and emergent talent. Its definition of jazz is admirably broad, ranging from top-notch mainstream artists like Joe Lovano to contemporary crossover acts like Dinosaur and Heroes Become Gang Leaders, and avant-gardists like Amirtha Kidambi and Lisbon's RED Trio.

Steve Lehman’s Selébeyone fit the latter two categories, being an avant-garde take on jazz/hip-hop fusion. The concept is to create a fully integrated fusion, in which no elements are compromised. While a lot of hip-hop influenced jazz has musicians improvising over head-nodding 4/4 grooves and relatively simple chord sequences, Selébeyone is all about bringing together cutting edge contemporary composition with underground hip-hop. So we get HPrizm and Gaston Bandimic rapping over shifting time signatures and spectral harmonies, while Lehman and co-composer Maciek Lasserre jointly articulate knotty themes and break off into wiggy polytonal solos on alto and soprano saxophone respectively. There’s always the danger that such an approach could result in an overly cerebral mess, divorced from the bodily imperatives of the funk, but while Selébeyone’s mind-bending polyrhythms can take a bit of getting used to, their shit bumps like a motherfucker, especially live.

These intricately plotted compositions might not allow for much in the way of extended improvisation, but the music retains a sense of spontaneity. Much of that is down to the MCs. There’s nothing tacked on about their contributions; they’re integral to each piece, negotiating the tricky structures with stunning virtuosity. A former member of Anti-Pop Consortium, HPrizm is blessed with a gritty baritone voice and a dextrous flow that makes complex rhyme schemes dance and sing. He’s great at punchy refrains but is particularly compelling when spinning out dense verses, which he can repeat at dizzying speed in the rap equivalent of Evan Parker or Roscoe Mitchell's circular breathing saxophone cycles. The alto sax to HPrizm's tenor, Bandimic is an electrifying presence, spitting out chattering Wolof rhymes that are perfectly suited to the skittering beats.

Credit is also due to drummer Jacob Richards, who embellishes Lehman and Lasserre’s drum programming with dazzling polyrhythmic gymnastics. His contributions are more than decorative icing: together with bassist Drew Gress, he brings the grooves to life. While the eerie spectral synth pads are pre-programmed, keyboardist Carlos Homs plays a key role, carving out stark chromatic piano lines that sound like Morton Feldman via RZA. This is one hell of a group; I can't wait to see where they go next.

The following evening, Theo Croker appears as part of Jantar's New Jazz strand. The young trumpet ace offers a contemporary take on the mainstream tradition, adding subtle hip-hop, R&B and Latin elements to hard bop and soul jazz roots. Croker’s predominantly acoustic quintet perform stripped down versions of tracks from his latest album Escape Velocity. Free from studio polish, the group really cooks. Most of the pieces follow bop structures, but there's no set length to the solo features, allowing the players to stretch out and the music to breathe. It's all performed with such brilliance and verve that even this free jazz freak can't help but be swept up. Croker can do flash, but his virtuosity is not overbearing. He knows the value of letting melodies sing and with his golden tone and impeccable intonation everything he plays sounds gorgeous.

Alto saxophonist Irwin Hall is a more fiery presence, raising the energy levels every time he steps forward. An exciting soloist, he reels through knotty threads and funky ascensions, pushing against the harmonic structures with the occasional overblown end phrase. Eric Wheeler's double bass builds on the jazz tradition with hip-hop's low-end theory, while drummer Jonathan Barber brings a rock-influenced athleticism to his rolling grooves. The double-time drum-n-bass rhythm he lays under the uptight funk constructions of 'Right Time' are particularly ear-popping. As entertaining as the faster numbers are, it's the atmospheric 'Because of You', where the horns drift modally over droning bass and hazy electric piano, that stands out as the group's most creative piece.

Jazz Jantar moves from hip-hop to rock with Peter Brötzmann & Black Bombaim. Having released a collaborative album in 2016, the Wuppertal Walrus and the Portuguese space rockers are taking their show on the road. The sound of heavy saxophone skronk over fuzzed-out rock action can be a wonderful thing - think Steve Mackay's frazzled horn breaks on The Stooges' Funhouse, or Tim Daly's appearances with Comets On Fire - and Brötzmann certainly has form when it comes to working with free rockin’ guitarists like Keiji Haino, Sonny Sharrock and Heather Leigh. His full-bored tone is more than a match for the heaviest guitar onslaught, and his raspy wails and gutsy R&B honks do the business here at Club Zak. However, Black Bombaim’s psychedelic rock is too neat, too linear to create the wild cosmic abandon one might have hoped for. Although their pieces are clearly designed to give Brötzmann space to blow, there's no real interplay between them and the saxophonist. They do their thing, Brötz does his. After a short while, it becomes rather predictable, with the band chugging away at their post-rock tinged variations on the Pink Floyd 'Echoes' riff, and the saxophonist stepping up to lay down the skronk at appropriate moments. The band does nothing to challenge Brötzmann or themselves. Where's Hawkwind when you need ’em?

Jantar is a great supporter of homegrown talent, celebrating Polish jazz history with Jaskułke Ensemble's 'Komeda' Recomposed' project and showcasing its future with young groups like Immortal Onion and Pimpono Ensemble. Based in Copenhagen, the latter is a nonet featuring Polish, Danish and Norwegian musicians. One of their quirks is to break into short chanted refrains, coming across like a group of sailors reciting bawdy rhymes. It's fun, but perhaps a little gimmicky. The music itself is more successful, being a series of structured compositions with plenty of room for improvisation.

The group does a good job of integrating classic jazz elements with rock influences and more outré sounds, and with two basses, tuba and baritone sax, their bottom end is pleasingly bulbous. Indeed, their bassists are among the group’s most interesting improvisers, particularly when using the bow to produce an impressive range of unconventional textures and weird harmonics. Tenor saxophonist Tobias Pfeil, alto player Maciej Kądziela and trumpeter Jonas Due Steffensen are all skilled soloists, but they’re most exciting when improvising collectively, with Pfeil proving himself particularly adept at provoking the others into ecstatic heights of free blowing. The group has some nice tunes too, from an atmospheric rock oriented number that has shades of Radiohead and the noir-ish downtown jazz of Tim Berne, to lively pieces that combine big band jazz with North European folk forms. A promising group with ideas to spare, Pimpono are a positive reflection of Jantar’s open-ended vision of jazz.

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