Trondheim Jazz Festival: May 9-13, 2012
While he's been hitting the road with increasing regularity in recent years, guitarist Allan Holdsworth hasn't always done himself the greatest favors. Truly one of the most innovative guitarists of the past four decades, beginning in his native England with groups like trumpeter Ian Carr's Nucleus and Soft Machine, but crossing to the United States in the mid-1970s for work with drummer Tony Williams' New Lifetime, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and others, his unique legato approach and almost impenetrable guitar voicings have influenced generations of guitaristsmany of whom, like Eddie Van Halen, have achieved greater fame and fortune. Holdsworth has long been his own worst enemy, a painfully self-critical player who now takes so long to record and release a record that his studio follow-up to 2000's superb The Sixteen Men of Tain (Globe) has yet to be completed. Thankfully, a live set from a tour with New Lifetime keyboardist Alan Pasqua, bassist Jimmy Haslip and Frank Zappa alum drummer Chad WackermanBlues for Tony (Moonjune, 2009)and recent reissues of the guitarist's Hard Hat Area (1993) and the more closely jazz-centered None Too Soon (1996, both reissued by MoonJune) have kept his name alive.
But while live has always been the place to witness Holdsworth at his bestthe guitarist's 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival trio show with Wackerman and bassist Jimmy Johnson and his subsequent visit to Gatineau, Canada with Johnson and drummer Gary Husband being two fine exampleshis innate self-criticism has always remained a constant, so much so that the guitarist has been known to introduce a song by saying, "hopefully we won't fuck this one up as much as we did the last one." Holdsworth's recent touring with Haslip and drummer Virgil Donati has, however, seen something new: an Allan Holdsworth who is clearly enjoying himself more than he has in years. A recent video stream from his Iridium performance in New York City revealed a guitarist who was actually smiling, and there were plenty of smiles going around during his Trondheim Jazz Festival show, too.
Holdsworth's set list hasn't changed muchwith plenty of the usual suspects including his New Lifetime hit, "Fred," an even more incendiary "Protocosmos" and "Water on the Brain, Pt. 2," the latter a fiery solo feature for Haslipbut clearly both the bassist and, in particular, the unfettered, equally virtuosic and effervescent Donati are pushing the guitarist into nuclear territory he's not seen in decades. His silky tone and legato approachwhich largely eliminates all attack from his instrumenthas, in recent years, been honed to the extent that he'd lost some of his edge, but not with this trio. Blinding lines, with cascading runs navigating complex changes with a new kind of fire announced a renewed Holdsworth at Dokkhuset. He's always taken chances in performance, but he appeared more at peace with the idea that those very risks might not always yield perfect results.
Haslipon a one-year hiatus from his regular group, Yellowjacketsis a fitting foil for Holdsworth, and brings a different kind of virtuosity to the table than Jimmy Johnson (who's no slouch either). But the combination of Haslip and Donati seems to be the perfect combination for Holdsworth 2012, a guitarist whose unmistakable voice and position as a guitarist's guitarist should have already made him a bigger name on the popular front. Hopefully this renewed, reinvigorated and clearly happy Holdsworth will be able to finish up the album he's been working on for so long, and continue building the momentum being generated by this high octane fusion trio.
For a group that ultimately found itself whittled down to a duo, the Anglo/Norwegian collaboration Food has managed to live on well past any suspected "best buy" date. While saxophonist Iain Ballamy and drummer Thomas Stronen could have easily functioned as a duo after the departure of trumpeter Arve Henriksen and bassist Mats Eilertsenand did so, in fact, with their performance at the 2006 Punkt Festivalthe group has subsequently evolved into something of an experimental improvising collective, where Strønen and Ballamy call upon friends old and new for performances and recordings. Recent years have seen the intrepid duowhose incorporation of electronics into the mix is so organic as to seem as natural an extension of their music-making as their irrefutable acumen on their more conventional acoustic instrumentstour and record with everyone from pianist Maria Kannegaard and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer to guitarists Eivind Aarset and Christian Fennesz.
Food's Trondheim performance at Blæst continued a collaboration begun earlier in the month in Oslo as part of the Conexions series, curated by BBC Radio's Fiona Talkington. Indian lap steel guitarist/vocalist Prakash Sontakke was back from the group's show at Victoria, but replacing the unavailable Aarset was guitarist (and Trondheim Jazz Festival programmer) Petter Vågan. Vågan may be a new name to many, but much like his brother, bassist Ole Morten Vågan (of Mellow Motif, The Deciders and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra), Vågan is a hardworking participant in half a dozen bands, ranging from Juxtaposed and Scent of Soil, with well-known saxophonist Tore Brunborg, to Marvel Machine, whose debut CD is also the first release from Vågan's new label, Gigafon. Sontakke will also be a name new to most, but not for long as he'll be on Food's forthcoming ECM recording, due out later this year.
Together, Ballamy, Strønen, Sontakke and Vågan delivered an hour-long set that ebbed and flowed as ideas moved liberally around the stage. Sontakke began alone, first singing but gradually introducing his lap steel to create a warm wash that slowly expanded with the injection of Ballamy's softly lyrical yet still somewhat skewed lines, the saxophonist moving from tenor to soprano to what may have been an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). Vågan's playing was largely textural, though he occasionally broke through with more jagged lines as the dynamics built to one of a number of false climaxes that only led to new ideas, new paths and new developments.
As impressive as the group was collectively, Strønen remained a visual lightning rod amidst Food's cushioned ambience. While not averse to creating complex pulses and intensely building cacophonies when the music demanded, he was as much a textural player who used his kit from a more orchestral perspective. His use of electronics was particularly impressive for his ability to sample his acoustic kit, process and feed it back through his gear at near-light speedhis fingers moving around the knobs, buttons and pads with the same dexterity and accuracy that his sticks did on his skins and cymbals.
A mélange of electro-acoustics, Food's Blæst performance was one of the festival's clear highlights; the only shame being its relatively sparse attendance, though that just meant those who were there were witness to something particularly special; a context that may well be repeated again, but never sounding quite like it did at Blæst.